Friday, 26 June 2015

Bathroom Murders Ancient & Modern



Do you want Radox or Badedas in your bath, darling?
The highpoint of the version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia showing at the Almeida Theatre in London (my paywalled review in this week's Times Literary Supplement is pasted below) is the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra in their bathroom. Aeschylus invented almost everything important in non-comedic theatre; in this scene, described as it takes place by the raving, clairvoyant Cassandra, he demonstrated for all time the grim aptness of the bathroom as slaughterhouse.

Corday became a heroine as France moved to right
Is it the  contrast between smooth ceramic surfaces and soft flesh, pools of water and spurting blood, violent blows and gentle laving? Or perhaps it’s the analogy between towels and shrouds, between a corpse floating in bathwater and an embryo in amniotic fluid.

 The most famous subsequent bathroom death in theatre is Charlotte Corday’s stabbing of Jean-Paul Marat (1793), as dramatized in Act IV of François Ponsard's tragedy Charlotte Corday (1850). The play inspired a plethora of depictions, like this one by Baudry, which put Corday back in the historical frame from which she had been excised as a counter-revolutionary in 1793 by Jacques-Louis David.
David's Corday-free Death of Marat

Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, the slayer of their daughter Iphigenia, because (1) there was no homicide court in Bronze-Age Argos and (2) she thought she was as well qualified as him to lead. Corday murdered Marat because (1) she thought the French revolution had Gone Too Far and (2) she had read Plutarch, having received an education equal to a man’s; Plutarch’s Lives tell of doughty ancient statesmen who stood up for their political principles.

Skilful but morally vacuous art?
This is what depresses me about the 20th-century equivalent of Aeschylus' and Ponsard’s bathroom scenes, the shower sequence in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Somewhere along the line, our public art renounced the duty to challenge and inform in a moral and political way. However innovative cinematically, however scary, watching a petty fraudster being slashed to pieces by a psychotic just doesn’t compare with bathroom murders which thrash out the fundamental contradictions in the Athenian democracy or revolutionary France.


Clytemnestra and Agamemnon on ancient vase 
I’m in Los Angeles right now, to give a Getty lecture on the Oresteia’s politics, and am tempted to approach Hollywood godfathers with my idea for a movie version in which the bathroom showdown symbolises an insoluble problem of our day: e.g. American racism. It may make me naïve, but I’m still campaigning for serious public art that is also enjoyable. The ancient called this art that married the useful (utile) and the pleasurable (dulce). Yet another old ideal we would do well to revive.

