Collaborating with Aeschylus.

I had heard of Terence Rattigan’s play The Browning Version but couldn’t have told you anything about it; apparently it’s about Andrew Crocker-Harris, a notoriously strict classics teacher at an English boys’ school. Laudator Temporis Acti quotes a passage that will bring back bad memories for anyone who has had to construe the classics:

He picks up a text of the Agamemnon and TAPLOW does the same.

Line thirteen hundred and ninety-nine. Begin.

TAPLOW. Chorus. We — are surprised at —

ANDREW. (Automatically.) We marvel at.

TAPLOW. We marvel at — thy tongue — how bold thou art — that you —

ANDREW. Thou. (ANDREW’S interruptions are automatic. His thoughts are evidently far distant.)

TAPLOW. Thou — can —

ANDREW. Canst —

TAPLOW. Canst — boastfully speak —

ANDREW. Utter such a boastful speech —

TAPLOW. Utter such a boastful speech — over — (In a sudden rush of inspiration.) — the bloody corpse of the husband you have slain —

ANDREW looks down at his text for the first time. TAPLOW looks apprehensive.

ANDREW. Taplow — I presume you are using a different text from mine —

TAPLOW. No, sir.

ANDREW. That is strange for the line as I have it reads: ἥτις τοιόνδ’ ἐπ’ ἀνδρὶ κομπάζεις λόγον. However diligently I search I can discover no ‘bloody’ — no ‘corpse’ — no ‘you have slain’. Simply ‘husband’ —

TAPLOW. Yes, sir. That’s right.

ANDREW. Then why do you invent words that simply are not there?

TAPLOW. I thought they sounded better, sir. More exciting. After all she did kill her husband, sir. (With relish.) She’s just been revealed with his dead body and Cassandra’s weltering in gore —

ANDREW. I am delighted at this evidence, Taplow, of your interest in the rather more lurid aspects of dramaturgy, but I feel I must remind you that you are supposed to be construing Greek, not collaborating with Aeschylus.

TAPLOW. (Greatly daring.) Yes, but still, sir, translator’s licence, sir — I didn’t get anything wrong — and after all it is a play and not just a bit of Greek construe.

ANDREW. (Momentarily at a loss.) I seem to detect a note of end of term in your remarks. I am not denying that the Agamemnon is a play. It is perhaps the greatest play ever written —

TAPLOW. (Quickly.) I wonder how many people in the form think that?

The original Greek, as well as another brief passage, at the link.


  1. Unless I’m misremembering, that scene remains pretty much intact in the 1951 film adaptation by Asquith, which is excellent (except maybe the ending, but that’s a matter of taste).

  2. I saw the 1994 film a few years ago. It seemed to be set in the 90s, which was weird.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I seem to detect a note of end of term in your remarks

    Ouch. Must remember that one.

  4. @David — Hebrew, or rather, IDFese, has lexicalized this notion to the point of acronym, ASaK אס”ק standing for “end-of-course atmosphere”, and I do declare that in Israel this period of time is much more pronounced than other places I happened to frequent.

  5. a bit of Greek construe

    I never saw construe as a noun before. OED translates it ‘an act of construing in the grammatical sense, esp. as an exercise in learning a classical language; a verbal translation’, and gives four instances (1844–1895).

  6. The last of which is from the OED itself!

    1893 N.E.D. at ConstrueMod. Give me a construe of the passage.

    The entry is from 1893; time for them to update it and add Rattigan.

  7. (I mistyped ’95 for ’93).

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    I never saw construe as a noun before.

    I’m familiar with it, though I don’t think I’ve ever actually used it myself.
    But then I started Greek at school when I was eleven. I’m Just That Old. (The Browning Version is before my time though, by a generation.)

  9. ICYDK, NED “Mod.” denotes an example Murray made up himself when no apt citation had been found in the wild.

  10. Is that claim something you made up yourself, or did you find it in the wild ? If the former, I am suitably amused. If the latter, more information is desiderated. Why “Mod.” and not “Mur.” ?

  11. Mod. = Modern.

  12. in Israel this period of time is much more pronounced than other places I happened to frequent

    In Russian educational institutions there is not much of the end-of-term culture. In the army, though, дембель is something to behold.

  13. He sounds a lot like King in Kipling’s “Stalky & Co.”. Or were all British classics masters like that back in the day?

    I had one British Latin teacher, and while he was a bit of a character, he wasn’t like that. But mine was a different era.

    We didn’t spend a whole lot of time reading Latin poetry either. We mostly worked out of a textbook.

  14. “Stalky & Co.” came to mind for me as well. The first half of the story “Regulus” is basically an extended version of this sort of thing, in Latin this time.

