Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay

By John Richardson | Go to book overview
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Gay, opposition, slavery

The treatment of slavery in Gay’s later work is both different from and similar to the treatment in Pope’s. Perhaps the most important difference is that slavery is a more obvious presence in Gay’s writing. In the two plays I consider in the second part of this chapter, for instance, slavery is the situation of the hero, a precondition for the plot, and by any estimation a central theme. As Diane Dugaw writes of Polly, the ‘problem of slavery permeates the play’. 1 A second difference is that Gay usually represents slavery as an external and political condition, and the sense of slavery familiar from Pope as an interior state associated with personal identity occurs only occasionally in his work. This emphasis on the political has led some commentators to regard Gay as a kind of opposition radical, with respect both to slavery and to economic and social organization generally. To cite Dugaw again, The Beggar’s Opera and Polly together offer one of the first and most insightful critiques of a world whose institutions and relationships are driven by a market-based individualism premised on capital and profit’. 2 Such readings seem to me to be mistaken because they ignore the ambiguity, obfuscation and division in Gay’s work. Herein lies the main similarity with Pope, since implicit in Gay’s writings are both opposition against and support for slavery. This is particularly clear in the subject of the second section of this chapter, the complex and contradictory plots of Polly and The Captives. But as the first section hopes to show, it is also evident in a more general way throughout Gay’s writing.

There is some reason for regarding parts of Gay’s work as politically oppositional. His association with the Tory opposition of the 1720s, his references in a letter to his own political ‘obnoxiousness’, and the Lord Chamberlain’s ban on productions of Polly all invite it (Burgess, 80). What is more, the later adaptations of The Beggar’s Opera by Bertolt Brecht, Václav Havel, Wole Soyinka and P. L. Deshpande demonstrate a continuing appeal to opposition writers, and both The Beggar’s Opera and Polly contain negative social comment. 3The former criticizes and resists what it presents as the corrupt


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