BMCR 2014.11.29

Louis MacNeice: The Classical Radio Plays. Classical presences

, , Louis MacNeice: The Classical Radio Plays. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. vi, 436. ISBN 9780199695232. $125.00.


This volume is effectively an editio princeps, at least in printed book form, of eleven pieces written by the poet Louis MacNeice for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) between the early 1940s and the early 1960s. After an introductory essay by Wrigley (‘From Wartime Propaganda to Radio Plays’—somewhat odd, as these are not mutually exclusive classes), we have:

The March of the 10,000 (1941)
The Glory that is Greece (1941)
Pericles (1943)
The Golden Ass (1944)
Cupid and Psyche (1944)
A Roman Holiday (1944)
Enter Caesar (1946)
Enemy of Cant (1946)
Trimalchio’s Feast (1948)
Carpe Diem (1956)
Hades (1960)

As most of the words in this book are MacNeice’s, and unfamiliar to most, it may be in order to begin with his contribution to it. In his best-known poem, Autumn Journal (1938-9), MacNeice had, as Wrigley points out in her introduction, mocked the more simplistic view that the Classics were—well, classics; deathless works whose intrinsic quality transcended time and place, the recognition of which was the mark of a superior mind. Equally, he had mocked the intellectual opportunism of ‘chop[ping] the Ancient World to turn a sermon’. The Second World War, it seems, changed his mind somewhat. The three earliest plays— The March of the 10,000 (1941), The Glory that is Greece (1941), and Pericles (1943)—are all what the BBC at the time describes plainly as ‘propaganda’: (‘MARIA: We are still in the stage of Thermopylae. ANGELICE: But some day we shall have a Salamis,’ etc.). However, as the editors note, MacNeice even at this juncture is reluctant to be trapped entirely by this approach, to the point of considering (if briefly) whether an Athenian/British Empire was really such a good thing after all.

The next two pieces, The Golden Ass and Cupid and Psyche, are very different, being essentially adaptations of Apuleius. While some ‘wartime’ features stand out, the overall tone is light, escapist even. A fin de guerre mood creeps in with A Roman Holiday (January 1945), in which listeners are invited to identify the ‘spiritually ill’ world of the Augustan age with that of the present—and to look forward to ‘something … happening somewhere … on the Rhine or the Danube, in Spain or in Judaea … to bring us light in our darkness’. This ‘spiritual illness’ is partly due to the extinction of the Republic, and as such of course to be identified with the rise of the dictators in Europe, but is also the malaise of the thinking person in any age of expediency. Enter Caesar is more explicitly contemporary, ‘present[ing] Caesar,’ as the editors say, ‘as embodying the problems and negative consequences of dictatorships’. Yet if the play reads at times like an attempt to shoehorn a School Certificate syllabus into seventy-five minutes of airtime, it does at least avoid the more obvious forms of moralizing; MacNeice does not content himself with the observation that dictators are Bad Things, but concentrates rather on the failings in a more or less democratic system which leads to their rise. Enemy of Cant invites us to admire Aristophanes (first played by Dylan Thomas) as just that, specializing in ‘escape fantasy’ (in MacNeice’s words) for ‘a war-weary generation’. Trimalchio’s Feast (1948), another close adaptation, may be seen as a bien-pensant tract for the times, ridiculing the successful businessman of modest background.

There is then an interval of eight years till Carpe Diem, in which Quintus, a dying Englishman of a certain class, quotes lots of Horace. There is a shift in mood here. Where MacNeice previously had stressed both the value of classics in the public space and the importance of fresh, politically committed interpretations of them, we have here a sympathetic presentation of a man whose literary sympathies lie close to those of Patrick Wilkinson’s Horace and his Lyric Poetry of ten years earlier, as memorably demolished by Eduard Fraenkel.1 The final piece, ’Hades’ (1960), is not really a play at all, but a retelling effectively a translation, and an excellent one, of Odysseus’ visit to the Underworld from the Odyssey. Here any sense of the public and political is so faint as to be virtually undetectable; the editors suggest rather that his choice of the Anticleia episode for dramatization might reflect his own loss of his mother as a child.

So much for MacNeice’s work. What of the editor’s contribution? The sheer labour of producing transcriptions, often involving multiple versions of scripts and multiple recordings, must have been considerable in itself. Some attempt is made to describe significant variations between different forms of the text, though this stops short of an apparatus criticus in the familiar sense. Apart from Wrigley’s very serviceable general introduction, the editors provide about half a dozen pages of background material to each of MacNeice’s piece. These typically cover the literary sources and analogues ancient and modern, the immediate context of the original production (sometimes also information on subsequent productions), details of casting and musical accompaniment. These essays are without exception lucid and informative. The editors clearly have an excellent knowledge between them of mid-century British radio and theatre. There is much instructive material, and some pleasant surprises (thus Denys Hawthorne, Cupid in the 1966 version of Cupid and Psyche, may be better known as Bishop Facks from Father Ted thirty years later). There is often also useful material from the Radio Times (the BBC’s own listings guide-cum-magazine), including some rather fine illustrations by Eric Fraser, which had this reviewer googling for more. (Surprisingly, though, there seems to be nothing from The Listener, the Radio Times ’s now-defunct upmarket sibling). On some pieces we have extracts from the BBC’s own Listener Research Reports, revealing evidence of how MacNeice’s work was received, and by whom. Although Teachers, Solicitors, Medical Practitioners, Doctor’s Wives and so on seem to be rather well represented among the respondents, there are enough occasional Fitters and Clerks to remind us of the sheer pervasiveness of the BBC’s radio output at the time. We note also how intelligent and nuanced this audience reaction could be.

