If I had to pick the single best question to ask someone at a speed dating event, it would be “rank the tragedians, from your favourite to your least favourite”. Granted it’s actually a challenge rather than a question, but anyone anal enough to point that out would be out of the running ex-officio.
If Aeschylus were alive today he would be a Balliol don in his 80s. It is inconceivable that he could ever be wrong about anything. Ever. And anyone who suggested as much would be blown to smithereens with an A-bomb of portentious, port-soaked iambics. And his little bottle of oil. Like colonialism, smoking and raping the domestics, we’re all supposed to disapprove of that sort of thing these days, but I actually rather enjoy the certainty of it. I think a lot of actors do too. Like Forbidden Broadway‘s “As Long as He Needs Me” parody: “I’ll suffer Cameron’s scorn/ I’ll limp for Matthew Bourne/ I’ll dress like I’m in porn…” Ted Hughes did a not-especially-accurate-but-still-good translation, which should ideally be read with a glass of brandy in one hand and System of a Down’s Toxicity on the stereo. (Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath: another good question for a speed dating evening. Either that or Harry Hill’s TV Burp.)
Everyone has it in for Sophocles because he’s supposed to be bourgeois, which is quite a bourgeois point of view in itself. Actually, he has his moments, but they’re dragged down by the tedious, middlebrow rap session that is Antigone. The French love Antigone, but then they would, wouldn’t they? Anyway, as I was saying, being bourgeois isn’t necessarily a turnoff. If you can forget the awful, self-indulgent, neurotic bitch above, Electra comes close to being an Aykbourne farce, and who on earth would see that as a Bad Thing? It also contains one of the best lines in theatre, as Aegisthus is being led away for execution: “Why take me into the house? If this deed be fair, what need of darkness? Why is thy hand not prompt to strike?” Oh, snap! Orestes, you just got told! It’s also one of the only lines that I actually still remember in Greek: “ti d’es doumous ageis me; pôs tod ei kalon tourgon, skotou dei kou procheiros ei ktanein“. It could be Cavafy.
Euripides is the most postmodern of the three. The basic message of most of his plays is “yah, like, what-everrrrrrrr“, which is something of a relief after the seriousness of the first two. Something like the Bacchae or Helen is like Encolpius’ suicide attempt in the Satyricon. It’s already over and you’re onto the next thing before you can think “Wait a minute… What the fuck?” If you put the Bacchae and Aristophanes’ parody (the Thesmorphoriazusae, in case you’d forgotten, and yes I had to google it to check which way round the S and the Z go) side by side, you suddenly realise that sometimes the only difference between tragedy and comedy is the ending (and the fact that in the latter the arse-shaving episode takes place actually on stage). I know someone who once interviewed for a job as teaching Latin and Greek at a posh prep school in London. One of the questions was “What’s your favourite tragedy?” “The Bacchae,” she replied chirpily. She didn’t get the job. Later I asked her why in God’s name she’d picked that one. “Because it’s the only one that isn’t totally boring.”
Anyway, since this is nominally supposed to be a blog about careers, here, to justify the inclusion of this piece, are Some Interesting Things That I Have Learnt Recently:
1. The answer papers for the category A conours d’entrée for the Ministère des Affaires étrangères aren’t anonymous. It’s not even like the DGSE where you go through the charade of folding the corner over – your name’s right there at the top.
2. The marking is done in-house, by conseillers taking a break from their day job.
3. This year, in the “section Asie méridionale“, of the five people marked “admissible” in the external exam, four were actually internal candidates. In other words, only one of the successful candidates wasn’t actually graded by her friends and colleagues.
4. Whenever I’ve mentioned this to a French person, their reply has been something like “Oh, that? Sure, the Banque de France exams are a total scam as well,” or “Yeah, they’re never anonymous; when I was in Cairo some girl who barely knew two words of Arabic got top marks because she was boffing the ambassador”. In any other country on earth I’d wonder why no one had thought to mention this before.
5. So yeah, I need a job. Pistons, anyone?