Friday, March 03, 2006

John Barton and Thucydides

As part of a busy weekend of culture, that included Ecclesiazusae and Medea, I went on Sunday 12 February to see John Barton's The War That Still Goes On, a synthesis of Thucydides and Plato, performed by the RSC.

I was familiar with the work from a 1991 version, entitled The War That Never Ends, broadcast by the BBC in the immediate run-up to the first Gulf War, and somewhat misleadingly reported in Simon Goldhill's Love, Sex and Tragedy, but the work was apparently originally written and produced in the late 1960s. Thucydides narrates the history of the Great Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC, and other characters act out certain key scenes. Scenery and staging are at a minimum - in 1991 actors spoke their lines in a bare studio, in 2006 they sit around a stage and workshop the play.

It's an interesting work, and I have used it in the past to help bring Thucydides alive to students, though one has to be careful with it. The adaptation is very free. Barton can sometimes be a bit indifferent to chronology, presenting events in an order that seems to him dramatically right, rather than the order in which they actually happened. For instance, the Mytilene debate is placed after Brasidas' expedition to the Thracian Chersonese. And I have always suspected that Thucydides' opening lines, "I doubt this war will be finished in my lifetime ...", indicate a belief on Barton's part that because Thucydides did not complete his history, he did not survive the war (in fact, there are clear references to the end of the war in Thucydides' work, even though his main narrative does not get to the end).

This version differed from that I had seen before in being longer. The 1991 version breaks off after the destruction of the Sicilian expedition. The 2006 performance contains a more complete end, including the trial and execution of Socrates (something Thucydides may well not have lived to see). My suspicion is that this is something restored from the original 1960s version. Also of note is that sections previously narrated by Thucydides have now been give to others in the cast to act out - this may be the result of Barton rethinking. There was a good cast, including Timothy West as Socrates, and Clive Francis as Thucydides - but it could, of course, not match the stellar cast assembled in 1991, which included Ben Kingsley, David Calder, Don Henderson, Andrew Keir, Jonathan Hyde - the cream of the classical theatre of the early 1990s.

And the work remains relevant; indeed, when the Athenian ambassadors speak to the Melians about how Melos should capitulate because Athens has the power to do what she wants, it seems more relevant to 2006 than to 1991. Many other characters articulate issues with contemporary relevance. The Spartan King Archidamus has a speech near the beginning about how war is not a good thing, not to be entered into lightly, and the consequences are often unforeseen - and as I watched it again I wished that George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld had been exposed to this.

After the performance, there was a debate chaired by John Snow, with Paul Cartledge, Germaine Greer, Helena Kennedy and Haleh Afshar. A few points were raised that I thought interesting.

Germaine Greer had just come back from Bangladesh, where she had been researching the war of 1971. She had discovered that, though stories were spread that many women in Bangladesh who had survived being raped by Pakistani soldiers, the truth was that the vast majority of raped women were murdered. Her point was that the suffering of women is often played down in comparison with what happens to men. Her implication was that, when Thucydides talks of men in a city being killed, and women and children sold into slavery, he is doing the same, and the true fate of those women would be death. Whilst acknowledging some of Greer's point, she overlooks the economic factor. Women in Bangladesh were of no economic value to Pakistani troops - but women in Melos were of economic value to Athenian troops, as they could be sold into slavery. People tend not to destroy what they can make money from.

Paul Cartledge made the point about the Peloponnesian War being shaped by Thucydides, that it was the historian who decided that the conflicts between Athens and Sparta between 431 and 404 were a single war, not two wars broken by a period of uneasy peace. Again, there's some force to that, but I think it overprivileges Thucydides to say that this was entirely his creation - I have always felt that the Lysistrata of Aristophanes, produced in 411 BC, makes more sense if the common perception was of a war that had lasted twenty years rather than one which had lasted less than five.

Haleh Afshar made a point about disinterest in voting, and how in some places people had voted enthusiastically the first time they got the opportunity, but less so on subsequent occasions. This, of course, is something that the Athenians had to contend with - until generous assembly pay was introduced, the democracy had difficulty getting enough people to form a quorum to come to the Assembly. Afshar's point that people often would prefer to get on with their own lives, farming, or doing whatever made them money, than vote, though contested by Helena Kennedy, is recognized in ancient Athens.

The panel ended by saying that the message of Barton's play was that of Socrates, to 'Think straight'. But if the fate of Socrates tells us anything, it's that people don't like to be told to think straight. Socrates, if Plato's dialogues are any indication, went around pointing out to people that believing certain notions necessarily led to accepting other ideas they might find rather less palatable. And in the end, the Athenian people got so fed up of this that they killed him for it.


Timotheos said...

Very interesting. I cannot stand Germaine Greer, but her comment sounds apt, although your reply is even more apt. My impression, sad as it is, is that women in the ancient world accepted their status. It would indeed be foolish to kill noncombatant women when they were of great use for breeding, housekeeping, cooking, etc and they were untrained in weapons so unlikely to revolt. (The best they can do is throw roof tiles in that section of Thucydides that I cannot place now.) This is all of course most sad to us as we think of women differently now.
A friend of mine, Jaspreet, did not care as much as you did for the play and said the audience was composed of "dinner party liberals" who had come for the cast and not for Thucydides. Further, he thought they used an old Penguin edition as a crib rather than translating it afresh ... however, Thucydides is the hardest I have ever tried to translate from Greek, with Demosthenes as a second; give me Lysias any day! I'll take Aeschylus instead, believe it or not, too.
Do you know where I might get the script Barton put together?

Tony Keen said...

I agree that most of the audience were there for the cast, and even more so the talking heads afterwards, and that the discussion didn't spend much time on Thucydides (though Paul Cartledge kept trying to pull it back). But if we resent the presence of people at such events because they aren't sufficiently interested in the ancient authors, we risk taking an overly elitist approach. If one person in that audience went away and read some Thucydides where otherwise they would not, that is a postive result.

It wouldn't surprise me if Barton started with Warner's Penguin and other available translations rather than doing it afresh himself. That would be terribly time-consuming, and it should be remembered that this is adapted from Thucydides amd Plato, rather than actually being readings of the ancients (this is one of the bits I think Goldhill is misleading on). The final text is, I think, Barton's own, but inspired by the best of previous translations.

The talking heads afterwards did all have a copy of the script, and according to Amazon, it has been published. But actually acquiring a copy might not be easy.