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From The Times 21/03/2015

Two hours of misery: Happy Days is here again

‘A tour de force,” said The Daily Telegraph. “Four stars, a hulking great metaphor for the human condition,” said Time Out. “The greatest show on earth,” said The Independent. “Delicious,” said The Times. “What on earth was that incomprehensible load of old gibberish?” said Daniel Finkelstein.

In the second half of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days I was genuinely impressed by the spectacle that met my eyes. The audience had all returned from the ice-cream break (“Delicious,” said Daniel Finkelstein). They stared intently at the stage. I could see them because the house lights were up as a metaphor for something, although for what I have no idea.

Everyone appeared keen to watch the rest of the play even though it was obvious by then that nothing was going to happen and that not only was the playwright not bothered to invest his play with any meaning, he actually boasted of the fact.

Beckett plays are, I think, a massive joke played on the upper middle class. Everyone pays up and sits through hours of nonsense, pretending they know what is going on and scared to admit that they haven’t a clue.

As if this weren’t bad enough, every so often a very loud noise would shock the audience. Apparently Beckett wondered how it would feel if you wanted to sleep but couldn’t. This was the one bit of the play I could relate to.

I had wanted to leave Happy Days at lunchtime, as it were. Unfortunately, the other members of my party wouldn’t hear of it, telling me that it was an interesting study of dementia. Yes, I said, a study of how to induce it.

I did, however, come to a conclusion as to what it was about. It was about two hours too long.


From The Times 28/02/2015

It’s tragic to pretend we all like classical drama

You can almost hear the applause already. Next week Juliette Binoche will perform Antigone, Sophocles’ play about a murderous megalomaniacal ruler, in a new contemporary production at the Barbican. If recent tragic revivals are anything to go by, she is likely to emerge highly laurelled. When Kristin Scott Thomas played Electra at the Old Vic last year the performance was variously described as “thrillingly unnerving”, “extraordinary” and a “kill-for-a-ticket triumph”.

Indeed, the only things that usually emerge more laurelled than the film-star-turned-tragic-muse are the tragedies themselves. Reviews follow a formula as rigid as anything prescribed by Aristotle in his Poetics. They will usually begin by noting striking parallels with modernity (“these old plays chime with our own experience of war and revenge killings” wrote one reviewer of Scott Thomas’s Electra, hinting that critics lead more exciting lives than hitherto suspected). They then imply that tragedies have an ancient and atavistic power (the word “visceral” tends to make a good showing here). The reviews usually conclude with an expression of extreme emotion. One critic, sitting through a production of Antigone in Greek “didn’t understand a word of it, and it made me weep”.

This is utter nonsense. We are fooling ourselves if we think that these plays are strikingly modern or, indeed, even entertaining. How can they possibly sound modern and moving to us when 2,500 years ago they already sounded archaic and obscure to Athenian ears? In his satire The Frogs, written at the end of the fifth century BC, the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes poked fun at two of Athens’s most famous tragedians. While everyone else in his satire speaks perfectly intelligibly, the tragedians use words like “Ye!” and “Thou!” and “O!” (as in, “O, Demeter!”) before squabbling about who is the better writer. They mock each other for being boring and repetitive; accuse each other of “high-flown language” and “blustering” and of writing words that the audience “admired without understanding what they meant”. Eventually the god Dionysus intervenes and in desperation demands that a tragedian tell him “something less profound but clearer”.

We are far less critical than Dionysus. In the past 30-odd years, Greek tragedies have been put on more than at any time since classical antiquity. This, scholars suggest, is because their rich intellectual content speaks to us still. The truth is quite the reverse. It’s no coincidence that the same period has also seen a dramatic decline in the teaching of the classics in schools — few will study these works in translation, let alone in the original.

However, while Latin and Greek have loosened their grip on intellectual institutions, they haven’t lost their hold on our idea of what is intellectual. Understanding has been replaced by unquestioning awe. It isn’t because the words of the tragedians contain so much meaning that they are revered today, it’s because they contain so little. It’s just that we, unlike the acerbic Aristophanes, are far too cowardly to say so. Who but an idiot would want to admit that they don’t understand Aeschylus? To quake and cry at words you don’t understand isn’t a cerebral experience, it’s a quasi-religious one.

But don’t worry. Tragedy is far from dead. If you want to spend an evening next week in front of a viscerally exciting drama, then your luck is in. This tragedy has it all: an overweening ruler who demonstrates both hubris and a tragic flaw and who will stop at nothing — even murder — to get his way. Better still, a front row seat will cost you far less than the £55 a ticket at the Barbican would set you back because this tragedy is House of Cards, and it will be showing on Netflix. Best of all, none of the characters is likely to say “thou”.