Friday 31 March 2017

Adventures in Classical Theatreland

One of the best things about my job is involvement  in exciting productions of classics-related plays. Right now I’m getting down and dirty with three creative teams. They’re doing a Greek tragic trilogy, a comedy based on the Roman plays of Plautus, and an English tragedy based on part of Virgil’s Aeneid respectively.

50 Terrified Egyptian Suppliant Maidens
The Actors’ Touring Company’s Suppliants of Aeschylus was a runaway hit at Edinburgh Festival last year, with a chorus of local citizens, and is currently playing in Manchester. Last Saturday I got stars in my eyes when I was invited at five minutes’ notice to perform the opening libation to the theatre-god Dionysus, and am now expecting an Oscar nomination.  

ATC are bringing the production to London, and are expanding it by adding new material to reconstruct the other three plays with which it was performed in its original group. So I’m thrilled to be helping them with the fragments and other evidence. It will open at the Young Vic on November 13th so get it in your diaries!

Fun with Plautus at the RSC
Meanwhile, I met the hilarious cast of Vice Versa, a new comedy by Phil Porter based on Plautus’ Braggart Soldier, opening in Stratford next month. The delights include a talking monkey, fake twin prostitutes, an exceptionally clever slave and lots of updating. Since the obscenity is confined to Latin swear-words I provided being muttered in asides, it is a perfect introduction to Roman ribaldry for all the family.

As one of those weird people who prefer Marlowe to Shakespeare, I couldn’t be happier than to be made official consultant on Dido, Queen of Carthage, directed for the RSC by the innovative Kimberley Sykes.  Opening on 15th September, this promises to be an unsettling, noir-ish experience complete with Carthaginian iconography.

With Tony Harrison, Jane Harrison & Sian Thomas
 in the Greek theatre at Sebastopol
And to take the biscuit, Tony Harrison’s long-awaited Iphigenia in Crimea, with which I’ve been involved from its inception, is at last to be broadcast by BBC Radio on April 23rd.  There is a Greek proverb ‘The Greeks Are Everywhere’. They—and the ancient Romans, Egyptians, Carthaginians and Crimean Taurians—are certainly going to be unavoidable this year in British theatreland.

Saturday 25 March 2017

Rejoinder to a Self-Appointed Policeman of Privilege

This week saw the publication in the Spectator of a splenetic piece of propaganda by one James Delingpole, who makes his living from peddling archly controversial far-right views on climate change and immigration. This time he dilates, with mind-blowing ignorance, on the topic of classical education. The single most serious problem affecting British education, apparently, and one which the Spectator believes it is worth giving airspace to someone of Delingpole’s lousy journalism skills to discuss, is that there are TOO MANY STATE-EDUCATED UNDERGRADUATES READING CLASSICS AT OXFORD.*

I quote: ‘Take, for example, the right-on enthusiasm for recruiting Greats candidates from schools that don’t do Latin or Greek. The theory goes that by the fourth year, these eager state-school kids will have attained the same proficiency as private-school ones who have been hothoused on classics since they were eight or nine. But I gather that only the Oxbridge classics tutors who have drunk the social justice Kool-Aid actually believe this has worked in practice. The rest are worried about declining long-term standards and are also a bit frustrated: if you’re an Oxbridge classics don, you want to teach Oxbridge–level classics — not catch-up for beginners.’
Is this the best Classical Edification  can offer the 21st Century?

As an ex-Oxford Classics don (1995-2001), I can confirm that the last sentence was, at least then, sadly, true. Amongst my former colleagues were too many who took applicants from the private sector in numbers wholly disproportionate to their status as only 7% of the school-leaver population. 

Things have certainly changed for the better since 2001. But this matters little if state-educated people think that Classics remains a snobbish subject, and are too scared to apply to Oxford anyway. This is hardly surprising when Oxford produces arrogant alumni with ropey cognitive skills like Delingpole, who boasts, ‘it really did shape my intellect in a way for which I’ll be eternally grateful.’ Enough said.

