The War That Still Goes On is the latest version of a play that has been a part of RSC tradition for a long time. It was first done, rather oddly, in 1967 as part of a fortnight exploring Greek myth — oddly because the distinction between myth and history is fundamental to Greek thought, and this play is decidedly about real history, not myth. The play was revived during the first Gulf war in 1991. Now it has been revived again on the occasion of the new Gulf war. It is mostly based on the text of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, weaving the speeches of Spartans, Corinthians and Athenians into a narrative of the imperialist war that Athens waged in the fifth century BC against most of the rest of the ancient Greek world. But the result is not a political diatribe, although the insertion of speeches from Plato’s Socratic Dialogues gives an unmistakably anti-populist flavour to the play. Rather it is an examination of a particular war that implies, as Thucydides hoped we would see, that what has happened in the past will happen again. So Thucydides’ compelling account of those events of 2500 years ago may be of some use in the present. That was his announced purpose, and it is still the main justification, we would all probably admit, for the discipline of ‘history’ (Greek for ‘inquiry’) that Thucydides, with his older contemporary Herodotus, launched.
In this latest guise the play was given a workshop reading one cold and wet Sunday evening (February 12) in London by the members of the RSC taking time out from their Gunpowder season, now transferred from Stratford. The cast included Joe Dixon, Malcolm Storry and Jonathan Slinger, William Houston and Nigel Betts. Timothy West joined them as an unkempt Socrates, while Christopher Colquhoun was his verbal sparring partner as the dangerously charismatic Alcibiades. The fact that these excellent and hard-working actors were prepared to give up their only free evening in the week is a sign of their respect for John Barton, and also of their eagerness to do something to oppose the Blair-Bush war in Iraq. What emerged most clearly from Barton’s play is the ways in which men who go to war are capable of self-delusion — and how they manage to involve others in their murderous plans. Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War is full of speeches, which he claims are more or less what people would have said under the circumstances, and which are his medium for exploring the causes of action. Barton strings together some of the more powerful of these Thucydidean compositions (not quite ‘inventions’) into a moving, even gripping, evening of theatre. The cast sat in a semi-circle and strode forward to address us at the appropriate moment, and with every new speech, the audience listened enthralled as we move more and more closely into chaos and horror.
In the second half of the evening Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow chaired a discussion among a panel of guests including the Cambridge historian Paul Cartledge, the Middle East expert Professor Haleh Afshar of York University, prominent barrister and broadcaster Helena Kennedy, and Germaine Greer. Questions were also entertained from the large audience of some 500 people, though mostly the interventions from the public reproduced standard political positions and failed to respond to the excellence of the RSC production or the issues raised by the panel. Yet the experience was so unusual, bringing together the major theatre company of our time, leading intellectuals, and our most widely respected TV presenter, in this remarkable effort to bring theatre directly back into politics, that it deserved better of its very diverse audience (which included former England cricket captain Mike Brearley and several other celebrities). It also deserved better than the uneasy silence of professional reviewers and commentators.
“When we first did it,” Barton recalled in an interview with Michael Billington printed in The Guardian the previous week, “Enoch Powell and Tony Benn took part. Benn was very enthusiastic and said the text should be in every school curriculum. Powell was very laidback, runic and quizzical. . . I remember at the end someone asked Powell if he thought democracy would last. He paused a long time before replying, ‘It’s much too early to say.'”
This play, now despairingly re-titled, is not Barton’s only professional engagement with Greek literature, even though he claims to be rather diffident in the face of Greek scholars like Powell. In 1980, Barton staged a magnificent 10-play cycle for the RSC, The Greeks, that told the unfolding story of the Trojan War. And in 2000 his epic, Tantalus, set out to complete the series and was performed in various interesting places such as Denver, Colorado.
Barton, an associate director, has had considerable influence over the RSC since he was first taken on as a young Cambridge don in 1960, soon after Peter Hall had founded the company. In Billington’s view, surprisingly, its survival over the last 46 years owes a vast amount to his practical wisdom and sage counsel. “He has been the resident guru to a variety of directors, though he modestly disclaims being the secret of the company’s longevity”. If the RSC has survived,” says Barton “it’s partly due to the luck of the gods”. And that is an odd thing for someone to say after working with the text of Thucydides, a man who has nothing to say about the influence of any gods on the course of human events. For him everything is our fault.