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John Strachan has lovingly documented the use of classicism in late Georgian brand-names, from Alexander Rowland’s headache medicine ‘Elixir of Cerelaeum’ and dental product ‘Odonto’, to Samuel Jones’ ‘Patent Promethean’ water-heating machine and ‘Aetna’ matches.1 A London street ballad parodied the fashion, citing products which all really existed and were advertised on billboards throughout the city centre:
O such a town, such a classical metropolis,
Tradesmen common English scorn to write or speak.
Bond Street’s a forum—Cornhill is an Acropolis,
For every thing’s in Latin, now, but what’s in Greek.
Here is a Pantechnicon, and there is an Emporium.
Your shoes “Antigropolos”, your boots are “Pannus corium”;
“Fumi-porte chimney pots”, “Eureka” shirts to cover throats,
Idrotobolic hats, and patent Aquascutum overcoats.2
The aura surrounding the ancient cultures known as ‘classical’ did not signify gentlemanliness and civility everywhere. Alongside the gentry enjoying their Palladian mansions and expensive school curriculums there always existed more commercial, demotic, subterranean and secretive groups in British society who used imagery from the Greek and Roman worlds to communicate and selfidentify: shopkeepers, salesmen, imposters, criminals, prostitutes, circus and fairground performers, showgirls, libertines, madmen and participants in recreational activities ranging from the merely vulgar to the illegal.
Showmen and Classics
Exotic Classics was central to the forged identity and publishing scam of a notorious fraudster, ‘George Psalmanazar’, who arrived in London in 1703. He was a penniless Frenchman who had never been to Asia, yet claimed that he was a nobleman from Formosa (Taiwan). He narrated Oriental tales in a mixture of beautiful Latin, broken English and snippets of Formosan. They were taken by many at face value. He became a celebrity. His bestseller An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1704) includes lurid accounts of drug-taking, smoking, native cannibalism, polygamy and mass child sacrifice; although presented as serious ethnography in the Herodotean tradition, many of his more outrageous Formosan tales echo legends told by Homer and Ovid.’ Psalmanazar describes how he, like all well-to-do Formosan children, learned Greek at one of the island’s academies and Latin from a private tutor, who turned out to be a scheming Jesuit and responsible for Psalmanazar’s abduction.4
By 1711, the London elite realised Psalmanazar was a fraud. The first issue of the Spectator published a fake advertisement for an upcoming play that poked fun at Psalmanazar’s tendency to extol the virtues of cannibalism:
On the first of April will be performed at the Play-house in the Hay-market an opera call’d The Cruelty ofAtreus. N.B. The Scene wherein Thyestes eats his own children is to be performed by the famous Mr. Psalmanazar lately arrived from Formosa: The whole Supper being set to Kettle-drums.”
So Psalmanazar turned to lower-class audiences instead, with accounts of Far Eastern cannibals,6 and displays in which he smoked enormous tobacco pipes, to which he said Formosan women were addicted, and took huge doses of laudanum.7 In his Memoirs, posthumously published in 1765, Psalmanazar describes how he actually first encountered Latin when he was admitted to a Franciscan charity school. He claims to have been fully fluent in the language before he turned nine and soon became a scholarship boy at a Jesuit College where he learned ancient Greek and Latin, reading Ovid, Cicero, Horace and Homer.8
Psalmanazar’s shows were a form of recreation routinely disparaged by the nobility and gentry, as were puppet-shows. This medium takes us back to Elkanah Settle’s famous fairground droll commissioned by Mrs Mynn, The Siege of Troy, discussed in Chapter 2. In 1712 the Dublin puppeteer Martin Powell, the rage of London since his arrival with his equally talented son in 1710, staged Settle’s droll—perhaps without paying Settle anything for the privilege—under the title The False Triumph. He blended his performance media in a conscious bid to attract more select audiences. The text was augmented with scenes including an epiphany ofjupiter, sung by Signior Punchanella, a famous castrato currently starring in the Italian Opera House.9
The appearance of an opera singer in a fairground droll based on Virgil’s Aeneid but performed by puppets is symptomatic of the chaotic class-inflected struggle between entertainment media in London during the last decades of the 17th century and the first three of the 18th. Opera competed with spoken drama, and both increasingly featured the balletic interludes which were about to develop into a separate medium of musical theatre altogether. But certain hierarchies remained, if shakily, between types of entertainment. Despite their voguishness in the first half of the 18th century, even extending slowly to the more prosperous classes, puppet-show personnel were deprecated as ‘Rogues and Vagrants’ and suffered from a precarious status.10 ‘Serious’ actors only resorted to working with puppet-shows if they could not get hired as live actors, even in the venue of the fairs.11 In this period, for example in Hogarth’s engraving, A Just View of the British Stage (1724),
the puppet could serve as a visual emblem not just for the process of performance itself, but also for a broad spectrum of paratheatrical entertainment seen as invading and polluting a theater that had finally achieved a legitimacy to which Jonson had so painfully aspired over a century earlier.12
The scorn which puppet-shows incurred from the elite is expressed in Joseph Addison’s ‘Machinae Gesticulantes, anglice A Puppet Show’ (1698), a poem in epic Latin hexameters.13 It is thus a highbrow and hyper-literate description of a performance medium which it not only explicitly describes as ‘low’ but also implies is ‘infantile’ in the technical sense—the puppets lack language altogther. The poem engages in complex literary allusion to Virgil, especially the Georgies, but in the year after Dryden’s translation there are also explicit references to the Aeneid in the reference to the bella, horrida bella (51—‘bristling’ battles, see Aeneid VIII.86). Addison lambasts the vulgarity both of the medium of‘Gesticulating Machines’ and their audiences. Nothing could more loudly proclaim the gulf dividing cultural circles of refinement from the boorish masses. Addison is unlikely to have known that by the 3rd century bce there were popular puppet-shows enacting stories connected with the Trojan War.14 His humour derives from negotiating the absurd discrepancy whereby the coarse puppet-show audience—the ‘gaping throngs’ from ‘the grinning street’—are described with a mock-solemnity suited to Horace’s Ars Poetica or a serious Roman epic, punctured in turn by the bathos of the idea that cash puts bottoms on seats differing in quality according to the amount paid: ‘Nor reigns disorder; but precedence fit / Marshals the crowd, and as they pay they sit’ (№c confusus honos; nummo subsellia cedunt / Diverse, et varii adprotium stat copia scamni, 9-10).
