(p.366) APPENDIX 2
(p.366) APPENDIX 2
The Reading school play
The entire performance history of the Herakles is relatively sparse, and the nineteenth century is no exception. The only recorded performance of the play between 1800 and 1880 appears to be that produced by Dr Richard Valpy, headmaster of Reading School between 1781 and 1830. Valpy was something of a charismatic figure, liberal in temperament, but with a reputation for harshly administering corporal punishment. Between 1809 and 1816 he produced several classical school textbooks. He had also been stagestruck since his youth, and in 1806 inaugurated at the school a triennial Greek play. Of the six full‐scale productions of Greek tragedies he mounted in Reading Town Hall over the next twenty‐one years, five were by Euripides, including two productions of Alcestis (1809 and 1824); Orestes (1821); Hecuba (1827); and, most extraordinarily of all, Herakles (1818). As Edith Hall points out: ‘The performances were surprising in the context of theatre history, because in the first two decades of the nineteenth century tragedy had retreated from the public stages of Britain almost altogether. By the 1820s, partly as a result of the Greek War of Independence, Greek themes began to appear occasionally on the commercial stage.…But the Valpeian plays had anticipated this revival of Hellenic theatricals by fifteen years.’1 Moreover, Frank Benson's staging of the Agamemnon at Balliol College and the institution of the Cambridge Greek Play were still several decades in the future.2 One likely reason for Valpy's choice of the Herakles is the fact that in 1794 Gilbert Wakefield (1756–1801), Unitarian minister, controversialist, and sometime fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, published a popular new selection of tragedies with notes specifically for the use of schools. The first volume of his Tragoediarum delectus contained Hercules Furens, Alcestis, and Trachiniae.3 Wakefield's laudable intention was to introduce the lesser‐known plays to school reading.
(p.367) In the context of Euripidean reception in the second decade of the nineteenth century and the general critical and performance history of the Herakles, Valpy's production in 1818 was singularly ambitious and, indeed, heroic. The production was reviewed in the Reading Mercury of Monday, 18 October 1818, by Mary Russell Mitford, a friend of Valpy's and, later, of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's. Mitford informs her readers that the plot ‘contains much striking situation, much of the fitness of representation, which distinguishes Euripides from his great rival [Sophocles], and much of the tender pathos, for which he is so justly celebrated’.4 Special mention is also made of the interpretation of the waking scene by a Mr Harington, who performed the title role.