TLS review, 'An Atmosphere of Emergency
Excitement has been mounting ever since January when Rupert Goold, the Artstic Director of the Almeida Theatre, announced a season of Greek drama.  The first production to be unveiled is Robert Icke’s version of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, billed as a ‘radical reimagining’ of this mammoth ancient masterpiece and its ‘first major London production’ for over a decade. The selection itself bespeaks confidence on the part of both Goold and Icke.  The Oresteia is the sole ancient Greek trilogy of three connected tragedies to have survived from the classical Athenian theatre, and thus by far the most substantial ancient dramatic work in the repertoire. At its first performance in 458 BC it already changed the nature of tragedy, in locating the tragic action at a family home, rather than in a city square or sanctuary. It has influenced other epoch-making artworks including Hamlet (via Renaissance Latin cribs of Aeschylus) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. To appreciate the Almeida team’s boldness we also need to remember that the Oresteia has rarely been attempted except by figures of legendary stature in the international theatre: towering above them all has been Peter Stein and his two extraordinary productions in divided Germany (1980) and post-Soviet Russia (1994). Icke’s self-assurance in essaying a new English acting version is thrown into further relief when one recalls that the last two Oresteias to be performed at the National Theatre were composed by titans of English poetry: Tony Harrison (directed by Peter Hall, 1981) and Ted Hughes (directed by Katie Mitchell, 1999) respectively.
My two criteria for assessing any contemporary production of an ancient Greek play are that it should be thrilling theatre and that its intellectual power should not fall too far short of the original’s. On the first count, the Almeida Oresteia is a triumph. Hildegard Bechtler’s design is impeccable; sliding glass doors divide the front of the acting area from its rear spaces, creating a tantalising hinterland of bathrooms and bedrooms where intimate and sinister encounters take place. The spectators feel their own prurience in needing to crane their necks and screw up their eyes in order to see these properly. A dynamic tension is created between extended the horizontal axis (the House of Atreus family dining table; the platform from which they address their public) and upward movements (the pious Agamemnon’s gestures to heaven; the officious Athena who presides over the closing lawcourt scene). The largely monochrome colour palette—white, black and several shades of grey—allows the few gashes of primary colour to make a startling impact: the young female victims Iphigenia and Cassandra both wear crocus-yellow, in ancient initiation rites the colour of pubertal girls’ dresses; both status and emotional intensity are flagged by crimson dressing-gowns and jackets.  
The audience is kept spellbound for the best part of four hours, emerging exhausted from unremitting onslaughts on their senses and emotions. The production tests their physical powers of endurance, underlined by the brevity of the ‘comfort breaks’, during which an army of intimidating attendants constantly bark the information that the clock is ticking and that only a few minutes remain.  Above the stage, an electronic clock appears every time a murder is about  to take place, clinically recording the exact minute of death in ‘real time.’ More could have been made of this disquieting device in the final episode, since, in ancient courts, defence and prosecution speeches were given precisely the same numbers of minutes; ancient litigants performed against a water-clock resembling a giant egg-timer. Yet this Oresteia’s sustained rapidity, along with the sense of chronometric pressure on the spectator, is exciting and innovative. Even the most important human decisions often need to be taken precipitately, and the Greek tragedians, with their conventional ‘unity of time’, understood how important an atmosphere of emergency is for tragic theatre. Icke has discovered a way to evoke, in a contemporary manner, the sheer speed at which classical tragedy unfolds.
His Oresteia is essentially a new play based on parts of four ancient tragedies. The long opening section—more than an hour in length—serves to give us the ‘backstory’. Its action takes place ten years earlier than the action of the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (which begins at the end of the Trojan War), revealing the process by which Agamemnon brought himself to execute his daughter Iphigenia. There is a surviving ancient tragedy on this theme, Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, and Icke has used some of its encounters, notably a charged dialogue between Agamemnon and Menelaus. This scene makes the point that theirs was already a dysfunctional family, blighted by horrid crimes in the previous generation. But Icke’s objective is to create a sense of the domestic ordinariness of Agamemnon’s family—they bicker at the table and play noisy hide-and-seek; the harassed, neglected wife strains to gain her distracted statesman-husband’s undivided attention. The intimacy which the audience builds up with this family exacerbates the horror of the long silence just after Agamemnon administers a lethal pharmaceutical cocktail to his daughter Iphigenia. For we have come to know her well--her taste for the Beach Boys and her favourite cuddly toy, a floppy, long-eared hare. The hare is a typical example of Icke’s resourcefulness at finding theatrical equivalents for the dense verbal imagery in Aeschylus’s Greek: in the original Agamemnon, the action is symbolised in the sphere of religion by the reported portent of a pregnant hare, whose foetuses are torn from her womb by rapacious eagles. Similarly, while Icke dispenses with all choruses including the titular Libation Bearers of Aeschylus’ original central tragedy (slave women who pour libations on Agamemnon’s tomb), he reintegrates the libation trope in the bottles of red wine, favoured by Agamemnon, which Electra keeps on opening for him.
There are memorable episodes of riveting rhetoric, flamboyantly written and emphasised by ingenious use of live on-stage video-cameras and screens at the side of the auditorium. The best are Clytemnestra’s public address greeting Agamemnon home from the war, his painfully clumsy response, and her vaunting speech over his corpse a few minutes later.  Twice the action explodes into unforgettable, chaotic violence. The bathroom murder of Agamemnon, complete with a mesmerising performance of Cassandra’s clairvoyant ravings from the under-utilised Chara Yannis, is the best theatrical rendition I have ever seen. The other spectacular highlight is the moment when through sudden darkness, blinding light and sound effects we realise that Orestes’ psyche suffered irreparable damage when he killed his mother. These moments alone are worth the price of a ticket—imaginative, committed, no-holds-barred enactment of devastating scenes first devised two and a half millennia ago. But there is perhaps a lesson to be learned here. These outstanding sequences happen to be the moments in Icke’s play which most closely reproduce Aeschylus’ original.
            It is not that I have any reservations whatsoever about wholesale cutting, supplementing and adaptation of ancient plays. Perhaps the most theatrically powerful version of the Oresteia I have witnessed was Yaȅl Farber’s South African Molora (2003), in which a black Orestes decided not even to kill the white Clytemnestra who had persecuted him. In a transparent reference to the restraint of black South Africans post-apartheid, she was spared retaliatory violence. But something does go temporarily awry in the part of Icke’s Oresteia corresponding to Libation-Bearers, especially in the long scene between Electra and Orestes. This was sadly unconvincing. The problem lies less in the writing than in the acting, which was almost embarrassingly bad, especially in comparison with the electrifying performance of Lia Williams as Clytemnestra and Angus Wright as Agamemnon. These outstandingly powerful stage presences deliver master classes in physical tension and vocal control, as well as convincing everyone that they share a magnetic sexual attraction. Williams’ Clytemnestra is quite literally an impossible act for Orestes to follow.
            As the action hurtles towards its climax, when Orestes is acquitted and the reciprocal blood-feud in his family ended, the setting moves from the presidential palace of Argos to Athens. During the trial of Orestes for his mother’s murder, most of the ensemble don lawyers’ gowns and shout at one another. A dishevelled elderly woman, apparently representing a Fury or Orestes’ psychosis, wanders around the stage, adding to the confusion.  Things become increasingly chaotic as the litigious language flows. There is a rather belated attempt to make the audience think about institutionalised sexism, in line with Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement in The Second Sex that the Oresteia is the charter text of western misogyny. The argument was first made in the theatre by Ariane Mnouchkine’s unforgettable Les Atrides with the Théâtre du Soleil (1990). Mnouchkine’s was also the first of many productions, now including Icke’s, to give Clytemnestra a feminist twist by prefacing the Oresteia with Iphigenia in Aulis, and thus with the execution of Iphigenia.
If the patriarchy theme is inchoate and submerged, Icke’s play is clearly motored by two philosophical questions which overlap with psychoanalytical ones. The first question is ethical (how do we make decisions? What are the limits of our freedom to decide anything? How far does our identity as family members put pressure on that freedom?). The second is epistemological (how can we be sure of anything? What counts as incontrovertibly certain information? What is a reliable memory?) Agamemnon takes a long time deciding to kill Iphigenia. But he does so because his priest tells him that this has been commanded by the gods through signs. The madness of Orestes hampers both his ability to deliberate and his cognitive powers, especially his memory. Built upon this basic philosophical argument is an oft-repeated insistence on the inter-connectedness of everything: all actions have consequences not just for the agent but for those who interact with him or her. This is an Oresteia about the individual’s psychic experience of nuclear family trauma, but it is also complex, joined-up morality for a fast-paced digital age.
            This brings us to my second criterion for assessing a modern production of an ancient drama—its intellectual cogency. An interpretation of the Oresteia as a study of the implementation of justice, however engagingly it exposes the problematic nature of legal concepts such as ‘intention’ and ‘evidence’, is rather conventional. It was Katie Mitchell’s interpretation fifteen years ago. The Oresteia is a much more political work than most modern productions succeed in conveying. It is not only a drama about juridical procedure, but a constitutional chronicle of unparalleled significance for democracy. It gives cosmic authorisation to the historical evolution of society from rule by hereditary monarchs in Agamemnon, through unaccountable tyrants who have swept to power by a coup in Libation-Bearers, to an astonishingly modern-looking and monarch-free constitutional democracy in Eumenides. The jurors’ vote, taken to determine Orestes’ fate, also symbolises the epoch-making transfer of executive power from the hands of rich dynasties to the 30,000-plus ordinary citizens of Athens who were male and free, a revolution which had reached a climax just a couple of years before the production of this masterpiece. Athena in Aeschylus’ Eumenides founds the Athenian democracy and begs her citizens to renounce the murderous factional in-fighting which at the time of the premiere of the Oresteia had caused bloodshed in the Athenian streets and the brutal assassination of the radical democrats’ leader. The Oresteia enacts the resolution of something far more important than revenge killings in an individual family—namely a lethal conflict between the lower classes and the hereditary aristocracy, involving  sinister disappearances and acts of terrorism, in which the entire populace of Athens and her international allies had been mired for half a century. In the 1980s there were indeed productions which conveyed something of the magnitude of the trilogy’s societal significance—not only those by Stein and Hall but a pathbreaking performance in post-dictatorship Greece, directed by Karolos Koun. It would be good to see our own brilliant young directors aspire to the creation of a relevant, Greek-inspired drama of equivalently magnificent scope and profundity. 

