University of Nottingham, UK
In the current climate of education reform in the US and UK it is often assumed by policy makers that the teaching and learning of arts subjects is a ‘soft’ option. For example, David Willetts, the universities minister in Britain, claimed in August 2011 that ‘classic’ A level subjects should be valued at a higher place on the university points tally than subjects such as dance and media studies. Yet if Willetts had looked at his television screen during that month he may have noticed the riots engulfing London and other urban centres in England, and may have found that the language of some of those non-classic subjects may have helped him to understand what was happening.
In particular, the language of theatre and performance anticipated the very rhetoric that Britain’s MPs and opinion formers used when debating the causes of the riots. Those right-wing MPs and journalists who have queued up to condemn the ‘feral’ instincts of the looters needed to look no further than Euripides. In 405BCE the theatre of Dionysus in Athens premiered his play The Bacchae. In this drama a group of people rage into a riotous and bloody frenzy, which culminates in one man being brutally decapitated by a gang that includes his own, unknowing, mother. They rip him apart and kick parts of him around like a football.
Only once the slaughter and frenzy is over do the rioters realise what they have done. At the time, they engaged in these activities for very little reason. Why does the murder happen? Don’t ask the murderer: she is simply caught up in the moment. There is no rationality behind the rioters’ thinking, only an animal thrill of rampage and disorder.
In the riots that England witnessed in summer 2011, a surprising assortment of schoolteachers, university students and others from well-heeled places have been arrested and charged. These people – it has been argued – have no reason to protest, and are simply obeying an innate instinct for disorder and theft. In any case, what kind of rational protest involves looting trainers from JD Sports? Only shocking such people into the realisation of what they have done – with water cannon, baton charges, the withdrawal of benefits, and imprisonment – will make them see sense.
However, those on the political left reiterated some of the arguments outlined not by Euripides, but by G.B. Shaw, who in 1933 wrote a play called On The Rocks. In Shaw’s play a coalition government in Britain faces the problem of public unrest, massive unemployment, and the rise of right-wing sentiment spreading across continental Europe. A British prime minister tries to work out what to do about a lawless mob of protestors in the streets of London, but lacks the philosophical resources to deal with the problem adequately: the only question that the leader asks is how to disperse the protesting crowds. As he hides in Downing Street, attempting to avoid any confrontation with the general public, the prime minister singularly fails to enquire about what has caused the crowds to be there in the first place. There are always troublemakers in any society – but why has this happened here and now? What has disturbed the delicate ecosystem of societal rewards and benefits to result in this outcome? As G.B. Shaw pointed out in the 1930s, any politician who is unwilling to deal with the underlying political issues ought to move out of the way and let someone else come along.
The problem with that idea is, who exactly would come along? For Shaw – who shared friendships with both Oswald Mosley and Stalin – democratic governments inevitably looked inadequate and shambling when faced by crowds in the streets. So what was Shaw’s solution in at the start of that dark decade? Insanely, he thought that the only way out was a strong dictator.
We may think that surely we could not repeat the disasters of that era again. And yet, as I write this at the end of August 2011, white vigilant groups have marched through parts of London, and the third most popular comment piece on the Daily Telegraph’s website is Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, with its noxious warning that ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’.
I think I’m generally closer to Shaw than Euripides, but I hope I’m not too close.