Yet the later 17th and 18th centuries have been described as the golden age of puppetry in London and in English provincial towns, performed in both fairgrounds and taverns,15 and Powell was instrumental in making the medium somewhat more acceptable to the upper classes during Queen Anne’s reign. He used jointed wooden marionettes moved by wires and standing about three feet tall. With these he presented ‘witty plays, elegantly dressed and spectacularly staged’;16 his theatre began to attract the gentry and nobility of both sexes, and he tried, if unsuccessfully, to exclude prostitutes and keep his audience ‘respectable’. His puppet-shows offered more sophisticated performance techniques than those of his rivals, using footlights and backcloths.17 Their dialogue could be intricate and their plots fairly complicated. Their effects could be terrifying; the actor Tate Wilkinson was taken by his father to see one at Bartholomew Fair when he was small: ‘I there saw a sea-fight, and a most terrible battle, which determined me never to see one again’.18
The False Triumph remained in the Powell family’s repertoire for years. Powell Junior staged it in 1726 as a marionette ‘operatic burlesque’. Another, more obscure puppet master named Mr Terwin also staged The Siege of Troy, under its original name, in Mermaid Court in 1734. But he had gone head-to-head with a revival the same year of the droll, featuring actors rather than puppets, produced by Mrs Mynn’s daughter Mrs Lee in collaboration with one Mr Harper. They set up a booth on a new Southwark site at Axe and Bottle Yard and printed an advertisement boasting a famous cast and lavish visual attractions: ‘in its decorations, machiner, and paintings [it] far exceeds anything of the like that ever was seen in the fairs before, the scenes and clothing being entirely new’. Lee and Harper, perhaps with an eye to Terwin’s puppets, staked their prior rights to the famous entertainment, ‘the only celebrated droll of that kind ... first brought to perfection by the late famous Mrs Mynns’, which ‘can only be performed by her daughter Mrs Lee’.19
A fascinating text reveals the annoyance caused to some educated men by the claim made by entrepeneurial showpeople like Mynn, Lee, Settle and Powell to ‘ownership’ of classical antiquity. Thirteen years after Addison wrote that Latin hexameter satire on puppet-shows, he described a preposterous project for a new London entertainment incorporating all the fashionable spectacles available across the city.20 He claims that in a coffee-shop he heard an aspiring impresario (informed by his perceptions of people like Mynn, Settle and Powell) propose a new scheme ‘of an opera, Entitled, The Expedition of Alexander the Great'. This would include a ladder-dance, a posture-man, ‘a moving picture’, an erotic waxwork model of Statira, bear-baiting and dancing monkeys. The passion for stage prophetesses would be satisfied by opening the opera with Alexander consulting the priestess at the Delphic oracle. The comedian and booth manager William Penkethman ‘is to personate King Porus upon an Elephant, and is to be encountered by Powell, representing Alexander the Great upon a Dromedary, which nevertheless Mr. Powell is desired to call by the Name of Bucephalus’ (the name of Alexander’s horse). The two kings are to celebrate the ratification of peace thus:
Upon the Close of this great decisive Battel, when the two Kings are thoroughly reconciled, to shew the mutual Friendship and good Correspondence that reigns between them, they both of them go together to a Puppet-Show, in which the ingenious Mr. Powell junior, may have an Opportunity of displaying his whole Art of Machinery.21
Alexander the Great’s favourite book was known to have been the Iliad.22 Addison presumably wanted his readership here to imagine the operatic Porus and Alexander being entertained specifically by Settle’s Siege of Troy, especially since the Powell family was at precisely this chronological point planning to transfer it to the puppet theatre.
