Caractacus and the children of Wales

The triumph of the Caractacus story at the 1906 Eisteddfod in both spoken drama and sung cantata inspired a decade of amateur performances in schools and town halls across Wales. In addition to those by Joseph Parry, Elgar/Acworth and Evans, a fourth, more light-hearted work, combining speech and song with attractive dance sequences and comic interludes, had certainly become available by 1910. It seems swiftly to have become the most frequent choice for performance (it was shorter, in English, and made fewer demands on its performers than the long set-piece orations of Evans’ more portentous work): its published version is entitled Caractacus. A Juvenile Operetta for Boys and Girls and Infants. The music was by George G. Lewis and Herbert Longhurst, and the libretto by H.E. Turner.28 This opens with a scene in the Roman forum, with a chorus of slaves. Emperor Claudius and Empress Agrippina decide to invade Britain, and there is a procession of Roman soldiers. The action then moves to Britain, where there is an idyllic scene of village life including a maypole dance and games. Caractacus’ wife Rotha and her mother Cartismandua are introduced, followed by Claudius and his aide-de-camp Bericus. There is a dance of British warriors, painted in woad and wielding axes and shields. Two strolling players arrive and provide comic relief, before the chorus of druids sings a psalm and the Arch-Druid prays. But suddenly there is a thunderstorm and the Romans attack. During the battle, Caractacus disappears and his wife Rotha desperately searches for him. Cartismandua has betrayed Caractacus. The scene then returns to Rome and the triumphal procession in which Caractacus and Rotha are led as captives before being dramatically released. The show ends with a final chorus in praise of the Fire God.

The collection of digitised newspapers held at the National Library of Wales yields up evidence of a substantial number of other provincial Caractacus performances and productions, and despite the predominance of the Lewis/Longhurst/ Turner operetta when the work is actually specified, it is not otherwise always possible to identify which one—Elgar/Acworth, Parry, Evans or the operetta— was performed. It is possible that in practice there were new hybrid versions which transferred especially popular tunes or speeches from one version to another or rewrote them entirely. For example, in March 1909, the Kidwelly United Juvenile Choir performed an unspecified work described as ‘the popular cantata “Caractacus”’ to packed audiences, two nights running, in the Town Hall. There were costumes and scenery and the acting received commendation. In particular, some Kidwelly boys relished the opportunity to enact martial violence: ‘Masters John Cydwel Davies and Harold Reynolds, as Roman soldiers, and Melvill White and Tudor Evans, as British soldiers, gave splendid representations of the martial ardour of those early days’.29

Perhaps prompted by a much-lauded rendition of the Elgar/Acworth cantata at the London National Eisteddfod of 1909,3(1 or by the prominent position given to the story of Caractacus, as the opening episode of the ambitious National Pageant of Wales staged in Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens in the summer of the same year,31 the floodgates of Caractacus performances were flung wide open in 1910. The first documented staging of the Lewis/Longhurst/Turner operetta took place at the Judge’s Hall, Trealaw in March 1910: it was sung by the Juvenile Choir of Salem, Llwynypia.32 It was soon followed by a performance of the same work by the Pisgah Juvenile Choral Society at Bryndu School: ‘All the little ones were tastefully dressed, and did their singing in a manner that showed a thorough training’. The proceeds were in aid of the Pisgah Baptist Church.33 Not to be outdone, the Tabernacle Juvenile Choir of the Welsh Congregational Church Band of Hope performed the operetta during the same month, at the Tabernacle Chapel in Barry Docks. It was repeated at the Masonic Hall, Barry, when the proceeds were handed over to the Institute of the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society (Barry Docks branch). ‘Between the acts, Mr W. W. Marshall, port missionary to the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society, proposed a vote of thanks to the choir, and those who assisted at the performance’.34 ‘Roman soldiers and juvenile Britons sang and drilled, recited, gesticulated, and even fought with true histrionic earnestness’.35

The next documented performance of the operetta followed in April. It took place in the Pembrokeshire Masonic Hall, and featured no fewer than 50 local people drawn from the teachers and pupils of the St. Catherine’s Sunday School and Bible Class.36 The hilarity of the strolling players Gip and Topsy ‘evoked roars of laughter, and their witticisms and actions quite overcame the audience’.37 In May 1910, the children ofMilford Haven Parish Church Bible Class and adults of the Teachers’ Operatic Society combined in the Masonic Hall at Haverford West to produce the operetta. The battle scene was highly commended as ‘truly realistic. The glittering spears of the ill-trained Britons are poor defence against the short deadly swords of the Roman invaders, and many British fall dead on the plain’.38 By popular demand, the production was revived later in the year, when the proceeds were donated to the St. Mary’s Young Men’s Institute.39

It is undeniable that there was strong feeling amongst the miners of the Rhondda during theTonypandy riots of 1910 and 1911, especially after Winston Churchill, as Home Secretary, sent in the British army to support the police against the unrest. This must have meant the militarism of the Caractacus performances struck more ambivalent chords in some less Anglophile members of the audiences.40 Yet 1911 undoubtedly marked the highest tide of the British Empire for Britons of all income brackets internationally. A year after passing his ‘People’s Budget’, Lloyd George, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, had won the fervent support amongst the working classes of both Wales and England. He then masterminded both the newly crowned George V’s ‘Festival of Empire’, when George and his wife Mary were crowned Emperor & Empress in a bizarre triumphalist pageant at Delhi, and the equally peculiar pseudo-druidical ceremony at Caernarfon Castle in which Crown Prince Edward was officially ‘invested’ as Prince ofWales.

The triumphant fusion of Welsh indigenous and British imperial identities at this time meant that Caractacus performances in Welsh schools continued to proliferate. In late October 1913, it was the turn of the Model School, Carmarthen, to essay the operetta at the Carmarthen Assembly Rooms, where the boys who played the parts of the Roman soldiers and the Britons were commended for the fine representation of the ‘very good fight’.41 In March 1914 the children of Ogmore Higher Elementary School performed the operetta twice, at the Ogmore Workmen’s Hall, where the event was presided over by Aiderman William Llewellyn. J.P., and at the Nantymoel Workmen’s Hall. The children had been prepared for learning their parts by a lecture on the deeds of Caractacus on St. David’s Day. The newspaper report comments on ‘the educational effect’ of this operetta, which was ‘bound to be of immense value to the performers by giving them a clearer idea of life in Britain in the days of our ancestors, and life in Rome at the height of her glory and power’.42

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