Saturday, 7 April 2018

Out now! John Bloxham's Ancient Greece and American Conservatism

I'm delighted to announce that my latest book, Ancient Greece and American Conservatism: Classical Influence on the Modern Right, has just been published by I.B. Tauris. This book is based upon PhD research undertaken at the University of Nottingham.

According to the blurb... US conservatives have repeatedly turned to classical Greece for inspiration and rhetorical power. In the 1950s they used Plato to defend moral absolutism; in the 1960s it was Aristotle as a means to develop a uniquely conservative social science; and then Thucydides helped to justify a more assertive foreign policy in the 1990s. By tracing this phenomenon and analysing these, and various other, examples of selectivity, subversion and adaptation within their broader social and political contexts, John Bloxham here employs classical thought as a prism through which to explore competing strands in American conservatism. From the early years of the Cold War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bloxham illuminates the depth of conservatives' engagement with Greece, the singular flexibility of Greek ideas and the varied and diverse ways that Greek thought has reinforced and invigorated conservatism. This innovative work of reception studies offers a richer understanding of the American Right and is important reading for classicists, modern US historians and political scientists alike.

'John Bloxham's timely and original study of the engagement of postwar American conservatism with the ideas of ancient Greece will be essential reading for anyone interested in US political history or in the enduring influence of classical philosophy on the modern world.'
Patrick Finglass, Henry Overton Wills Professor of Greek and Head of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Bristol

'John Bloxham's study of the reception of Greek political thought in the United States since World War II is a model of its kind. He offers a lucid and intelligent analysis of the use of antiquity by influential and important thinkers such as Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom as well as the place of Greek thought in the development of movements such as neoconservatism. His timely book will be essential reading for anyone interested in the history of modern American conservatism, in the politics of the American educational system, and in the reception of Greek historiography and philosophy.'
Tim Rood, Professor of Greek Literature, University of Oxford

Available from Amazon, Blackwells, Barnes & Noble, WH Smiths etc. Full research interests available at my Academia page here.

New article: Willmoore Kendall’s ‘McCarthyite’ Socrates in conservative free speech debates of the 1950s and 1960s

Latest article out in the March 2018 International Journal of the Classical Tradition (volume 25, issue 1):

Willmoore Kendall’s ‘McCarthyite’ Socrates in conservative free speech debates of the 1950s and 1960s

Abstract: Sennator Joseph McCarthy and the ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates occupied opposing ends of a freedom spectrum in the 1950s: one became a byword for repression and the other is remembered as a fearless seeker of truth and opponent of tyranny. This paper explores the reaction on the Right created by liberalism’s appropriation of Socrates to attack McCarthyism. Focusing on works by Willmoore Kendall, an influential right-wing populist who came to embrace Leo Strauss’s elitist emphasis on classical Greek thinkers, it examines how the resulting populist/elitist synthesis justified McCarthyism using Socrates’ trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy. Kendall’s Socrates, based upon a close re-engagement with Plato’s Apology and Crito, may actually be closer to the figure seen through our sources than the liberal version. However, this apparent accuracy requires sacrificing the reader’s ability to judge events for themselves.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Review: Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
In 1415 a rag-tag army of Englishmen were retreating through France. After a tougher than expected siege of Harfleur and an outbreak of dysentery, their plans of conquest lay in tatters. On 25th October, St Crispin’s Day, they met a French army near the castle of Agincourt. Outnumbered by the fresher French forces, the English stood their ground and won a victory that has resounded down the ages (largely thanks to Shakespeare). The English king eventually married the French princess, a legend was born and a new golden age seemed to be in the offing. As it turned out, Henry’s early death called time on the golden age before it got going and cost his country not only France but its internal peace as well, as the Wars of the Roses destroyed his successors.

