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People's Classics at the London Fairs
By the first decade of the 18th century, therefore, the study of ancient Roman and Greek authors had acquired the title by which we know it today, a set of desirable textbooks, and a status and role as the basis of the intellectual, cultural and moral education of the English (from 1707 the British) gentleman. This accompanied a new taste for the antique in other spheres than education. But the Classics were also being accessed differently, by city-dwellers of all social classes, in popular entertainments, some of which had transparently subversive overtones in terms of their celebration of working-class identity and self-fashioning. In particular, the working classes of London were given access to rowdy versions of canonical classical epic at their summer fairs.
The painted board at the centre of Hogarth’s famous ‘Southwark Fair’ (painted in 1733 and engraved in 1734 or 1735) reads ‘The Siege of Troy is here’ (Figure 2.3). Hogarth had always been interested in the way that classical culture could be commodified. He opens his memoirs with the sad picture of his father, a classical scholar of repute, plunging his family into poverty after the failure of his project for a Latin dictionary.60 Fairground theatre was a better business prospect. The show Hogarth portrays, performed amidst other colourful entertainments, was Elkanah Settle’s ‘droll’, The Siege of Troy;M the woman just left of centre ‘drumming up’ business is either Mrs Mynn, the entrepreneurial show-woman who produced it, or her daughter Mrs Lee. In the droll, the Trojans, led by a plebeian cobbler named Bristle, survive the siege of Troy and hold a carousal. It was a favourite at the London Fairs from its premiere at Bartholomew Fair, probably in 1698, until at least 1734, when it was performed by two different companies—one of them using puppets—at Southwark Fair.
Settle had been a successful playwright. His productions had included a Restoration drama on a Herodotean theme, Cambyses (1666).62 But he fell out of
FIGURE 2.3 ‘Southwark Fair’ by William Hogarth (1733), from Hogarth (1833) 110, reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection.
favour and shortage of funds drove him to accept the post of London ‘City Poet’, responsible for producing the pageants of the Lord Mayor’s Show.63 City pageants and fairground theatricals had much in common, besides their outdoor setting. The Lord Mayor’s Show was traditionally held on October 29th. Contemporary sources speak of cartoonish images of faces stuck on windows, candle-lit balconies, and waves of soldiers, clowns and Company men in livery—vintners, brewers, butchers and apothecaries—-jostling to take precedence in the procession, carrying symbols of their crafts.64 Mumming and colourful costumes abounded: preparations for one of Settle’s shows are described thus in 1705 by the satirist Thomas Brown:
City-Poet instructing his Gods and Goddesses all the Morning, how to behave themselves in a Pageant, and welcome my Lord-Mayor. Cooks busie in raising Pye-crust Fortifications, which the Heroes of Cheap-side will storm most manfully next Day.65
Dead cats and joints of meat were hurled. Caged lions were displayed at the Tower and mad people at Bedlam. The mob could become riotous.66 The atmosphere was similar to that of Bartholomew Fair, in the early 1700s still the largest fair. Its ancient function—to serve as a textile market—had largely been replaced, reports the eye-witness, by ‘rioting and unlimited licence’. He describes ‘the rumbling of Drums, mix’d with the intolerable Squalling of the Cat Calls and Penny Trumpets ... the Singeing of Pigs, and burnt Crackling of over Roasted Pork’.67 From the upper floor of ale houses visitors enjoyed a view of the booths, and the actors ‘strutting around their Balconies in their Tinsey Robes, and Golden Leather Buskins’; typical entertainments were rope-acrobats, sword-dancers, horse-vaulters, ‘monstrous’ freaks of nature (three-breasted women, three-legged cockerels) and performing dwarves.68
Fairground theatricals were a particular attraction since the two licensed theatres were closed during the fairs. As in Hogarth’s picture, the booths offered a variety of entertainments. Mrs Mynn (or Mynns/Minns) ran a troupe ofstrolling players who certainly performed at the Cock-Pit in Epsom in 1708 and claimed to have performed ‘at Windsor for the Entertainment of the Nobility’.69 It is unknown when they first worked with Settle, but Theophilus Cibber states that he was
the best contriver of machinery in England and for many years of the latter part of his life received an annual salary from Mrs Minns and her daughter Mrs Leigh, for writing Drolls for Bartholomew and Southwark Fairs, with proper decorations, which were generally so well contrived, that they exceeded those of their opponents in the same profession.71’
