Classical burlesque and poses plastiques

Richardson’s show’s greatest fame rested on its burlesques of serious dramas and operas, performed in the open air from his ingenious travelling theatre tent and vehicle. For the late Georgians and the Victorians, the distinctive genre of musical burlesque offered an exciting medium through which Richardson’s audiences, Londoners, and the large proportion of the audiences at London theatres who travelled in from the provinces, could appreciate classical material. Charles Dickens, whose antipathy to the Greek and Roman Classics was connected both with his particular model of indigenous radicalism and with his conventional mid-19th-century taste for farce, sentimentality and melodrama, wrote to Bulwer-Lytton in 1867 that the public of their day could only be induced to go and see a Greek play in the form of burlesque.31 Dickens was scarcely exaggerating: in 1865, for example, the London playhouses offered no fewer than five new classical burlesques: these featured Pirithous, the ancient mariner Glaucus, and Echo and Narcissus, along with the Odyssey and the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound.

Burlesques often opened at holiday times, when they reached large audiences: in the 1850s it was estimated that over 60,000 people visited the London theatres and places of amusement each Boxing Night alone.32 The burlesque theatre transcended class barriers. Unlike virtually all other professionals, actors were recruited from across the class spectrum.33 One censorious commentator describes the audience ofburlesque as a mixture of‘vapid groundlings who take stalls, and, with vacant mind, “guffaw” over the poor antics they come to see’ and the fashionable ‘swell of our day’.54 The Adelphi Theatre was associated with raucous burlesques known as ‘Adelphi Screamers’, and with the unruly fans of Mr Edward Wright, a drag actor specialising in transvestite roles such as Medea in Mark Lemon’s Medea; or a Libel on the Lady of Colchis (1856).55 The Grecian Saloon in Shepherdess Walk, off what is now the City Road, which could seat 700 members of the urban and suburban working and lower-middle classes, specialised in firework displays, cosmoramas, grotto scenes, statuary and colonnades.56 It was home to John Wooler’s Jason and Medea (1851), which was held to have been ‘nicely got up, but very vulgar in dialogue’.37

Henry Morley, Professor ofEnglish Literature at University College, London, wrote in the early 1850s:

There is a large half-intelligent population in London that by bold puffing can be got into a theatre. It numbers golden lads and lasses as well as chimney sweeps.38

Yet the audience also often included this worthy academic. An engraving by ‘Phiz’ captures the mixed constituents of the audience in the 1850s: in the stalls sit the middle classes, in the boxes the most affluent of families and in the gallery the standing hordes of the working classes.39 At the end of the period of the popularity of classical burlesque, when it was replaced by a taste for light opera and Gilbert and Sullivan, the singer Emily Soldene recalled with pleasure that it had been her privilege ‘to earn the applause of all ranks’, from members of the royal family ‘to the coster and his wife of Whitechapel’.4" The clientele of Astley’s Theatre in London were also heterogeneous. It had a large working-class audience, and yet middle-class families also took their children. In the unlikely event of any of the audience becoming bored during the action, they could raise their eyes to the ceiling (renovated in 1858), adorned with pictures of Neptune, Diana, Cybele, Apollo, Dawn and Venus, all riding chariots drawn by appropriate animals (peacocks for Venus, deer for Diana). The most famous of all the Astley circus performers, Andrew Ducrow, specialised in ‘hippodramatic’ enactments of Hercules’ labours, of Alexander the Great taming Bucephalus, of the rape of the Sabine women and Roman gladiators in combat.41

A telling source for the variety of avenues by which the Londoner in the 1840s had access to classical mythology is the diary of Charles Rice, by day a lowly porter at the British Museum, guardian of celebrated Greco-Roman antiquities, but by night a tavern singer in the public houses of central London. On 19th February 1840, at the Adam & Eve in St. Pancras Road, he was engaged to put his knowledge of ancient sculpture to profitable use by delivering notices accompanying Mr Lufkeen’s delineation of ‘The Grecian Statues’, a series of acrobatic poses based on classical statuary (a routine originally popularised by Ducrow), including ‘Hercules wrestling with the Nemean Lion’.42 Two years later, on 28th November 1842, a curious programme of entertainments was performed for the children of the Blue Coat School and the Deaf and Dumb Asylum at the Birmingham Royal Amphitheatre: a stunt using a centrifugal railway, laughing gas, and the Swiss Brothers’ display of statue groups including 'Hercules’, ‘Ajax defying the Lightning’ and ‘A Roman soldier fastening his sandal’.43 (Figure 17.2)

Yet this form of entertainment, in other contexts, frequently possessed pornographic associations. First popularised nationally by Emma Hamilton (formerly Amy Lyon and Emma Hart), classical ‘attitudes’ or ‘poses plastiques’ lent the eroticised display of the female form an illusion of propriety.44 Hamilton was herself working-class, the daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith who died when she was a baby. She received no education and went into domestic service at the age of 12, before running away to London. Despite her Liverpudlian accent, which


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FIGURE 17.2 Early Victorian handbill advertising event at Birmingham Royal Amphitheatre reproduced from original in Edith Hall’s personal collection.