So in Henry V Shakespeare captures an England full of hope between the years of treason and rebellion which marked the reigns of Henry IV and Henry VI. It is full of instantly recognizable patriotic scenes such as the St Crispin’s Day and the ‘once more unto the breach’ speeches, but it also occasionally expresses a darker side to Henry’s rule. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s slippery justifications for the invasion, Henry’s doubts before the big battle and his often quite unlikable hypocrisy are all troubling aspects. Henry doesn’t seem to care about the death of his old friend Falstaff and he executes old cronies Nym and Bardolph. There is lots of thanking god, but how much is it a public act? He’s a careful politician, so outward religiosity for the sake of morale would not be surprising. And Henry even admits his own illegitimate right to rule, thanks to his father’s treason against Richard II: ‘Think not upon the fault my father did…’ However, the context of that admission is important. On the eve of battle, all alone, Henry prays to god for his men’s safety. And there is enough elsewhere in the play to overcome any doubts about Henry’s character. Much of our scepticism comes from modern sensibilities perhaps alien to the original audience. Are we perhaps too sentimental in wishing Henry would save Nym and Bardolph? Or should we embrace a ruler who exercises justice without favouritism? The characters in the play are unequivocal: Henry is a great and well-loved king.

In terms of this production, the stage set is immediately both simple and striking. At the beginning, the backdrop is entirely removed and the backstage area creates extra space. During the play, the backdrop occasionally appears, via a clever guillotine device, during intimate moments (or to create Harfleur’s walls). The stage’s floor bears an interesting pattern which, during the great battle, is revealed as an invisible Perspex layer above a textured muddy field. This is nicely done.  It was also nice to see a few of the cast from last year’s Two Gentlemen of Verona in minor roles. Having now seen a few RSC plays, the return of actors from earlier productions allows one to appreciate the actors’ impressive versatility. I suspect some of them will one day be well known.

The most recognizable face is Oliver Ford Davies’, who plays the chorus. He got the play rolling with his entry from the backstage area looking for like an elderly and befuddled audience member who had taken a wrong turn. This effect is probably calculated and he got an early laugh when he curiously picked up Henry’s crown only to have Henry stride out and snatch it away from him. Although the main cast wear medieval dress, Ford Davies is bedecked in brown corduroys and a blue cardigan. He is intentionally distanced from the rest of the cast but it doesn’t really work. Admittedly, the chorus must be a difficult part for a modern director to pull off and Shakespeare himself wasn’t exactly keen on them. Its origin is ancient and tragic, and its use in Henry V was perhaps intended to burnish the play’s epic quality. But epic patriotism isn’t really the done thing for the modern intelligentsia. Ford Davies has the odd stab at it (this is the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, so this production has to be at least partly celebratory), but at times he is ironic rather than patriotic and at others he is earnest but over the top. As I’ve indicated earlier, the text at times questions the legitimacy of Henry’s exploits, but it is done with much more subtlety than Ford Davies musters here, veering erratically between over-gesticulating jingoism and sardonic scepticism.

Joshua Richards’ Fluellan is hilarious as the warm but garrulous old Welshman and Jennifer Kirby as Kate
was also excellent. Both funny and beautiful, she balances chastity and eager curiosity with great comic timing. In fact, the humour is deftly handled throughout this performance. It was also good to see Jane Lapotaire as Queen Isobel of France. She’s had some health problems but is now back on the stage, even if the role was smaller than some she’s had in the past.

Alex Hassell is a handsome and august Henry, but perhaps not quite tough enough and for much of the play not quite down to earth enough. He also has a slightly annoying tendency to address the audience instead of his fellow characters. Presumably the director asked him to do this, and perhaps the aim is to tie the audience more closely to the action. If so, the effort is wasted.

