Saturday 14 September 2013

Fiddling while Troy Burns

Backdrop (detail of Hogarth's Southwark Fair)

Next Friday, some young colleagues at a conference in Oxford will revive scenes from a remarkable 300-year old farce on the siege of Troy.

Elkanah Settle’s musical comedy The Siege of Troy began life as a successful opera in 1701. It remained the uncontested hit of the London fairgrounds in both booth theatre and puppet shows from 1707 to at least 1735, when Hogarth portrayed it as the central attraction in his famous engraving 'Southwark Fair'.

Heroic Cobbler Bristle
The hero is an enterprising Trojan cobbler named Tom Bristle. The Trojan working class, who speak earthy prose, elect him their captain. They stay safe during the siege by holding a party, and survive to rebuild the city when the Greeks leave. Meanwhile the Trojan ruling class, who speak pompous heroic rhyming couplets, are either killed or commit spectacular suicide.

Forgotten Masterpiece of the London Fairs
Settle’s subversive The Siege of Troy is what really united John Dryden and Alexander Pope. It wasn’t just their mutual obsession with Trojans and with classical epic (they produced the canonical English verse translations of the Aeneid and the Iliad in 1697 and 1715-20 respectively). It was unremitting envy and hatred of Settle.

Settle is the Missing Link in the British reception of classical epic. When his Empress of Morocco struck gold in the Restoration theatre, Dryden wrote vicious attacks which reveal the toxic extent of his envy. Dryden knew that Settle’s shows were lucrative: ’The height of his ambition is we know/But to be Master of a Puppet-show./On that one Stage his works may yet appear,/And a month’s Harvest keeps him all the Year.’

Dryden's Aeneid (1697)
Settle’s The Siege of Troy, in response, put two populist fingers up at Dryden’s version of the siege of Troy in his Aeneid book 2, by completing it with ale, fiddles, and scatological humour. I would rather be transported back in time to watch Settle’s droll at Southwark Fair than re-read Dryden any time.

Pope loathed Settle even more than Dryden had. Just when the ambitious young Pope was trying to drum up support from subscribers including royalty to fund his Homer translation project, the same royalty were going to the fairgrounds to laugh with their populace at Settle’s boisterous Trojans, surviving by drinking and fiddling even as Troy burned. 
Pope's Iliad (1715-20)

Pope took revenge by launching some of his most vindictive satire ever against Settle in his Dunciad. It closes with the ghost of Settle announcing the inauguration by bad poets of the new cosmic Age of Dullness: 'Thy hand great Dulness! lets the curtain fall,/And universal Darkness covers all'.

The Siege of Troy, Highlight of Southwark Fair according to Hogarth
This was spiteful and unfair: dullness was one thing Settle was never guilty of. He is last heard of in a green costume, acting the dragon in his own fairground play about St. George. It is extraordinary how this impresario has been written out of the cultural history of classical epic. On Friday we are going to put that right.

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