Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Successful Pyrate

The Successful Pyrate is a play by Charles Johnson. It was first performed 1712 and published 1713, and dealt with the life of the pirate Henry Avery (Every).

Charles Johnson (1679 – 11 March 1748) was an English playwright and a tavern keeper. He claimed that he had been trained in law, but there is no evidence of this. At the same time, it is possible that he actually was a lawyer, as his first two published works, (Marlborough; on the Late Glorious Victory Near Hochstet in Germany and The Queen; a Pindaric Ode) list him as living in Gray's Inn. This was one of the four “Inns of Court” and in order to practice law in England or Wales a person must belong to one of these inns.   He married a Mary Bradbury in Gray's Inn chapel in 1709, the year of his first play, Love and Liberty.

Drury Lane Theater, still in use today

Around the year 1710, Johnson became friends with Robert Wilks, the actor-manager of Drury Lane Theatre. Wilks was able to see that Johnson's plays received consideration. In 1711, The Wife's Relief, or, The Husband's Cure was a great success.

In 1712, The Successful Pyrate was produced, and complaints were made to Charles Killigrew, Master of the Revels that the play glamorized the pirate Henry Every. However, the play's controversy helped its profitability, and it was a theatrical success.

Artist's conception of Henry Avery

The Successful Pyrate is a glamorized adaptation of two episodes contained in a pamphlet about the career of pirate Henry Avery: his capture of the Mogul ship Gang-i-sawai, allegedly carrying the Mogul's granddaughter, and a plot against Avery by his lieutenant De Sale and other pirates.

In the play, Avery goes under the name Arviragus, and has made himself a King in Madagascar, the legendary east-African pirate island. He captures the Indian princess Zaida and tries to force her to marry him, but she is in love with a young man named Aranes. The two have an offstage fight and Aranes is reportedly killed; meanwhile, De Sale, who has confided to the audience that he is plotting to overthrow Arviragus and become King, ingratiates himself with Zaida.

De Sale's fellow plotters are blundering fools and their plans are easily thwarted. A comic trial scene follows. Then it is revealed that Aranes is Arviragus' long lost son, and that he is still alive, his friend Alvarez having died in his place. The plotters are executed and Aranes and Zaida marry.

Artist's conception of Avery meeting the Mogul's granddaughter

The play is reportedly more comedy than anything else. The pirates are mostly fools, especially Sir Gaudy Tulip, an aged and cowardly London beau. The Gang-i-sawai is, for comic effect, carrying two European ladies, Tulip's ex-mistress and another pirate's ex-wife, who exchange comedic comments with the men. The drunken conspirators and outrageously partial court are played entirely for laughs.

Charles Johnson’s name may very well have inspired the pseudonym of another great pirate author. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates was written, supposedly by Captain Charles Johnson.

The General Histotry

Who was this person? Arne Bialuschewski of the University of Kiel in Germany has recently suggested Nathaniel Mist, a former sailor, journalist, and publisher of the Weekly Journal, as a more likely candidate. Charles Rivington (publisher of the History), had printed books for Mist, who lived near his office. The General History was registered at Her Majesty's Stationery Office in Mist's name. As a former seaman who had sailed the West Indies, Mist, of all London's writer-publishers, was uniquely qualified to have penned the History.

So why use Johnson’s name? Some scholars think that, to someone who knew pirates and respected them, Mist was affronted by Johnson’s treatment of the much-respected Avery.  Is this true? We may never know, but it seems plausible.


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