Friday, 19 June 2015

Classics and Educational Apartheid

On June 4th I gave ‘the Gaisford lecture’ at Oxford University, named after the Regius Professor of Greek there from 1811, and chaired by the current one, Prof. Chris Pelling. Its title was 'Pearls Before Swine? The Past and Future of Greek.' The revised text appears in the Review section of Guardian 20th June and below. There is a video summary on the website of the Classics and Class research project on which I work with Dr. Henry Stead.[i]

The lecture set out my view of the purpose of education. I share this with Thomas Jefferson: education needs to equip people to defend their liberty. I argued that Greek ideas are more significant than grammar in so equipping them.
Arranging Porcine Mascot on Podium

In my personal utopia, all citizens could study Ancient Greek, Latin and every other subject, free of charge, at any time. But in 21st-century Britain, Ancient Greek ‘A’-Level, available at hardly any state-sector schools, marks money and privilege. It also, embarrassingly, gives the few hundred privately educated teenagers who take it a queue-jumping ticket to the ruling class. Greek (and/or Latin) ‘A’ Level, solicitously taught, gives them a better chance of getting into Oxbridge than any other subject.

Brabazon, inspired by Class. Civ. teacher
There is an affordable solution: extending the excellent ‘A’-Level in Classical Civilisation, taken by several thousand state-sector students annually, across the whole school system. Teachers with PGCEs in English, History, Religious Studies, Modern Languages, and Philosophy can offer it. Wherever it is introduced, it is popular and successful. It has inspired dozens of high achieving professionals, like James Brabazon, comprehensive school educated and an award-winning frontline documentary  film maker. It can be taught by teachers with a PGCE in another subject.

19th-c. satire of labourer who dared to study Greek
But getting the Greeks to the people means giving ‘Classical Civilisation’ the intellectual respect it deserves. Having taught it, I know that it requires just as much analytical, critical and lateral thinking as ‘A’-Level History or English. Unfortunately, some classics lecturers and alumni denigrate it from a position of ignorant privilege, thus perpetuating the classical apartheid in British education.

Thomas Gaisford
So I included in the lecture some of the glorious gallery of people outside academia who have been inspired by encountering Greek ideas but in their mother tongue: Thomas Jefferson, framing the Declaration of Independence, borrowed the ‘pursuit of happiness’ from Aristotle. Toussaint Louverture read Plutarch’s account of Spartacus before leading the first successful slave rebellion on Haiti in 1791. Chartist leaders were inspired by the Athenian democratic revolution. Women suffragists recited at their meetings the resounding speech which the tragedian Euripides gives his heroine Medea on the economic, political and sexual oppression of the entire female sex.

All power to all their elbows, say I. Thomas Gaisford may be turning in his grave, but somehow I’m okay with that.