she never lost, her beauty landed her a job impersonating Hygeia, the Goddess of Health and/or Hebe (Goddess of Youth) at the Temple of Health founded by the unconventional Scottish physician and sexologist James Graham. She also posed as a model for paintings of classical heroines by society artist George Romney.4

When she met and later married Sir William Hamilton, Emma launched herself into his world as an admirer of classical antiquity.46 She researched classical statuary and the history of fine art on classical themes. She began to perform her ‘mimo-plastic’ routines—alternating postures and dances, otherwise known as ‘attitudes’ or ‘tableaux vivants’—in the roles of allegorical figures and heroines, many of them classical (Medea, Ariadne, a Bacchante, Circe, Flora, a Muse). She would emphasise her own allure with the aid of often revealing Grecian draperies, shawls and veils.47 At first an aristocratic pastime, enjoyed by the same circles who secretively circulated accounts of the priapic objects discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum,48 ‘attitudes’ subsequently reached the lower echelons of society from which Emma had sprung.49 From the 1830s onwards, well-developed female models in skintight ‘fleshings’ could be seen in the popular poses plastiques, in which they imitated naked classical statues for audiences said to include the ‘worst sort’ of person.’0

In the same region of England as Emma’s birthplace, in Great Charlotte Street, central Liverpool, the Royal Parthenon Assembly Rooms was founded in the early 1840s. It was renamed the Parthenon Music Saloon and later the Parthenon Music Hall in the 1850s. On 20th May 1850, a playbill advertises the week’s programme of tableaux and songs, ‘a truly CLASSIC exhibition, with ‘a SUCCESSION OF NOVELTIES of a superior character’. The tableaux ranged over ancient history and myth, and were accompanied by vocal soloists. ‘Brutus Ordering the Execution of his Son’ was a dignified Roman history scene accompanied by a ‘comic song’ entitled ‘Pity the Sorrows’ sung by Mr Reed. But this was followed by tableaux entitled ‘Diana Preparing for the Chase’ and ‘A Bacchanalian Procession, from the Borghese Vase’. Later in the programme the audience was promised three further classical tableaux, under the headings ‘Greeks Surprised by the Enemy’, ‘the Amazons’ Triumph’ and ‘the Grecian’s Daughter’. The doors opened at half past six, and the performance commenced at seven. Entrance to the Parthenon was free; any profits were raised by selling food and drinks. In 1850, a Refreshment Token cost just three pennies.51

Such entertainments provided a narrative of eroticised female beauty in which proletarian sexual voyeurism was legitimised and lent an illusion of decorum by classical mythology. One of the more important directors of such events was the London impresario Renton Nicholson. Born on the Hackney Road and apprenticed at 12 years old to a pawnbroker, Nicholson had been a prisoner, gambler, tobacconist, publican, wine merchant and popular journalist. But he discovered his metier as the producer of entertainments in which an insouciant attitude to ancient Greece and Rome figured large. In 1841 he established the ‘Judge and Jury Society’ at a Covent Garden tavern. As ‘Lord Chief Baron’ he presided, in judge’s regalia, over subversive mock trials based on celebrated cases of the day. Having made several court appearances for debt himself, Nicholson was familiar enough with judicial Latin to parody it effectively.52

The trials had a class-political angle: Nicholson liked cases involving the private lives of aristocrats, bestowing upon them new titles such as ‘The Hon. Viscount Limpus versus the Hon. Priapus Pulverton’.53 The female parts were acted by male transvestites, and Nicholson, who always acted the judge, entertained his cross-class audience by extemporising in streams of amateur Latin, especially when summarising what an observer denounced as the ‘filthy particulars’ of the cases.’4 He also held mock parliamentary debates and elections; he supported universal suffrage. Despite constant financial problems, he was reputed to be extremely generous to the poor and destitute. In 1860 he published his autobiography, Rogues Progress. He is buried in Brompton cemetery.

His most famous shows were staged at the Coal Hole Tavern on the Strand. He hired working-class girls to enact scenes from classical myth which he accompanied with mock-learned ‘lectures’.55 A contemporary critic regarded Renton’s poses plastiques as morally reprehensible, and was displeased that women were allowed to join the audience.56 One of the most popular of his shows involved the lovers Cupid and Psyche as acted by half-naked young women in 1854. In this allegorical painting by Archibald S. Henning, the poses of ‘Venus Arising from the Waves’ and ‘Andromeda Tied to her Rock’ are illustrated in the bottom left and right-hand corners respectively (Figure 17.3). Other ancient figures shown at his public houses included Sappho, and Diana Preparing for the Chase.

‘Venus Arising from the Waves’ and ‘Andromeda Tied to her Rock’ flank portrait of Renton Nicholson, reproduced by permission of the Museum of London

FIGURE 17.3 ‘Venus Arising from the Waves’ and ‘Andromeda Tied to her Rock’ flank portrait of Renton Nicholson, reproduced by permission of the Museum of London. Painting reproduced by permission of the Museum ofLondon.

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