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185 Dionysus:TheVictorian Outcast J. Mich a el Wa lton • The plays of a period offer one of the best guides to the tastes, mores, and preoccupations of their time.The Victorian theatre in England may have been a vibrant source of entertainment for all classes, but, until its latter years, it was not especially distinguished for its dramatic repertoire of original plays or European imports.The nineteenth century did prove a hugely fruitful period for translation of the classics of the Greek theatre—comfortably over two hundred separate publications from the tragedies alone—but virtually none had any prospect of production or, indeed, much awareness of the performance imperative of the original Greek texts. In the light of such a bias toward the drama as literature, it should not be surprising to find marginalized the god Dionysus’s Athenian function as god of the theatre. It is that function that I wish to revisit here, initially by considering some of the history of the plays’ translation and then by concentrating on the one Greek tragedy in which Dionysus features as a central character, Euripides’ Bacchae. During the nineteenth century, particular Greek tragedies became increasingly popular in print—a popularity that owed nothing to their performance potential. Until the arrival of the Potsdam Antigone (in English translation, with music by Mendelssohn) at Covent Garden in January 1845, there had been only a single “direct” translation of a Greek tragedy on the English professional stage, as opposed to original dramas invoking a classical source. That direct translation, Richard West’s Euripides’ Hecuba, was performed at Drury Lane in 1726. “I foresaw there would be some Difficulty in making it agreeable in its original Purity, to the taste of an English Audience,” stated West in his introduction to the printed version. How right he was, with the curtain coming down prematurely as a result of “a Rout of Vandals in the Galleries” (West iv).This is not to suggest any lack of interest in classical themes within the English theatre from the Restoration onward, details of which have been thoroughly catalogued by Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh (2006), but, asWest anticipated, it was to be a long time before any taste was cultivated among English audiences for actual translations from the Greek. In contrast, the early history of published translation of the classical repertoire boasts a strong pedigree for the complete tragedies, from Sophocles (Adams 1729), Aeschylus (Potter 1777), and Euripides (Potter again, exclud- victorian review • Volume 34 Number 2 186 ing Cyclops, 1781 and 1783, andWodhull 1782), all complementing numbers of single translations that reach back as far as the mid-sixteenth century, with Lady Jane Lumley’s TheTragedie of Euripides called Iphigeneia translated out of Greake into Englisshe.The then-known canon (the first complete Menander dates from as recently as 1957) was not completed until 1837, when publication of Charles Wheelwright’s The Comedies ofAristophanes coincided, surely serendipitously, with Victoria’s accession to the throne.To describe these two volumes as the“completeAristophanes ,” however, is to ignore the fact thatWheelwright was decidedly uncomfortable with much of the material, as had been more eclectic earlier translators or adapters of individual plays.Wheelwright’s Lysistrata resorts to lines of asterisks to mark, in the name of decency, expurgated passages of up to twenty-five and thirty lines.At line 883 in his version (his line numberings overrun the original Greek), he can stomach the naughty bits no longer and simply announces,“Omitted from line 828–1215” (original numbering).This is approaching a third of the entire play, though such bowdlerization is hardly surprising for 1837, bearing in mind that the main scene in this missing section occurs between Myrrhine and her husband and revolves in graphic detail around his sexual frustration. During the years of Victoria’s reign, translation of the classical tragedians took off. Between 1837 and 1901, there were at least twenty-six new Agamemnons with which to compare “The Browning Version” of 1877.1 The same period saw almost as many new translations of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and of Euripides’ Alcestis. The most popular plays were those that have always been regarded as the plums of classical drama...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 185-199
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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