Pearls before Swine?
Citizens’ Classics for the 21st Century: Full Text

The recent general election has exposed the danger inherent in vote-based democracies—that they inevitably entail large disaffected minorities being excluded from executive power.  The ancient Greek inventors of democracy vigorously debated this issue, having painful historical experience of it (recorded by Thucydides) and theoretical solutions (discussed by Aristotle).  Yet our state educational system almost completely deprives our secondary-school children of the opportunity to think about democracy afforded by the dazzling thought-world of the ancient Greeks. This is despite the availability of excellent translations of all their writings—free online—into modern English.
The foundations of the Greeks’ exciting culture, to which few of our teenagers are ever introduced, were laid long before the arrival of Christianity, between 800 and 300 BC. Greek-speakers lived in hundreds of different villages, towns and cities, from Spain to Libya and the Nile delta, from the freezing river Don in the north-eastern corner of the Black Sea to Trebizond.  They were culturally elastic, for they often freely intermarried with other peoples; they had no sense of ethnic inequality which was biologically determined, since the concepts of distinct world ‘races’ had not been invented. They tolerated and even welcomed imported foreign gods. What united them was never geopolitics, either. With the arguable exception of the short-lived Macedonian Empire in the later 4th century BC, there never was a recognisable, independent, state run by Greek-speakers, centred in and including what we now know as Greece, until after the Greek War of Independence in the early 19th century.
What bound the Greeks together was an enquiring cast of mind underpinned by a wonderful shared set of stories and poems and a restlessness which made them more likely to sail away and found a new city-state than tolerate starvation or oppression in a venerable mainland metropolis. The diasporadic, seafaring Greeks, while they invented new communities from scratch and were stimulated by constantly interacting with other ethnic groups, made a rapid series of intellectual discoveries which propelled the Mediterranean world to a new level of civilisation. This process of self-education was much admired by the Greeks and Romans of the centuries which followed. When the texts and artworks of classical Greece were rediscovered in the European Renaissance, they changed the world for a second time.
Yet over the last two decades the notion that the Greeks were exceptional has been questioned.  It has been stressed that they were, after all, just one of many ethnic and linguistic groups centred in the eastern end of the ancient Mediterranean world.  Long before the Greeks appeared in the historical record, several complicated civilisations had arisen – the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, the Hattians and Hittites.  Other peoples provided the Greeks with crucial technological advances; they learned the phonetic alphabet from the Phoenicians, and how to mint coins from the Lydians. They may have learned how to compose elaborate cult hymns from the mysterious Luwians of Syria and central Anatolia.  During the period when the Greeks invented rational philosophy and science, after 600 BC, their horizons were dramatically opened up by the expansion of the Persian Empire. 
In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, our understanding of the other cultures of the Ancient Near East advanced rapidly.  We know far more about the minds of the Greeks’ predecessors and neighbours than we did before the landmark discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh on clay tablets in the Tigris valley in 1853. There has been a constant stream of newly published texts in the languages of the successive peoples who dominated the fertile plains of Mesopotamia (Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians). The words of Ḫittites on the tablets found at Hattuša in central Turkey and the phrases inscribed on clay tablets at Ugarit in northern Syria have been deciphered.  New texts as well as fresh interpretations of writings by the ancient Egyptians continue to appear, requiring, for example, a reassessment of the importance of the Nubians to North African history.  Many of these thrilling advances have revealed how much the Greeks shared with and absorbed from their predecessors and neighbours. Painstaking comparative studies have been published which reveal the Greek ‘miracle’ to have been one constituent of a continuous process of intercultural exchange. It has become a new orthodoxy that the Greeks were very similar to their Ancient Near Eastern neighbours, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Levant, Persia, and Asia Minor.  Some scholars have gone so far as to ask whether the Greeks came up with anything new at all, or whether they merely acted as a conduit through which the combined wisdom of all the civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean was disseminated across the territories conquered by Alexander the Great, before arriving at Rome and posterity. Others have seen sinister racist motives at work, and accused classicists of creating in their own image the Oldest Dead White European Males; some have claimed, with some justification, that northern Europeans have systematically distorted and concealed the evidence showing how much the ancient Greeks owed to Semitic and African peoples rather than to Indo-European, ‘Aryan’ traditions.
The question has thus become painfully politicised.  Critics of colonialism and racism tend to play down the specialness of the ancient Greeks. Those who maintain that there was something identifiably different and even superior about the Greeks, on the other hand, are often die-hard conservatives who have a vested interest in proving the superiority of ‘Western’ ideals and in making evaluative judgements of culture.  My problem is that I fit into neither camp. I am certainly opposed to colonialism and racism, and have investigated reactionary abuses of the classical tradition in colonial India and by apologists of slavery all the way through to the American Civil War. But my constant engagement with the ancient Greeks and their culture has made me more, rather than less, convinced that they asked a series of crucial questions which are difficult to identify in combination amongst any of the other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean or Near Eastern antiquity.[i]
 Taken singly, most Greek achievements can be paralleled in the culture of at least one of their neighbours. The Babylonians knew about Pythagoras’ theorem centuries before Pythagoras was born.  The tribes of the Caucasus had brought mining and metallurgy to unprecedented levels. The Hittites had made advances in chariot technology, but they were also highly literate. They recorded the polished and emotive orations delivered on formal occasions in their royal court, and their carefully argued legal speeches. One Hittite king foreshadows Greek historiography when he chronicled in detail his frustration at the incompetence of some of his military officers during the siege of a Hurrian city. The Phoenicians were just as great seafarers as any Greeks. The Egyptians developed medicine based on empirical experience rather than religious dogma and told Odyssey-like stories about sailors who went missing and returned after adventures overseas.  Pithy fables similar to those of Aesop were composed in an archaic Aramaic dialect of Syria and housed in Jewish temples. Architectural design concepts and technical know-how came from the Persians to the Greek world via the many Ionian Greek workmen who helped build Persepolis, Susa and Pasargadae, named Yauna in Persian texts. But none of these peoples produced anything quite equivalent to Athenian democracy, comic theatre, philosophical logic, or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
I do not deny that the Greeks acted as a conduit for other ancient peoples’ achievements. But to function successfully as a conduit, channel, or intermediary is in itself to perform an exceptional role. It requires a range of talents and resources. Taking over someone else’s technical knowledge requires an opportunistic ability to identify a serendipitous find or encounter, excellent communicative skills, and the imagination to see how a technique, story or object could be adapted to a different linguistic and cultural milieu.  In this sense, the Romans fruitfully took over substantial achievements of their civilisation from the Greeks, as did the Renaissance Humanists.  Of course the Greeks were not by nature or in potential superior to any other human beings, either physically or intellectually. Indeed, they themselves often commented on how difficult it was to distinguish Greek and non-Greek, let alone free person from slave, if all the trappings of culture, clothing and adornment were removed. But that does not mean they were not the right people, in the right place, at the right time, to take up the human baton of intellectual progress for several hundred years.
