A Big Fat Greek Tragedy

About a month ago, I previewed an updated version of Antigone, one of Sophocles’ tragedies written around 441BC. The playwright updated it by transposing the story from Thebes to the London riots of 2010. Obviously, the plot had to be changed significantly to make the situation work in the 21st century: whether or not I thought this re-working worked is in the review. However, one of the most thought-provoking changes was the decision to portray the chorus as journalists.

The idea was elegant, as the original function of a chorus – to explain and comment on the situation developing in the play – matches the basic objective of the press. However, as the classical ideas behind Greek tragedy evolved through history, so did the role of the chorus. By the time Sophocles was writing Antigone, the chorus was supposed to act almost as a plot device in itself, by pleading with the characters and influencing their decisions. The chorus didn’t just comment – it also guided the plot.

The line between chronicler and protagonist was blurred: this idea can be extended to the Leveson Inquiry and Chris Huhne’s trial. The press eagerly document minutiae of Leveson because it is about their jobs, their livelihoods. They are a chorus that have had the starring roles thrust upon them, the cast as well as the audience. Does this trivialise the case? Are they performing to an empty room? In an unscientific survey of my Twitter feed, I would say that yes, interest in Leveson has certainly waned – to look at the newspapers, you would think that the public is obsessed with press regulation, but tweets and comment sections online seem bored of the endless legal process. Do the chorus illuminate and enhance the narrative, or just add hot air?

Coverage of the Chris Huhne case explored the same idea, but backwards. Instead of updating Greek tragedy to the modern day, the press related the Huhne scandal back to classical ideas of tragedy. The Huhne case is a story so perfect that it lends itself better to the stage than the 6 o’clock news. It is filled with irony: a bitter wife taking revenge on her husband, only to be sent to prison herself; a lie which was meant to shield the Huhne family from public scrutiny, but ended up exposing the most painful and raw of home truths; the cover-up which was supposed to protect Huhne’s reputation but ended up being the nail in the coffin of his political career.

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It is these ironies which make the Huhne case so compelling. The newspapers have noted how appropriate it is that Chris Huhne’s Greek wife, Vicky Pryce, author of ‘Greekonomics’, was the heroine of a modern-day Greek tragedy.  Evgeny Lebedev of the Evening Standard went one step further, calling it a ‘Greek tragedy, with the media as Furies’ –  the Daily Mail’s interviews and leaked texts did indeed provide evidence for the prosecution, and so the Daily Mail’s journalists became goddesses of punishment, charting and causing the characters’ destruction.

So is this just a natural shift in journalists’ function? Just as Sophocles’ chorus was more powerful than those in previous centuries, today’s press may be assuming a more active, effectual role on stage. In an age where there is simply more digital evidence surrounding any story, every ‘scoop’ can be quicker and more sensational: the press naturally gets closer to what’s going on. Sometimes, as with Milly Dowler’s parents, the press gets too close and changes the course of history. However, if society sees journalists as simply observers and commentators the invasive problem of phone-hacking is removed, but so is investigative journalism that is prepared to reveal inconvenient truths in order to – and it is a cliché – change the world. Both roles alter the course of history, both can be products of a Fury-ish press. The metaphor of a Greek chorus can only capture so many wrinkles of society’s complicated relationship with the press – and today’s Daily Mail reporters are certainly more volatile, autonomous and influential than the original Greek chorus.