7th December 2002
Talking about wills, St Augustine remarked on the paradox that ‘while the dead man lies, insensible, under his tombstone, his words retain their full legal validity’. Time, surely, for New Labour to ‘modernise’ this transparent absurdity at a time when the Chancellor is desperate to grab money from any source he can to do what he does best and pour it into his latest, shiniest drain. But he had better watch out if he does.
The Romans adored wills. ‘I hear that Sextus is dead. Let me know who his heir is, and when his will is to be opened,’ says Cicero in a letter, one of many such requests; and Seneca the Younger talks of the time one spends drawing up a will, the internal debates about how much and to whom one shall give, and the pleasure yielded by the thought of enriching this or that person and adding lustre to their position. The reason is that Romans saw wills as an essential means by which family and society reciprocated, and a man’s social networks constructed in life could be duly acknowledged and assured of continuing after death.
But, naturally, everyone wanted to know what those networks were, and that is why the contents of a will were so eagerly awaited. They gave the dead man the chance to tell the truth. As Pliny said, ‘Wills are commonly believed to be the mirror of the man’, since the dead testator (being dead) now had carte-blanche to reveal what he really thought about those who imagined they were his chums. The testator regularly declared who were his dearest and least dear children, who his rarest and most obnoxious friends.
One grande dame caused a stir by commending all the great and good of Rome, but passing over the emperor Tiberius in silence. Others went further. One will savagely indicted Tiberius and accused his prefect Macro of terrible crimes; Petronius, the ‘arbiter of taste’, ordered to commit suicide by Nero, listed Nero’s debaucheries. Not surprising, then, that, for example, the emperor Augustus was paranoid about the last judgment of those friends he considered he had helped, downcast if they did not praise him enough, delighted if they talked of him ‘gratefully and piously’. That latest judgment really counted.
If, therefore, the surly Scot does start ransacking the graves of the dead in his next Budget (after all, what could be more elitist than personal networks of chums; who knows how to spend money better than he?), those with the most money to lose might suddenly find an incentive to use their wills to unfold what they really know about him and the government he works for.
Tragic fun for all the family: the Fall of the House of Archer
Christmas is the time for stimulating educational games round a roaring open telly. This year’s is a real festive winner: construct your own Greek tragedy, on any subject of your choice. The rules, observable in Sophocles (496–405 bc) and Euripides (485–406 bc), are strict:
1. The tragedy lasts about two hours and is played in real time: i.e., it represents an unbroken two-hour period in the characters’ lives.
2. It takes place in a single location, out of doors. Since Greek tragedies were frequently about kings, that meant outside his palace: i.e., in the palace front garden, or on the roof — a stimulating location indeed.
3. Only three actors are allowed, though they can play as many parts as the tragedian wishes. In one tragedy the three actors played 11 parts between them. So crowd scenes, assemblies and battles are impossible; nor must anyone die on stage because that leaves you with only two actors.
4. One of these actors must be the main centre of the play’s dramatic attention, even if he/she is not actually on stage for the whole time; there may also be a secondary main character, acting as a foil to the first. This could leave the third actor with a lot to do (give him time to change costumes).
5. After the first ‘act’ (epeisodion, cf. ‘episode’), a chorus consisting of 15 men or women comes on stage to do a song-and-dance routine relevant to the unfolding action. It remains on stage for the rest of the tragedy, doing its routines between the acts. It has a collective identity, which remains constant throughout the play, and its leader may engage in conversation with the actors. Its main purpose is to bring a collective and communal dimension to the individual tragedy being worked out before it.
6. Characters can enter and leave only via the palace (i.e., the backdrop) or the side exits, one leading to the city, the other to the country.
7. Because of the limitations of ancient technology, monsters and miracles can only be reported. On stage, generally, strict realism is the rule.
The big question the ancient tragedian faced was: whose two hours? The point is that Greek tragedy linked the present with the deep past. But that deep past could not be shown on stage; it could only be dredged up from the characters’ or chorus’s memories (‘Yes, I do now recollect...’) or reported by someone else (‘Surely you must remember when...’). Know-all prophets, able to pinpoint the significance of past events and hint about the future, came in handy here. Likewise, deaths, wars and journeys could not happen on stage. They, too, needed to be reported. As a result of this knowledge, characters then made things happen (wisely or unwisely) in the here and now; these tended actually to happen off stage, with results reported later.
Greek tragedy, then, is structured round the protagonists uncovering the past and taking action in relation to it in the here and now, but slowly discovering the ghastly consequences of their decisions. ‘At last! Now I see’ is the climax. That is why Greek tragedy is nearly all talk. The ‘action’ is in the past, or off stage; the ‘action’ on stage is the emergence of the true meaning of it all, with its terrifying consequences. The poet’s main structural job, then, is to sort out what is to be ‘here and now’, what is to be ‘past’, and what is to be done off stage and reported back.
