Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.08.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.08.12

Laura Monrós-Gaspar, Victorian Classical Burlesques: A Critical Anthology. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.  Pp. x, 298.  ISBN 9781472537867.  $34.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Rhiannon Easterbrook, University of Bristol (


Victorian Classical Burlesques presents a welcome opportunity to read four edited nineteenth-century classical burlesques alongside a commentary and introduction. This book sits at the intersection of several strands of research: as will become clear, Monrós-Gaspar is responding to work in the fields of classical reception and its overlap with English literature, as well as to theatre history. She acknowledges the significant body of scholarship on both Victorian classicism and performance reception, while incorporating re-evaluations of nineteenth-century performance, such as those by Schoch (2002) and Bratton (2003).

Monrós-Gaspar starts her introduction with a whistle-stop tour of Victorian London. She is aware of the important scholarship that has been undertaken on Greece and Rome in the Victorian age. Thus, she takes it for granted that her readership need not be persuaded of the importance of the ancient world to Victorian culture and, in place of an exhaustive review, cites Goldhill (2011) and offers some examples. Monrós-Gaspar conveys the image of a city teeming with opportunities for classical encounters, both on- and off-stage. In a manner reminiscent of some scholarship in this vein (Altick 1978; Jenkyns 1991), her lively writing here brings out the way in which antiquity held a physical presence, in addition to a conceptual one.

One particularly sound element of her programme is to introduce Bratton’s idea of intertheatricality. Although, as Monrós-Gaspar wisely acknowledges, we can never recapture the full experience of the original performance, intertheatricality does offer helpful strategies for understanding a production (17). Drawing on the language and ideas of intertextuality, an intertheatrical reading goes beyond the privileged written text and assesses “the mesh of connections between all kinds of theatre texts, and between texts and their users” (Bratton 2003: 37). This approach not only considers all aspects of a production but situates that production more widely within the context of theatrical experiences and traditions. This concern is reflected in the introduction’s discussion of other performances, and can also be seen elsewhere: in the labelling of the scripts’ front matter as “paratexts”; in the notes on the scripts (to be discussed more fully below); in the images of theatrical ephemera and engravings that have been included (and of which I wish there were more); and in the extensive list of other Victorian classical burlesques. In so doing, Monrós-Gaspar frequently does not direct the reader to a specific reading but opens up the possibilities for constructing meaning.

In addition to providing evidence of the classicising experiences available in Victorian London and to offering an overview of classical burlesques in general, Monrós-Gaspar introduces specific contemporary themes and productions with which to read the texts. Although she claims that “nineteenth- century classical burlesque lacks a deep political discourse”, she does view the genre as reflective of contemporary political and social concerns and ascribes to it the ability to represent figures who transgress contemporary norms (12). Indeed, in his study of Shakespearean burlesques, Richard Schoch has noted that burlesques are “the most disposable form of theatrical entertainment in the nineteenth century” given their reliance on topical references, which can make their meaning difficult to ascertain (2002: 16). Monrós-Gaspar demonstrates effectively that reading burlesques within their context can still produce interest and meaning (and perhaps a laugh or two) for the modern reader.

From the large array of possible alternatives, Monrós-Gaspar appears to have chosen her plays well. While classical burlesques engaged with a wide range of generically diverse mythological narratives, the four featured here allude directly to Greek tragedies. This affords us the opportunity for direct comparison of how the authors of those burlesques deal with similar source material. Not only do these burlesques allow for some interesting insights into historical and theatrical context, but they also have been mentioned in previous scholarship on the subject (for example: Hall 1999a; Hall 1999b; Hall and Macintosh 2005 and Macintosh 2000). This judicious selection thus affords the reader a fine opportunity to read these discussions with greater insight. It will be interesting to see whether, in the future, a canon of classical burlesque is formed.

All four burlesques have also been chosen for their central female characters, which, Monrós-Gaspar believes, explore contemporary concerns about women. Edward Blanchard’s Antigone Travestie (1845) sees Antigone become the object of Creon’s wrath through her attempts to free from prison Polynices, who is being held on account of a £5 debt. While it looks as though our heroine may meet her customary end, all resolves happily, as both Antigone and Hermon (changed from Haemon) only faked their deaths. Both the introduction and notes encourage readings within the context of financial swindles and the problem of debt, which Monrós-Gaspar finds to be preoccupations of the literature and performance at this time. Intriguingly, this has a gendered dynamic, since women become involved in managing “financial crises” (23).

Alcestis, the Original Strong-Minded Woman, by Francis Talfourd (1850), inserts a romantic subplot between Polax the policeman and Phoedra the flirtatious plain cook. Her intertheatrical approach encourages us to look beyond classicism for meaning and context. Monrós-Gaspar's discusses place of Alcestis in repertoire and how producers may have been influenced by the fact that it shared similar stage effects with another successful play on the bill. However, her assertion that military regiments chose Alcestis for their amateur performances for its references to the police force is not supported by examples of why those references, in particular, appealed to the armed forces, nor does she reflect on whether the portrayal of Hercules as a sport-loving clubman might have been interesting to military officers (32). Monrós-Gaspar also argues that “Strong-Minded Woman” is a key term here, alluding to a common and important stereotype in nineteenth-century society. She furnishes the reader with examples of its usage in literature, theatre, and the press.