    (“Beetle stood up, confident in the possession of a guaranteed construe…”)

  15. “Or were all British classics masters like that back in the day?” No I don’t think so. Our classics master, Sidney Innes, was a kindly man of great learning who was far too tolerant. I was at school at a time when the study of Latin and Greek was starting to be ridiculed, and a lot of us didn’t take it seriously. Innes was a philologist, and liked to point to correspondences between Latin and Greek such as the cognates sequor and hepomai (I follow).

    I dropped the subject for about fifty years then, three years ago, took up Greek again and have found it very rewarding, especially Homer, which I didn’t do at school. It helped that we were drilled in the conjugations and declensions. I’m not sure I’d be able to learn the pluperfect duals or the aorist imperatives now.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    My Greek teacher, C. P. E. Hicks, was a retired Anglican priest whose parish in Australia was bigger than Devon. I wouldn’t exactly call him kindly, but he was pleasant enough. He utterly rejected the reformed way of pronouncing Greek: the definite articles were [həʊ̯] [hɪj] and [təʊ̯], and that was that. He sometimes embarrassed us by referring to urine, which he call “squirty stuff”.

  17. Even among classics masters who assumed that “the greatest play of all time” would necessarily be one of the surviving works of the Big Three tragedians of ancient Athens, I am not sure that the Agamemnon would be the consensus #1 choice.

    But I am now suddenly recalling (as I do from time to time, from various random prompts or catalysts) a student production of the Agamemnon performed in English late in the spring semester of 1985, with a classmate of mine in the title role. (The production’s conceit was to have “modern dress” as if the warriors returning from Troy were returning from the ill-fated American military venture in Vietnam.) I have an extremely vivid visual memory of Peter “dying” onstage at the end of the play, his G.I. costume covered in stage blood (after having been stabbed offstage – I do not have any recollection of who played Clytemnestra). I expect the reason that it is so vivid is because Peter did not return to campus that fall, having taken a summer job on a fishing boat up in Alaska that sank with no survivors.* And I expect there are any number of quotable lines from the corpus of ancient Greek texts that would account for why I still sometimes recall someone I last saw alive when we were both aged nineteen now that I am aged thrice-nineteen.

    *Indirectly leading to legislative reform that ended the Alaskan fishing industry’s long-standing complete exemption from any sort of minimum safety regulation, FWIW.

  18. The Wikipedia page on the play has this provocative line:

    the Classics teacher in the play, Crocker-Harris, is believed to have been based on Rattigan’s Classics tutor at Harrow School, J.W. Coke Norris (1874–1961)

    That’s some impressive literary sleuthing, by golly.

  19. Crocker-Harris and Coke-Norris are unusual name formations, as far as I know. Another similar name recently popped up in the new Agatha Christie / Mousetrap production spoof whodunnit film, See How They Run. The scriptwriter (played by David Oyelowo) is called Mervyn Cocker-Norris.

    If there’s a connection I don’t know what it is. Googling the director and writer of the film doesn’t immediately reveal any Rattigan plays they might have been involved in, for instance.

    I found it annoying that as well as Cocker-Norris there was another character called Köpernick; it looks very different but in the film sounded sufficiently similar to be confusing.

  20. The production’s conceit was to have “modern dress” as if the warriors returning from Troy were returning from the ill-fated American military venture in Vietnam.

    The Vietnam war may have been ill-fated, but the Trojan war of Greek legend was a success – and the returning heroes were the equivalent of modern generals and admirals, not of simple soldiers suffering from PTSD. So the analogy justifying “modern dress” doesn’t really work, if you think about it. And wasn’t “modern dress production” already an old-fashioned and cliched conceit in 1985? Why is it directors/producers think they must make classical (in the wider sense, including Shakespeare and Goethe…) drama “relevant” for modern times by such lazy analogies?

  21. @ulr, well, the director was only nineteen or perhaps twenty at the time himself. But I was not mentioning that detail to justify it or defend it — it’s just relevant to my visual memory of Peter fake-dying as Agamemnon on stage a few months before he actually died as himself that he was wearing a modern-combat-fatigues costume spattered with stage blood rather than an Ancient-Greek-Warrior costume spattered with stage blood.

  22. There was certainly nothing really novel about setting a Greek tragedy in twentieth-century costume by the 1980s (“Mourning Becomes Electra”* premiered in 1931), but that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with doing so either. However, doing a modern dress version of “Agamemnon” does raise a specific question. The most important clothing element in the play is probably not any of the costumes worn by the characters, but the robes that the king walks across. I wonder how that would be handled in a staging with post-Vietnam-Wat costuming.

