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  • Troy, Carthage and the Victorians: The Drama of Classical Ruins in the Nineteenth-Century Imagination by Rachel Bryant Davies
  • David Mayer

Rachel Bryant Davies's Troy, Carthage and the Victorians is best recognized as a significant work of British cultural history. Davies has set herself the task of illuminating how the milieux and characters described in Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid percolated into varying levels of British understandings of the ancient world—both before and after Heinrich Schliemann identified the site of Troy in 1873. Her timeline extends from 1715 to 1912, from Alexander Pope's translation of the first volume of the Iliad to the publication of Mary Macgregor's The Story of Rome for Boys and Girls. Davies accomplishes her mission by concurrently interrogating, first, the debate as to whether historic Troy ever existed or whether it was the stuff of myth and poetic imagination; and, second, given this uncertainty, whether public money should be spent funding excavations. In pursuit of these concerns, she cites early maps which explicitly follow Homer's topography and discusses how these first attempts to locate Troy fed into scientific speculations about the new protocols of archaeology. She also explores how these concerns manifested in journalism and a range of publications—some reaching highbrow, formally educated readers, some leveled at middle-class and working-class readers—and in later chapters considers how painters and sculptors incorporated Troy and Carthage in their works.

At the base of her cultural model is the British popular theatre. Here, she chronicles the diffusion and awareness of Troy and Carthage as they were depicted in numerous burlesque dramas. These stage pieces, set in the ancient classical world, were performed at venues ranging from the Surrey Theatre and Astley's Amphitheatre on the Thames' Southbank to the Olympic, Lyceum, Adelphi, and Strand theatres. These burlesques, intended to mock and parody dramas at the West End's "legitimate" playhouses, often travestied the behaviour and genders of Homeric heroes and deities, and often set transgressive lyrics to well-known airs and melodies from recent operas.

An inevitable response to these parodies came from irate critics who questioned the education and class of the dramatic authors whom they repeatedly found grossly deficient in knowledge of Homer and Virgil. Indignant journalist-critics then went on to question the social classes of the audiences these dramas attracted. While some more understanding critics applauded the burlesques, other critics were overtly snobbish in their attacks upon dramatists and audiences. In response to the more hostile of these journalists, Davies is able to note the increase in educated or partly educated middle classes in the theatres—spectators who to some extent knew of the Iliad and for whom knowledge of the ancient world was too serious to ridicule. Yet to view onstage what was ordinarily revered suddenly turned into a matter of fun and mockery briefly condoned shocked relief and laughter. Davies understands that although these parodies mocked and to some degree temporarily diminished the original works, parodies also recovered and preserved and updated their subjects.

This is a path marked by classicists Maria Wyke and Fiona Macintosh, by British historian Jeffrey Richards and, dare I say it, myself. All have found the British stage a means of integrating the ancient classical world within the Victorian topocosm. However, much of this earlier work focuses on the biblical world and on the Roman Empire. Davies is unique in concentrating on Troy and Carthage and, [End Page 400] although these cities had already been referenced in tragedy, such as Ambrose Philips's The Distress'd Mother, and opera in Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate's Dido and Aeneas, she is also unique in choosing burlesque dramas as the lens through which to view the diffusion of Homeric and Virgilian narratives.

The material available for such a study is not uniformly available or necessarily reliable as evidence of how productions were staged. Burlesques written before the Theatres Act of 1843 were licensed by local magistrates rather than the Lord Chamberlain...


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pp. 400-401
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