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John Gay

Throughout literary history, authors of all types have used real-world individuals as inspiration for their fictional characters; John Gay, for example, wrote a ballad opera entitled The Beggar’s Opera in which the character of Peachum was representative of Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of Great Britain; one of the thieves called out by name early in the play was Bob Booty, a well-known nickname for Walpole. In fact, the various characters who, in Gay’s piece, had altogether dubious morals were believed to be representative of the morally bankrupt governing class in England in the early-18th century.

Gay followed this play with another – this one, called Polly, focused on the experiences of Polly Peachum in the West Indies. The satirical and critical nature of its predecessor, though, prompted the Lord Chamberlain to ban the production of this latter piece. In an attempt to silence this criticism, the state only served to help it prosper. As word spread of the Lord Chamberlain’s obstruction of this performance, demand for the piece increased, and when it was published through subscription only, Gay earned a significant sum. While Gay would produce other pieces as he aged, The Beggar’s Opera would prove to be his most famous. His outlook on the world – one in which he knows not to take anything too seriously – is reiterated with the words on his tombstone: “Life is a jest, and all things show it, I thought so once, but now I know it.”

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