The St Crispin’s Day speech should be the climax of the play:

                ‘From this day to the ending of the world,
                But we in it shall be remembered-
                We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
                For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
                Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
                This day shall gentle his condition;
                And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
                Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
                And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
                That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’

Here it is the biggest disappointment, desperate rather than inspiring. The tone is flat and the result is anti-climactic. The courage of the men is undercut by an attempt at comedy as Pistol almost takes up the offer to go home, and the end of the speech is followed straightaway, almost before Henry had finished speaking, by the announcement of a messenger’s arrival. No cheering, no signs of grim purpose, no response at all from the army. Again, the director was afraid to appear too patriotic. Henry is much better after the wars, and the wooing scene with Katherine is delightful. Even if flawed in places, Hassell’s performance contains enough to convince me that he is a fine actor, surely due a breakout role in the near future if he turns his sights on television or film.

Overall, this production has a few blemishes and compares unfavourably to the year’s best Stratford performances: Volpone and The Jew of Malta. But a comparison with those great productions is unduly harsh. For all its faults, this is an enjoyable and thought-provoking work, with a number of standout performances. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Review - The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Part I

Mini-review: Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (BBC Hollow Crown series)
To whet our appetite for Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, let's have a quick look at Henry IV, Part I from the BBC’s HollowCrown series (originally shown in 2012). Before Henry V was Henry V, he was Hal, a binge-drinking hooligan trickster… or so he would have everybody think. In fact, his plan all along was to lead a life of debauchery and then, just when everybody had completely written him off, he would reform and thereby dazzle people all the more with his excellence. While Hal is putting this meticulously executed, if largely pointless, plot into effect, his father is threatened by rebellion. The star of the rebel camp is the son Henry IV thinks he really wants: Harry Hotspur, a dutiful son and brave warrior. Luckily for Henry IV, his actual son comes good by the end and slaughters his spiritual brother to save the kingdom.

Tom Hiddleston as Hal is magnificent. There is a sadness about him at even the merriest times, which
humanises him (for what short of person would really break their father’s heart and betray his best friend, just to make himself look better?) He’s funny too, and seems to be channelling a little Loki as well in this performance. Simon Russell Beale is likewise wonderfully cast: as funny a Falstaff as you could hope for, and as pitiful as a kicked do (not that I’ve ever kicked a dog. But kicked dog seems catchier than ‘like a dog you refuse to give a bit of your dinner to’).

The Voice: Informing and Educating
This is a beautifully made production. It’s clearly a work of love and the BBC has invested real cash in it too. Some would perhaps use this as an example of how wonderful the BBC is and how lost we would be without it. Being more of a glass half empty type, I’d say that by showing they can still make programmes which conform to the BBC’s original mission (to ‘inform, educate and entertain’), programmes like this actually highlight just how much complete bilge the Beeb turns out the rest of the time…

Anyway, all in all a great film; now roll on Henry V in Stratford.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Review: Ben Jonson's Volpone at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Review: Ben Jonson's Volpone, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The current RSC production of Ben Jonson’s Volpone at the Swan Theatre must rank as one of their slickest, funniest and most glorious productions yet. It has certainly been my highlight of the year.

First, the plot. The eponymous anti-hero, Volpone (The Fox), has a lot in common with Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Both are charismatic and seemingly amoral individuals with a covetous love of wealth. But both have passions which are ultimately more powerful than their greed. Where Barabas had a pride which when offended drove him to the most horrible acts of revenge, Volpone’s early and enduring flaw is a need to use the greed of other wealthy men to con them out of their possessions. As the victims of his plots are themselves so unappealing, the audience’s sympathies cannot help but side with the flashy and witty Volpone. The plot owes much to popular stories about wily foxes which lay down in fields pretending to be dead. When a bird comes to feast on the corpse, the fox springs into action and banquets on the carrion bird instead. In Volpone, the wealthy fox pretends to be
older, decrepit and close to death. His fellow grandees see an opportunity to inherit the wealth of the childless Volpone and attempt to buy his affection (and a place in his will) with expensive gifts. It is clear that more than greed motivates Volpone: he glories ‘more in the cunning purchase of my wealth than in the glad possession’. What he really enjoys is conning his ‘friends’, the lawyer Voltore (the Vulture) and the merchants Corvino and Corbaccio (ravens).

