Caractacus between Britain and Wales

How can an ancient warrior to whom only a few paragraphs in classical historians are devoted be co-opted both as a forefather of Welsh ethnic identity (grounded in the living Welsh language and at times resistant to British rule) and as a heroic prototype of the British imperialist fearlessly imposing ‘civilised’ values on a worldwide empire, a prototype which appealed across the class spectrum? An important factor was the ideological project and impact of the 1898 cantata Caractacus, with music by Edward Elgar to a libretto by Harry Arbuthnot Acworth. The most significant response to this celebrated work was the wave of Caractacus plays, musicals and oratorios performed in the first decade and a half of the 20th century in Welsh schools. These fostered a fiery Welsh national identity committed to the British imperial project that David Lloyd George was to exploit in his 1914 recruitment drive. Caractacus furnished one of the most prominent filaments in the vivid tapestry of Welsh cultural and regional history experienced during the three decades between the appearance of Lloyd George on the political scene and the unprecedented casualties inflicted on Wales, especially miners and working-class Welshmen from the north of the country, by World War I.

Caractacus had been the subject of an important late 18th-century stage play by William Mason,9 and throughout the Victorian period, Caractacus poems, paintings, statues and a few musical performances, usually with druidical overtones, sporadically appeared in both England and Wales, often in public, civic locations. An imposing statue by Irishman Constantine Panormo, ‘The Liberation of Caractacus’, was said to be ‘expressive’ and one of the most viewed of the artworks in the British section of the gallery at the Great Exhibition of 1851.111 But Caractacus did not arrive at the epicentre of the British cultural radar again until the jingoistic celebrations of the late 1890s, when Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee (1897) foregrounded both the British imperial ‘achievement’ in India since the Government of India Act (1858) and the ‘foundation’ of ‘Rhodesia’ (1890). In this context, Edward Elgar’s Caractacus premiered at the Leeds festival.11 The libretto was by Elgar’s Malvern friend and neighbour Harry Arbuthnot Acworth, a passionate advocate of the ‘civilising’ benefits brought to the Indians by the Raj, and retired President of Bombay. The piece, ideologically, is a transparent apologia for British global imperialism, but the location in the Malvern Hills places Caractacus’ heroism in the liminal space between English and Welsh identities.12

The Caractacus of Elgar and Acworth, with its druids from around the Anglo-Welsh border, and its exploration of the relationship of a brave little country to a mighty imperial conqueror capable of clemency, swiftly attracted interest in Wales. At the 1902 Gwent Chair Eisteddfod in Rhymney, the test piece in the ‘marching song’ category in the Brass Band competition, won jointly by the Great Western and Cory Workman’s bands, was a march from Caractacus.'3 The most famous Welsh composer of the day, Dr. Joseph Parry, was almost certainly prompted by the Elgar/Acworth cantata to write a four-part Caractacus: A Choral Ballad, which climaxed with a solo in F major for Claudius and full chorus, ‘Free Prince Caradoc, the Briton brave!’14 But it was a stage play in Welsh by Beriah Gwynfe Evans, performed at a school in Abergele in 1904, which inaugurated the Edwardian tradition of theatrical performances starring Caractacus. Evans saw Caractacus as fundamentally Welsh, rather than an incoming East Briton who took on leadership of the Silures, and required not only him but all the other Britons and even Romans to speak Welsh. This procedure, drawing on a long history of conflating the Welsh with the ancient Britons, decisively identified the Caractacus of ancient historians as the birthright of Welsh people in Wales.

Evans, born in Nant-y-glo, in 1848, began his career as a teacher who agitated for the use and teaching of Welsh in schools,1’ and in 1885 founded the Society for the Utilization of the Welsh Language."’ A Congregationalist, he was intent upon dispelling the anti-theatrical prejudices which still prevented drama from being enjoyed in many parts of Wales, and shrewdly saw that patriotic readings of national history might be more acceptable than more frivolous content. He persuaded the organisers of the Llanberis Eisteddfod in 1879 to allow him to compete with his history play Oivain Glyndwr, and it won the prize, thus providing the first serious impetus to the dramatic movement in Wales and securing his lifelong membership of the Gorsedd. He has been described in M. Wynn Thomas’s study of the forging of Welsh national identity between 1890 and 1914 as a ‘vapid historical dramatist’, but focussing on the aesthetic demerits of his plays is not useful where drama exerts the ideological influence of Evans’ Caractacus.'1 The same play, along with a much later version of his Oivain Glyndwr, was later revived to be enacted in Caernarfon in the course of the celebrations of the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911.18

Evans subsequently became a journalist who has been described as ‘omnipresent’ on the Welsh cultural scene until his death in 1927. In 1892 he arrived in Caernarfon as managing editor of the Welsh National Press Co., which published Y Genedl Gymreig and The North Wales Observer. Here he developed his already strong relationship with Lloyd George, who was heavily involved with these newspapers: he later wrote a biography of his favourite politician, The Life Romance of Lloyd George (1915), published simultaneously in Welsh as Rhamant Bywyd Lloyd George.'9 His journalism, as a prominent member of the Cymru Fydd movement, was marked by a passionate commitment to Welsh nationalism and self-government but allied with a commitment to the British imperial mission.

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