Addison’s showman further proposes that Alexander could be entertained by Penkethman’s ‘Heathen Gods’, an automaton show (housed in the same building as Powell’s puppets) about which we know from advertisements in Spectator 46 and subsequent issues:
Mr. Penkethman’s Wonderful Invention call’d the Pantheon: or, the Temple of the Heathen Gods. The Work of several Years, and great Expense, is now perfected; being a most surprising and magnificent Machine, consisting of 5 several curious Pictures, the Painting and contrivance whereof is beyond Expression Admirable. The Figures, which are above 100, and move their Heads, Legs, Arms, and Fingers, so exactly to what they perform, and setting one Foot before another, like living Creatures, that it justly deserves to be esteem’d the greatest Wonder of the Age. To be seen from 10 in the Morning till 10 at Night, in the Little Piazza, Covent Garden, in the same House where Punch’s Opera is.
But Addison’s climax is his allegation that this showman proposed to make the actors of The Expedition of Alexander the Great deliver their lines in ancient Greek:
for that Alexander being a Greek, it was his Intention that the whole Opera should be acted in that Language, which was a Tongue he was sure would wonderfully please the Ladies, especially when it was a little raised and rounded by the lonick Dialect, and could not but be wonderfully acceptable to the whole Audience, because there are fewer of them who understand Greek than Italian.2’
The unintelligibility of ancient Greek would guarantee its success, just as the desire to listen to exotic sung Italian had fed the craze for Opera. And the ladies, who of course knew no Greek, would like its mellifluous sound.
The Oxford-educated Addison, an excellent classical scholar, believed (like most of his contemporaries) that the Macedonian dialect was not Ionic but Doric, and sounded uncouth to other Greeks: he is asking his reader to collude in condemning the equally uncouth showman’s error. He revels in the absurdity of ordinary Londoners who frequent puppet-shows having any contact whatsoever with the ancient Greek tongue. The problem that no theatre performers knew the language was to be solved either by persuading ‘some Gentlemen of the Universities to learn to sing, in order to qualify themselves for the Stage’, or by bringing boatloads of Greeks from Smyrna (again, Addison invites his reader to spot the error in the idea that spoken Greek had not changed since classical antiquity); alternatively, it would only take ‘a Fortnight’s time’ for opera stars to learn Greek. None of Addison’s humour would work unless his readership was convinced that knowledge of that arcane tongue was only acquired through extensive and expensive study and was thus beyond the reach of most non-gentlemen, that is, of the working classes.
The Siege of Troy was far from the only classically-themed show available in the 18th and 19th centuries to audiences across the class spectrum; the Oedipus of Dryden and Lee was performed by strolling players in provincial barns.24 Spectacular shows featuring the sacrifice of beautiful virgins, both the biblical daughter of Jephthah and Iphigenia, were to be seen on a Southwark bowling green, at Clerkenwell, Bartholomew Fair and Richmond.25 The entrepeneurial hero of a satirical journal plans in detail a pantomime called Harlequin Hercules, adapting his labours to incorporate several current fashionable fairground freaks—exceptionally tall women as Amazons and a captured centaur.26 William Godwin enjoyed a show with exactly this title in 1799 at Sadler’s Wells on two separate evenings in 1799.27
Accessible versions of classical antiquity were provided by the travelling theatre companies who performed at race meetings, which attracted notoriously cross-class attendees, as well as provincial fairs. One of the most popular scripts in these companies’ repertoires was a compact version of Nathaniel Lee’s spectacular Restoration tragedy The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great (1677), which for nearly two centuries was the medium through which many English and Scottish people knew about Alexander of Macedon.
Lee’s Alexander eventually dies at Babylon, but only after five acts featuring the ghost of his father, drunken ravings, Indian dancers and an extended catfight between his two wives, the bloodthirsty Roxana and the devoted Statira. The Rival Queens crossed the class divide in a paraphrase, including north-eastern dialect forms, regularly performed by the troupe of Billy Purvis (1754-1853). Purvis was a working-class Scottish boy who had been an apprentice to a joiner but preferred the life of a professional clown and bagpiper. He toured the circuit of Northumberland fairs and racetracks, frequented by Geordie pitmen, with his booth theatre; the performances included a show called The Greek Boy and J.H. Payne’s popular Brutus, or, the Fall of Tarquin, a hit in Hartlepool docks in 1849.28 A painting survives which shows his travelling stage erected at Stagshawbank near Corbridge and Hexham, with flats and scenery depicting elephants and soldiers, suggestive of an Alexander the Great theme; the musician banging the drum may well be Purvis himself (Figure 17.1).29 The same play, in another version, traversed the south-east of England when John Richardson adopted it into the repertoire of his travelling theatre, which from 1796 toured the fairs and race meetings around London.30
FIGURE 17.1 ‘A Border Fair’ by John Ritchie, reproduced by permission of the Laing Art Gallery. Image reproduced by permission of the Laing Art Gallery.