All in all, then, the editors are to be congratulated on their all-round coverage. In general, Harrison has been ‘primarily responsible’ for editing the works most directly based on specific classical texts and Wrigley those dealing with classical themes more broadly; but the joins are not conspicuous. If the volume has a weakness, it is in the explanatory notes. We should perhaps note that the editors do not claim that these are in any way exhaustive. We should note too the recent criticism of the whole rhetoric of the commentary as a repository of objective information on every subject in which the reader might have a legitimate interest—a increasingly-problematic rhetoric in the age of the ubiquitous smartphone and the host of factoids usually available at a moment’s notice. Allowances must be made too for the diverse potential readerships; this volume will be read by classicists of different varieties, English Lit. types, historians of broadcasting, native and non-native speakers of (British) English. Granted all this, we would still note three peculiarities about the notes in this volume.

Firstly, there is an oddly hit-and-miss approach to picking up references to other texts. Shakespeare is well handled in A Roman Holiday and elsewhere, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer less so; and some identifications are rather casually made. Thus in Cupid and Psyche the phrase ‘if anyone knows just cause or impediment’ certainly recalls the Prayer Book’s ‘If any of you know cause, or just impediment’, but is not quite the same. The editors have, of course, got the main point absolutely right; but details do matter too. The same holds good for classical texts. Thus the editors note rightly the comic reductivism of the representation of Venus in Cupid and Psyche, but not the contrast between this and the strongly Lucretian way in which she is presented (‘It is I … I who governs [sic] the lofty lights of the sky, the life-giving winds of the sea, and the sad silence of Hell’); this is not comically reductive, but the opposite. Or again, when Clodia and Clodius greet each other as ‘my darling brother’ and ‘my darling sister’ ( Enter Caesar, p. 227) the notes refer us to Pro Caelio 35, rather than the more pertinent Pro Caelio 32 ( fratre volui dicere; semper hic erro).

Secondly, the contextual information is offered likewise uneven. At times it is excellent. I would single out The Glory that is Greece (a guest contribution by Gonda van Steen) as particularly good; one must respect a commentator who can trace back a line of MacNeice to J. Talboys Wheeler’s Analysis and Summary of Herodotus from 1852. At other times—and given some of things we are told in the footnotes (Giuseppe Garibaldi was ‘a very popular Italian freedom fighter’)—it seems odd that apparently important matters go unremarked. For instance, MacNeice’s Pericles was broadcast as one of a series on ‘The Four Freedoms’, early in 1943, so just over two years after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous ‘Four Freedoms’ speech; we have a reference in a footnote to a doctoral dissertation which presumably makes this link, but no more. Again, a reference to a ‘Sabine Farm in the Constable country’ (p. 371) elicits a footnote citing Horace, Satires 2.6 (though not Odes 3.1); fair enough, but how transparent is the reference to ‘Constable country’ to non-British readers? Or again, in A Roman Holiday, Gorgias’ invocation of ‘Thirty years peace’ (p. 188)—obviously resonant in 1945—is particularly ominous in the mouth of a Greek (the Thirty Years Peace famously lasting from 446/5-432). No doubt the classicist will not need assistance on this point; but the non-classicist may.

Lastly, some critical judgements are just odd. Thus the central moment of A Roman Holiday, the slave-girl Philinna’s critique of her master and his friends, may perhaps be taken to ‘expose […] the vulnerability of the female slave at Rome,’ though it is hard to see how a twentieth-century text can really be cited as a good source for the position of Roman slave-women (it is hard to imagine Graves’ Claudius novels treated this way). However, its (uncited) model, Davus’ speech at Horace, Satires 2.7, exposes rather the vulnerability of any slave. Likewise, Carpe Diem (p. 375) contains four lines of verse on the sinking of the Titanic which are, we are told, ‘an abbreviated ironic paraphrase’ (alias ‘a brief parody’) of Horace, Odes 1.1.37-40. But it seems equally likely that the poem is what MacNeice presents it as being—a genuine piece of folk-poetry with coincidental parallels in Horace, implicitly illustrating the Roman poet’s remarkable ability find new relevance in unlikely times and places.

It would be ungenerous to end on a critical note; in any case, no doubt Wrigley’s forthcoming volume Greece on Air. Engagements with Ancient Greek Culture on BBC Radio will address many of these issues. MacNeice’s many admirers will be grateful to Harrison and Wrigley for having put these works into their hands. Reception scholars of various stripes (and it is increasingly hard to speak of reception as a single field of study) will find much here to enrich their understanding of the position of the Classics in mid-twentieth-century Britain.

The volume appears to be well produced, with only a handful of apparent typos: ‘antifatist’ (p. 53); probably ‘Roger Snowden’ (p. 103, for ‘Snowdon’); ‘MUMURING’ (p. 148, ter); ‘the Mouse’ (p. 378, for ‘the Meuse’). There is an Appendix on Extant Scripts and Recordings, a bibliography, and a short index.


1. Fraenkel, E. (1946). Review of L. P. Wilkinson, Horace and his Lyric Poetry, in Journal of Roman Studies 36.1-12, pp. 185-9: ‘This is a pleasant little book. It can be recommended to all who wish to brush up their school-day recollections of Horace and enjoy him again without being shocked by unfamiliar aspects … ‘.