But Delingpole’s premise that a life-transforming Higher Education in Classics is only possible after training, from primary school, in Latin and Greek languages, is daft. Not only can people learn Latin and Greek to a dazzling standard fast, but the most precious aspects of the Greeks' and Romans' culture can be learned without any ancient language at all.

They had some bad ideas, including the inevitability of slavery and the inferiority of women. But they also conceived superb ideas, including democracy, freedom of speech, accountability of officials, the social contract, trial by jury, tolerance of a wide range of sexual relationships, rational science, philosophical logic, world-citizenship, cultural relativism, training in public speaking, and the profound responsibility of the makers of art and entertainment to society.

The failure to include classical subjects taught in translation—Classical Civilisation or Ancient history—in every secondary educational institution therefore deprives our future citizens of access to educational treasures which not only enthral, but fulfil what Jefferson argued in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) was the true goal of education in a democracy—to enable us to defend our liberty. The past, he argued, is the subject which makes citizens so equipped. 

To stay free requires also comparison of constitutions, utopian reflection, 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 via English translations of the succinct, entertaining, original works produced by the lively minds of the authors of the classical past.

Delingpole has needlessly insulted every individual who has ever studied the ancient Mediterranean world wholly or even partially in translation—the thousands who take CC/AH qualifications in state schools, the majority of classics undergraduates in other British universities, not to mention adult learners, autodidacts, and everyone who has ever read a Penguin Classic. He has done so with puerile, ill-informed, oligarchic hauteur. If this has made you as cross as it did me, then please read this article in the Guardian and join my new campaign, ACE, to get classical subjects into every state school in the land. Now I’m off to the People’s History Museum in Manchester to research workers’ campaigns for access to Higher Education.

*I did have a photograph of Delingpole in bathing shorts here but have taken it down after someone quite rightly pointed out that I was stooping to 'body shaming'. I agree and apologise for any offence caused.

Thursday 16 March 2017

Charon's Ferry Fare & Escaping a Criminal Record

'No I don't take credit cards!'
There were no separate first- and second-class seats on Charon’s ferry. Kings and slaves paid the same tiny obol fare for the same wooden seats. Death, as the Greeks knew all too well, was the best leveller of all. 

More than my Jobsworth
They did invent steam power, but not railway trains, and so the myth of Charon’s ferry fare provides the nearest ancient parallel I can identify to the predicament from which I have just escaped. A train company has decided not to argue in court that I should be given a criminal record, as they had previously proposed.

One evening just before Christmas I could not get the seat in Second Class for which I possessed a ticket from London to my home station. I sat in First Class.  Since train overcrowding is a national scandal, this has often occurred before.  On all previous occasions, when the ticket inspector appeared, one of four things happened, depending on whether s/he was a human or an officious zombie:

1) S/he officially declassified First Class;
2) S/he ‘let off’ myself and my fellow malefactors and turned a blind eye;
3) S/he accepted my offer to pay the difference between the second- and first-class fare;
4) S/he required me to pay a full first-class fare but advised me I could apply to be reimbursed for the second-class ticket.

Not that night. I was asked to buy a first-class ticket AND pay a large on-the-spot fine for Being Such a Naughty Girl. I refused. What gives a business the right to inculpate and fine a customer when it has not provided the service (a second-class seat) for which the customer has paid?

A barrage of personal questions—why was I on the train? what had I been doing in London? with whom did I live and for how long?—violated my civil liberties. A police officer was hailed who said he would arrest me and put me in a cell until I provided my name and address.  So I reluctantly did.

Soon a letter arrived. I was about to be summoned to a Magistrate’s Court, being charged with ‘intent to avoid a rail fare’ under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889, s.5 (3). The operator always pressed 'for the heaviest penalties'. These included 12 weeks in prison, a 4-figure fine, and the need to disclose forever to any employers or embassies that I had a criminal record for ‘dishonesty’.

