Knowles' revolutionary Romans

The impact of the French revolution in Ireland differed from its impact in England. The Irish peasants, oppressed by English or Anglophile landowners, identified with the French revolutionaries. They took hope when the new French government in 1791 said that it would offer military help to any movement attempting to depose their own monarch, and in February 1793 declared war on Britain and Ireland. It was in this context that Knowles, always known to his friends as ‘Paddy’, found himself at the age of nine in the position of political exile.38 He was to grow up to be described in 1847 as

a writer full of individuality as of geniality, who has been popular without coarse conception, and received as a poet without making any extraordinary pretensions. The first and last cause of his well-deserved popularity as a dramatist, is the heartiness of his writings ... The heart which Mr Knowles puts into his work lays hold of the hearts of his public; and this is his secret ... In fine, counting Burns at the head of the Uneducated Poets ... we think that Mr Sheridan Knowles will keep his place in the annals of the British Theatre as King of Uneducated Dramatists.39

The playwright’s father ran a small Dublin school. A radical Protestant, and cousin of the dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Knowles Senior advocated Catholic Emancipation. After publicly supporting a liberal newspaper whose editor was imprisoned for criticising the government, he had to leave Ireland for London, with no money and his small son, in a hurry. William Hazlitt, himself of Irish Protestant descent, befriended them. Hazlitt was a conduit through which French Enlightenment and Continental revolutionary thought was disseminated in Britain, and his influence on the little Knowles was profound.40 Knowles at this time read classical literature in English as well as works in modern languages; this is demonstrated by his knowledge of famous 18th-century translations of the tragedians and Roman rhetoricians. He discusses these in the lectures he delivered in mid-life to self-improvement societies in provincial cities including Belfast, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Barnsley.41

But in the 1790s, the future playwright and his radical father watched from England while, back in Ireland, the United Irishmen were founded. This organisation brought together forward-looking Catholics and Protestants, intending to establish a democratic republic along French lines. When the British began murdering the members of this organisation, the result was the 1798 rebellion which was brutally put down at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. The French sent reinforcements who landed at Mayo on the western coast, but the joint Franco-Irish rebel army was again defeated.

When he grew up, Knowles worked as an actor centred in Bath and Dublin until, after the birth of his first child, he opted for the safer income of a teacher. He had no university-level education himself but was widely read, and was hired to teach English Literature at Belfast Academical Institution. There he began to write stage plays. He moved soon afterwards to teach in Glasgow instead; until a sudden conversion to a Protestant faith in the 1840s, he divided his extra-curricular energies between theatre and radical politics. For a time he coedited, with indefatigable journalist William Spencer Northhouse, the newspaper Glasgow Free Press, which campaigned for Catholic Emancipation, Abolition, Parliamentary Reform, Municipal Reform, Abolition of Capital Punishment except in cases of murder, Repeal of the Tests and Corporations Act and Free Trade. It briefly became the most popular paper in western Scotland when it agitated for higher wages to be paid to the handloom weavers.42

Knowles became an exceptionally popular dramatist, his Virginius (1820), William Tell (1825) and The Hunchback (1832) chiming perfectly in tune with the reformist spirit of the late Georgian period and remaining for years staples of the early and mid-Victorian low-to-middlebrow stage repertoire. The Robert Burns of the stage wrote Cains Gracchus for the Belfast Theatre. It was first performed there on 13th February 1815. According to a review in The Belfast News-Letter, it ‘was throughout received with the rapturous plaudits of a crowded house’.43 This is scarcely surprising; not only did it speak to the plight of the Irish poor, but it encouraged more British-identified members of the Belfast audience to draw connections between poverty in ancient Rome and modern Britain after the 1813 Corn Laws had kept the price of bread impossibly high. This had been followed at the end of the Napoleonic Wars by a drastic economic slump and widespread famine afflicting the North of both England and Ireland in 1814.

