~ Posted by Robert Butler, February 20th 2012
The Sunday Telegraph reported yesterday on the protests that surround the English National Opera's decision to stage John Adams’s opera “The Death of Klinghoffer”. The opera is based on the hijacking of the cruise liner, the Achille Lauro, by Palestinian militants who shot Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old American in a wheelchair, and threw him overboard.
Both the attackers and defenders of the decision to revive the opera are busy making the wrong arguments. The ENO defends the opera by saying “the purpose of art is often to shock and challenge audiences.” Well, up to a point. Shocking people seems one of the lowlier purposes of art. Did Chekhov set out to shock? No, he set out (as he himself said) to state the problem accurately. Did Chardin set out to shock? Hardly. Did Damien Hirst set out to shock? Yes, and that's perhaps why he isn't an artist of their stature.
But more worrying is the other argument that has been expressed: that the ENO, or any other cultural institution, should not be giving "a voice to terrorism" because it is morally reprehensible to stage the thoughts of people who commit acts of murder and, even worse, to hear those thoughts expressed in poetic language. This is a category error. Ever since the first performance of "The Oresteia", 2,500 years ago, drama has given voice to people who commit murderous acts. In the first play of the trilogy, Clytemnestra tells us why she has killed Agamemnon and how she did it. She even says she gloried in it. And she tells us so in poetic language.
Many students, including my teenage daughter, are studying a play where a man murders a guest in his own home, then murders two men who work for that guest, then murders a close friend, then murders a wife and her small children. And so it goes on. All through the course of these terrible events, we are invited to empathise with the murderer's thoughts and hesitations. If a cultural institution shouldn't present “The Death of Klinghoffer” because it presents the thoughts of murderers in poetic terms, then by that logic “Macbeth” ought to be removed from the school syllabus.
Revenge is one of drama's great themes and murder is the means by which many characters take revenge. Since drama presents more than one perspective, you are going to have to listen to the motives of people whose actions you may abhor. Often they will express themselves in powerful terms. We have the Greeks to thank for that.
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life and the former drama critic of the Independent on Sunday