Archaeology on Stage: E.W. Godwin and John Todhunter’s ‘Helena in Troas’ (1886).

Katie Faulkner is an associate lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art and Arcadia University College of Global Studies. She is currently working on a new book project looking at sculpture and performance in nineteenth-century Britain. You can get in touch via email: or follow her on Twitter/Instagram: @katierosemary12

In 1885, the architect, antiquarian and designer E.W. Godwin published an article titled ‘Archaeology on Stage’ for The Dramatic Review:

Stage pictures of the past times should be treated pari passu, as life itself is treated by the dramatist. The archaeologist, in other words, must be an artist, endowed with a sense of form and colour, having constructiveness well developed, and in sympathy with the dramatic purpose.[i]

In Godwin’s view, archaeological accuracy and realism were important, but only as a means to the end of capturing the lived experience of the past. At the same time, he argues that the dramatist should be an artist. She or he must understand beauty and how it is constructed. Colour, form and harmony should be key principles informing the production of ‘stage pictures’. These sentiments would have been familiar to any artists or writers well-versed in Aesthetic movement literature or art. In particular, his comments echo criticism around the work of painters James McNeill Whistler and Albert Moore, who were Godwin’s close friends.


Scenes from John Todhunter’s Helena in Troas, as performed at Hengler’s Circus, London, May 17th, 1886.

Godwin put his Aesthetic theories into practice as director of Helena in Troas, a play written by John Todhunter, adapted from Euripedes. The play was put on to raise funds for the British School of Archaeology in Athens. The first performance took place on 17th May 1886, and then on five subsequent afternoons throughout the month, at Hengler’s Circus, in Argyll Street, London.[ii] The actors were a mix of professionals and amateurs, including Alma Murray as Helena and Maud and Henry Beerbohm Tree as Oenone and Paris. Constance Wilde, wife of Oscar and the painter Louise Jopling took more minor roles.[iii] The performances were seen by relatively small audiences, but as W.B. Yeats recalled: ‘Helena in Troas … was the talk of the London Season. Its sonorous verse, united to the white robed chorus, and the solemnity of burning incense, produced a semi-religious effect new to the modern stage.’[iv] Previous scholars have studied Helena in Troas in the wider context of Godwin’s versatility as a designer or as an example of the late-nineteenth-century fascination with seeing the ancient world on stage.[v] I argue that this play should be seen as an Aesthetic movement artwork in its own right.

The art and history of ancient Greece occupied fluid symbolic ground in nineteenth-century Britain. On the one hand the ancient Greece prefigured Britain’s success, built on commerce and colonial expansion. Ancient Greek citizens were equated with British gentleman – well educated, well travelled, athletic and dependable. This was reinforced amongst the ruling classes through the emphasis on the classics in public schools and universities. By the 1870s, however, writers and artists associated with the Aesthetic movement adopted ancient art and literature as territory for experimental and progressive writing. We see this particularly in the work of Vernon Lee, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, who destabilised the ties between the study of Classics and conformist and conservative values.[vi]

The 1880s saw more Greek and Roman drama on stage and a resurgence of interest in classical myth in the visual arts. Presenting idealised and beautiful bodies was a central concern in both arenas.[vii] In similar ways to Lee, Pater and Wilde, Aesthetic movement painters, such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Frederic Leighton and Moore used classical forms to explore the concerns and desires of late-nineteenth-century subjects. Collaborations between artists and actors, such as Leighton and Alma Tadema’s production, Tales of Troy in 1883, also emerge as a trend. This series of tableaus and readings from the Odyssey was organised to raise funds for the newly founded Classics department at Kings College, London. Godwin and Todhunter’s production of Helena in Troas should be placed in this wider context of the experimental use of the classical form.

Godwin maintained his commitment to archaeological research on stage. In the programme for Helena in Troas, he explained that he had not recreated the scenery and costume of the Trojan wars. Instead, his designs were based on architecture and scenery of the Sophoclean era. Hengler’s Circus worked as venue because the horseshoe-shaped arena was easily adapted to Godwin’s plans.


W. Godwin, Plan for an arena and stage and dias of Hengler’s Circus, Argyll Street, London, 1886. (Photo: The Victorian and Albert Museum)

The critic for the Times noted that the reconstructed Greek theatre gave a new insight into the experience of ancient Greek audiences.[ix] A writer for The Athenaeum went into further detail, referring to the original sources for Godwin’s designs:

On the front wall … were bas-reliefs, after the friezes of Phigaleia, representing scenes from the Centuaromachia and Amazonomachia. These bas-reliefs, recalling those still in Athens, helped those who have sat in that theatre to picture in their minds more clearly than ever before its appearance in the great days of Attic drama.[x]

When researching costume for Helena in Troas, Godwin wrote to Cecil Smith, curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum.[xi] Godwin originally intended to recreate the padded costumes with exaggerated outlines of traditional Greek theatre. We can see from the production photographs and illustrations, that Godwin chose more the naturalistic, everyday dress of Classical Greece instead.


The Chorus on Stage in Helena in Troas, 1886. (Photo: The Victoria and Albert Museum).

This reflected Godwin’s wider interests in fashion and ancient Greek art. He believed ancient Greek dress, such as the peplos and the himation, were the most beautiful.[xiii] This also aligns with Godwin’s support of the Rational or ‘healthy’ dress movement, which promoted clothes that allowed the body to move freely and highlighted the ‘natural’ shape.

