The tragedy of George Bush
Classicists have to take any opportunity they can get to put -- or keep -- their subject on the map. So when a nice man from the Today programme rang up to say that they wondered if I would like to compare the fate of George Bush to a Greek tragedy, I could hardly say no.
The idea was that in the very same week that Saddam had been sentenced to death he had also (albeit indirectly) delivered a humiliating blow to Bush in the mid-term elections. It is indeed the kind of tragic reversal that Athenian dramatists discussed, and I quickly agreed to do a 3 minute radio essay.
But which tragedy was I going to choose for the closest parallel to GW?
At times like this, my colleagues are truly wonderful. It would be quite understandable if they were to say: “if you want to thrust yourself forward onto the nation’s radios, that’s fine … but don’t expect us to help you out.” But actually we are all happy to lend a hand and knocking the question around produced some good leads very quickly.
I had wondered about concentrating on Sophocles’ Oedipus. The idea would be that Oedipus killed his long-lost father in an incident of ancient road rage – and it was that action which later brought him down, when it was revealed that he had inadvertently married his mother. But father-killing seemed to bring in Bush senior rather awkwardly and probably muddied the waters.
Sophocles’ Trachiniae (“Women of Trachis”) looked a neater fit, The story here is that Heracles kills the centaur Nessos (who has tried to rape his wife, Deianeira). As the centaur dies, he gives Deianaira some of his blood which he says will keep her husband from loving anyone else. When Heracles is later unfaithful, she uses the blood to kill him. The trouble with this is that hardly anyone is remotely familiar with the Trachiniae and getting it across in a three minute piece wasn’t go to leave much time for Bush.
So, talking it over during lunch in college, I settled on Euripides' Bacchae. The reversal is there good and clear: King Pentheus of Thebes sentences to death the god Dionysos (in disguise as a “Lydian stranger”) who has infected the women of the city with his weird Eastern religion and enticed them out to roam wild in the mountains. But the stranger/Dionysos breaks out of prison miraculously and encourages Pentheus to go to the mountains to see for himself. There he is torn limb from limb by a posse of women led by his mother.
True, Saddam is not a god in disguise. But there some other features of the Bacchae that resonate nicely with the Bush problem: it is partly set up as a clash between West and East; the older and wiser statesmen of Thebes advise Pentheus to resist the use of force (preferring talks and a negotiated settlement); and much of the debate hinges on the theme of Pentheus’ unwillingness even to try to understand cultural norms other than his own.
It went out on Saturday morning when the nation slumbered, just before Thought for the Day (indeed my husband still in bed thought it was Thought for the Day). But you can catch it again if you want. And I’d love to know if anyone can think of a better parallel. Indeed, was mine plausible at all?