Staging the Gracchi brothers

It is one thing to use the stage to criticize the government from the perspective of the disgruntled middle classes, as Fielding and Thomson did. It is another to argue that the gaping economic inequality between social classes, and especially the grinding poverty of the working classes, need immediate correction. A significant play on a classical theme to address this issue was also the first British play about the Gracchi, the brothers Tiberius and Caius Gracchus, immortalised in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, who both attempted to redistribute land illegally appropriated by the Roman nobility amongst the Italian poor. The work of Irishman James Sheridan Knowles, Caius Gracchus was first produced in 1815, the year of Waterloo. It was revived during the tempestuous next decade, when class conflict reached explosive levels in the suppression of protestors, both agricultural and industrial workers, not only at Peterloo but in London, East Anglia, Yorkshire, Preston, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.2

Plutarch’s account of the death of Caius Gracchus is inherently visual. Several classical scholars have argued that there must have been an ancient play on the theme informing the tradition long before Plutarch’s seminal contribution.26 Caius committed suicide in a sanctuary of Furina, but he was beheaded and his skull filled with molten lead. Yet the Gracchi arrived late in the theatres of Europe, at least relative to other heroes celebrated by Plutarch, such as Julius Caesar or Coriolanus. The sole opera about either Gracchus was the apolitical Caio Graeco by Leonardo Leo, performed at the palace of his patron, the Viceroy of Naples, in 1720.27 The delay was a result of the way the Gracchi set off political alarm bells.

The most influential ancient view of the Gracchi was, for a long time, Augustine’s seminal discussion in City of God, III.24. Augustine acknowledged some unfairness in the stranglehold of the nobility on public land. But the Gracchi’s attempts at land reform, according to Augustine, echoing most previous Latin authors, were seditious and resulted in fearful destruction, unleashing the violence of the Civil War, with riots, mobs and bloody massacres.28 Augustine’s characterisation of the Gracchi’s actions can be found everywhere in texts before the 18th century—from Machiavelli’s argument that even if right they were ineffective, to British Restoration apologists for the absolute monarchy, who routinely cited Plutarch’s Life of Tiberius Gracchus as evidence for the sedition and anarchy that arose with any sort of republican or democratic constitution.29

The Gracchi were not even widely adopted by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War,30 although their first identifiable admirers had been reforming Protestants of the early 16th century. A picture of the Gracchi radically different from that derived from Augustine first emerged from the pen of Johann Eisermann, Rector of Marburg, the first Protestant University to be founded without papal permission. He paraphrases Plutarch when discussing the problem of tyranny in his work on the good ordering of a commonwealth, De Re Publica Bene Instituenda, Parainesis (1556), the first edition of which had been published in 1533. The English translation by William Bavande, published three years after the 1556 edition, was a foundational text for English Protestantism. Eisermann responds to details in Plutarch’s Life of Tiberius Gracchus more sympathetically; for example, his account of the process by which Tiberius comes to identify with the cause of the Italian poor is presented in emotive detail, citing the lamentations of the poor and the children dying of hunger.31

Eisermann’s sympathy with the Gracchi was connected with the date he began writing the book, in the 1520s, only a decade after the Peasants’ Revolt had rocked central Europe and bitterly divided the Protestant leadership. Yet the same book answers the question why the Gracchi did not become stage heroes until so much later. For Eisermann, however much he admired Tiberius Gracchus, deplored the theatre and all its arts. To put the matter in a nutshell, until the 18th century, the only Renaissance and Early Modern circles who read Plutarch’s Gracchi as politically positive exemplary heroes were the very circles whose systematic anti-theatricalism ensured that the Gracchi were never to mount the stage. The Gracchi only began to become acceptable, and then only on the radical wing of the European Enlightenment, in 18th-century France and Italy. The death of Caius Gracchus became popular in French painting in the years immediately before and after the revolution,’2 most famously in Topino-LeBrun’s ‘Death of Caius Gracchus’ (1792, first exhibited 1798). The revolutionary agrarian reformer Babeuf would take the name Gracchus, in place of his baptismal names François-Noël Toussaint Nicaisse, as part of the ‘deChristianization’ movement of autumn 1793.33 He had previously preferred the pseudonym Camillus, in imitation of the Roman statesmen of the fifth-fourth centuries bce, the Tribune of the People and so-called Second Founder of Rome. But by October 1794, he had penned a manifesto polemicizing against tyranny and pleading for the sovereignty of the people, in which he describes himself as ‘Gracchus Babeuf, people’s tribune, defender of the rights of man, of press freedom, and other freedoms’.34 Partly inspired by the revolutionary French tragedy by Marie-Joseph Chénier, Caius Gracchus (1792), James Sheridan Knowles wrote his Anglo-Irish Caius Gracchus (1815). Knowles, as a man of the theatre and an Irish radical, was fully acquainted with the French stage repertoire.

The Gracchi, moreover, had been identified as exemplary heroes earlier in Ireland than in Britain (Ireland, although ruled from Britain, was not formally united with England, Scotland and Wales until 1800). Anglo-Irish writers, as well as Irish authors writing in English, had long used ancient Greek authors to express discontent with the situation in their country, especially rural poverty.3’ But the Gracchi seemed particularly relevant in Ireland. Since the ancestors of many Catholics had been dispossessed of their land with the creation of the 17th-century plantations, the Irish peasantry identified intuitively with the cause of the ancient Roman poor. By 1773, a caustic critic of Lord Townshend’s administration signs himself Caius Gracchus.36 In 1781, Dissenting poet Mark Akenside, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, adopted directly from France the radical Gracchi as opponents of oppression in Ireland.37

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