            And that period of intellectual ferment produced ideas that have subsequently informed the most significant moments in western political history.  Thomas Jefferson, framing the Declaration of Independence, took the idea of the pursuit of happiness from Aristotle. Toussaint Louverture read Plutarch’s account of Spartacus before leading the first successful slave rebellion on Haiti in 1791. Tom Paine argued that issues like the relationship of religion to the state should be discussed with reference to historical examples from antiquity onwards. Chartist leaders were inspired by the Athenian democratic revolution.  Women suffragists recited at their meetings the resounding speech which the tragedian Euripides gives his heroine Medea on the economic, political and sexual oppression of the entire female sex.
The Greeks, more even than the Romans, show us how to question received opinion and authority. The earliest myths reveal mankind actively disputing the terms on which the Olympian gods want to rule them, and the philanthropic god Prometheus rebelling against Zeus in order to steal fire—a divine prerogative—and give it to mortal men. Sophocles’ Antigone refuses to accept her tyrannical uncle’s arbitrary edict, draws crucial distinctions between moral decency and contingent legislation, and buries her brother anyway. Aristophanes, in his democratic comedies, subjected politicians who wielded power to satire of eye-watering savagery. Socrates dedicated his life to proving the difference between the truth and received opinion, the unexamined life being, in his view, not worth living. No wonder Hobbes thought that reading Greek and Roman authors should be banned by any self-respecting tyrant, in Leviathan arguing that they foment revolution under the slogan of liberty, instilling in people a habit ‘of favouring uproars, lawlessly controlling the actions of their sovereigns, and then controlling those controllers.’
Yet in today’s Britain, few secondary school students are ever challenged by the ancient Greeks and Romans or their ideas.  This is despite the existence for half a century of excellent GCSE and ‘A’ Level courses in Classical Civilisation, which have been a resounding success wherever introduced, and can be taught cost-effectively across the state school sector.   The failure to include Classical Civilisation amongst the subjects taught in every secondary school deprives us and our future citizens of access to educational treasures which can not only enthral, but fulfil what Jefferson argued in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) was the main goal of education in a democracy—to enable us defend our liberty. History, he proposed, is the subject which makes citizens so equipped. To stay free also requires comparison of constitutions, utopian thinking, fearlessness about innovation, critical, lateral and relativist thinking, advanced epistemological skills in source criticism and the ability to argue cogently. All these skills can be learned from their succinct, entertaining, original formulations and applications in the dazzling works of the Greeks.
The situation is aggravated by the role that training in the ancient languages, as opposed to ancient ideas, plays in dividing social and economic classes. The dreadful rich/poor schism in the British nation is now clearly defined, in terms of the curriculum, by access to Greek and Latin grammar. In 2013 (the last year for which figures are available), 3,580 state-sector candidates took ‘A’ Levels in Classical Civilisation or Ancient History.  Greek ‘A’ Level was taken by 260 candidates, 223 of whom were at the independent schools which only seven per cent of our children attend; Latin was taken by 1305,  a depressing 940 of whom were at independent schools. High grades in the ancient languages—easily enough won by solicitous coaching—provide near-guaranteed access to our most elite universities.  For those without Greek and Latin ‘A’ Levels there are indeed Oxbridge opportunities: a four-year Classics course at Cambridge and at Oxford the fast-track ‘Course II’ as well as two smaller courses (Ancient and Modern History, Ancient History and Archaeology) focussing on history and material culture rather than literature and philosophy. The chances of admission for these are in line with other courses such as English and History. But it is easier to get into Oxbridge to read the long-established Classics courses, requiring an ancient language 'A' Level, than any other subject: between 2012 and 2014, for the traditional Classics ‘Course I’ at Oxford, 51 students were accepted from the state sector and 233 from the non-state.  There is nothing like such a high percentage of privately educated students on any other course; there is no similarly high chance of admission—at 45 per cent or so. Classics applicants have a comparable chance of getting into Cambridge, at 45%, and only a slightly better ratio of state sector acceptees. 
To me, as a Greek scholar, educated in the 1970s and 1980s entirely at the taxpayer’s expense at a Direct Grant school and at Oxford, this is profoundly embarrassing. Instead of Greek ideas expanding the minds of all young citizens, Greek denotes money and provides a queue-jumping ticket to privilege.
            How can we eradicate the apartheid system in British Classics?  (1) We need to support Classical Civilisation qualifications, campaign for their introduction in every school and recognise their excellence as intellectual preparation for adult life and university. Specifically, Classical Civilisation needs to be recognised in the English Baccalaureate and given the same governmental support as Latin. (2) We need to expand the currently tiny number of teachers trained to teach Classical Civilisation via Classics-dedicated PGCE courses, and also, crucially, encourage qualified teachers of other subjects in schools—English, History, Modern Languages, Religious Studies—to add Classical Civilisation to their repertoire. Take Christ the King Sixth-Form College in South London.  A committed Philosophy teacher there, Eddie Barnett, was inspired by the enthusiastic response elicited by the (small) Plato element on the ‘A’-Level Philosophy syllabus. After school talks on the Greeks from myself and other members of the Classics Department at King’s College London, he has recently secured an agreement that Classical Civilisation will be rolled out at all three campuses of that excellent institution. (3) Classical Civilisation qualifications are embraced at most universities already, and this is the first year in which it has been possible for Open University students to graduate with single honours in Classical Studies, even if they have had no contact with the Greeks and Romans previously. But Oxford and Cambridge, with their fame and brand, now need to lead by example and offer challenging Classics courses which do not fetishise grammar and consequently repel state-sector students who have been excited by reading Classics in English. This means engaging with literary texts fearlessly in translation and raising the proportion of critical thinking to language acquisition. Undergraduate degrees are supposed to produce competent citizens. Traditional Classics courses are not making the most of those ancient authors on their curriculum who enhance civic as opposed to syntactical competence.
            There is, however, an obstacle to such citizen-friendly proposals for the future of Classics. The obstacle is posed by the contempt directed from some upper echelons of the Classics community against GCSEs and ‘A’ Levels in Classical Civilisation. Some Classics scholars and alumni happily maintain the exclusive private-school/Oxbridge monopoly on the Greeks. Almost all the energy currently expended by some Classics-friendly charities on supporting a classical presence in the state system is directed towards Latin.  Of course I have no objection to Latin teaching, but focussing on it exclusively entails three dangers. First, plenty of meritorious young people with a great deal to offer society don’t particularly enjoy grammar and are put off the ancient world forever by being offered a diet over-heavy on language when they might be thrilled by other aspects of antiquity. Second, omitting the broader, more conceptually stretching study of the ancient world, and especially of Greek thought, implicitly suggests that Latin has a prior claim on our citizens’ attentions. Third, focussing on training in Latin grammar encourages classical Luddites (who would rather destroy the modern study of the ancient world than see any overhaul of pedagogical tradition) publicly to disparage Classical Civilisation’s in-depth study of ancient society.
One prominent Oxford-trained journalist, Harry Mount, recently described Classical Civilisation qualifications in the Telegraph as ‘intellectual baby food’ with which students are ‘spoon-fed’, and as ‘Classics Lite’.[ii] This was to insult the entire community of state-sector classicists and anyone who ever reads an ancient author in translation. He and his associates have forgotten Gilbert Murray’s injunction that it is the Greeks, not Greek, who are the true object of the humanist curriculum. They have forgotten Milton, who wrote in his treatise Of Education that language study is but the instrument convaying to us things usefull to be known’ If a linguist ‘have not studied the solid things in them as well as the words and lexicons, he were nothing so much to be esteem'd a learned man, as any yeoman or tradesman competently wise in his mother dialect only…’ Thomas Jefferson said exactly the opposite to Harry Mount: he proposed that impressionable minds of the ablest younger children, including the poor ones he wanted to be funded by the state, could be kept safely occupied with rote learning of the minutiae of ancient languages, until they acquired sufficient intellectual robustness in mid-adolescence to cope with truly rigorous education in argumentation. That is, he saw language learning as the intellectual baby food.