All is going well and Volpone decides to take his plan to the next level: his parasite Mosca encourages Corbaccio with a scheme to guarantee a place in Volpone’s will. If Corbaccio alters his will to leave his estate to Volpone, despite having a son of his own, then the dying Volpone will surely make Corbaccio his heir out of gratitude. The flaw in Corbaccio’s thinking is that Volpone is actually in the prime of life and it is Corbaccio who is the doddering old codger. The plan is working well until Mosca lets slip to Volpone that the young wife of Corvino is exceedingly beautiful. After going out in disguise and seeing her for himself, Volpone develops a passion of another sort. He and Mosca fashion another scheme so that Volpone can have his way with Celia (Rhiannon Handy). Mosca lets Corvino know that Volpone’s doctors have suggested that sleeping with a young maiden would aid his recovery and that by lending Volpone  his wife, Corvino will guarantee himself a place in Volpone’s will. Since Volpone is apparently a drooling, near-comatose invalid, what could be the harm? Unfortunately for Volpone, his two clever schemes become tangled and things begin to go awry…

The stage setting is a real treat. Volpone’s house is like a modern art gallery, all shiny whiteness with his wealth displayed in stylish glass cases. Volpone has a remote control on which he can turn on his CCTV when guests arrive at his door, as well as a large digital stock market ticker surmounting the set. The whole effect is that of a rich and discerning connoisseur. Unlike recent RSC productions, in which the costumes have been somewhat disappointing, in this case the stylish suits of the greedy and the outlandish attire of Volpone’s troupe of freaks are a perfect accompaniment to the elegant set and lively story. Volpone’s regular changes of appearance from powerful grandee to dribbling wreck are impressive, if somewhat revolting up close (think streams of bilious snot hanging off an old man’s chin).

Volpone’s four greedy victims are well-cast. Miles Richardson as Voltore makes an excellent posh but amoral lawyer, Matthew Kelly as Corvino is again excellent (following his turn as a lusty friar in the Jew of Malta) as a buffoonish no-nonsense northern businessman, Geoffrey Freshwater as Corbaccio is likewise again excellent (following his turn as Kelly’s equally slimy and hypocritical brother friar in the Jew of Malta) and Annette McLaughlin as Lady Politic Would-Be plays an excellent tartish gold-digger from a slightly lower societal echelon (Eastenders-esque). Orion Lee’s Mosca is a model of understated, servile cunning, manipulating his social superiors with élan. Volpone’s also gets his kicks from the entertainment provided by
his three freaks, Androgyno the hermaphrodite (Ankur Bahl), Nano the dwarf (Jon Key) and Castrone the eunuch (Julian Hoult). The three oddballs are perfectly cast, exuberantly well-acted and, more than anything else, fun. I suspect there were more than a few women in the audience jealous of Androgyno’s graceful deportment as he sashayed confidently across the stage in his high, high heels. Volpone is a sybarite, who needs ever wilder pleasures and takes ever greater risks to maintain his interest in life; but the results and accoutrements of his empty moral turpitude are a joy to behold!

More than anything, this play gives licence to its leading actor to showcase his talents – and Henry Goodman is clearly very, very talented. The shifts from ailing invalid to wily Machiavel are dazzling enough as displays of raw panache, but then he takes the RSC to another place entirely in the balcony scene. Disguised as a charismatic street vendor, adopting a thick Italian accent and hawking his ‘miracle’ juice (‘To buy or not to buy, that is the question…’), Volpone becomes a different kind of conman entirely, and the results are genuinely hilarious. There was even a touch of improvisation when Volpone interacted with an audience member and received an unexpected answer. In the attempted seduction scene, Volpone shifts gear again and becomes an energetic, if unsuccessful, singing Lothario. Again, credit should be given for the set design: the neon lights, ‘sexy’ music and the bed rising through the floor are like something from a teenage boy’s fantasy circa. 1975. Cheesy, but a perfect match for Volpone’s animated self-confidence. Eventually, Volpone’s tragic flaws are his need to screw over the other characters and his overweening self-confidence. Like the Jew of Malta’s Barabas, Volpone cannot quit while he’s ahead and he tries one more jape out of ‘sheer wantonness’. But Goodman makes what is really an unlikely act of hubris look entirely natural.

