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The Birds Doesn't Take Off: Aristophanes' Victorian Burlesque and Why It Failed

Peter Swallow

King's College London

This paper examines The Birds of Aristophanes (1846), a Victorian classical burlesque by James Robinson Planché, which was unique for being the only burlesque to directly parody Greek Old Comedy. It also marked an unexpected failure for the playwright whose earlier classical burlesques, notably Olympic Revels (1831) and The Golden Fleece (1845), had been smash box office hits with remarkably long runs. More importantly, the failure of this spectacular production, despite star performers and elaborate special effects, arguably precipitated the retreat of Aristophanic comedy from the Victorian popular theatre altogether. This paper briefly describes the recent and immediate cultural context of the production, its critical reception, Planché’s own reflections and the ensuing absence of ancient comedy fromthe Victorian popular imagination, before exploring the reasons for its failure.

A significant reason for the failure of Planché’s Birds was the audience’s lack of familiarity with the source text. Victorian burlesque theatre took well-known stories and parodied them. Planché’s The Golden Fleece (1845) was inspired by the ‘Antigone after the Greek manner’ staged at the Royal Opera House, which had opened in January the same year with music composed by Mendelssohn; it therefore mixed a parodic retelling of an established myth with a send up of theatrical conventions adopted by ‘serious’ Victorian attempts to stage Greek tragedy. Birds failed because its audience had no foreknowledge of the plot of an Aristophanes play, thus precluding its effectiveness as a parody. Likewise, a Victorian play-going audience was aware both of the conventions of Greek tragedy adopted by performances such as Antigone, and the parodic reinventions of those performances for classical burlesque. They were not familiar with the performance conventions of a Greek comedy because they had not seen a Greek comedy performed before Planché. For this reason, it was easier to burlesque a tragedy than it was to turn an Old Comedy into a burlesque.

On another level, Birds failed because Planché did not make it a comedy. Victorian burlesque normally works by adapting the appropriated story with contemporary references, puns and songs set to popular music. Some of these generic features appear in Birds, but interpolations are infrequent. By and large, Planché remains remarkably loyal to his source text. Not only is the overall plot retained (until the end), but many of the same individual scenes are carefully replicated. There are no new parodic scenes. And at the same time, many of the Aristophanic jokes from the source text are not translated. One of the play’s biggest problems is that it isn’t funny. Planché would later defend himself against accusations of failure by claiming that his ‘ambition [had been] to lay the foundation for an Aristophanic drama, which the greatest minds would not consider it derogatory to contribute to’.1 But the audience had no desire to see a more serious kind of burlesque.

Planché attempted to use his serious burlesque didactically by layering it with a reactionary political message. Most burlesque writers ‘were somewhat rebellious or disaffected members of the middle class’, but Planché was ‘decidedly conventional and by no means disaffected.’2 This political outlook comes across in Birds. Although Cloudcuckooland has been set up throughout the play as a newly egalitarian society, the burlesque ends with it collapsing. Mostly middle-class and therefore in many ways excluded from power, the audience is told that they are excluded because they are naturally inferior. The authority of the ruling classes, hardly in any practicable doubt, is given moral and religious justification. And Planché repeatedly stresses the didactic nature of his argument. It is hardly surprising, then, that the audience considered Birds to be a failure.

Session/Panel Title

Problems in Performance: Failure in Classical Reception Studies

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