When Knowles’ play opens, Caius has returned to Rome and tells the audience how stirred he is by the sufferings of the poor: ‘they are bare and hungry, houseless and friendless, and my heart bleeds for them’.44 The second scene is a noisy enactment of the trial of Spurius Vetteius, a friend of Caius’ dead brother Tiberius and supporter of the people, for sedition. There are two factions on stage, senators and citizens, and class-based insults are traded; afterwards, Flaminius and Fannius plot to bring discredit to Caius in the Senate. The overall politics of the piece are most clearly expressed in the third scene of Act II, where the plebeians Titus and Marcus, who support Caius, have an altercation with two servants of men of the Senatorial class in the Campus Martius. There is mass civic tumult, the senators’ men raise their weapons and the plebeian Titus delivers a stirring speech in the prose style which Knowles is imitating from some of Shakespeare’s lower-class characters:

Down with your staff, master, for I have another that may ruffle the gloss of your cloak for you. What! has anything surprised you? Do you wonder that the order which wins your battles in the field, should refuse your blows in the city? You despise us when you have no need of us; but if an ounce of power or peculation is to be gained through our means, oh! then you put on your sweet looks, and, bowing to the very belts of our greasy jackets, you exclaim, “Fair gentlemen!—kind fellow-citizens!—loving comrades!—sweet, worthy, gentle Romans!—grant us your voices!” Or, if the enemy is to be opposed, oh! then we are “men of mettle!”—(poor starved devils!)—“the defenders of our country!”—(that is, your cattle as you call us)—and so indeed we are. We bear your patricians on our backs to victory; we carry them proudly through the ranks of the barbarians! They come off safe—we get the knocks, the pricks, and the scratches. They obtain crowns and triumphs,—we cannot obtain—a dinner! They get their actions recorded—we get ours forgotten! They receive new names and titles—we return to our old ones with which you honour us—“the rabble!—the herd!—the cattle!—the vermin!—the scum of Rome!”45

Quintus, one of the Senator’s attendants, responds simply, ‘These greasy citizens are uttering treason against our masters, the noble patricians’.

Caius is arraigned by the Senators on trumped-up charges, but is acquitted.

He persists and puts his name forward as tribune:

Ye men of Rome, there is no favour

For justice!—Grudgingly her dues are granted!

Your great men boast no more the love of country!

They count their talents—measure their domains—

Number their slaves—make lists of knights and clients—

Enlarge their palaces—dress forth their banquets,

Awake their lyres and timbrels, and with their floods

Of ripe Falernian, drown the little left

Of Roman virtue!46

The evil aristocrats in Act III scene 1 plot to use Drusus in order to attack Caius. Drusus, who has a naive belief in the patricians’ good motives, agrees to propose something so attractive to the people that he wins their favour, thus lessening Caius’ grip on them. In the next scene, set in the Forum, Caius pleads with the people not to treat him like a king, but Drusus argues that Caius is not going far enough. There ensues a competition in benefits to be offered to the people. Drusus claims to be acting on the instructions of the Senate, but Caius caustically responds, like a proto-Chartist, that if the members of the Senate love the people so much then they won’t mind if they are all given the vote.

Caius can’t persuade Drusus that he is being duped by the Senate. But Caius’ colleagues can’t persuade him that he must court the people to retain his influence with them. He loses the tribuneship. Opimius is elected Consul and announces that he is about to repeal all Caius’ reformist laws. The Senate declares a state of emergency and identifies Caius as the enemy of the state. There is going to be a showdown. There are emotive scenes between Caius and Cornelia and Caius and his wife Licinia, clutching his little son. Both women try to prevent him from going out in public. They fail.

The final scene is set in the temple of Diana. The women pray while class war rages in the streets. They learn that many of Caius’ plebeian supporters desert him. His aristocratic allies are killed by the Consul’s forces, leaving him isolated and vulnerable. He arrives and commits suicide, but only after saying of the plebs,

May they remain the abject things they are,

Begging their daily pittance from the hands

Of tyrant lords that spurn them! May they crawl

Ever in bondage and in misery,

And never know the blessed rights of freemen!

Here will I perish!47

The implication is that the only real barrier to an egalitarian republic is the inability of the common people to rise manfully to the challenge. Knowles here shows himself sensitive to the nervousness felt even in radical Irish circles towards the bloodbath in which the French revolution had culminated during the Terror. Knowles was certainly acquainted with the tragedy of Chenier. But his play is more pessimistic about the possibility of reforms, even if it is even more convinced of their desirability.

