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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 539-557

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Race and Slavery

John Gay's Polly: Unmasking Pirates and Fortune Hunters in the West Indies

Robert G. Dryden

In December of 1728, John Gay's opera, Polly, was banned from rehearsal by the Lord Chamberlain for being a filthy and libelous work. In his Preface to the opera, Gay protests that he has been accused of "writing immoralities; that [the opera] is filled with slander and calumny against particular great persons, and that Majesty it-self is endeavour'd to be brought into ridicule and contempt" (70). 1 W. E. Schultz speculates that the ban had more to do with "the report of a new play bearing Gay's name" than it did with the content; apparently, Polly followed too closely on the heels of its predecessor, The Beggar's Opera. 2 The ban did not prevent the work from being seen: not only was it printed and sold in April 1729, but by June of the same year, Gay and his publisher had injunctions brought against seventeen printers and booksellers for piracy of the work. Patricia Meyer Spacks argues that "the early history of Pollyis more interesting than the play itself." She believes Gay's opera to be a "failure" because, unlike The Beggar's Opera, which exists as a world where everyone is corrupt, in Polly, "society splits into heroes and villains; there is no doubt at all where one's sympathies are to lie." Polly and the native Indians are the honorable and virtuous characters, and the pirates, "invariably villainous," represent evil. Although she does find limited merit in the characters Ducat and Trapes, Spacks views the opera as being predictable and lacking "ironic perspective . . . throughout"; Polly, she concludes, [End Page 539] "can only be seen as an essentially frivolous and meaningless exercise. . . . There's no use flogging a dead horse, and Polly is a very dead one indeed." 3

Although it may be an imperfect eighteenth-century text, Polly is nonetheless an important one, in part because the opera questions the presence, motivations, and destructive potential of the English merchant in the colonial setting. Gay is one of the first eighteenth-century writers to represent the English colonial merchant, not as a hero, but as a kind of pirate. 4 When the middle-class country gentleman proceeds from his position as a capitalist inside England to his position as a colonial merchant in the West Indies, he begins to exploit the economic potential outsideof England, but still within the borders of the English empire. 5 Gay extends his initial critique, voiced in The Beggar's Opera--the ubiquitous corruption that so pervades the commerce-centered city of London has now evolved into an equally corrupt and commerce-centered British empire--by situating that argument in the West Indies. Accordingly, Gay's representations do not flatter English colonization at all. In Polly, Gay condemns the British planter, the British soldier, the British slave trade, the transportation of British criminals, and the pirate. In a thoroughly Swiftian style, the author damns all characters as being either fools or knaves, excepting, as Spacks notes, Polly and the native Indians. 6 Gay does, however, anticipate that colonization will change the face of England and makes this idea explicit through the disguises that his characters assume. Although color may be tolerated when it serves the goals of empire, Gay demonstrates that there is no place for a black rebel.

Gay's decision to remove the country gentleman and the gentleman of the road (the highwayman) from London to the West Indies is an attempt to explore the nascent roles of these English subjects--both merchant and lower class--as fortune hunters in the colonies. Macheath turns pirate only after being transported to the West Indies where he continues his criminal quest for wealth. No less criminal in Gay's estimation, however, is the plantation owner, Ducat, for whom the West Indies function as a location for accumulating treasure. Although Macheath (who dons a black face disguise, turns...


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