Burn the Aeneid! by Martyn Wade

Contact Us

Burn the Aeneid! By Martyn Wade (1993).  Dir. Cherry Cookson.  Perf. Clive Merrison, James Grout, Norman Rodway.

BBC Radio 4 Extra, 21 January 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 20 Feb. 2015.


Plucked from the Radio 4 archives at a time when Afternoon Drama was known as Afternoon Theatre, and lasted sixty rather than forty-five minutes, Burn the Aeneid! is a farcical comedy focusing on the row arising from Virgil’s decision to have his magnum opus destroyed after his death.


Tonally speaking, the play has strong echoes of the early Fifties film Laughter in Paradise, where several people from different socio-economic background squabble over a will left by one of their rich relatives.  Remade two decades later as Some Will, Some Won’t, the script energetically satirizes people’s greed, that prevents them seeing what is actually happening around them.


Likewise in Martyn Wade’s comedy it seemed that the squabbles between the so-called “courtly” Romans (played by Merrison, Grout and Rodway) were not really focused on the manuscript of the Aeneid at all, but focused rather on a struggle for prominence: who would actually take charge of the manuscript?  In truth the outcome did not really matter (Virgil’s place in history was already secure), but it consumed most of their attention.


The plot zipped along at a great lick, with the dialogue often being delivered so rapidly that it seemed that the characters were being transformed into audible marionettes.  There were several plot-diversions involving a dog (called Homer) and some lower-class characters; these strategies served to emphasize the absurdities of the protagonists’ struggles.  Eventually nothing was really resolved, except the fact that the manuscript no longer seemed as significant as it did at the beginning of the play.


Burn the Aeneid! offered an interesting comparison to Simon Armitage’s The Last Days of Troy (recently broadcast in the Classic Serial slot on Radio 4), demonstrating once and for all how classic texts can be reshaped to suit any purpose, for all types of drama.