    * Of course, while the idea of a classical tragedy in modern garb is there, “Mourning Becomes Electra” is not actually a version of the “Oresteia” set in the 1860s. It is a new work that tells the same kind of story in an entirely different setting. So the costuming question I asked above does not directly apply to O’Neill’s work.

  23. i’d be excited, myself, to see more contemporary and 20thC plays staged in the kinds of fakeloric costuming that non-‘modern-dress’ productions of ancient greek plays use, or in the kinds of supposedly-non-period-specific costuming that gets trotted out for shakespeare. i’m sure someone must’ve done Mourning Becomes Electra that way at some point, but i think it would help get more thoughtful physical performances of williams, albee, and plenty of others.

  24. And wasn’t “modern dress production” already an old-fashioned and cliched conceit in 1985?

    I read this at first as “1895”, and so it was. But the great thing about cliches is that eventually everything becomes a cliche, and then as if by a miracle everything is span-new again.

  25. The name Crocker-Harris serves two functions. First, the double-barreled surname indicates a striving for social status, and by the post-WWII years was perceived as pretentious. (They originated when a wife’s family was more prestigious than the husband’s, especially when the wife had no brothers to carry on the name.) It could be with or without a hyphen – the inspiration for Crocker-Harris, Coke Norris, didn’t use one.

    Second, the name allows Rattigan to have the boys nickname him “the crock,” which in UK slang meant an invalid or a doddering old man (originally an old ewe, then a worn-out horse, and by the 20th c applied to people.) Here’s an example from a 1930s novel:

    “He was in love with a girl … and he believed he had a chance if only the doctors could do something to help his asthma. ‘Can’t ask a girl to marry a crock.’ His plan was to see, first, what Harley Street said, and then, if the outlook for cure was a bad one, to hold his tongue and take his leave.”
    Boomerang, by Helen Simpson (1932)

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    the double-barreled surname indicates a striving for social status

    Not in Wales, where it basically reflects just how very few distinct surnames we have to make do with. It would not be a sound deduction from the name “Parry-Jones” that the family had aspirations to poshness, for example (though of course, all Welshmen have an intrinsic poshness denied to mere Saxons.)

    I’m not sure that double-barrelledness among the English denotes striving for social status so much as (possibly long past) attainment thereof. However, I always squash (incorrect) notions that my own name is double-barrelled. It would give quite the wrong idea. (My brother has given up the struggle, and calls himself Shaw.)

  27. I’ve never noticed span-new before (only brand-new), but I suppose that’s where Welsh newydd sbon comes from. I wonder why it’s sbon rather than sban.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    GPC confirms it’s from English span(-new); Chambers suggests that the English (in that sense) is modelled on Old Norse spán-nýr, where spánn means “chip”, cognate with “spoon”; apparently Old English spōn also means “chip.”

    It looks like the Welsh might reflect a Middle English variant spon-, though GPC doesn’t say so.
    I’ve never actually come across “span-new” in English before, that I recall.

    “Spoon” words are quite interesting, now I think of it. Obviously the English were too poor to be able to invest in snail shells to eat with, like the French, and had to make do with chips of wood instead. Welsh llwy seems to go back to a root meaning “lick.” Kusaal diisʋŋ unfortunately just has the boring transparent etymology “feeding implement.”

  29. John Cowan says

    The span in this phrase I take to be that in the more familiar phrase spic and span, but for me it is closer to ‘fire-new’, something just taken off the anvil. But of course no one should take my aberrant world-view seriously.

  30. something just taken off the anvil: “a chip off the old block”

  31. Does anyone these days bear hyphenated South Asian–British surnames?

  32. I don’t know, but the en dash warms my copyeditor’s heart.

  33. En dashes are beautiful.

  34. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    As I went to school not far from the Welsh border I have long known that the Welsh go in for double-barrelled surnames much more than the English do, and I deduced that this was for the reason David gives.

    As for my own name, I must confess that it does derive from a striving for social status, not on my part, I hasten to add, but my great-mother’s. She, a Miss Cornish, considered that her family was much more classy than that of her husband, Captain Bowden (if by “more classy” you mean “richer” then yes, it was), and she insisted on prefixing his name with hers. Her sister, who married a different Mr Bowden, had already done that. My great-grandfather wasn’t at all keen on the change, but, as he said in a letter to his sister, it was three against one, and futile to resist.

  35. I was thinking last night (as I was preparing to text something sarcastic about the Australian band Amyl and the Sniffers to a friend who listens to them) that a good British comedy character surname would be “Huffing-Paint.”

  36. My claim to fame here is that I once played Taplow in a production of the Browning Version, at the MIT Dramashop in the late 60s. I don’t remember the lines or much about it, and I doubt if I managed a passable British accent.

  37. See the Addendum here for my own claim to fame playing the god Dionysos in Euripides’ Bacchae.

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