BMCR 2020.03.56

Victorian epic burlesques: a critical anthology of nineteenth-century theatrical entertainments after Homer

Rachel Bryant Davies, Victorian epic burlesques: a critical anthology of nineteenth-century theatrical entertainments after Homer. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception . London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, . xi, 284 p.. ISBN 9781350027176 £73.44.


Victorian Epic Burlesques presents a good cross-section of classically inspired 19th century popular stage-entertainment: the volume includes the full text of four Homeric burlesques written and performed between the years 1819 and 1865. The editor, Rachel Bryant Davies, provides meticulous annotation to each of the plays and, by means of a long general introduction and headnotes to the individual texts, helps to situate them and their authors in the varied cultural contexts of their age. This beautifully presented volume (the cover features a scenic theatre backdrop by Orlando Hodgson) is ground-breaking in providing access to, and critical commentary of, a group of hitherto little-known texts, and thereby allowing readers a glimpse into the presence and uses of the Classics (more specifically, Homer) in Victorian society.

Burlesques and extravaganzas, with their exuberance (in text, style, and performance) and their unapologetic interest in the topical and local, seem to be a far cry from the lofty universality sometimes expected from the revered classics. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that far from being simply anachronistic or inauthentic, these popular pieces often provided an intriguing and often surprisingly perceptive view of the ancient world. As Fiona Macintosh has pointed out, the “hugely popular burlesques of Greek tragedy” in 19th-century London were “paradoxically, the most effective and accessible way into tragic form.”[1] In recognition of their cultural significance, in 2015 Bloomsbury published a collection of tragic burlesques edited by Laura Monrós-Gaspar.[2] In a similar way, the Homeric burlesques in Bryant Davies’ volume, besides being entertaining, offer witty, and often unexpectedly ‘epic’ adaptations of key Homeric scenes, often ironically reflecting on traditional interpretations of Homer in British culture (from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida to Alexander Pope’s translations).

The first chapter of the volume (‘Classical Burlesque and Homeric Epic’) is a comprehensive introduction to the world of Victorian burlesques inspired by the Homeric epics. Working from archival material such as playbills, advertisements, reviews, or contemporary illustrations, Bryant Davies calls attention to both the commercial and the wider cultural aspects of such burlesques (they were clearly profitable, and provided the means for the elite to “satirize itself playfully” (4)). Both the Iliad and the Odyssey seem to have been central to the Victorians’ cultural imagination: critical wars were raging around the ‘Homeric question’ and the Ossianic epics, there was growing interest in the topography and archaeology of ancient Greek epic, and the wide availability of new translations (in cheap editions) as well as the presence of some influential retellings (such as Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque) sparked the general public’s curiosity about all things Homeric. Catering for an audience of “wide social range” and bringing a new satiric edge to epic parody, Homeric burlesques proved to be instant hits, yet they were also (predictably) divisive among critics: responses ranged from the enthusiastic to the explicitly indignant (14–15). Burlesques were inevitably compared to the ancient texts on which they were based, but critics also contrasted them with each other, sometimes such comparisons reach across decades (17). The plays themselves also encouraged such comparisons through a variety of intertheatrical allusions which included the use of anachronistic costumes, a wide range of musical genres and styles, or, disturbingly for the modern reader, the “casual, unthinking racism” of blackface acts (18–23).

In this edition, the burlesques appear in chronological order by premiere date and are each preceded by Bryant Davies’ headnotes on textual history and the biography of the authors. Commentary is presented in grey boxes at the bottom of the page: the notes provide essential information on the plethora of contemporary and historical references, some of which are hopelessly arcane for the modern reader. The range of allusions from Greek epic through English literature to contemporary arts (music, painting) politics, or even commercial products, is clearly daunting, but Bryant Davies does an admirable job by providing succinct explanations and, where necessary, references to other works and relevant criticism. The volume is usefully complemented by online resources that provide access to textual variants and a selection of contemporary reviews. Overall, the presentation of the text and the commentary is clear and reader-friendly, but a few typos seemed to have slipped through editing process (e.g. “Huntingdon Library” on p. 32; or “Who art though” for “Who art thou” on p. 133).

The four burlesques in the volume were composed by authors of different interests and cultural backgrounds, and they are also set apart by decades. However, there are certain staple features that characterize all of them. Metatheatrical elements are pervasive: the first scene of Thomas Dibdin’s Melodrama Mad!; or the Siege of Troy (1819), for example, is set in a theatre in which a manager, critic, and author are discussing what to put on stage, while in Robert B. Brough’s Iliad; or the Siege of Troy (1858) Homer himself is brought on stage to interfere in the plot. Another general characteristic is the strong presence of music and singing in the forms of solo airs, duets, or choruses, many of them borrowed from contemporary musical entertainments from ballads to operas. In a similar way, characters’ speeches are often interspersed with allusions to, sometimes verbatim quotations of, classics of English literature and the English stage: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Troilus and Cressida stand out as chief intertexts, but Pope’s Homer and Byron’s Manfred are also prominent points of reference. But for the 21st century reader the most conspicuous, and one of the amusing features of these plays is their persistent use of anachronisms. Battles are fought on velocipeds, postmen appear (in Dibdin’s Melodrama Mad!); Calypso, too fond of spirits, decides to start a “female temperance society” (in James Robinson Planché’s Telemachos; or the Island of Calypso (1834)); the dying Hector prophesies to Achilles: “They’ll make you, I’ve no doubt, a K.C.B. [i.e. a “Knight Commander of the Bath”, a British order of chivalry]” (in Brough’s Iliad); and the news agency Reuter’s is evoked (in Sir Francis Cowley Burnand’s Ulysses; or the Iron-Clad Warrior, and the Little Tug of War (1865)), etc. The less transparent of these anachronistic references, together with slang words and by-now-arcane puns, are duly glossed in the commentary.

How do these burlesques read after almost two centuries? They represent different approaches to the traditional material: while in the earlier pieces ancient myth seems to be more  a pretext for the fireworks of jokes and puns, in Brough’s Iliadand Burnand’s Ulysses, there seems to be (for the present reviewer at least) a closer focus on, and a deeper engagement with, the Homeric texts. All the burlesques are amusing and often witty, but their exuberance, which must have guaranteed their success on the 19th century stage, might sometimes “prove too entertaining” for the modern reader—to use the words of Dibdin’s Jupiter (90). Nonetheless, they certainly open a window to a largely unexplored field of classical reception and will thus be of great interest to both classicists and scholars of 19th century English literature.


[1] Fiona Macintosh, “Shakespearean Sophocles: (Re)-discovering and Performing Greek Tragedy in the Nineteenth Century” in Norman Vance and Jennifer Wallace, eds., The Oxford History of Classical Reception. Volume 4 (1790–1880). Oxford: OUP, 2015, 299–324, 312.

[2] Laura Monrós-Gaspar, ed., Victorian Classical Burlesques: A Critical Anthology London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.