            The instrumentality of ancient languages in social exclusion has an inglorious history which we surely do not want to perpetuate. In 1748, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote to his son: ‘Classical knowledge, that is, Greek and Latin, is absolutely necessary for everybody…the word illiterate, in its common acceptance, means a man who is ignorant of these two languages.’ Classical knowledge is here limited to linguistic knowledge, education to men, and literacy to reading competence in Greek and Latin. Greek was also handy when white people wanted to deride the intellectual abilities of black ones. In 1833-4, American pro-slavery thinkers were on the defensive. The Senator for South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, declared at a Washington dinner party that only when he could ‘find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax’ could he be brought to ‘believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man’.  This snipe motivated a free black errand boy, Alexander Crummell, to head for Cambridge University in England. There he indeed learned Greek as part of his studies, financed by Abolitionist campaigners, in Theology at Queens’ College (1851–3).
The best-known example is the hero of Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel Jude the Obscure. Jude Fawley, a poor stonemason living in a Victorian village, is desperate to study Latin and Greek at university. He propels himself into the torment that results from harbouring such unrealistic aspirations at the moment when he gazes on the spires and domes of the University of Christminster (a fictional substitute for Oxford). They ‘gleamed like the topaz’ in the distance.  The lustrous topaz shares its golden colour with the stone used to build Oxbridge colleges, but is one of the hardest minerals in nature. Jude’s fragile psyche and health inevitably collapse when he discovers just how unbreakable are the social barriers that exclude him from elite culture and perpetuate his class position. Fawley may have been fictional, but Hardy was writing from personal experience. As the son of a stonemason himself, and apprenticed to an architect’s firm, he had been denied a public school and university education; like Jude Fawley, he had struggled to learn enough Greek to read the Iliad as a teenager. Unlike Jude, Hardy rose through the social ranks to become a prosperous member of the literary establishment. But he never resolved his internal conflict between admiration for Greek and Latin authors and resentment of the supercilious attitude adopted by some members of the upper classes who had been formally trained in them.
            Hardy might have found inner peace had he been fully aware of the splendid history of the reading of ancient authors by Britons far beyond the privileged elite, a history which has been wilfully obscured by those rich enough to be able to afford for their children the opportunity to learn ancient languages. Pope’s early 18th-century translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey brought Homer to a far larger audience, including women, than ever had access to an elite education. Take Esther Easton, a Jedburgh gardener’s wife, visited by the poet Robert Burns in 1787.  He recorded that she was ‘she can repeat by heart almost everything she has ever read, particularly Pope’s ‘Homer’ from end to end’ and ‘is a woman of very extraordinary abilities’. Pope’s Homer also captured the childhood imagination of Hugh Miller, another Scot, a stonemason and a distinguished autodidact, who grew up to become a world-famous geologist. He saw the Iliad as incomparable, and wrote in My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854) that he had learned early ‘that no other writer could cast a javelin with half the force of Homer. The missiles went whizzing athwart his pages; and I could see the momentary gleam of the steel, ere it buried itself deep in brass and bull-hide.’ 
For there is an alternative history of classical scholarship—the history of many individuals, brave, stubborn, naïve, or all three—who, in the face of every kind of obstruction did succeed in ‘entering Minerva’s temple’, as the working-class imagination often framed the project of autodidacticism. This is the subject of my current research project Classics and Class (http://www.classicsandclass.info/), for which I have gratefully received funding from the British taxpayer via the Arts & Humanities Research Council.   The most prodigious of British autodidacts was Joseph Wright, a Victorian workhouse boy who became Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford. Illiterate at the age of 15, he discovered his aptitude for languages at a Wesleyan night school, funded a PhD in Greek at Heidelberg by teaching incessantly, and, before appointment to his Chair, lectured for the Association for the Higher Education of Women. The Reverend John Relly Beard was a crucial force behind the movement for popular education in Lancashire and never wavered in his zeal for universal educational to the highest level. He wrote accessible works on classical and biblical subjects, the sections on Latin, Greek and English Literature for Cassell’s Popular EducatorLatin Made Easy (1848) and Cassell’s Lessons in Greek…Intended Especially for those who are Desirous of Learning Greek without the Assistance of a Master. In this teach-yourself manual he is explicit about the readership he assumes: ‘The wants of such, the want of what may roughly be termed the uneducated, will be carefully borne in mind by me, while I prepare these lessons... My purpose is to simplify the study of Greek so as to throw open to all who are earnest the great work of self-culture.’
            Organised working-class libraries reveal a fascinating alternative canon of books relating to the ancient word, from the first workers’ libraries in Europe established in the 1750s at Leadhills and Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway to the foundation of the Workers’ Educational Association. By the end of the 19th century, these libraries’ holdings were often influenced by ‘Lubbock’s List’, the one hundred books in 1887 deemed ‘best worth reading’ by John Lubbock, Principal of the Working-Men’s College in London from 1883 to 1899. Lubbock, who became the first Baron Avebury, was himself from a privileged banking family, and educated at Eton. Although he did not attend university, he was a polymath, specialising in archaeology and biological sciences. The proportion of classical authors in his list is remarkable: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Augustine’s Confessions, Plato’s Apology, Crito and Phaedo, Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Anabasis, Demosthenes’ de Corona, Cicero’s De OfficiisDe Amicitia, and De Senectute, Plutarch’s Lives, Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, Aeschylus’ Prometheus and Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Medea, Aristophanes’ Knights and Clouds, Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus’ Germania, and Livy. In addition, two famous works on ancient history– Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and Grote’s History of Greece—make it onto the list, along with the most popular novel set in antiquity, Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii. More than a quarter of all the books are classical authors, and more than a third addressed to classical antiquity.  The classical riches on the working-class self-educator’s library and private bookshelves after 1887 can partly be attributed to Lubbock’s ideal curriculum.
            The 109 libraries of the South Wales Coalfields are a wonder of labour history, and the books really were taken out. At Ebbw Vale, each reader borrowed an average of 52 volumes a year. The ‘Condensed Accessions Book’ of Bargoed Colliery Library details its holdings by 1921-2. Texts in Latin and Greek don’t feature: until 1918 almost all miners had left school on their 13th birthday. But the ‘alternative classical curriculum’ of the miner was wide-ranging. He read translations and biographies such as J.B. Forbes’ Socrates (1905). He learned about the Greeks from H.B. Cotterill’s Ancient Greece (1913), the Egyptians from Rawlinson’s Herodotean History of Ancient Egypt (1880), and mythology from several books by Andrew Lang.
            The inspiring past of people’s Greek can help us to look forward. It is theoretically in our power as British citizens to create the curriculum we want. In my personal utopia, the ancient Greek language would be universally available free of charge to everyone who wants to learn it, at whatever age, as would Latin, Classical Civilisation, Ancient History, Philosophy, Anglo-Saxon, Basque, Coptic, Syriac and Hittite, for that matter. But Classical Civilisation qualifications are the admirable, economically viable and attainable solution which has evolved organically in our state sector.  Classicists who do not actively promote them will justifiably be perceived as elitist dinosaurs.