So much then for general dramaturgy. But we now hit problems: what will be our subject matter? The important point is this: once the truth is out, Greek tragedy’s inescapable conclusion is that it is better never to have been born, or, if born, to die soon. As Kafka says, ‘There is an abundance of hope, but none for us.’ People being randomly unhappy, or badly treated, or dying unexpectedly, mere violence and horror, are not a sufficient condition to warrant the title ‘tragic’ in any sense that Greek tragedy would understand. Greek tragedy is not random; there is a terrifying inevitability about it all. Happy Christmas.
Nevertheless, this does not scupper the proposed game. Parody, after all, is a noble art and can teach us much. If Housman can parody tragedy — ‘O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots/Head of a traveller’ and all that — so can we. Let us, then, by way of example, take on the BBC’s recent plodding satire, and attempt an Archereia, or ‘Jeffrey Archer: The Tragedy’.
As soon as one starts thinking about the big question — whose two hours? — it immediately becomes apparent that the tragedy has to be Lady Archer’s (M). She is the real victim in all this. But to what effect? Is the tragic moment to be that (a) her life has been left in ruins by J’s misfortunes, or (b) she is a wronged woman who will take brutal revenge on her husband for betraying her?
If scenario (a), the two hours will cover the court case which sent J to prison. The mise-en-scène would therefore be the pavement outside the Old Bailey. M will receive regular messenger-style reports from inside about how the case is going, while figures from J’s past — Monica, various MPs, judges, editors, share-dealers, etc. — come on to tell her their version of events, before disappearing into court. A chorus of taxi-drivers comments on proceedings. M heroically resists all their urgings, and, in a tear-jerking closing scene, J at last emerges on stage to be carried off to prison, calling on the gods to witness how unjustly he has been treated, while M bewails her fate.
The ‘wronged woman’ mise-en-scène (b) would be set outside the Archer home in Grantchester, with a chorus of sympathetic secretaries. M is awaiting her husband’s arrival, but various incomers hint at their misgivings about him, increasing her suspicions, till finally he enters — with Monica. A Clytemnestra routine follows. M ushers them warmly in, murders both (screams from the house) and emerges, bloodstained and triumphant.
A Women of Trachis scenario might also work. Deianeira/M, hearing her husband Heracles/J has fallen in love with Iole/Monica, decides to win back his love by giving him the shirt of Nessus/some equivalent. But this, in fact, is a killer garment, slowly consuming the wearer who dies in agony (good messenger speech).
Or how about a Medea? In this case, the play would open with M, already alerted to her husband’s feelings for Monica, chewing over what to do about it. She attempts a reconciliation with him, but he can see nothing wrong in what he has done. She therefore swears the secretarial chorus to silence and plots a hideous revenge which will leave him abandoned and ‘devastated’ (one must remember tragedies can have happy endings too). But here one hits a brick wall: is there anything that really would leave J ‘devastated’?
Problems, problems. But they only go to show what superb masters of the conventions the Greek tragedians were. One hardly notices the conventions at all. This is the virtue of the game, even if it is only a technical one. ‘The arts’ today reject the idea of restrictions. That is why they are so dire. It is the restrictions that create the masterpiece.
How about the House of Windsor...?
As the argument over firemen's pay and conditions rumbles on, Mr John Scorer reminds me of the correspondence on the subject of a fire service between Pliny the younger, governor of Bithynia-Pontus in north-western Turkey, and the emperor Trajan.
Pliny asks if it would be a good idea to establish one in the province, but Trajan advises that such collegia can cause political trouble; people should be provided with their own equipment and, if a fire starts, call on help from the watching crowd. The fire-service in Rome offers more helpful parallels with the current situation. Prevention was originally in the hands of a committee of three, in charge of a body of public slaves stationed around the gates and walls of the city. But they were in the wrong place and ineffective.
The emperor Augustus got a grip on the problem in AD 6. With a 4% tax on the sale of slaves to fund the operation, Augustus put a praefectus with his own headquarters and office staff in charge of seven cohorts of fire-fighters (vigiles). Each cohort consisted of 500 men, commanded by a tribune and divided up into seven 'centuries' (i.e. c. 70 per 'century'). Each cohort looked after two of the city's fourteen administrative regiones, and were housed in barracks. They patrolled extensively at night when the danger was greatest, since (in the absence of matches or other instant sources of fire) householders kept fires burning unsupervised. Owners of houses were required to keep a supply of water available and other instrumenta for fighting fires - vinegar, mats, poles, ladders, sponges, buckets and brooms. In the absence of hoses, man- and bucket-power was essential; the brigades brought pumps, hooks, mattocks and axes, and ballistae to knock down nearby houses and create fire-breaks. Four medici were attached to each cohort. On average there seem to have been about a hundred fires a day in the city, twenty large, two serious. There were probably no more than four large fires at any one time, and, given their size and careful distribution, the patrols could deal with them. The secret was to get in
early (smell was very important).
Today's fire-brigade is right: keep fully-staffed night patrols. So is the government: military organisation for the whole force; fire-engines to be re-located at specific times to places where they are most needed; and property owners to take preventative measures. And Gordon Brown is evidently planning to charge 5% VAT on house sales too - another real winner from the surly Scot.