Classically Inclined

January 16, 2017

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus – Tony Harrison

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:26 pm
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Last weekend I was very lucky to get to a very rare performance of Tony Harrison’s Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Finborough Theatre. I’d never heard of the Finborough before, and before I get any further in this post, the performance is running until the 28th and there are still tickets left at the time of writing.  If you can get there, do. The cast are superb.

Trackers has been performed precisely three times – once at Delphi in 1988, once at the National Theatre in 1990, and now at the Finborough. It is, as we are reminded, almost thirty years since it was last staged. You’d expect it to have aged. It hasn’t. Given the specificity of its targets, this is rather worrying.

Trackers begins with the dig of Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus, the city of the sharp-nosed fish, from whose rubbish dumps we have recovered amazing amounts of papyri and otherwise unknown texts. Grenfell is nervous and unwell, searching desperately for fragments of a lost Sophocles play which he says the god Apollo is urging him to find. He retires to his tent, overwrought – only for Apollo to possess him, and for us to segue, unexpectedly, into a satyr play of our own, with satyrs led by Silenus tracking down the play , discovering the god’s lost cattle, the baby Hermes and the discovery of the lyre. Apollo is delighted at this find, and pays off the satyrs in gold while promising that they will never have access to the sort of high art that he can now create. Having come to the end of the satyr play structure, the shift into a fearful messenger speech from Silenus about the flaying of Marsyas for daring to approach ‘high art’ is, frankly, harrowing. So is the remainder of the play, as the satyrs wander, outcast, wondering what to do, how to live, how to survive, until they end up as the homeless on the South Bank. Silenus makes a final appeal to the audience, asking if there is anyone who can help interpret the scraps of papyrus… before finding a voice and standing up on the ‘tragic’ stage, where no satyr has stood before, to shout. And curtain.

Is there a doctor…some don from Queen’s
who can tell the rest of us what all this means?

As is probably clear, Trackers is about high art and low art, about who gets to make art and who has access to it. It is also about the British class system. Apollo speaks with obvious received pronunciation, the satyrs have broad Yorkshire accents and clogs. It is also about the politics of classics, although that strand is obviously woven into the concern with class – white scholars from Oxford have access to the papyri and say what it means, the Egyptian fellaheen are the ones who actually get their hands dirty; Apollo’s high tragedy gets preserved safely while the mass culture satyr play gets dispersed into scraps; the satyrs aren’t allowed to go ‘outside’ their genre, which gets pushed down, down, down, while high art not only gets pushed up, but also becomes sanitising.

Wherever the losers and the tortured scream
the lyres will be playing the Marsyas theme.
You’ll hear the lyres playing behind locked doors
where men flay their fellows for some abstract cause.

Who gets to do classics? Who gets access to culture? Who gets the privilege? The context that generated this play, the Britain of the late 1980s with the closure of the coal mines, the rise in unemployment, the rise of the City and the fall of the working class, seems to be one reason that this play first of all didn’t get performed more, and secondly why it didn’t get performed again. But watching it last week, it still felt frighteningly contemporary and relevant – not least because of the current battleground in classical studies over whether the subject is an enabler or a limiter in terms of race and class. We know we have problems with both these fields in terms of what academic professors look like; the wider implications of the abuse of the subject are more frightening. Questions about who gets to own classics and who gets to play the lyre are, it seems, still very much up for heated debate. As they should be, given that the stakes are as high as they are.

There is, of course, the slight disconnect at a play which was only ever performed at Delphi and the National (and now the Finborough) castigating people for limiting access to things. Harrison knows his Greek drama, which is why I have come away from the performance with a much richer sense of how an ancient chorus might have worked – this production features some inspired clog-dancing sequences in hobnailed boots on board during the satyr play section which are glorious to watch. Yet for this message, this message, to be stuck inside the pages of the scripts and not to be seen, even now, unless you are one of the lucky fifty who can get a Finborough ticket on a given night or even know the Finborough exists? It feels as if there is something vaguely fitting for Trackers to be experiencing a similar fate to the fragments of the Oxyrhynchus piles, although I hope that this revival leads to it being staged much more frequently than it has been. The language alone deserves that.

June 28, 2013

Petition against privatising UK student loans

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 1:36 pm
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As Twitter and the New Statesman noticed yesterday, Danny Alexander has confirmed the government’s intention to privatise the student loan book.

There are so many things wrong with this that I can’t quite begin to articulate them, but let’s settle for the fact that there are some suggestions in a leaked memo that the interest on existing loans could be increased retrospectively.

Given all the problems and issues we’re facing with getting the most talented students from any background into higher education, the privatisation of the loan book would be one further discouragement from pursuing further study from those without independent financial resources. It would be one further step towards the privatisation and marketisation that is already creeping into the university sector, where (to my mind) it has no place. And it won’t ultimately do anything towards improving the country’s financial situation right now.

Tim Whitmarsh has set up a petition calling on the government not to privatise student loans. Please take a minute to sign. If this goes through, there will be serious consequences for all UK universities, academics and students.

October 31, 2011

Changing the university admissions process

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 12:19 pm
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The big higher ed news in the UK press today is the recommendation by UCAS that universities should only offer places to students once they have their A-level results. For my international readers – UCAS is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, whose job it is to centrally process applications from secondary school students and manage the overall university application procedure. In general, they do a very good job of making a complicated system run smoothly – they deal with the early deadline applicants for Oxbridge and then keep on going until the clearing process in the summer after the A-level results come out. So when they say that they have a suggestion about how the system might work better, you can be sure that it’s probably based on experience. (I should note that this plan would have to work out how to incorporate results from other exams like the Scottish Highers and the International Baccalaureate, but the UCAS suggestions currently focus on A-levels, so I will as well.)

Their suggestion is that instead of putting applications in from about October onward, depending on the early deadlines, students should take their A-levels and then put their applications in, using actual rather than predicted grades. This is because predicted grades are not particularly accurate, with students both under- and over-performing the predictions, meaning that they either didn’t apply to universities their grades would have got them into or that they don’t meet their offers and have to either go for their second choice or, if something’s gone seriously wrong, look for an alternative course in clearing . The UCAS plans would mean moving A-levels a bit earlier, to give time for the interview and application process, so that the universities wouldn’t have to completely rearrange their term dates; when I say a bit earlier, the BBC article is suggesting two weeks earlier. (more…)

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