[i] I outline these question in my latest book, Introducing the Ancient Greeks (Bodley Head, 2015).

[ii] ‘The Greek Tragedy in our classrooms’, The Telegraph March 20th 2015




[i] The complete 50-minute lecture can be viewed on the Oxford University website here.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Diomedes Jones on the Somme: The Best 'War Poem'?

This week a public London Uni Classics conference, ‘Poetics of War’, marks the centenary of the Second Battle of Ypres. So I can publicly celebrate my favourite ‘War Poem’, David Jones’ In Parenthesis. An artist before he turned to poetry, Jones created images of trench life more daring than anything by Owen or Sassoon: ‘Men-bundles here and there in ones and twos, in twos and threes; some eating, others very still, knee to chin trussed, confined in small dug concavities, wombed of earth, their rubber-sheets for caul.’

Private Jones, volunteer Fusilier, aged 19
The poem ironically equates the soldiers with Arthurian heroes, but anchors them in a war history stretching back to Thermopylae, Macedon and Roman Britain. Its objective reporting of death and detail of camp life are resonantly Homeric. The supreme Troy episode is the boasting speech of the eloquent Welsh private Dai Greatcoat at Christmas 1915, a modern response to Diomedes’ famous ‘flyting speech’ in Iliad 6.

In Parenthesis marries aesthetic Modernism and ‘modern war’ content. The underlying economic, technological and political causes of the war were the same as those of the revolution in aesthetic sensibility which we call Modernism. In Britain (with the possible exception of Isaac Rosenberg), the other war poets were conservative in aesthetic terms, rehashing Victorian verse forms and outdated poetic diction. Jones, who didn’t begin writing until a decade post-war, single-handedly invents a Modernist War Poetry.

Jones drew detailed sketches of trench life

It is also a lower-class war poetry. Most of the poets were officers, writing in guilt-laden anguish to question the point of ever waging war at all. But Jones, although from an Anglo-Welsh middle-class home, was an ordinary private soldier. He is proud of his gun and interested in weapons technology; he celebrates the courage and humour of the rank-and-file, the elaborate intricacies of the trench habitations they constructed, their daily heroism in the face of rats and leaking latrines. ‘Two armies face and hold their crumbling limites intact. They're worthy of an intelligent song for all the stupidity of their contest.’
Westminster Abbey WW1 Poets' Memorial


Finally, in his haunting preface, Jones poses the very question which In Parenthesis seeks to answer: how can art respond to industrialisation of war? ‘It is not easy in considering a trench-mortar barrage to give praise for the action proper to chemicals—full though it may be of beauty. We feel a rubicon has been passed between striking with a hand weapon as men used to do and loosing poison from the sky as we do ourselves. We doubt the decency of our own inventions, and are certainly in terror of their possibilities.’ In Parenthesis was eerily prophetic, too.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

A Cynic's Advice on Enjoying Corruption in Football

Currency accepted by FIFA members?
FIFA’s reputation has just hit a new low, with claims that Germany purchased Saudia Arabia’s support of their bid to host the 2006 World Cup with a gift of rocket-propelled grenades. Football is a multi-billion dollar business at the heart of advanced transnational capitalism, with umbilical ties to private wealth accumulation, nationalist and macropolitical interests. Why wouldn’t it be entangled with the arms industry as well as OFCs, tax evasion on an eye-watering scale, betting scandals, drugs, dodgy construction contracts, money laundering, and the criminal underworld?