This production was marketed as an analogy for the greed and corruption that is so often blamed for the 2008 financial crisis. This connection is strained, partly because Volpone is so clearly more interested in the human aspects of wealth acquisition (getting one over on his rivals) rather than any City slicker hunger for big bonuses. But partly it just wouldn’t work because the play is not a simplistic morality tale about the dangers of corporate greed. Luckily, the marketing doesn’t match the reality and there is no sustained attempt to stress the topicality of Volpone vis-à-vis today’s greedy bankers. Besides the stock market tracker in his living room, Volpone’s only business dealings are the con tricks he inflicts on his friends. Volpone might be a bit of a Bernie Madoff, but Madoff was really a sideshow to the main event. The other small flaw in the production is there in the original. There is a parallel plot involving Sir Politick Would-be which has almost nothing to do with the main story concerning Volpone and it looks like an entirely superfluous effort to add some buffoonish humour to a play that really doesn’t need it.

This is a high-spirited play, joyful and boisterous, but it is also refined. The balance that has been struck between these two aspects should probably not be a surprise from a director as renowned as Trevor Nunn and an actor as versatile as Henry Goodman. Go and watch it.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Coming Soon... AMPRAW 2015

And now for something completely different...

Call for Papers
Fifth Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in the Reception of the Ancient World
14th-15th December 2015
University of Nottingham
Abstracts deadline: 31st August 2015
It is with great pleasure that we announce the fifth Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in the Reception of the Ancient World. AMPRAW 2015 will be a two-day conference aiming to provide both UK and international postgraduate students from all disciplines with the opportunity to present their research to the growing academic community focusing on classical reception.

This year's conference will be held from Monday 14th to Tuesday 15th December 2015 at the University of Nottingham.

We will build on the successful trend of recent AMPRAWs, and this year the focus will be “Orthodoxy and Dissent”. This theme relates to many aspects of reception studies, and will further widen the scope of AMPRAW into the areas of material and visual culture, translation studies, and political thought.

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers (with a subsequent 10 minute discussion) that engage with the following key questions:

       Has there been and is there still an orthodox view(s) of the ancient world?
       How have dissenters challenged this picture?
       Is dissent against orthodoxy essential for art?
       Do issues of orthodoxy and dissent help to highlight or shroud issues of contemporary discourse?
       In what ways have the ancient world and its artefacts been used to reinforce or challenge authority?
       Is there an ‘orthodox’ way of teaching Classics today?

Thus far, a wide range of abstracts have been submitted, testament to the breadth of opportunity that classical reception offers. We would encourage abstracts focusing on any aspect of the ancient world and how it has been received in any context since.

In addition to this year's panels, AMPRAW 2015 will feature a keynote lecture, and practitioner-led workshops from visiting speakers. Our exciting agenda already includes a keynote speech by Dr. Gideon Nisbet, whose latest work has focussed on reception of epigram (including a translation of Martial), and a workshop by Clare Pollard, the poet who recently published a contemporary verse translation of Ovid’s ‘Heroides’. Further details and panel topics are to follow in due course.

Evening entertainment is to be arranged for Monday 14th December, and will be in conjunction with the Centre for Ancient Drama and its Reception (CADRE). Bursaries may be available to conference-goers and speakers alike, thanks to generous funding offered to us. Confirmation and details on how to apply for this will follow in due course.

Please send your title and a 200-300 word abstract (including your name, affiliation and level of study) to, by the 31st August 2015.

For up-to-date conference news and further details, please visit our website: and get involved on twitter @AMPRAW2015.

We look forward to receiving your abstracts!
The AMPRAW 2015 Organising Committee