BMCR 2008.07.31

Remaking the classics: literature, genre and media in Britain 1800-2000

, Remaking the classics : literature, genre and media in Britain 1800-2000. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. London: Duckworth, 2007. 1 online resource (166 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9781472538604 $70.00.

This collection of essays arises from a conference on classical reception supported by the University of Swansea in 2005. The contributors (see full list below) come from both sides of the pond but the concentration is on reception in British literature and other media. The range of reference is wide, from the expected tragedy and poetry to the more unusual children’s literature and radio broadcasting. As often in such collections it is difficult to discern a common thread apart from the willingness of classicists to explore some unbeaten tracks to find fresh areas of interest. Readers are perhaps more likely to consult individual chapters according to their interests than read the whole volume, but specialists will find much in this further example of consolidation and exploration of the expanding field of reception. Of particular interest is the extension into the area of radio broadcasting and the role of the BBC in the maintenance of wide public interest in Classics in Amanda Wrigley’s chapter on Greek drama on BBC radio.

Leanne Hunnings’ chapter on Spartacus goes back beyond the 1951 novel of Howard Fast and the politics of the McCarthy era, into the nineteenth century and the radical politics of the day. She disinters three little-known versions of the story of the rebel gladiator: an historical serial from a radical Chartist journal; a five-act tragedy aimed at inspiring support for the independence movement in Poland among the British; and finally a short novel written by a young woman which takes a more heroic and less overtly political line. Two of these pieces were written against the background of the anti-slavery movement of the 1820s, although only the novel of Susanna Strickland is coloured by anti-slavery ethics. Hunnings appears to find that in the nineteenth-century Spartacus was adopted by radical writers as a figure to promote ideas of freedom generally rather than directly in the Abolitionist campaign.

Stephen Harrison examines the relation between some Victorian writers (Tennyson, Arnold, Clough and Morris) and the Greco-Roman epic. While finding that they are steeped in Homer and Virgil, he observes that generally they duck out of direct confrontation with the epic poets and prefer to engage with epic material and structure on a smaller, almost neoteric scale. Tennyson shows a more direct connection with Homer in The Lotos-Eaters or Ulysses than in the episodic Idylls of the King, despite its epic proportions. He finds similar traces in Arnold’s works which recall epic: Sohrab and Rustum and Balder Dead. Again, Homeric echoes throughout are contained in miniaturized texts in which Classical themes are transformed through other cultures into a new kind of epic treatment. Clough’s Bothie goes even further in this direction, further metamorphosing epic via the pastoral into the kind of Victorian narrative poem which more closely resembles the contemporary novel. Harrison concludes with a brief look at William Morris’ The Earthly Paradise. This is epic in scale but again largely avoids direct comparison with Homer and Virgil, in line with Morris’ other interests, and tends towards a medievalised version of classical material. This was the age of translations of epic, when it seems scarcely anyone could sit down to read Homer or Virgil without publishing a translation afterwards. As these poets spoke to the reading public in their own words (as it were), the original writers of the age perhaps found that they had to compete in a new post-classical way.

Elizabeth Vandiver is quite right to observe in her chapter that the influence of classical literature on the poets of the First World War is a neglected area. English teachers have for years regarded Owen’s use of the Latin quotation in Dulce Et Decorum Est as the last word on Horace, rather than ask what use Owen puts the line to, and where he got this attitude from and why. These poets, especially the public school educated ones, were steeped in Latin and Greek literature at school and while they were not always directly conscious of the use they made of their reception of these works, particularly Homer, they were points of reference that naturally occurred to them. Vandiver gives close readings of three poems: one of Owen’s and two by lesser known writers. Homer (along with Housman) is shown to be in the forefront of Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s mind when he wrote his only poem. E. A. Mackintosh’s In Memoriam is a moving poem about the loss of a young soldier under the poet’s command, drawing on the Priam and Achilles episode in Iliad 24. Vandiver here sees the poet officer as replacing, almost shouldering aside, the dead soldier’s father, though another reading is possible where the unalterable place of the father is unwillingly usurped by the officer who is forced into this position by the war. Finally Homeric echoes are detected in Owen’s Spring Offensive, even though his education was not at an elite school.

