20 January 2022
Bedtime Stories for Boris
By Neil Tidmarsh
Dear Boris, it’s late on Friday night but you can’t sleep. It’s too quiet now that you’ve had to knock ‘Wine Friday’ on the head. The silence is keeping you awake. So why not let the Shaw Sheet tell you some bedtime stories to help the Sandman on his way?
What sort of stories would you like? Something from ancient Greece or Rome, perhaps, for a proud Classicist like yourself? Very well. How about The Bacchae by Euripides, for starters? (You must already know it, of course, but the repetition of a familiar tale makes for a very comforting bedtime story, doesn’t it?). Ok. Once upon a time…
…the city state of Thebes was struck by a deadly pestilence from the East. A dangerous and destructive new cult, worshipping the god Dionysus, ripped through the city like a plague. Pentheus, the king of Thebes, was determined to contain and crush it, to fight the sinister force which “infects us with this strange disease and pollutes our beds”. He found out that it was spread by wild orgies – drinking, dancing, singing and debauchery – so he banned all such activities. Anyone found partying was immediately “clapped in chains and sent to the dungeon”. Not long after this decree, however, members of his own inner circle – his high-priest and his ex-king grandfather – were seen flouting it and partying, much to the discontent and disgust of the locked-down citizens. Then – shock, horror – Pentheus himself couldn’t resist the temptation. He put on his glad rags and off he went to the bacchanals, in defiance of his own rules and regulations. Discontent and disgust exploded into violent outrage and his own people attacked him and tore him limb from limb. The end.
Not a ‘happy ever after’, you say? Well, not for Pentheus, of course. But the citizens may well have been happy to be rid of a leader criticised early in the play by someone who says to him “you are glib, with worthless and stupid conceit of speech; your phrases come rolling out smoothly on the tongue, as though your words were wise instead of foolish.”
Classical Greek drama is full of metaphor, allegory and irony. No need to dwell on that here, is there? But one accidental irony is striking. As an avowed Classicist, Boris, you must have known this play. You must have known the story of Pentheus’ downfall. A cautionary tale for you, surely? And yet…
Still awake? (I’m so sorry, I hope you’re not worried that the story will give you nightmares?) Never mind, there’s time for one more. Let’s have Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, the first and still the best whodunnit mystery thriller. And, as it happens, another tale of a city suffering a deadly epidemic and ruled by a leader who refuses to admit that he’s done anything wrong until it’s too late. Ok. Once upon a time…
…the city state of Thebes was devastated by another deadly plague. Its king – Oedipus this time – consulted the oracle at Delphi to find out the cause of the epidemic and how to lift it. He learnt that Thebes was being punished for the murder of its previous king, Laius, and the plague would be lifted only if the murderer was found and punished. So Oedipus ordered an investigation into the king’s death and launched a search for the killer. As the investigations progressed, however, Oedipus himself began to emerge as the prime suspect (a prophecy at birth claimed that he would kill his own father – and commit incest with his own mother…). But even as the evidence against him mounted up, he denied that he could have done anything wrong (the king of Thebes couldn’t have been his father – Oedipus came from the royal family of Corinth, not of Thebes – he’d fled to Thebes as a young man to avoid fulfilling the prophecy). Only when the evidence became overwhelming did he face up to and accept the truth: that a man he’d killed some years ago was in fact King Laius, unbeknown to him as he was stranger in Thebes at the time. Not only that, but Laius was indeed his father – the investigations revealed that Oedipus had only been adopted by the Corinthian royal family. And not only that but, in marrying Thebe’s widowed queen, he had married his own mother. And now the whole city was suffering because of these two terrible and unnatural crimes. Having been blind to the truth, Oedipus punished himself by plucking out his own eyes. The end.
Sophocles’ audience in classical Athens recognised the Theban plague as a metaphor for the plague they themselves were suffering when the play was written. Could we see the Theban plague as a metaphor for our own Covid-19? Not really. That’s far too literal. But could we see it as an allegory for a more abstract kind of sickness threatening us – a sort of sickness of our body politic – caused by our leader metaphorically killing his own father and screwing his own mother? After all, Boris, your political father is the Conservative Party and many believe that you’ve well and truly stabbed it in the back by abandoning its policies of small government, low spending, individual freedom, self-responsibility, non-interference in citizens’ private lives etc etc in favour of a high-spending authoritarianism foreign to the party’s traditions and beliefs. And your political mother, Boris, is the electorate which gave birth to you as prime-minister, and many of them now feel that you’ve well and truly screwed them by breaking the very rules and regulations which you yourself imposed on the country and which the country has largely obeyed. And the consequent plague threatening us? A potentially catastrophic collapse of our trust in our political servants and of our consent to be governed by them.
Well, enough of ancient history. But I do hope that these stories – no more than myth and legend, of course, mere make-believe, only light and frivolous entertainment – have given you some respite from grim political reality. Sleep tight.