In London, however, the play that made Knowles’ name was his better-written Virginius, which continued to be revived for decades. The young actor who created the stirring role for the premiere of Virginius, on 17th May 1820 at Covent Garden, was William Charles Macready. This was also a history play, set in an earlier phase of Republican Rome, and based on the story of Virginius as related in Livy III.44. The tale had previously been dramatised as the Jacobean Appius and Virginia by John Webster and Thomas Heywood. Knowles’ Virginins certainly had a political message, in that Appius Claudius abuses his political power by lusting after Virginia. But a play that rages against tyrants demanding sex with their inferiors is not political dynamite of the same order as a play that rages against poverty and hunger. Even this far less explosive play was first censored, however, under the terms of the 1737 Licensing Act.

Knowles’ Virginius was only given permission for performance ‘after the Lord Chamberlain, at the express command of the newly crowned George IV, had cut out some of the lines on tyranny’.48 Censorship of the stage had always been erratic and inconsistent, and depended on the political atmosphere at the time and the temperaments of the Prime Minister, Lord Chamberlain and their officers. But George IV was detested, and his ostentatious coronation in 1821 heralded increasingly harsh censorship. At the time of the premiere of Virginius, and the London production of Cains Gracchus three years later, the Lord Chamberlain was the Duke of Montrose, a Scottish Tory ‘determinedly antagonistic to plays on revolutionary themes’.49 But the man who actually wielded the blue pencil from 1778 and until the end of December 1823 in the post of Examiner of Plays was a dour Methodist by name of John Larpent.50 Having served in the Foreign Office and in George Ill’s household as a Gentleman Usher and a Groom, Larpent delegated some of the play-reading to his much younger wife, Anna Margaretta, so we will never know who actually made the final decisions on Knowles’ scripts.

Despite the enforced cuts to Virginius, the enthusiasm of its public reception inspired Knowles to return to his previous play Caius Gracchus, which had been performed in Edinburgh. (Figure 7.1.) George IV was becoming steadily more unpopular, perceived as corrupt, autocratic and dissolute. The political

tension meant that when in November 1823 Caius Gracchus was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, who then operated from St. James’ Palace, it inevitably ran into trouble. Via Larpent, who was in the last weeks of office before retirement, the Lord Chamberlain let it be known that he was ‘shocked at its liberal sentiments’.51 In a drastically censored version, when permission was ‘at length obtained’,52 Cains Gracchus was produced at Drury Lane, starring Macready, on 18th November 1823 for seven nights. (Figure 7.2)

The physical manuscript submitted to the Lord Chamberlain has survived in the Larpent Collection of plays (now held in the Huntingdon Library, San Marino, California). So does a printed version of the original play, as performed in Belfast, which was published in 1823 in Glasgow, and to which Knowles restored many lines which had been cut for the Drury Lane production. This allows us a precious opportunity to study the processes by which a performance text deemed acceptable to the authorities was painfully achieved. Knowles (or more probably the Drury Lane manager, Alfred Bunn) had chopped out some of the most incendiary material before it was even offered to the Lord Chamberlain. Almost all of Titus’ prose speech (quoted above, pp. 152-3) has been prudently omitted, so that it reads simply, ‘Down with your staff, master, for I have another that may ruffle the gloss of your cloak for you!’ From Opimius’ speech (see

William Macready as Caius Gracchus. Early 19th-century theatrical print, reproduced from original in Hall’s personal collection

FIGURE 7.2 William Macready as Caius Gracchus. Early 19th-century theatrical print, reproduced from original in Hall’s personal collection.

above, pp. 153), the Drury Lane rehearsal script has omitted the provocative line saying that the great men of Rome ‘Number their slaves—make lists of knights and clients’. But the Censor also struck out the line saying that these men ‘Enlarge their palaces—dress forth their banquets’. The most drastic deletion comes in a speech delivered by Caius himself, in Act III scene 1, claiming that Opimius does not succeed by ‘flattering’ the Roman populace but by offering them bribes which bring the worst out in their characters. In the Belfast production, reflected in the printed version, Caius said,

Opimius then is not the people’s flatterer.

He’d make the people look below themselves.

How would he rate them? As we rate our herds.

How would he use them? As we use our herds.

O may the people ever have such flatterers

As guard them from the kindness of such friends!’3

The text submitted to the Lord Chamberlain wisely took out the two middle lines suggesting that Opimius respects the people no more than herds of cattle. But this did not go far enough for Larpent, who took his blue pencil to the last two lines as well.

