STAGING CLASS STRUGGLE CLASSICALLY
There are several class-conscious approaches to the relationship between Classics and enactment in theatre (and later cinema) during the period addressed in this book.1 Most of this chapter examines a controversial tragedy about the Gracchi, drastically censored during the revolutionary period before and after the 1819 massacre at Peterloo.2 The censor’s stranglehold on spoken theatre from 1737 onwards illuminates the apparent lack of overtly class-conscious plays on classical themes in public theatricals. Other aspects of the theatrical politicisation of antiquity, including the amateur productions of plays and musicals about Caractacus during the World War I recruitment drive in Wales, and the revolutionary workers’ theatre versions of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata developed in the 1930s, are discussed in Chapters 12 and 25. Radical plays were sometimes imported from abroad, such as the American socialist Susan Glaspell’s Inheritors, a tragedy based on Sophocles’ Antigone performed at the Liverpool Repertory in 1926. It indicts the abuse of both Native Americans and Indians under the British Raj.3 But this area is ripe for further research.
Classics in demotic theatre
David Mayer and others have investigated the popularity in Britain of the ‘toga drama’, on the theme of struggles between Romans and early Christians, in both popular theatre and early cinema between the 1880s and about 1920.4 In a subsequent chapter of this book we briefly discuss the phenomenon of mid-19th-century ‘classical burlesque’, of which most actors and some of the spectators were lower-class, and a few of which (for example, those by the brothers William and Robert Brough) were critical of the establishment.’ Despite a surge of recent academic interest in the genre in response to work by Hall and Macintosh,6 many important burlesque productions have yet to be investigated, especially those which were hits in the provinces as well as metropolitan theatres. An example is Francis Cowley Burnand’s Ixion, or the Man at the Wheel (1863), an outstanding success in London, Liverpool and the USA.7 The class politics of this piece, the success of which depended on a density of excellent puns, are far from radical. It begins with an amoral Ixion afflicted by gambling debts. He is driven by a revolutionary mob into exile on Olympus. But the people of ancient Thessaly are associated with Tom Paine and mocked as a ‘Crowd of Red Republicans, Unread Republicans ... appropriately crowned with mob caps’.8 They come to an ineffectual end, struck motionless by Mercury when their humorous potential is exhausted; Ixion then redefines democratic agency as the mere ability of the masses to make any theatre performance a commercial success or failure.
Another context where class-conscious theatre performances might be expected is in the world of amateur dramatics, which are difficult to document, because so few permanent records have survived from before the digital age. But certain examples of left-wing amateur theatricals even before World War II are better attested than others. At a concert held by the Southwark branch of the Social Democratic Federation in 1886, the party leader recited passages from Aristophanes’ Birds.9 In Sheffield, The Little Theatre, part of Sheffield Educational Settlement, run by Arnold Freeman (1918-1955), a proponent of Rudolph Steiner’s principles of Anthroposophy, staged several classical productions, including Aeschylus’ Oresteia (1931), Euripides’ Trojan Women (1932) and Sophocles Antigone (1936).10 The People’s Theatre in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was co-founded in the premises of the local branch of the British Socialist Party by professional footballer Colin Veitch (1881—1938) and his wife Edith. They had been involved in the Clarion movement. The productions between 1931 and 1946 included three plays by Euripides, Aristophanes’ Frogs and even Menander’s Rape of the Locks, all in Gilbert Murray’s translations.11
Murray’s translations, especially his Medea, were even performed in the South Wales coalfields.12 Their multiple reprints and availability on the second-hand book market, along with the popularity of Murray’s classic study Euripides and his Age (1913), inspired Adult Education groups across the country, for example a reading class run in Glasgow under the aegis of the YMCA in the 1920s.13 In 1938, the Left Book Club Theatre Group performed Murray’s translation of Euripides’ Trojan Women in Plymouth.14 But the records of most of the British workers’ theatre productions, especially those organised by the Co-operative and Clarion movements from the 1880s onwards, which included ancient plays and plays on ancient historical themes, have been neglected.
Dramatic performance has always had a relationship with politics in Britain. At the height of the early 18th-century struggle over the ownership of classical cultural property, the Odyssey was treated to a class-conscious reading in a ballad opera staged at the Little Haymarket Theatre. In Chapter 2 we saw this struggle triangulated in the rival avenues of access to classical texts provided by private schools, by the refined translations of Dryden and Pope, and by demotic fairground entertainments. Penelope, by John Mottley and Thomas Cooke, in 1728
transposed the Odyssey to a working-class London tavern. The epic story is set in the Royal Oak Ale-House; the Sign hanging outside reads, ‘This is the Royal Oak, the House of Pen, / With Entertainment good for Horse and Men.'5 The publican is Pen, wife of Ulysses; a sergeant in the grenadiers, he has been absent fighting for 19 years. Meanwhile, she has been besieged by suitors: a butcher, a tailor and a parish clerk.
The songs of ballad opera (folk tunes, urban popular ditties and famous refrains by composers like Handel), were known on the streets, and the audiences sang along. Cooke, although an innkeeper’s son, was a classical scholar (indeed, the first translator of Hesiod into English16), and the opera is his barbed response to his long-time enemy Alexander Pope’s translation of the Odyssey, issued in 1725-1726. But Mottley, as a Grub Street pamphleteer and the son of an absentee Jacobite soldier, was equipped to write about abandoned women and the seedier underside of London life.
The opera’s demotic tone is set when Penelope tells the audience that she has not combed her ‘matted locks’ for a month, and put on only one clean smock in the last three. Her maid Doll suggests that she seek comfort in the bottle, but neither gin nor whisky can help. Penelope calls Doll a ‘silly sow’, and Doll recommends that she marry Cleaver the butcher, singing: ‘He’s tall and jolly, / Believe thy Dolly, / It wou’d be Folly, / To slight his Pain’. Penelope complains that all the suitors are but ‘rakehells’; she will not choose one of them until she has finished weaving her cabbage-net. She despises, she says, the hotpots, stout, ale and punch with which they woo her.17
Doll is less restrained. She favours the butcher because he bribes her with tasty offal; she is less impressed with the tailor’s silver thimble, and nonplussed by the parish clerk’s Bible and offer of a reserved pew at church. (The man of God is himself sent up for his supercilious manner of speech and respect for the crown.) Doll and Cleaver are secretly in love and plotting; Cleaver will marry Penelope, thus acquiring her property, and keep Doll as his mistress. Cleaver is evil but engaging, and able wittily to send up the Homeric archetype. He is a butcher, and therefore asks, 'Shall I my Fame with whining Sorrows stain, / Whose Arms have Hecatombs of Oxen slain?’'" But the opera ends as satisfactorily as the Odyssey, and with less bloodshed.
Penelope is inherently subversive. It invites its audience to laugh at the elevated ancient text, pored over by the schoolboy sons of the well-to-do, through a classconscious lens. It domesticates the ancient story by appropriating it to a déclassé context while telling it in vernacular language sung to melodies from the street. Such was the climate of hostility to the King and Walpole amongst literary men at this time that even John Gay’s Achilles (Covent Garden 1733), another frivolous burlesque of a classical myth, was read politically by some of them.19 But as a light-hearted entertainment, like the exceptionally popular later 18th-century burletta Midas by the Irish playwright Kane O’Hara, in which Olympian gods and goddesses spoke in the language of a ‘Wapping landlady’,20 and the 19th-century classical burlesques which will be discussed further in Chapter 17, Penelope was unlikely to incite audiences to riot in protest against class hierarchies.