The poet Dryden died on 12th May 1700. But he had lived to endure seeing Settle exploit the success of his own masterful translation of the Aeneid (1697), the publication of which had been nothing short of‘a national event’.71 Settle’s Trojan droll premiered in 1698 or 1699. There are two versions of the first printed edition of 1707. They claim respectively that its text represents the version of this ‘Dramatick Performance’, presented in Mrs. Mynn’s Great Booth, ‘over against the Hospital-Gate in the Rounds in Smithfield, during the Time of the Present Bartholomew-Fair’ (i.e. in late August 1707) and ‘in the Queens-Arms-Yard, near Marshallsea-Gate in Southwark, during the Time of the Fair’ (i.e. in early September). (Figure 2.4.) But both texts have an identical preface ‘To the Reader’ informing us that The Siege of Troy ‘made its first entry now Nine Years Since in Bartholomew Fair’. The current production is the third, and has had so much money and labour spent upon it that it is not inferior to any of the ‘operas’ performed in the Royal Theatres.72
The Siege of Troy has been called the ‘most remarkable of the Bartholomew-Fair dramas which found their way into print’.73 Its spectacular effects were agreed to have exceeded those of any other spectacle.74 These effects, including the elephants, castles, temple and chariots, are carefully reconstructed from original sources in Sybil Rosenfeld’s pathbreaking study The Theatre of the London Fairs in the 18th Century.15 The script is fascinating in its subversive treatment of heroic epic and classical mythology. It enacts the Troy story as related in Aeneid II from the arrival at Troy of the wooden horse and the self-mutilated Sinon to the burning of the city and the Greeks’ departure. The aristocratic and divine
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FIGURE 2.4 Title page of Elkanah Settle’s The Siege of Troy (1707), reproduced by courtesy ofThe British Library.
characters speak rhyming iambic couplets as they do in Dryden’s Aeneid translation. Those from the Greek camp are Menelaus, Ulysses and Sinon; in Troy there are Paris, Helen, Cassandra and Venus. But a sense of how packed Mrs Mynn’s booth platforms must have become, as indicated in Hogarth’s depiction, is conveyed by the other 53 cast members listed under ‘Actors’ Names’:
A numerous Train of Trojan Mob, Spectators of the Wooden Horse and Actors through the Play ... Three Persons drest in Gold for Statues in Diana’s Temple. Nine Priests and Priestesses of Diana. Ten Persons richly drest, and Retinue of Paris and Helen. Twenty-two Officers, Guards and Trumpets, the Attendants of Menelaus. In the whole Fifty-three Persons drest, besides the Actors and Diana in the play.
The crucial element from the perspective of the droll’s socio-political impact is that ‘numerous Train of Trojan Mob’, whose identity as ‘Spectators of the Wooden Horse’ is shared with the external audience of the droll. Some of that
Mob have sizeable speaking parts, and these characters, although nominally Trojan, come over as working-class city-dwellers indistinguishable from Settle’s own public.
In 1614, Ben Jonson had laughed at the taste for introducing such a contemporary frame to classical mythical stories in the puppet-show in the final act of Bartholomew Fair, ‘The ancient moderne history of Hero, and Leander, otherwise called The Touchstone of true Loue, with as true a tryall of friendship, betweene Damon, and Pythias, two faithfull friends o’ the Bankside’ (Act V scene 3).76 Rosenfeld concludes that the ‘populace could not be trusted to stand too much of the classical legend even though it was accompanied by scenic marvels; the comedians had to be brought on to amuse them with the rough and tumble life they knew’.77 But another way of looking at the fusion of past and present in the world created by the droll is as a complex metatheatrical response, in a cross-class context, to the elite connotations of the classical material. There are two collectives responding to upper-class antique heroics, the Trojans within the play and the Londoners in the audience. The boundary between them is jeopardised.
In the second scene we are transported to ‘Bristle, a cobler, and his wife’. These lower-class Trojans speak raucous prose. Mrs Bristle wants to go and see the wooden horse, but her husband Tom Bristle objects to her leaving the house:78
IV: Well, I am resolv’d I will go abroad, and see this sight, though the Devil stay at home and piss out the Fire.
Br: Will you so! Then I’m resolv’d I’ll give your Whores Hide such a lick of Styrup Leather, till I make your own Devilship spit it out.
