« AnteriorContinua »
force their own way, commonly tries only to please himself.
He had been simple enough to imagine that those who laughed at the “What d'ye call it” would raise the fortune of its author; and finding nothing done, sunk into dejection. His friends endeavoured to divert him. The Earl of Burlington sent him (1716) into Devonshire; the year after, Mr. Pulteneyd took him to Aix; and in the following year Lord Harcourt invited him to his seat, where, during his visit, the two rural lovers were killed with lightning, as is particularly told in Pope's Letters.
Being now generally known, he published (1720) his Poems by subscription, with such success that he raised a thousand pounds; and called his friends to a consultation, what use might be best made of it. Lewis, the steward of Lord Oxford, advised him to intrust it to the funds, and live upon the interest; Arbuthnot bade him intrust it to Providence, and live upon the principal ; Pope directed him, and was seconded by Swift, to purchase an annuity.
Gay in that disastrous yeare had a present from young Craggs of some South-Sea stock, and once supposed himself to be master of twenty thousand pounds. His friends persuaded him to sell his share; but he dreamed of dignity and splendour, and could not bear to obstruct his own fortune. He was then importuned to sell as much as would purchase an hundred a-year for life, “which,” says Fenton, “will make you sure of a clean shirt and a shoulder of mutton every day.” • Afterwards Earl of Bath.
This counsel was rejected; the profit and principal were lost, and Gay sunk under the calamity so low that his life became in danger.
By the care of his friends, among whom Pope appears to have shewn particular tenderness, his health was restored; and, returning to his studies, he wrote a tragedy called “The Captives," which he was invited to read before the Princess of Wales. When the honr came, he saw the Princess and her ladies all in expectation, and advancing with reverence, too great for any other attention, stumbled at a stool, and falling forwards, threw down a weighty Japan screen. The Princess started, the ladies screamed, and poor Gay, after all the disturbance, was still to read his play.
The fate of “The Captives,” which was acted at Drury-Lane in 1723-4, I know not; but he now thought himself in favour, and undertook (1726) to write a volume of Fables for the improvement of the young Duke of Cumberland. For this he is said to have been promised a reward, which he had doubtless magnified with all the wild expectations of indigence
Next year the Prince and Princess became King and Queen, and Gay was to be great and happy ; but on the settlement of the household he found himself appointed gentleman usher to the Princess Louisa. By this offer he thought himself insulted, and sent a message to the Queen, that he was too old for the place. There seem to have been many machinations employed afterwards in his favour; and diligent court was paid to Mrs. Howard, afterwards Countess of Suffolk, who was much beloved by the King and Queen, to engage her interest for his promotion; but solicitations, verses, and flatteries were thrown away; the lady heard them, and did nothing.
All the pain which he suffered from the neglect, or, as he perhaps termed it, the ingratitude of the Court, may be supposed to have have been driven away by the unexampled success of the “Beggar's Opera.” This play, written in ridicule of the musical Italian Drama, was first offered to Cibber and his brethren at Drury-lane, and rejected; it being then carried to Rich, had the effect, as was ludicrously said, of “making Gay rich, and Rich gay.”
Of this lucky piece, as the reader cannot but wish to know the original and progress, I have inserted the relation which Spence has given in Pope's words.
“Dr. Swift had been observing once to Mr. Gay, what an odd pretty sort of a thing a Newgate Pastoral might make. Gay was inclined to try at such a thing for some time; but afterwards thought it would be better to write a comedy on the same plan. This was what gave rise to the 'Beggar's Opera.' He began on it; and when first he mentioned it to Swift, the Doctor did not much like the project. As he carried it on, he shewed what he wrote to both of us, and we now and then gave a correction, or a word or two of advice; but it was wholly of his own writing. When it was done, neither of us thought it would succeed. We shewed it to Congreve; who, after reading it over, said, 'It would either take greatly, or be damned confoundedly. We were all, at the first night of it, in
Opera, which had carried all before it for ten
Of this performance, when it was printed, the reception was different, according to the different opinion of its readers. Swift commended it for the excellence of its morality, as a piece that " placed all kinds of vice in the strongest and most odious light;" but others, and among them Dr. Herring, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, censured it as giving encouragement not only to vice but to crimes, by making a highwayman the hero, and dismissing him at last unpunished. It has been even said, that after the exhibition of the “Beggar's Opera” the gangs of robbers were evidently multiplied.
Both these decisions are surely exaggerated. The play, like many others, was plainly written only to divert, without any moral purpose, and is therefore not likely to do good; nor can it be conceived, without more speculation than life requires or admits, to be productive of much evil. Highwaymen and housebreakers seldom frequent the play-house, or mingle in any elegant diversion; nor is it possible for any one to imagine that he may rob with safety, because he sees Macheath reprieved upon the stage.
This objection, however, or some other rather political than moral, obtained such prevalence, that when Gay produced a second part under the name of “Polly,” it was prohibited by the Lord Chamberlain; and he was forced to recompense his repulse by a subscription, which is said to have been so liberally bestowed, that what he called oppression ended in profit.