The next three chapters deal with a more familiar area for reception. Amanda Wrigley deals with Greek tragedy on BBC radio, Ruth Hazel examines the place of women in some recent works based on tragedy, and finally Lorna Hardwick looks at recent controversial productions and what they mean for a post-colonial age. Amanda Wrigley has thoroughly researched the archives for the history of classics broadcasts in the repertoire of the BBC drama department. She has unearthed fascinating details which involve many of the leading dramatists, critics and actors of the age showing how Greek drama was a staple part of the output of the BBC. Among the details there is plenty of critical analysis along with observations on the nature of classical reception which open up new areas of research and criticism. She asks pertinent questions about the essence of classical studies, arguing that a listener to a radio play is just as much part of the world of classics as an academic working on a literary text. On the main concern of tragedy (which forms only a part of the range of discussion), she argues that radio drama is a particularly suitable medium for the performance of tragedy. Ruth Hazel chooses a range of works to illustrate her examination of sparagmos and female power on the late twentieth-century British stage, but her approach is rather over-schematic and the choice of pieces to discuss does not seem to support the thesis. While The Full Monty may bear some resemblance to The Bacchae, the link to the role of the female in the tearing apart of the victims of Dionysiac frenzy seems tenuous. Lorna Hardwick, on the other hand, examines some recent productions of Greek tragedy which received a critical mauling in the press and tries to find reasons for their lack of popular acclaim. She shows how Tony Harrison’s version of Euripides’ Hecuba, with Vanessa Redgrave, appears to have asked questions of democratic responsibility which critics found too searching, as they assumed a production with radical credentials would take an expected political line. Having taken a reductive view of the play as anti-coalition in the Iraq war, the critics failed to deal with the criticism in the play of the “appropriation of democracy as an arm of the modern neo-colonialism alluded to in the play. This strikes theatrically at the certainties of identity and value in modern western societies and may be too uncomfortable for critics and audiences fully to contemplate”. Also analysed are David Grieg’s Oedipus and Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, which shed light on the post-colonial anxieties of the colonisers.

Children’s literature does not feature much in classical studies, as classicists tend not to distinguish between literature written for children and literature that children happen to read. Nonetheless, classics plays a large part in children’s education from the Greek myths read in the primary school to the historical study of the Greek and Roman world, as well as beginners’ language courses. Deborah Roberts examines the fiction of Rosemary Sutcliff, particularly the Eagle of the Ninth, in comparison with her acknowledged inspiration, Rudyard Kipling, whose Puck of Pook’s Hill includes chapters containing episodes from Roman Britain. Her close reading of these two writers contributes to the current reading of Kipling as something more than the apologist for empire and reflects his conflicted view of identity and politics in Sutcliff’s writing for the implied child reader of post-war Britain.

Finally, Sheila Murnaghan examines two British women writers (Mary Butts and Naomi Mitchison) and their use of classical themes in their historical fiction. These themes, she argues, reflect their personal development in their formative years and an interest in the dominant cultural movements of the time such as the Cambridge ritualists. This constitutes a different kind of reception of the classical world which is outside the academic realm, but which is nevertheless indicative of the cultural atmosphere of the time of composition. Far from being a simplification of the ancient world, this investigation can show clearly the conflicting motivations of such reception more clearly than straightforward scholarship, which is also subject to its own agendas. This chapter and the chapter on the classical broadcasts on the BBC open up new fields in the area of reception of Classics in the twentieth century.

This is a well-edited volume of interest to a wide range of readers with a superb reproduction of an Eric Fraser illustration for the Radio Times on the dust jacket well worth having on its own.


Leanne Hunnings, “Spartacus in nineteenth-century England: Proletarian, Pole and Christ”

Stephen Harrison, “Some Victorian versions of Greco-Roman epic”

Elizabeth Vandiver, “Classics in British poetry of the First World War”

Amanda Wrigley, “Stages of imagination: Greek plays on BBC Radio”

Ruth Hazel, “Sparagmos and female power on the late twentieth-century British stage”

Lorna Hardwick, “Decolonising the mind? Controversial productions of Greek drama in post-colonial England, Scotland and Ireland”

Deborah Roberts, “Reconstructed pasts: Rome and Britain, child and adult in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical fiction”

Sheila Murnaghan, “The memorable past: antiquity and girlhood in the works of Mary Butts and Naomi Mitchison”