Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright Socialist Review



A clash of values

Troilus and Cressida
by William Shakespeare

Hector meets his killer Achilles

Troilus and Cressida was for a long time regarded as one of the most enigmatic of Shakespeare's plays. It has been treated as a comedy; but there is little comedy in an ending marked by betrayal, devastation and death. It cannot easily be treated as a tragedy either. Yet, as this production shows, it is among the most powerful of plays, precisely because it does not fit into the normal categories of drama.
The play is set in the seventh year of the Trojan War and ostensibly centres on the relationship between one of the Trojan princes, Troilus, and Cressida, a Trojan woman whose father has chosen to go over to the Greeks. Troilus is intent on winning Cressida, but she plays hard to get, on the grounds that once a woman has admitted her regard for a man he loses all interest in her. Their relationship is finally consummated in one night of passion, only to be broken apart by a Trojan decision to send her across the Greek lines in exchange for a Trojan prisoner of war. Once in the Greek camp, she ignores her promises to Troilus and turns to the Greek Diomedes, just before bitter fighting breaks out and the Greek Achilles kills one of Troilus's brothers, Hector.
This outline would not be amiss as a story line for a typical episode of Neighbours--or perhaps, with the death, Brookside. It certainly lacks any true tragic climax. This is why it has sometimes been treated simply as a tale of female untrustworthiness (with Cressida dismissed as 'a whore'), or of Greek duplicity as against Trojan honour. But Shakespeare was able to use this feeble framework to display, with enormous dramatic intensity, the way in which people are torn apart by contradictory values and feelings.
His underlying theme is that the values they profess do not make sense of what they are doing, but neither do the alternatives on offer. Early on both Troilus and Hector on the Trojan side admit there is no point in fighting a war simply to satisfy Paris's lust for Helen. 'Fools on both sides,' says Troilus, 'Helen must needs be fair, when with your blood you daily paint her thus.' There's no 'worth' in keeping Helen, argues Hector, since every 'soul' lost in the war 'hath been as dear as Helen'. Yet both then go on to insist that 'honour' demands that they proceed with the war.
Meanwhile, on the Greek side, Ulysses bemoans the loss of the conservative values of hierarchy and station. Without these, he says, society is undermined, force decides what is right, and 'chaos... follows the choking of degree'. Yet from this point on, all his actions involve deception designed to bring about the crudest use of force, until he goads Achilles into killing an unarmed Hector.
Tragedies like Hamlet and Macbeth centre on individuals driven by their own personal traits to destruction. This play, by contrast, shows societies driven by the possession of contradictory values to tear at each other over a pointless issue (the possession of Helen), and, in the process, to tear down all values. Hector pays the price--and so do whatever genuine feelings Troilus and Cressida had for each other. The tragedy comes from the dialectic of social contradiction, not of individual destiny.
The values in question are not abstract values. They correspond precisely to the two world views that clashed right across Europe as Shakespeare wrote the play at the beginning of the 17th century. On the one hand was the notion of society as based on feudal notions of hierarchy, order and honour--brilliantly put across by Ulysses in a speech which deploys the Aristotelean-Ptolemaic picture of the ordered heavens to defend it. On the other was the capitalist notion of value as dependent on worth in buying and selling--as when Hector discusses how to measure the value of Helen. Soon after Shakespeare's death the clash was to produce a Thirty Years' War in Europe every bit as destructive as the ten year Trojan War, and led to revolution in Shakespeare's own England. The power of their juxtaposition comes in the way those clashes shaped our own society and its presuppositions.
One final point. Director Trevor Nunn and the National Theatre have put on the play without star actors (many of them commonly appear in The Bill). But there are many star performances. The cast brings the play to life marvellously--and show, in a haunting ending, the horrors that result when the contradictions in a society cannot be resolved.
Chris Harman
Troilus and Cressida, plays at the National Theatre, London, throughout April and May

