Maxine Peake

Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy at the Manchester International Festival

Ahead of the fifth RSN on 30th October, I thought I’d re-post something I wrote for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online.

It was published on that site first, on 29 July 2013.

Jen Morgan


‘The Masque of Anarchy’ at the Manchester International Festival, 2013

‘The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air’ (Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical, i (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1844), p. 208.

Monday 16 August 1819 was a hot day, the weather contributing to the size of the crowd that assembled at St Peter’s Field to attend a political meeting that entered the annals of history under the name ‘Peterloo’. Nearly two hundred years later, around two thousand people a night (12–14 July 2013) braved a heat-wave to gather in the Albert Hall on the site of the Manchester Massacre. In one of the Manchester International Festival’s (MIF) highlights, Maxine Peake, directed by the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom, performed Percy Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy. As a rendition of the poem it was related directly to the concerns of my doctoral research, though it was beyond my period of the early to mid-nineteenth century. If Maxine had been a Chartist performing the poem I would certainly be writing about the performance in my thesis. So I wanted to write about the performance for another forum, and also because I think it deserves a more extended analysis than is possible in a newspaper review.

The tickets for the event sold quickly, at £12 each they matched the standard charge for the limited number of tickets for more expensive MIF events which were reserved for residents of Greater Manchester. Macbeth featuring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston, for example, cost £65 but there were some tickets available at £12. Masque was pitched at and attended by local people, many of whom will have followed the routes into town from Ashton, Middleton, Oldham, etc. traced by attendees of the reform meeting in 1819. This aspect of the performance was not incidental, as the intention was to speak to present-day concerns on the site of the event, and I argue that the performance placed the relationship between performer and audience at its heart for a political purpose.

My Ph.D. research uncovers the specifics of Shelley’s presence in Chartist and Owenite socialist newspapers and journals. It has long been a critical commonplace that Shelley exerted a strong influence on these movements, but I thought it necessary to situate their use of his poetry in terms of the development of those movements. If Shelley gave Chartists ‘a better hope and a faith in the future’,[1] then the facts that Chartism went through periods of hope and despair and that the movement ended without gaining what it demanded — the People’s Charter — must surely have affected their relationship with Shelley. I wanted to see whether and in what ways poems like the Mask of Anarchy entered into the political rhetoric of Chartists as well as the poetry columns of their newspapers. One example I found was in a speech by Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor in which he stated that: ‘The only astonishment that now prevails is, that the lion of England has not arisen before from his slumber, and in his majesty shaken the dew from his mane’.[2] The rising of lions from slumber or the working class from political subordination, O’Connor suggested in 1839, was long overdue. Chartists also referred frequently to Peterloo, with one Northern Star article describing a semi-theatrical remembrance of the event on its site and on its anniversary: ‘It has been customary with the Radicals of Manchester to celebrate that important though memorable day, by holding a meeting on the spot where the dreadful tragedy was performed’.[3] The narrator, Edward Curran, was a veteran of Peterloo, and directed his audience’s attention to the scene of action and to its historical meaning:

In yonder window (pointing to a window opposite,) sat a number of magistrates, who read the Riot Act, and who afterwards rioted in the blood of an unoffending and starving people. (Hear, hear.) That scene had passed away; they were then subjected to a temporary defeat, but he hoped they had now sufficient courage never to allow either the sabres of the Yeomanry, or any other weapons drive them from that field again. (Loud cheers.)

Peterloo was to be, as it was so often described in Chartist discourse, the ‘never to be forgotten’ event, the wave of repression that followed was to be only ‘a temporary defeat’, and the only thing that could redeem the blood sacrifice of Mancunian reformers in 1819 was Chartists’ efforts in their own era to obtain political representation.

I thought of Curran’s speech when Maxine performed the poem, for it was a true performance rather than a recitation of a poem on a page. Mask’s dramatic possibilities, all those whispers, shouts, and murmurs, the ventriloquising of the ‘hired murderers’ (60) and the ‘Maniac maid’, were given shape and voice.[4] The poem’s sections were marked out in the way Steven E. Jones described it: ‘two major parts: the first part, twenty-one stanzas of the satiric masquerade, then, after a brief transition scene, the second part, fifty-five stanzas of exhortation’.[5] Masquerade, an aristocratic form of entertainment, was used formally by Shelley in order to invert conventional values: the forces of law and order were actually Anarchy, Murder was disguised as the politician Castlereagh. I thought I detected the use of RP tones in this section, with ‘blood’ rendered ‘blad’ rather than ‘blud’ as Maxine would normally say it, though this may be fanciful. If it was intentional to give the masquerade section an artificial gloss then it made the delivery of the poem’s last exhortative section all the more immediate.

I have always found it difficult to imagine the transition scene, in which change is wrought by the actions of the Maniac maid Hope prostrating herself before the horses of Anarchy. Its indeterminacy seems politically problematic — What, exactly, happens at this point? Who or what is the ‘shape arrayed in mail’? (110) Whose is the voice that speaks words of ‘joy and fear’ (138), ‘as if’ they had sprung from the heart of the ‘indignant Earth’? (139, my emphasis) Mask has been read variously as a call to arms, arguing for political violence in the face of state oppression, and also as advocating non-violent actions. MIF’s slogan is ‘Made for Manchester. Shared with the World’, and this could equally stand for Mask and its afterlife — it has inspired or been used by Ghandi, the students in Tiananmen Square, and Brecht during the Nazi period. My own view is that Shelley imagined, in his recommendations that the next crowd assembled in a Peterloo-like scenario ‘fold their arms’ when threatened, a virtuous circle in which repeated mass martyrdom encouraged more people to join the reform movement until their collective mass was ‘unvanquishable’ by sheer force of numbers. Even if that worked it would require a tremendous commitment to the sacrifice of yourself and your friends, something the Chartists in their frequent rhetorical references to Peterloo rejected. We might reflect here on the great changes in military hardware that does not pitch cavalry and artillery against people armed with guns and pikes, the chosen weaponry of the Chartists, but unmanned drones against unarmed civilians. It may seem incredible that a poem can be taken as having something serious to say about modes of political action, but it seems to me that Mask’s great virtue is not that it describes a particular course of action but that it poses ‘again — again — again’ (371), for successive generations, the problem of the necessity for political action. Not only that, in posing the problem it places decisions on the agenda: Should we act, or not? If we are attacked, what then?


Maxine’s version of the transition scene in the dramatic venue of the Albert Hall’s Methodist chapel gave to the haziness of the images offered by Shelley what I can only think of as bulk and the space to breathe. They were not translated into literal figures (that would have been a loss), but their imaginative possibilities were allowed to occupy the space of the chapel reaching up to its ornate ceiling. She gestured at the ‘clouds [growing] on the blast’ (106), watched the Shape’s ‘step as soft as wind’ passing ‘o’er the heads of men’ (118–19). We were helped to see the invisible, to imagine that which does not exist — this section functioned, as it was meant to, as a representation of political awakening if not a provocation of such an experience. The section had the emotional intensity and indistinct shapes of a sublime dream, offering a contrast that was felt like a shock when it was succeeded by Shelley’s definition of Freedom as the labourer having ‘bread’ (221) and a ‘neat and happy home’ (224).


As the performance moved to the final section of the poem, the ‘exhortation’ as described by Jones, Maxine looked very much like the best political speech maker of her generation. (In the Culture Show episode dedicated to the event, she described herself (in a reversal of the usual story of frustrated ambition) as an actor who wanted to be a politician.[6]) It begins with the lines ‘What is Freedom? Ye can tell/ That which slavery is, too well’ (156–57). Maxine posed the question to the audience directly as a real question, pausing after ‘Freedom’, forcing a moment of reflection. As she took a step towards the audience (I nearly wrote ‘crowd’), the poem turned into a direct address full of immediacy. Stress was laid on words that left us in no doubt of the intention to make the poem relevant to our own time: ‘Such starvation cannot be/ As in England now we see’ (228–29), and ‘They are dying whilst I speak’ (171). RP tones, if they were present in the opening stanzas, were now gone. Food banks were described in a Guardian article in March 2013 as an ‘austerity-era civil society growth industry in the UK’, and the Albert Hall was used as a venue for soup kitchens. All of this was present in the performance; the Chartists would have loved it.


(From ‘To the People’, a passage from Mask reprinted and given a new name in the Chartist publication The National: A Library for the People, pp. 124–26.)


[1] Bouthaina Shaaban, “Shelley in the Chartist Press.” Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin. 34 (1984), 41–60 (p. 47).

[2] ‘Feargus O’Connor, Esq. at Nottingham’, Northern Star, 6 July 1839, p. 6.

[3] ‘Great Demonstration in Commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre’, Northern Star, 18 August 1838, p. 8.

[4] Line references to Mask refer to the Longman edition. (The Poems of Shelley, ed. by Geoffrey Matthews and others, 4 vols (London : Longman, 1989–), iii: The Mask of Anarchy, ed. by Jack Donovan (2011), pp. 27–63.

[5] Steven E. Jones, ‘Shelley’s Satire of Succession and Brecht’s Anatomy of Regression: “The Mask of Anarchy” and Der anachronistische Zug oder Freiheit und Democracy’ in Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World ed. by Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). pp. 193–200 (p. 195).

[6] ‘Maxine Peake — Performance, Protest and Peterloo’, The Culture Show, BBC Two, 17 July 2013.