Obituary: Philip Vellacott

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The Independent Online
Philip Vellacott achieved the remarkable feat of translating all the surviving works of Aeschylus and Euripides for the Penguin Classics, an enterprise which exactly suited his dedication to the popularisation of classical culture, and to the drama.

He was born in 1907; his father was a chartered accountant, a member of the Plymouth Brethren, who was subsequently ordained into the Presbyterian Church, a vocation which Philip himself briefly followed, and which led him to four years of social work in Poplar during the depression.

Six contented years of his childhood were spent in Cambridge; after several moves the family settled in Willesden, and Vellacott won a scholarship to St Paul's, from which he went, by a traditional transition, to Magdalene College, Cambridge. There his contemporaries included Michael Ramsey, subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury, and William Empson, the poet and literary critic. Neither of them were his close friends, but both influenced his work, and together they illustrate the strange mixture of conformity and non-conformity that annealed in Magdalene after the Kaiser's war.

Vellacott read classics under Stanley Vernon-Jones, and Vernon-Jones's teaching is directly reflected in Vellacott's justly celebrated text-book, Writing in Latin (1970, written with D.P. Simpson), where the English subjects chosen are as remarkable as the translations. Vellacott took a double First in the Tripos.

In the Thirties it became apparent that his career lay in teaching; he lectured briefly at Liverpool University, then taught at schools in Dungannon and Stockport, before finally being induced to follow his Stockport headmaster to Alleyn's College, Dulwich.

As a long-time member of the Peace Pledge Union he was able to obtain exemption from military service, but he and his wife, Nancy Agnew, whom he had married in the summer of 1939, were rigorous in voluntary war work. The Second World War also added to his duties at Alleyn's; in addition to teaching Latin and Greek he coped with English and music, as well as having a special responsibility for the Dulwich College Mission in Camberwell. When, after the war, his range of teaching diminished, he devoted himself to drama in the school, which after all owed its existence in large measure to the profits of the Elizabethan theatre.

In 1967 he decided to retired to the house he had bought in a particularly radiant corner of Radnorshire. The previous 12 years had seen the publication of the Penguin translations (and frequently their broadcasts) and he was now anxious to systematise the thoughts that had emerged from his close engagement with the texts of so many plays. The results were, to say the least, surprising.

Originally developed through lectures given at universities in the United States (his "retirement" was a ludicrous misnomer) they turned into three books, Sophocles and Oedipus (1971); Ironic Drama: a study of Euripides (1975); and The Logic of Tragedy: morals and integrity in Aeschylus's "Oresteia" (1984). There subsequently followed privately printed pamphlets.

The theme of all these was irony. In his introductions to the Penguin translations Vellacott had adopted the traditional view, through German theory, enunciated by Schlegel and systematised by Hegel. He saw the Attic playwrights as advancing and supporting the new Athenian order, their dramas (though Euripides, a wild card, didn't quite fit the bill) based on thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, gradually moving Greece towards the best of all possible worlds. This conservative reading had been inclined to echo lines of the Bible and of Shakespeare when parallels occurred.

But, latterly, he devastatingly abandoned this orthodoxy. He saw the "civic" conclusion of The Eumenides as bitterly satirical. He felt, without being in the least influenced by modern feminism, that Aeschylus and Euripides had views about the position of women wholly at variance with the society in which they lived, although closely related to its earlier, shamefully abandoned, beliefs.

His views received most commonly scant, less commonly sharp notice, and he came increasingly to believe that he was a victim of the "classical establishment". This was hardly likely; the "classical establishment" had been on the run for years, dependent, when it could re-group and re- establish itself, on just such publications as Vellacott's Penguin translations.

He would have been the first to acknowledge the help that he had received from Professor Hugh Lloyd-Jones in establishing the Greek text from which he translated Menander's newly discovered Dyscolos, and from Professor Charles Segal in his work on Euripides. But when he found his voice about Athenian tragedy it was, rightly or wrongly, largely ignored, despite the forcefulness and clarity with which he presented his views.

In person he was slim, erect, quizzical and tenacious. He was a resolute walker, and a pianist of professional competence who knew the entire Art of Fugue by heart, if at a rather steady pace. He had Shakespeare virtually word for word. His sister Elisabeth is a distinguished artist, several of whose finest works he possessed.

Richard Luckett.

Philip Humphrey Vellacott, classical scholar, literary critic, broadcaster and schoolmaster: born Grays, Essex 16 January 1907; married 1939 Nancy Agnew (one son, one adopted son, two daughters); died Frankbridge, Radnorshire 24 August 1997.