Being just about able to afford a lawyer, I did. I could produce medical proof that I have an arthritic knee. I won a moral victory, too, since the matter was settled out of court by paying the ticket and not the fine. But what happens to people without cash available for legal fees? It is iniquitous.

While waiting to hear if this Kafkaesque prosecution had been dropped, I dealt with my fear of prison etc. by researching the 3 ways ancient Greeks said you could cross Lake Acheron without paying Charon AT ALL:

1)   Attack him with your club and take over the rudder (Heracles did this, and it appeals, but today it would risk an additional legal charge for Assault).
2)   Run round the lake instead (Xanthias, Dionysus’ enterprising slave in Aristophanes’ Frogs does this, but my knee would make it difficult).
'Free Transport for All!'
3)   Move to the town of Hermione near Argos. Here the ferry fare was entirely waived by Demeter in gratitude when she recovered her daughter Persephone nearby. She was clearly not only a feminist but a socialist who believed in the principle of free public transport for all. Sadly, this is a pipe dream in our current profit-driven society. 

Aeacus, Transport Magnate
Just like the ticket inspector and his fine-taking credit-card machine, Charon was a minion of the powerful and didn’t even get to profit personally from the ferry fares. He had to hand them over to Aeacus, concierge of the dead and--ehem--a part-time judge. It was Aeacus rather than Charon who was therefore the equivalent of the rapacious privatised railway companies of Britain.

Sunday 12 March 2017

Greek Doctors in Britain Ancient & Modern

Aesculapius and Hygieia
The GMC says there are nearly four thousand doctors trained in Greece working for the National Health Service. This is far more than from any other country in Europe except Ireland.

An affable and highly skilled Greek doctor from Thessaloniki recently conducted what could have been an unpleasant and frightening procedure on me with the utmost tact and efficiency. My mistake was to tell him I spoke some Greek, which meant that he asked me informed questions about archaeology.  I was in no position to answer these sensibly. I had been sedated and had a camera on a hosepipe up my rear.

Hermogenes' Altar Dedication with Greek Characters
What interested him was the information that Greek doctors had been practising in Britain two millennia ago. Inscriptions honouring the healing god Asclepius/Aesculapius in Greek rather than Latin have been found in several places in the north of England, including Lanchester near Durham and Maryport in Cumbria.

At Chester, near what is now the telephone exchange, a doctor named Hermogenes once dedicated a votive offering in well-shaped Greek lettering of the early 2nd century AD. It read ‘Hermogenes the physician (iatros) has set up this altar to the all-powerful preservers (sōtersin hupermenēsin)’, almost certainly meaning Aesculapius and his companion goddess Hygieia (Health). 

Chester Legio XX Reenactment Society
Perhaps Hermogenes was official doctor to the 20th Roman legion, who built and resided in the camp at Chester.  But it so happens that the doctor who looked after the dying Emperor Hadrian was named Hermogenes. This famous Greek had good credentials, since he seems to have been trained in the medical school of the peerless anatomist Erasistratos. Erasistratos, who came from Kos, the island where Hippocrates himself had practised, was Aristotle’s grandson, no less.

Cassius Dio 69.22 tells us that when Hadrian was dying slowly from dropsy, Hermogenes helpfully pointed out to him the place on his chest which, if an attendant struck a blow, would allow him to die fast and painlessly (in the event Hadrian could persuade nobody to help him out, and ended up eating and drinking himself to extinction).   

My own friendly Greek doctor, in the best tradition of Greek hospitality, ended up inviting me and my whole family to a meal any August we found ourselves in northern Greece. The embarrassing nature of the procedure I underwent means I am unlikely ever to accept the invitation. But if he happens to read this blog, I would like to record my gratitude. I hope there will still be such excellent Greek doctors practising in Britain in another two thousand years’ time.