Macready still managed to make Caius’ tragedy seem politically mutinous enough to persuade his ambitious rival actor, Edmund Kean, not to appear on a stage with him for several years subsequently.’4 Macready endured poverty and humiliation as a child and his response was to become an ardent republican. His father, a prominent lessee of provincial theatres who originally came from Ireland, was imprisoned for debt, blighting the ambitions of his Rugby-educated middle-class son, who knew and loved his Classics. He was forced to leave school at the age of 15 to rescue his father’s failing theatre in Manchester. Unable to attend Oxford University, as he had planned, the youth decided to stay on stage himself. But he loathed the monarchy with an unusual intensity and banned the phrase ‘lower classes’, insisting that they be called ‘poorer classes’.55 He remained socially insecure all his life, indeed once insulting Knowles, the shabby Irish playwright who helped make him famous but to whom he clearly felt superior in class terms. After the première of Virginias, Macready was the only untitled guest dining at an aristocrat’s house. Knowles arrived to present a copy of the play, but Macready was embarrassed by his presence and hissed at him that he should not have come. Only later did he come to his senses and apologise.56

In 1823 Macready was still only 30 years old, and had not yet become the most famous actor-manager in Britain, known always to select roles which allowed him to impersonate ‘the defender of the Hearth, Home, and the People against the brutality of tyrants’, and to pour out ‘the zeal and heat of his own political convictions’.57 These included not only James Knowles’s classical heroes but Thomas Talfourd’s stirring republican adaptation of Euripides’ Ion (1836).’8 Watching Macready playing Caius Gracchus, a Roman hero who dies attempting to defend the rights of the poor, must have been exciting. Conservative stage critics were already denouncing Macready in the early 1820s for habitually appearing in ‘democratic, ranting, trashy plays’.’9

Cains Gracchus was not a commercial success. Macready blamed what he saw as the execrable acting of Margaret Bunn, the wife of the Drury Lane manager, as Cornelia. But even he acknowledged that the contemporary taste for more emotionally appealing stage entertainment was not hospitable to the polemical gravity of Cains Gracchus: ‘it was not in the nature of things that such a play should become really popular’.60 It was not, to our knowledge, publicly revived. But because it had been performed by Macready, and because Knowles remained a respected writer for the rest of his life, it continued to be read and almost certainly performed in private theatricals.61 Cirginius, however, continued to be a smash hit and a key play in Macready’s repertoire for another 30 years,62 inevitably drawing readers to Knowles’ other Roman history play, so famous that sculptures to remind the viewer of his Romans are carved conspicuously onto his tomb-building in the Glasgow Necropolis.

The effect of Knowles’ play on the afterlife of Plutarch’s Gracchi, moreover, remained conspicuous in the case of the Chartists,63 and of Ireland, ‘Gracchus’ becoming thereafter almost a code-word for the cause of Irish Republicanism. Indeed, ‘Gracchus’ was the chosen pseudonym of John O’Callaghan, the Irish activist and poet, who in THE EXTERMINATOR’S SONG (1842) celebrated in the persona of‘Gracchus’, in a dialogue poem, the call for total rent strikes by the peasants made by the agitator William Conner:

‘Tis I am the poor man’s scourge,

And where is the scourge like me?

My land from all Papists I purge,

Who think that their votes should be free—

Who think that their votes should be free!

From huts only fitted for brutes,

My agent the last penny wrings;

And my serfs live on water and roots,

While I feast on the best of good things!

For I am the poor man’s scourge!

For I am the poor man’s scourge!

[CGracchus responds:]

Yes, you are the poor man’s scourge!

But of such the whole island we’ll purge!14

It took historical events as drastic as the massacre at Peterloo and famines in Britain and Ireland to make the Gracchi speak sympathetically from public stages to wide cross-class audiences. Yet, paradoxically, once they had found their place in the dynamic medium of live theatre, they found themselves being controlled again. Caius Gracchus and his plebeian supporters had their rhetorical wings stripped almost bare by the hard right in Britain, owing to the ideological power of the ultra-conservative Lord Chamberlain’s office, in the democratic agitation of the 1820s. Plutarch’s vision of the brothers who stood up for the People could just not stop being political dynamite.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >