- Victorian Classical Burlesques: A Critical Anthology by Laura Monrós-Gaspar
Laura Monrós-Gaspar's annotated text is a welcome addition to the few published collections on Victorian burlesque, including those compiled by Richard W. Schoch, W. D. Adams, and by the Historical Libretto Series. To date, it is also the only one of its kind focused exclusively on Victorian classical burlesques—that is, theatrical travesties rooted in classical Greek and Roman texts and Victorian sensibilities.
As Monrós-Gaspar argues in the first section, classical burlesques moved between classical and Victorian mythologies and are, therefore, best understood "en masse" rather than as "solitary cases, exemplify[ing] … the social correlation of collective imaginaries and articular cultural and social realities" (8). The frequent use of topical humor may have immediately assigned these texts an expiration date in the public imagination, but considered as a larger body of work, Victorian classical burlesques offer a complex picture of cultural anxieties and ideological warfare. The four plays in this collection cover a wide range of political and cultural topics under hot debate in Victorian England. The author's significant focus on gender, though resisting any overessentialized reading of these burlesques as overtly political or revolutionary, also demonstrates that [End Page 351] "the ambivalence of the politics of burlesque with regard to women gives voice to transgressive moulds which remained concealed in other cultural representations" (12).
The book is divided into five parts. The first section, "Why Classical Burlesque?: Enacting the Past and Present," offers important historical context for the popularity of classical work on the Victorian burlesque stage and the inherent familiarity audiences had for classical mythology and themes. This section also outlines Monrós-Gaspar's major justifications for the particular burlesque selections included in this anthology. The texts chosen were first staged between 1845 and 1859, the time in which classical burlesques experienced their greatest level of popularity. These texts also exhibit the key conventions of Victorian classical burlesque, many of which characterize other burlesques in the same period, as well as twentieth-century burlesque practices, including the use of dance, physical comedy, metatheatricality, parodies of famous classical passages, heightened theatricality and spectacle, and, as the author quotes Schoch, "traffic … in topical allusions" (9).
The following four sections each include a play accompanied by detailed annotations of sociohistorical commentary, including performance history, topical references, and slang. Situating each script in conversation with its particular historical production history is, in some ways, this anthology's greatest contribution to the field. In Edward L. Blanchard's Antigone Travestie, Sophocles's Antigone is retold in a shortened, parodic form that, most significantly, juxtaposes the familiar mythology with ruminations on the "Woman Question" as it permeated Victorian culture. Blanchard's Antigone, for example, intones a rhyming couplet: "Oh, silly belle, your language is a fiction/The diction of our sex is Contra-diction" (66). The annotation of this playtext reminds us that, to further complicate a reading of gender politics in this production, Antigone was played by the male actor George Wild. The second play in this collection, Alcestis, the Original Strong-Minded Woman, by Francis Talfourd, builds upon Euripides's version of the myth. In the burlesque, Alcestis regrets having ever married Admetus, who is "such a milksop" and looks forward to her trip to the Underworld (112). As the annotation notes, "strong-minded" operated as a Victorian shorthand for a "type" of woman—spinsterly and professionally independent. The third play, Robert Brough's Medea, or, the Best of Mothers, with a Brute of a Husband, is of particular note for the cross-gender casting in its premiere: Orpheus and Jason were played by two female actors and Medea by a male actor. The stage directions and allusions to circus entertainment in this script would also be especially interesting to scholars of popular entertainment stagecraft. The fourth and final play is Francis Talfourd's Electra in a New Electric [End Page 352] Light, which refashions Sophocles's Electra in the figurative glow of the newly minted electric light technology with which...