Last night I went to the Gate Theatre to see The Trojan Women by Caroline Bird, in whose hands Euripides’ harrowing tale took on a contemporary shape. The Gods, always in my experience a tedious part of any Greek drama, were rightly presented as our modern deity, TV announcers on flat screens, and the fall of Troy was no more than “the pictures on the postcards we send from the world”. The script presented tragedy in vernacular language, flippant and anguished by turn. A stunning cast of actors held us in an agonising grasp, doing their work a mere yard away from our faces, in small room above a Notting Hill pub: the magic of theatre at its best. A third of the audience, to my great surprise, stayed on later to hear me pick out some psychological themes.
Does tragedy ever change its psychological shape? I doubt it. The fall of Troy has parallels with the fall of Berlin: rape on a massive scale is a commonplace response. Seen from the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology, murdering the children of one’s defeated enemies makes good sense, as does immediately raping their womenfolk. The winning genes complete the military conquest.
Revenge is a theme in The Trojan Women, and the avenging of wrongs was an obligation in ancient times. Why not train the young to hate their enemies, when the alternative is further subjugation? Blood feuds make evolutionary sense. However, if common law can evolve so that justice is swift and sure, then the obligation can be passed over to the State. England achieved this in the Middle Ages, with an independent judiciary, trial by jury, and a common law which applied to most citizens. As a consequence, violence was far lower than on the Continent. No need to get the family involved in vengeance if the State did the job, with representation of the accused, elaborate procedural safeguards, and a noose. Nowadays, those openly wanting vengeance can be ignored. However, compared to the past, the State has become indulgent. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith observed (II.II.21) that "mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent” and that one should oppose the emotions of compassion one might feel for the perpetrator, out of a more enlarged compassion for mankind. In that spirit modern day gangs still settle scores the old and reliable way.
War often has its justifications. There is often an ancient casus belli (think Arab-Israeli conflict, which could be dated to 1948, or 1917 or 1000BC), and it is a matter of punctuation as to who started first. Violence is simply a response to provocation. This prompted the question: can there be unprovoked violence? By chance I and the director of the play, among others, had just seen a security video of an assailant running up behind a 16 year old girl and felling her unconscious with one blow to the back of her head. The assailant was unknown to the victim, and there was absolutely nothing about her manner which was in the least provocative. In some ways that makes the case even more disturbing. We are faced with the reality of one person hurting another without cause or compunction. As the director observed, the assailant will probably be revealed to have “mental health problems”. That should reassure us all.