Saturday 4 March 2017

The Lyceum Goose Mystery

Athens Lyceum Mural
Two weeks ago I gave a speech in the great hall of the National and Capodistrian University of Athens, a spectacular neoclassical building. I used the occasion to explore a question which has bugged me since my first visit to Greece, when I was nineteen—why, on the  famous mural in the porch, was Aristotle painted waving a knife at a goose? In no other picture of his Lyceum, for example the mural of similar date by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg, in the University of Halle, is a goose part of the narrative.
No Goose on Halle Uni Mural

Geese were certainly important in ancient Greece. They were farmed, domesticated as pets, and associated with heroines and she-gods: Penelope, Aphrodite, Athena, Kore/Persephone, Artemis/Hecate, Nemesis and later Isis. They are involved in another ancient mystery tale, the Goose Plot in Greek comedy. Two vases show an otherwise unknown play or plays in which a goose figured prominently—one alive (in Boston), one dead (in New York).

Goose Plot in Greek Comedy-Live Goose by Basket
One possibility is that the mural designer, Carl Rahl, knew how important medicine was to Aristotle’s philosophy. Aristotle’s father Nicomachus had been a doctor, and doctors and medical analogies abound in all his works. Goose fat and other goose products were ubiquitous in ancient Greek medical preparations, and mentioned often in the texts of Hippocrates. Rahl will have been aware that Medicine was one of the original four faculties of this university.

Yet geese, unusually intelligent birds, do have weird connections with ancient philosophy. Aristotle’s Cypriot disciple Clearchus (who also happens to feature on the mural) wrote a book about sexual pathology called Erotica. It mentioned a goose who was infatuated with a boy (fr. 27). Aristotle’s friend Theophrastus’ On Eros also mentions a goose infatuated with a beautiful boy called Amphilochus. But sadly I don’t think the mural suggests that Aristotle, angry with his followers for their obsession with goose-human relationships, killed a goose in revenge.

More promising is what Pliny Senior writes about such love affairs. A beautiful youth from a town in north-western Peloponnese attracted a goose's passion, as did a young woman named Glauke who was harpist to King Ptolemy.  Pliny remarks, ‘one might almost be tempted to think that these creatures have an appreciation of wisdom (sapientia): for it is said, that one of them was the constant companion of the philosopher, Lacydes, and would never leave him, either in public or when at the bath, by night or by day.’
Lacydes' Goose Reads Nicomachean Ethics

Another version of the story, by Aelian, adds that Lacydes was a philosopher of the Peripatetic school—that is, an Aristotelian. The sapient goose was devoted to its keeper: when Lacydes went for a walk, it went too; when he sat down, it would remain still and would not leave him for a moment. And when it died Lacydes gave it an expensive funeral as if it were a family member.

Aristotle is on the mural's right-hand end
But I suspect that the true explanation is that Carl Rahl believed that Aristotle had dissected a goose. In the History of Animals, a goose appears in Aristotle’s discussion of male reproductive anatomy in animals which have blood.  Because he says here that the goose’s reproductive organ is difficult to see except straight after copulation, most scholars infer that a goose was one of the numerous different organisms he dissected. This seems even more likely since in Generation of Animals he claims that no bird has a penis. He has discovered it in the goose by careful laboratory observation.  

Jan Weenix, 'Dead Goose' (1700)
Carl Rahl, Designer of the Mural
This goose, however, is just one in a list which includes fish, snakes, ring-doves, partridges, lizards, turtles, tortoises, dolphins, elephants, hedgehogs, and pigs. Theoretically, at least, we could have had any of these portrayed on the mural. And this is where Rahl's tastes came in. I think he chose a goose from that list because, like all European painters then, he had been trained in the Dutch ‘Still Life’ tradition and liked painting the feathered wings of dead game birds. It is a shame, though. A hedgehog, pig, or elephant would have made the mural far more fun.