Robert Brough’s Medea; or, the Best of Mothers, with a Brute of a Husband (1856) and Electra in a New Electric Light (1859), also by Talfourd, offer comments on the state of women in the nineteenth century and occasions for intertheatrical analysis too. The problematic figure of the infanticide and abandoned wife was portrayed by Adelaide Ristori in Ernest Legouvé’s Medea (1856). Monrós-Gaspar includes helpful details of the burlesque’s relationship to the production, both in terms of textual allusions and performative similarities on the part of Frederick Robson, who took the title role in the burlesque. While this burlesque has a happy ending for the children, it can also be viewed in relation to contemporary worries about divorce and infanticide, which are outlined by Monrós-Gaspar. The problem of surplus women and contrasting expressions of feminine behaviour, Monrós-Gaspar argues, are at the core of the gender dynamics in Electra. She notes contrasting sisters in literature as examples of this and highlights the other two productions on the bill as evidence of the focus on spinsterhood. She uses Simpson’s play The World and the Stage well, showing how it would have emphasised the theme of differing pairs of single women. However, it would have contributed to her argument to engage with some of the details of A Daughter to Marry (37-8), the other play on the bill. Monrós-Gaspar characterises Electra as having a “wilful” involvement in politics which contravenes norms of feminine behaviour. This may be true, and her fascinating comment on dishevelled women supports that (225 n. 0.2-3). Nevertheless, a more convincing argument might have taken into account the burlesque’s portrayal of Electra wishing for the return of her brother Orestes as rightful ruler, and the characterisation of Aegisthus identified by Monrós-Gaspar as “effeminate”. As with her discussion of Alcestis and the military, a little attention paid to anxieties about masculinity would augment her discussion of women’s roles.

Overall, the commentary is not too intrusive and performs a variety of functions beyond a comparison of the ancient and modern texts. The notes elucidate obscure references and some of the many quite amusing puns that are on offer, gesture towards metatheatrical points of interest, and comment on issues of gender and anachronism. A large number of notes are definitions from the OED. Here, Monrós-Gaspar has ensured that the sometimes difficult language of nineteenth-century burlesque is accessible to as broad an audience as possible. Even words and phrases, such as “ogling”, “auburn” and “by jingo”, which will be familiar to most native speakers of British English, are glossed. Monrós Gaspar also explains the many songs that were incorporated into the burlesques and that were written independently of them.

Occasionally, notes are a little on the telegraphic or oblique side. For example, “[n]ote that Alcestis does not speak here in Euripides and she is identified according to a rite” offers neither a line reference to Euripides nor a sense of the possible significance of the “rite” alluded to here (125 n. 624). Elsewhere in the burlesque, Monrós-Gaspar informs us simply that Charon ferries the dead across the Styx, which is the case in this burlesque, but a reference to the importance of the Acheron in ancient traditions would have offered a fuller picture (103 n. 197). There are a couple of instances in which notes may be repetitious: for instance, we are twice informed within the space of a few pages that Waterhouse and Sandys depicted Medea as a “sorceress” (141 n. 53; 149 n. 115-6).

Monrós-Gaspar has derived her texts from two sources: the manuscripts submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for licence, which are available in the British Library, and “the most authentic acting edition[s]” of Thomas Hailes Lacy’s Acting Editions (39), which apparently offer the version of the text published soonest after the first performance. According to Richard Pearson, the latter were published in order to be used for productions, both professional and amateur, from the 1840s onwards (2015). This approach is certainly a reasonable solution to the problem of knowing exactly what was performed on stage and has the added benefit of offering an insight into the process of getting a text to stage. In practice, with the exception of Antigone, which was not published by Lacy, the edited texts prioritise the acting editions, albeit with the spelling and punctuation standardized by Monrós-Gaspar. The many revisions made by Brough to Medea are particularly notable.

There are a few typographical errors, which are limited almost exclusively to the bibliography. Among others, F. Budelmann becomes “Bundelman”, R. Jenkyns is “Jenkins”, and C. Martindale somehow ends up as “G. Marshall”, although it is correct elsewhere. These, however, are only minor quibbles.

Victorian Classical Burlesques provides a window onto some remarkable texts. In combination with the strategies and contexts for reading offered by Monrós-Gaspar, these texts should considerably stimulate further work into classical burlesques and, I hope, some more editions of these plays. While suitable for the classroom, they could also be used as scripts for welcome revivals.1


1.  Bibliography

Altick, Richard. 1978. The Shows of London (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press).
Bratton, Jacky. 2003. New Readings in Theatre History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Goldhill, Simon. 2011. Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction and the Proclamation of Modernity (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press).
Hall, Edith. 1999a. ‘Classical Mythology in the Victorian Popular Theatre’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 5.3: 336-366.
Hall, Edith. 1999b. ‘Sophocles’ Electra’, in Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, ed. by Jasper Griffin (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 261-306.
Hall, Edith, and Fiona Macintosh. 2005. Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre 1660-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Jenkyns, Richard. 1991. Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance (London: HarperCollins).
Macintosh, Fiona. 2000. ‘Medea Transposed: Burlesque and Gender on the Mid-Victorian Stage’, in Medea in Performance, 1500-2000, ed. by Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh, and Oliver Taplin (Oxford: Legenda), pp. 75-99.
Pearson, Richard. 2015. ‘Description of Project’, Victorian Plays Project [accessed 1 June 2016]
Schoch, Richard. 2002. Not Shakespeare: Bardolatry and Burlesque in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
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