In her memoirs, Louise Jopling notes, Godwin ‘worshipped Greek art’ and described her work on the costumes for Helena in Troas:

I was instructed to drape and seat half a dozen figures in the same attitudes as those on the frieze of the Parthenon. […] They were attired in unbleached calico draperies, which simulated the white marble, tinged with age, wonderfully well.[xiv]

Comparing the Parthenon Frieze and with the Chorus sets up an intriguing dialogue between the real and sculptured bodies. This can be seen in the illustration, ‘Chorus at rest’ where the poses clearly echo figures L and M from the East pediment of the Parthenon. The frieze-like choreography of the Chorus is emphasised in an illustration from the Queen magazine. The members of the Chorus stand in identical poses, arms raised and one foot forward. The costumes, generalised facial features and flowing hair render one woman indistinguishable from the next, mirroring the repetitive anonymity of the female members of the procession pictured in the Parthenon Frieze.

In the later nineteenth century the performances and bodies of actresses were repeatedly compared with statues. In this period, successful actresses were often characterised as being animated by the desire of her male director and audience, a relationship that Gail Marshall terms the ‘Galatea-aesthetic.’[xv] Although we have little evidence of how Godwin felt towards his female performers, masculine desire is certainly in evidence in the criticism of Helena in Troas. The writer at the Pall Mall Gazette noted ‘their white arms gracefully extended, and their white drapery falling about them in curves like falling water.’[xvi] Similarly, the correspondent for The Academy commented his imagination was ‘strangely affected’ by the ‘bare arms’ and ‘grace of the white garments’.[xvii]

Comparisons were also drawn between Godwin’s staging and the large scale, classical works of painters such as Alma-Tadema, Leighton and Moore. As well as the similarity of costume and setting, members of the Chorus adopted similar poses to the painters’ models, such as in Moore’s paintings such as The Toilette (1886). Like Godwin, Moore took inspiration from Greek sculpture. As with Moore’s painting, geometry and harmony drove Godwin’s choreography of the Chorus as they moved from one area of the stage to another. The mosaic-patterned floor guided the movements of the chorus.[xviii] Godwin and Moore also shared the belief that harmony and beauty should come to the fore over pure archaeological accuracy.

In both the critical reception to Helena in Troas and according to Godwin’s principles of presenting archaeology on stage, there is a clear emphasis on live performance resolving into a static picture. Our sense of this is heightened due to still photographs and illustrations, which document the live event. In the contemporary reception of the play, however, the pose and stasis of the Chorus seems to be given equal or greater importance than the movement and action of the principal players. The Chorus, arranged like ‘pictures’ embodied the ideals of the Aesthetic movement beauty.


Works Cited

[i] E.W. Godwin,’ Archaeology on the Stage,’ The Dramatic Review, 8 February 1885, 19-20.

[ii] “Helena in Troas (1886)”, accessed 26 May 2016

[iii] Fanny Baldwin, ‘E.W. Godwin and Design for the Theatre,’ in E.W. Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer, ed. Susan Weber Soros (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), 341.

[iv] W.B. Yeats, ‘Dr Todhunter’s Sicilian Idyll,’ in Letters to the New Island, eds. George Bernstein and Hugh Witemeyer (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 32

[v] Fanny Baldwin, ‘E.W. Godwin and Design for the Theatre,’ in E.W. Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer, ed. Susan Weber Soros (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991).

[vi] Stefano Evangelista, British Aestheticism and Ancient Greece: Hellenism, Reception, Gods in Exile (Basingstoke: Palgave Macmillan, 2009), 9-10.

[vii] See Jeffrey Richards, The Ancient World on the Victorian and Edwardian Stage (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Elizabeth Prettejohn, Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007) and Rosemary Barrow, ‘Toga Plays and Tableaux-Vivants: Theatre and Painting on London’s Late-Victorian and Edwardian Popular Stage,’ Theatre Journal, 62 (2010).

[viii] See John Todhunter to E.W. Godwin, 24 November 1884. Godwin Archive, V&A Theatre and Performance Archive, THM/3, Box 8, Letters.

[ix] “A Greek Theatre in London,” The Times, 18 May 1886, sec. Reviews, The Times Digital Archive 1785-1985.

[x] The Athenaeum, 22 May 1886, 689.

[xi] James Laver, “Smith, Sir Cecil Harcourt- (1859–1944),” rev. Dennis Farr, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, May 2006, (accessed May 23, 2016)

[xii] Catherine Arbuthnot, ‘E.W. Godwin as an Antiquary,’ in E.W. Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer, ed. Susan Weber Soros (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 64-5.

[xiii] E.W. Godwin, ‘Claudian,’ 8.

[xiv] Louise Jopling, Twenty Years of My Life (London: John Lane, 1925), 290.

[xv] Gail Marshall, Actresses on the Victorian Stage: Feminine Performance and the Galatea Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 5 and 92-94.

[xvi] Many of the press cuttings I am citing come from box 8 in the Godwin Archive in the Victoria and Albert Museum Archive of Art and Design, which contains much of the material pertaining to Helena in Troas. The cuttings have been removed from their original publications and are thus some page numbers are missing. The Pall Mall Gazette, 18 May 1886.

[xvii] ‘The Greek Performances,’ The Academy, 22 May 1886.

[xviii] “Helena in Troas,” The Era, May 22 1886.


List of Figures/Illustrations:

  1. Scenes from John Todhunter’s Helena in Troas, as performed at Hengler’s Circus, London, May 17, 1886, From “Helena in Troas: Sketches,” Queen (5 June 1886): 264-66.
  2. W. Godwin, Plan for an arena and stage and dias of Hengler’s Circus, Argyll Street, London, 1886, pencil, pen and ink, ink wash and water-colour, 27 x 41 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum (Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum)
  3. Unknown photographer, The Chorus on Stage in Helena in Troas, 1886, photograph, 17.2 x 25.2 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum (Photo: © The Victoria and Albert Museum)



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