VICTORIAN CLASSICAL BURLESQUES: A Critical Anthology

By Laura Monrós-Gaspar

Bloomsbury (2015) p/b 298pp £19.99 (ISBN 9781472537867)

This anthology is restricted to four burlesques from the 1840s and 50s, the texts of which occupy the bulk of the book. The selection sheds light on the way burlesque raised social issues and in particular the ‘Woman Question’. Antigone, Alcestis, Medea and Electra are a fearsome foursome to metamorphose into popular comic drama but in burlesque it is not surprising to find happy endings: when her knife is changed into a jester’s bauble, Medea asks, ‘Who’s been employing magic and cajolery/To change my serious business to tom-foolery?’ The play ends with Glauce/Creusa and the children alive and well. Dialogue fizzes along with outrageous rhymes and extravagant flourishes. When they see Electra, Pylades and Orestes exchange: P: ‘Hey!’ O: ‘Aye!’ P: ‘Why?’ O: ‘No.’ P: ‘Oh! O: It cannot be/That form! Yes – I’m not deceived! ’Tis she’. In Antigone there’s a line reminiscent of Monty Python’s dead parrot: ‘What, dead, defunct, gone, bolted, mizzled quite’ while in Medea Orpheus’ powers are heralded for moving tables, sofas, clocks, bedsteads; or for making weasels go ‘pop’. And they are praised by ‘cats, rats, bats, gnats, sprats, periwinkles, salmon’. Comic lists are used sparingly compared to the almost ubiquitous word play. Be prepared for some punitive punning such as ‘evidence’ and ‘heavy density’, ‘rex’ and ‘wrecks’, ‘detonator’ and ‘debt o’natur’, ‘apparel’ and ‘without a parallel’. Some is even more contrived, as Hermon (sic) to Antigone: ‘You will not die alone, when they come hither/They’ll say I took my leaves, and they did with her.’ Some is particularly pertinent, as when Antigone reminds Ismene, ‘the diction of our sex is contra-diction.’ Some should have been axed: the prologue to Electra tells us Agamemnon was killed ‘with/an axe (an –acc-ident which possibly anticipated for him/his Homeric title (Αν-αξ ανδρων Αγαμεμνων)’. [Noises off perhaps, but a Greek pun in the popular theatre!].

Helpful notes are supplied below the texts. These cover topical allusions to theatre history, popular culture and contemporary events. They also explain classical references, offer lexical help with Latin and English, especially Victorian slang, puns and dated English usage. They don’t cover every reference: e.g. to Ophelia in Hamlet (‘dips [glass] of fashion, and the moulds of form’) or Burns (‘My heart’s in my high-lows [the highlands] wherever I go’), though ‘high-lows’ is noted as a pun. Textual notes are given at the end of each play, and the introduction concludes with brief textual histories. All survive in manuscript form, but this is the first printed edition of Blanchard’s Antigone. The introduction, academic in nature and consequently sometimes hard going, sets the plays in context, both in the development of the genre (there’s a 3 page list of Classical Burlesques) and its relation to the social changes of the period. Some attention is paid to assessing the penetration of classical knowledge in popular culture. As M-G concludes ‘classical burlesque linked arts with life, Greek tragedy with popular culture and the past with the present of women’s life in Britain. And it is still very funny.

Alan Beale

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