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Do the Classics Have a Future?

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Dante and Virgil in the first circle of hell, meeting classical poets, including Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, who were virtuous in life but are condemned to Limbo because they were never baptized; engraving by Gustave Doré

The year 2011 has been an unusually good one for the late Terence Rattigan: Frank Langella starred on Broadway in his play Man and Boy (a topical tale of the collapse of a financier), its first production in New York since the 1960s; and a movie of The Deep Blue Sea, featuring Rachel Weisz as the wife of a judge who goes off with a pilot, premiered at the end of November in the UK and opens in the US in December. It’s the centenary of Rattigan’s birth (he died in 1977), and it has brought the kind of reevaluation that centenaries often do. For years—in the eyes of critics, although not of London West End audiences—his elegant stories of the repressed anguish of the privileged classes were no match for the working-class realism of John Osborne and the other angry young dramatists. But we are learning to look again.

I have been looking again at another Rattigan play, The Browning Version, first performed in 1948. It is the story of Andrew Crocker-Harris, a forty-something schoolteacher at an English private school—an old-fashioned disciplinarian who is being forced into early retirement because of a serious heart condition. The Crock’s other misfortune (and “the Crock” is what the children call him) is that he is married to a truly venomous woman called Millie, who divides her time between an on-off affair with the science teacher and devising various bits of domestic sadism to destroy her husband.

But the title of the play takes us back to the classical world. The Crock, as you will already have guessed, teaches the classics (what else could he teach with a name like Crocker-Harris?), and the “Browning Version” of the title refers to the famous 1877 translation by Robert Browning of Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon. Written in the 450s BC, the Greek original told of the tragic return from the Trojan War of King Agamemnon, who was murdered on his arrival home by his wife Clytemnestra and by the lover she had taken while Agamemnon had been away.

This classic is, in a sense, the real star of Rattigan’s play. It is given to the Crock as a retirement present by John Taplow, a pupil who has been taking extra Greek lessons, and who has gradually come to feel some affection for the crabby old schoolmaster. The giving of the gift is the key moment, almost the moment of redemption, in the plot. It is the first time that Crocker-Harris’s mask slips: when he opens the “Browning Version,” he cries. Why does he cry? First, because it forces him to face how he himself is being destroyed, as Agamemnon was, within an adulterous marriage—you’ll have gathered by now that this is not exactly a feminist play. But he cries also because of what young Taplow has written on the title page. It’s a line from the play, carefully inscribed in Greek, which the Crock translates as “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.” He interprets this as a comment on his own career: he has made sure not to be a gentle schoolmaster, and God has not looked graciously upon him.

Rattigan is doing more here than exploring the tortured psyches of the British upper-middle class (and it’s not just another “school story,” which Americans often think a quirky fixation of British writers). Well classically trained himself, he is also raising central questions about the classics, the classical tradition, and our modern engagement with it. How far can the ancient world help us to understand our own? What limits should we place on our reinterpretation and reappropriation of it? (When Aeschylus wrote “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master,” he certainly did not have a schoolmaster in mind, but a military conqueror; in fact, the phrase—and this too, I guess, was part of Rattigan’s point—was one of the last spoken by Agamemnon to Clytemnestra before she took him inside to kill him.)

To put it another way, how do we make the ancient world make sense to us? How do we translate it? Young Taplow doesn’t actually rate Browning’s translation very highly, and indeed—to our tastes—it is written in awful nineteenth-century poetry-speak (“Who conquers mildly, God, from afar, benignantly regardeth,” as Browning puts the key line, is hardly going to send most of us rushing to the rest of the play.) But when, in his lessons, Taplow himself gets excited by Aeschylus’ Greek and comes out with a wonderfully spirited but slightly inaccurate version of one of the murderous bits, the Crock reprimands him—“you are supposed to be construing Greek“—that is, translating the language literally, word for word—“not collaborating with Aeschylus.”

Most of us now, I suspect, are on the side of the collaborators, with their conviction that the classical tradition is something to be engaged with, and sparred against, not merely replicated and mouthed. In this context, I can’t resist reminding you of the flagrantly modern versions of Homer’s Iliad by the English poet Christopher Logue, who died on December 2—Kings, War Music, and others—“the best translation of Homer since [Alexander] Pope’s,” as Garry Wills called them in these pages.* This was, I think, both a heartfelt and a slightly ironic comment. For the joke is that Logue, our leading collaborator with Homer, knew not a word of Greek.

Many of the questions raised by Rattigan underlie what I have to say. I’m not here to convince you that classical literature, culture, or art is worth taking seriously; I suspect that would be preaching to the converted. I’m here instead to suggest that the cultural language of the classics continues to be an essential and ineradicable dialect of “Western culture” (embedded in the drama of Rattigan, as much as in the poetry of Ted Hughes or the novels of Margaret Atwood or Donna Tartt—The Secret History couldn’t, after all, have been written about a department of geography). But I also want to examine a bit more closely our fixation on the decline of classical learning. And here too Rattigan’s Browning Version, or its sequels, offer an intriguing perspective.