Fortunately for Mrs Bristle, the Trojan Mob enters and she escapes domestic violence. In a magnificent spectacle, Paris and Helen now appear riding in a ‘Triumphant Chariot’, drawn by elephants painted on the flats. Ten more painted elephants support ten castles crowded with richly dressed attendants, with a vista of Troy beyond. Paris and Helen admire each other in rhyming couplets. A crazed Cassandra enters to condemn the adulterous pair, before Venus descends in a swan-drawn chariot and the attendants sing a celestial chorus.79
In Act II, Ulysses and Sinon persuade the Trojan mob, now led by Bristle who has appointed himself their Captain, to breach the Trojan Walls and drag in the horse. Cassandra is distraught, and performs miracles designed to ‘preach bright Reason’ to Paris. The next spectacular scene ‘discovers the Temple of Diana’ at Troy, complete with eleven golden statues of the Olympian gods, including Diana, and a heavenly vista. When Paris and Helen arrive, Cassandra waves her wand, and the statues’ costumes miraculously turn black as the vista ‘is changed to a scene of Hell’. But only the audience and Cassandra can discern the truth of this transformation: Paris and the Priest see nothing altered, and agree that she is insane.80
The vertiginous alternation between heroic and demotic is underlined by the next scene change to a street in Troy. The Greek army, streaming out of the
Trojan horse, disperses to begin its work of destruction; Captain Bristle and the Mob, unaware of the danger, enter for a night of revelry and fantasies of social levelling:81
Enter Mob drunk.
1 Mob. Well, Captain, we have a tory rory Night on’t.
Cap. Ay Neighbour, the Noble Prince Paris has made all the Conduits in the Town piss Claret, and given such Feasting and Toping, and fidling and Roaring, till we are all Princes as great as himself.
All. Ay, ay, all Princes, all Princes.
As they carouse, the siege ensues, the Grecians setting fire to houses and abducting maidens. Menelaus slays Paris; Helen commits suicide by hurling herself into the flames. But the members of the Trojan Mob led by Captain Tom Bristle survive. Menelaus pardons them:82
... you’ve severely felt
The Arm of vengeance, for your Princes Guilt;
And do deserve our Pity.
Here I have finisht my Revenge. Enjoy
Your Lives and Liberties, go and rebuild your Troy.
Capt. Of the Mob Hark ye, Friend, (Speaking to a Grecian) pray tell your King from me, he’s a very civil Gentleman, and since he’s so humbly Gracious, to bid us build our Town again, strike up Fiddles, we’ll give him a Song and a Dance at parting.
The droll ends amidst revelry. Ulysses draws the moral that adulterous ladies endanger whole countries, a theme which has been reinforced by the extramarital flirtations of Mrs Bristle.
The Siege of Troy is thus subversive on several levels. The blame for the Greek expedition against Troy is exclusively laid on the shoulders of Trojan royalty and the renegade Queen of Sparta. The royal culprits, Helen and Paris, both expire. The action ends with a Trojan working-class leader about to rebuild the city; this is radical enough in itself, but also repudiates the tradition of Troy’s annihilation asserted by the canonical classical authorities Virgil and Homer. The aristocrats’ rhyming couplets and elevated diction are deflated by juxtaposition with the indelicate dialogue of the Trojan commoners, who are given all the laughs. There is a further level of insouciance. Royal propaganda had associated William III with Aeneas, and his arrival on the sands of Torbay in 1688 with Aeneas’ arrival in Latium; Dryden’s publisher Jacob Tonson insisted on superimposing William’s features on those of Aeneas when he reproduced in Dryden’s Aeneid the engravings from John Ogilby’s 1654 translation.83 Settle omits Aeneas from his Trojan droll, thus avoiding offence to either Catholics or Anglicans amongst Mrs Mynn’s customers. But in 1698, by refusing to use Troy to pay homage to the King, he threw into further relief his rejection of Aeneas as hero of the tale and preference for the plebeian cobbler. Moreover, the invention of the identifiably London/ Trojan hybrid Bristle gives a makeover to the familiar story of Brutus the Trojan who had founded London as the ‘New Troy’; the political message of a working class with a continuous identity and recreational culture (note ‘The Siege of Troy is here!’ in the present tense on Hogarth’s billboard) needs to be understood in the context of seven decades of serial changes in constitution and kings.
Settle’s rivals were aggravated by his ability to make money from the same material (and even stage properties) to different audiences. His generic versatility also challenged customary distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ arts, especially when he had the temerity to publish, in addition to the text of the Opera, attractive souvenir volumes containing the script of the droll, adorned with a woodcut depicting Captain Bristle.84 But, as we shall see in Chapter 17, worse was to come. The Siege of Troy was turned into an even ‘lower’ medium than a fairground droll—an itinerant puppet show.