Swift did not like the variation, and neither he nor Pope thought it would succeed, while Congreve and the Duke of Queensberry seem to have agreed in predicting that it would either be a great success or a great failure (Pope, Corr. ii. 111). It was produced on 29 Jan. 1728 at Lincoln's Inn Fields, and made its author's name a household word. In the theatre the same hesitation which had manifested itself among Gay's private critics for a while prevailed. Cibber and his brother patentees rejected it at Drury Lane, and Quin, who was to have taken the part of the hero Macheath, surrendered it to an actor named Walker. Even when actually upon the boards its success hung in the balance, until Lavinia Fenton [q. v.], the Polly of the piece, brought down the house by the tender and affecting way in which she sang—
For on the rope that hangs my dear
Depends poor Polly's life.
In a note to the ‘Dunciad,’ Pope (or Pope's annotator) summarises its subsequent history: ‘It was acted in London sixty-three days [Genest says sixty-two] … and renew'd the next season with equal applauses. It spread into all the great towns of England, was play'd in many places to the 30th and 40th time, at Bath and Bristol 50, &c. It made its progress into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, where it was performed twenty-four days together. It was lastly acted in Minorca. The fame of it was not confin'd to the Author only; the Ladies carry'd about with 'em the favourite songs of it in Fans; and houses were furnish'd with it in Screens. The person who acted Polly, till then obscure, became all at once the favourite of the town; her Pictures were engraved and sold in great numbers; her Life written; books of Letters and Verses to her publish'd; and pamphlets made even of her Sayings and Jests’ (Pope, Works, 1735, ii. 161–2).
Several pictures of the 'twixt-Polly-and-Lucy scene in this famous piece were painted by Hogarth. That belonging to the Duke of Leeds was exhibited in 1887–8 at the Grosvenor Gallery, with another version belonging to Mr. Louis Huth. A third belongs to Mr. John Murray. In 1790 William Blake made a well-known engraving after one of these. Walker (Macheath) is shown in the centre, while Lucy (Mrs. Egleton) pleads for him to the left, and Polly (Miss Fenton) to the right. Rich, the manager of Lincoln's Inn Fields (there was a current witticism that the piece had made ‘Rich gay, and Gay rich’), the Duke of Bolton, who ran away with and afterwards married Miss Fenton, and the author himself are among the spectators. Report says that Pope pointed the satire in some of the songs. But against this must be set his express disclaimer to Spence (Anecdotes, ed. Singer, pp. 110, 120). ‘We [he means himself and Swift] now and then gave a correction, or a word or two of advice, but it [the play] was wholly of his own writing.’
Encouraged by the success of the ‘Beggar's Opera,’ which, he says, by the time its thirty-sixth night had been reached, had brought him between 700l. and 800l. (Pope, Corr. ii. 120, 121), while his manager had made 4,000l., he set promptly about a sequel, in which he transferred some of the chief personages to the plantations. To this new piece he gave the name of the all-popular heroine of its predecessor. But when ‘Polly’ was ready for rehearsal the Duke of Grafton, then lord chamberlain, acting under the express instructions of the king, who in his turn was influenced by Walpole, sent to forbid the representation. Whatever the real reason for this step may have been, its result was to give the unacted opera an interest to which its literary and dramatic merits could hardly have entitled it. Its prohibition became a party question, and its sale in book form was an extraordinary success, in which every opponent of the court was concerned. The Duchess of Marlborough (Congreve's duchess) gave 100l. for a single copy, and for soliciting subscriptions for her favourite within the very precincts of St. James's the Duchess of Queensberry was dismissed the court. Thereupon her husband resigned his appointments and followed his wife, who took her congé in a very saucy and characteristic letter to King George. It is clear that in this Gay was merely the stalking-horse of political antagonism, but for the moment he was a popular martyr. ‘The inoffensive John Gay,’ wrote Arbuthnot to Swift, 19 March 1729, ‘is now become one of the obstructions to the peace of Europe, the terror of the ministers, the chief author of the “Craftsman,” and all the seditious pamphlets which have been published against the government. He has got several turned out their places; the greatest ornament of the court [i.e. Lady Queensberry] banished from it for his sake; another great lady [Mrs. Howard, afterwards Countess of Suffolk] in danger of being chassée likewise; about seven or eight duchesses pushing forward, like the ancient circumcelliones in the church, who shall suffer martyrdom on his account first. He is the darling of the city. … I can assure you, this is the very identical John Gay whom you formerly knew and lodged with in Whitehall two years ago.’ After this date those Whitehall lodgings, Gay tells us (ib. ii. 165), were