Nye Bevan's dream

Everything Must Go
by Patrick Jones

Every once in a while a play is written which captures the mood of a generation, challenges both the past and the present and stops the viewing public dead in their tracks. Everything Must Go is such a play.
The play has received rave reviews, and quite rightly. It demonstrates that a play with an overtly socialist message can also be a first class work of art. Everything Must Go is centred around the experience of working class youth in the valleys of south Wales. The bulk of its audience recently in Cardiff were young people, who gave standing ovations each night. The play explores the reasons why so many young people turn to car crime, robbery and drugs, and it pins the blame firmly on capitalism and the fact that people are alienated under capitalist society.
Not only is 'alienation' discussed in the play, but the concept is extended from the common usage of the word to being explicitly connected to the world of work in the valleys today. Throughout the play images of conveyor belt production lines as associated with the new electronic industries were used, showing workers as bits of the machine.
The backdrop to the play is the music of the now hugely popular Welsh bands such as Catatonia, Stereophonics and Manic Street Preachers. Indeed, the lyrics and song titles from the Manics, which are central to the play, were written by Patrick Jones's brother, Nicky Wire.
Some people have been upset by the play's use of strong language. But its use is anything but gratuitous. It is purposely placed there and discussed in the play itself. It is constantly juxtaposed to the lyrics of various modern songs, to poetry and more importantly to the speeches of Nye Bevan: 'Nye Bevan was a good man--he cared. He said of the young men going off to fight the fascists, "Some people had better watch out because one day they might decide to fight the fascists here too." Nye Bevan had a dream. What have we done to that dream?'
It would be a great mistake to see this play as a glorification of Welshness. To Catatonia's Welsh song', 'International Velvet', a scene showed how the praising of all things Welsh was just another way of disguising and deflecting from the grim reality of everyday life. In style, however, the play does employ many techniques associated with the best traditions of art and culture emanating from Wales.
The play is very hard on New Labour even after the script was toned down for this production.
Finally, the actors in the play, many of whom were students from the College of Music and Drama, were interviewed for a Welsh television programme. Comparisons were made to the works of William Shakespeare, in that on paper what seems like difficult prose comes alive when performed. This play certainly came alive, and it can only be hoped that it will tour.
Martin Chapman

The real betrayal

by Gary Mitchell

Patrick O'Kane and Ruairi Conaghan in 'Trust'

Trust is set inside the Protestant ghetto of the Rathcoole estate outside Belfast. It concerns a UDA commander who is a community fixer and lives on the estate. His own son, meanwhile, is being bullied at school. How should he respond? He is simultaneously involved in an arms deal with a renegade British soldier who has become involved with a young woman from the estate.
The theme of trust within a community that regards itself as being besieged is a fascinating one. How are relationships and social interactions sustained under the pressure of political conflict? How does a paramilitary organisation win the trust of a local community, and what is the balance between this trust and its capacity to enforce its will by violence actual or implied? Unfortunately, Trust doesn't rise to the challenge.
Mitchell has argued that the modern literary explosion in Northern Ireland has focused predominantly on the Catholic community: 'I just find my community more interesting, and I think it is continually misunderstood and misrepresented.' It is, of course, no coincidence that the wealth of contemporary literary output has explored the Catholic or nationalist experience since they are the principal victims of British imperialism.
Trust doesn't attempt to address this issue. The political conflict is a somewhat blurred backdrop rather than the immediate context of the drama. If Mitchell is critical of playwrights like Frank McGuiness, who have tried to portray this sense of betrayal within the historical context of Protestant Ulster's relationship with Britain, what alternative insight or analysis does he offer?
If he is attempting to portray the tensions between the UDA godfather as community fixer and his more personal role as beleaguered parent, it remains unconvincing. His community is not hermetically sealed from the outside world, but the drama does not explore the relationship between the Protestant paramilitaries and the wider political conflict. Instead it focuses predominantly on the domestic tensions within the family without explaining how the main protagonists have become the people they are. It is totally unconvincing to restrict the drama to their own ghettos and families. After all, Rathcoole, one of the biggest housing estates in Europe, used to be mixed--Catholic and Protestant living together. They found work in the surrounding factories. The Catholics and the factories have now disappeared. Why?
That would be an interesting focus for a play set in Rathcoole. Trust is based self consciously within a working class community, but class does not feature in any dynamic sense. Yes, the Protestant workers have been betrayed, but it is important to locate the real cause of their betrayal. Ironically, Mitchell's sharp ear for dialogue hints at a different explanation. There may be a variation in the accents of the divided working class communities of Belfast, but the dialect is virtually the same. Is it possible that they have far more than language in common?
Protestant workers have rightly been described as the dupes of history, because their Loyalism has been used and then discarded by their own ruling elite. It was never a noble cause, but a means of defending sectarianism and discrimination. It has now outlived its usefulness for Britain and Unionism. Real trust would have been found in the commonality of interests Protestant workers have with their Catholic counterparts, a trust that has been manifest in numerous common struggles throughout Irish history. Now that's a trust worth exploring.
Shaun Doherty
Trust plays at the Royal Court, London

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