Thierry Henry getting Ireland eliminated from 2010 World Cup
Thierry Henry's Sister
It is delusional to argue that enhanced morals, transparency and regulation can solve the problem. Without replacing transnational monopoly capitalism with another economic system, the only sensible policy for a Cynic philosopher is to embrace the extra theatricality which power-politics, felony and litigation bring to this planetary entertainment. In 1978 Argentina donated 35,000 tons of grain  to Peru in return for a 6-0 victory (they needed to win by 4 goals to reach the final, which they then won). If I had known about the transaction, I would have enjoyed watching the play-acting and found Peru’s humiliation far less painful.
Francesco CoCo 'playing' South Korea


The 2002 World Cup, held in South Korea, was vastly enhanced by the hosts’ bizarre victories over European titans (Spain, Portugal and Italy) on their improbable journey to the semi-finals.  The ‘refereeing’ of their elimination match with Italy was one of the most amusing things I have ever witnessed, and the bloodletting truly gladiatorial.


My only complaint about the Football Association of Ireland’s admission that it accepted €5m hush money when it threatened legal action over the Thierry Henry handball which stopped Ireland qualifying for the 2010 World Cup is this: things were hushed up instead of playing out publicly for our delectation in a public court. 

Bobby Meredith
Professor Rathbone
The first great British football scandal, in 1905, involved a £10 bribe, Manchester City's Bobby Meredith and Aston Villa. But it increased public enthusiasm for both Meredith and football. Bribery was a feature of ancient sport as well, and surely added to the public's entertainment. My esteemed King's College colleague Professor Dominic Rathbone is the editor of an ancient Greek contract from Egypt, dated 267 AD, in which one teenaged wrestler agrees to lose a match against another in return for 3,800 drachmas. This may sound a lot, but I don’t think Sepp Blatter would have been impressed. Forget the Mercedes-Benz: this was the price of a single donkey.


A Delight of my Childhood
The fixing of that ancient match may well have added to its spectators’ enjoyment. As a child I was transfixed by televised bouts between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, when the whole point was figuring out in which round each had agreed to concede to the other and with what absurd manoeuvre. The only things that differentiate those matches from the Gesamtkunstwerk of modern football is the amount of lucre involved and football’s extra attraction of pointless moral posturing from the likes of Greg Dyke, David Cameron etc. Now for an hour of cynical laughter immersed in the sports supplements…

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Comedy's 2,500th Birthday


Supremely Aristophanic 'Joseph Smith, American Moses' number
This week has been all about comedy. On Wednesday I spent my birthday present money rediscovering  the therapeutic power of laughter at the musical Book of Mormon. My rib-cage ached and my mascara ran after two straight hours of hilarity. 

The work is a trenchant satire on imperialism. Its climax—the Ugandan villagers’ riotously obscene musical-pageant reprise of the Mormon foundation story, complete with artificial phalluses and frog-shagging—is the nearest thing any of us will ever experience to Greek Old Comedy. This is not surprising, given that Trey Parker (of South Park), one of Book of Mormon’s creators, has previously milked an ancient Greek text, the Odyssey, in his cultish Cannibal: the Musical!

And I’ve achieved a long-held ambition by making it onto the cover of the June issue of the admirable magazine History Today with an article about the birthday of comedy.  It was exactly 2,500 years ago, in 486 BCE, that comic theatre was born when it was integrated, for the very first time, in the drama competitions of the democratic Athenian state.  In an outdoor theatre in the sanctuary of the wine-god Dionysus, a musical chorus of men dressed in obscene costumes accompanied knockabout actors who yelled versified abuse at an audience of tipsy citizens.

What is in the basket on his head? Frogs? Figs? 
The inventor of comic theatre was a man called Sousarion. The prize for the best comedy in that first competition was a basket of figs and no fewer than forty litres of wine. The actors will have worked up a thirst mocking anybody who ‘put their head about the parapet’ in public life. They talked freely about sleaze, corruption, and personal toilet habits. They subjected gods and powerful humans to trial by vitriolic laughter which makes most modern equivalents—Private Eye, Spitting Image, Not the Nine O’clock News—look half-hearted in comparison. Eleven Athenian democratic comedies survive, all by one dramatist, Aristophanes.

The Actor on the right plays a King or Tyrant (eagle-topped sceptre)

In 486 BC, when that epoch-making first competition in comic theatre was held, a comic attitude to life was of course not new. The ancient Greeks were cracking jokes from the first minute in history when we can hear their voices: the Cretans who lived in Bronze-Age Knossos must have had their tongues in their Mycenaean cheeks when their called their ploughing cows ‘Nimble’, ‘Swift’ and ‘Chatterbox’, names we can read in the early script, Linear B. Celebrants of festivals connected with fertility and viticulture had for centuries hurled abuse at local individuals while they processed in mummers’ costumes through the villages. The stem kom- in komoidia, ‘comedy’, means ‘revel’ or ‘carousal’, while also sounding like the Greek word for an unwalled rural village: komoidia thus means a ‘revel-ode’, with rustic overtones.

But ad hominem satire incorporated into a musical drama, along with a wildly imaginative plotline, was something completely new. A brilliant idea which has had a long future. Any tips on shows offering Aristophanic laughter as hardcore as Book of Mormon will be very gratefully received.