The play has always been popular with impoverished theater and TV companies, partly for the simple reason that Rattigan set the whole thing in Crocker-Harris’s sitting room, which makes it extremely cheap to stage. But there have also been two movie versions of The Browning Version, which did venture outside Crocker-Harris’s apartment to exploit the cinematic potential of the English private school, from its quaint wood-paneled classrooms to its rolling green cricket pitches. Rattigan himself wrote the screenplay for the first one, starring Michael Redgrave, in 1951. He used the longer format of the film to expand on the philosophy of education, pitting the teaching of science (as represented by Millie’s lover) against the teaching of the classics (as represented by the Crock). And he gave the Crock’s successor as the classics teacher, Mr. Gilbert, a bigger part—making it clear that he was going to move away from the hard-line Latin and Greek grammar grind, to what we would now call a more “pupil-centered” approach.

In 1994 another movie version was made, this time starring Albert Finney. It had been modernized: Millie was renamed Laura, and her science-master lover was now a decidedly preppy American. There was still some sense of the old story: Finney held his class spellbound when he read them some lines of Aeschylus and he cried at the gift of the “Browning Version” even more movingly than Redgrave had. But in a striking twist, a new narrative of decline was introduced. In this version, the Crock’s successor is in fact going to stop teaching the classics entirely. “My remit,” he says in the film, “is to organize a new languages department: modern languages, German, French, Spanish. It is after all a multicultural society.” The Crock is now to be seen as the very last of his species.

But if this movie predicts the death of classical learning, it inadvertently appears to confirm it too. In one scene, the Crock is apparently going through with his class a passage of Aeschylus in Greek, which the pupils are finding very hard to read. Any sharp-eyed classicist will easily spot why they might have been having trouble: for each boy has on his desk only a copy of the Penguin translation of Aeschylus (with its instantly recognizable front cover); they haven’t got a Greek text at all. Presumably some bloke in the props department had been sent off to find twenty copies of the Agamemnon and knew no better than to bring it in English.

That specter of the end of classical learning is one that is probably familiar to everyone. With some trepidation, I want to try to get a new angle on the question, to go beyond the usual gloomy clichés, and (with the help in part of Terence Rattigan) to take a fresh look at what we think we mean by “the classics.” But let’s first remind ourselves of what recent discussion of the current state of the classics, never mind their future, tends to stress.

The basic message is a gloomy one. Literally hundreds of books, articles, reviews, and Op-Ed pieces have appeared over the last ten years or so, with titles like “The Classics in Crisis,” “Can the Classics Survive?,” “Who Killed Homer?,” “Why America Needs the Classical Tradition,” and “Saving the Classics from Conservatives.” All of these in their different ways lament the death of the classics, conduct an autopsy upon them, or recommend some rather belated life-saving procedures. The litany of gloomy facts and figures paraded in these contributions, and their tone, are in broad terms familiar. Often headlined is the decline of Latin and Greek languages in high schools (last year fewer than three hundred young people in England and Wales took classical Greek as part of their high school leaving exam, and those overwhelmingly from private schools) or the closing of university departments of the classics all over the world.

In fact, in November 2011 an international petition was formally launched to ask UNESCO—in the light of the increasing marginalization of the classical languages—to declare Latin and Greek a specially protected “intangible heritage of humanity.” I am not sure what I think about treating classical languages as if they were an endangered species or a precious ruin, but I am fairly confident that it wasn’t great politics, right now, to suggest (as the petition does) that their preservation should be made the particular responsibility of the Italian government. I think Mario Monti has rather too much on his plate already.

What has caused this decline attracts a variety of answers. Some argue that the supporters of the classics have only themselves to blame. It’s a “Dead White European Male” sort of subject that has far too often acted as a convenient alibi for a whole range of cultural and political sins, from imperialism and Eurocentrism to social snobbery and the most mind-numbing form of pedagogy. The British dominated their empire with Cicero in hand; Goebbels chose Greek tragedy for his bedside reading (and, if you believe Martin Bernal, he would have found confirmation for his crazed views of Aryan supremacy in the traditions of classical scholarship itself). Chickens have come home to roost, it’s sometimes said, for the classics in the new multicultural world. Not to mention the fact that, in England at least, the learning of the Latin language was for generations the gatekeeper of rigid class privilege and social exclusivity—albeit at a terrible cost to its apparent beneficiaries. It gave you access to a narrow elite, that’s for sure, but committed your childhood years to the narrowest educational curriculum imaginable; nothing much else but translation into and out of Latin (and when you got a little older, Greek). In the movie of The Browning Version we find Crocker-Harris making his pupils translate into Latin the first four stanzas of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott”: an exercise as pointless as it was prestigious.

  1. *

    Homer Alive,” The New York Review, April 23, 1992. 

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