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Mr Colley Cibber, flamboyant actor-manager and – by his own admission – the worst Poet Laureate ever appointed, has one aim in life: to become the hero of one of the most remarkable women of the eighteenth century, poet and writer, Lady Mary Montagu.
But Mary has other concerns. Her lover Remond is threatening blackmail and waspish poet Alexander Pope who formerly idolised her, is now publishing poisonous verses about her. Furthermore, when a smallpox epidemic sweeps through London, Lady Mary whose own fabled beauty had been destroyed by the pox, determines to have her daughter inoculated, using the unheard of procedure she witnessed while living in Constantinople. Thus she becomes the reluctant champion of inoculation in the west, facing the hysterical prejudice of those who scorn a proven method simply because it is practised by old women in Muslim Turkey. By deliberately blurring the boundaries between character and actor and between past and present, the play suggests that eighteenth century xenophobia and misogyny foreshadow our own.
Poxed explores masks in their many guises – wigs, wit, stays – exploring the necessity of the persona but also the dangers of a narcissistic identification with the outer shell. Above all, however - although the play is full of humour – the story is a metaphor for the battle between the great opposing forces of contagion and inoculation, of destruction and creativity. The poison spread by smallpox and the South Sea Bubble are triumphed over by those of good heart like Mr Handel, whose music suffuses the play. And as Cibber who narrates events to the present-day audience tells us, Lady Mary’s courage is finally acknowledged when the United Nations declares smallpox eradicated in 1979 and singles her out as the forgotten hero who saved millions of lives.