If there are too many people being bumped off in contemporary drama, it’s because writers have forgotten their Shakespeare

I don’t always agree with David Hare. But about the body count, we are as one

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Not a subject ideally suited to a weekend consecrated to lovers, but it has been raised and I must address it. Murder, I’m talking about. The amount of it there is about. The sheer volume of bodies. Not in actuality – though God knows there are enough bodies there (“I had not thought death had undone so many”) – but in books and on the stage, particularly in film and on television, and more particularly still in that genre known as “the thriller”, though I speak as one who has never felt the thrill of thrillers. But live and let live is my motto. If murder is your bag, bag it. Me – I go to art only to wonder whether Elizabeth Bennet will eventually get to lie with Mr Darcy, and when Gregor Samsa will come down from the ceiling.

Blame the dramatist David Hare for raising this. Speaking a few days ago about a thriller series he has just completed, he warned against our coming to it with the wrong expectations. There’ll be no guns, he promised, adding that: “I personally can’t stand the body count in contemporary drama. I think it’s ridiculous.” Amen to that. I don’t agree with David Hare about everything. I am less interested in exposing the wrongs of MI5 than he is, for example. But that’s a temperamental thing. I can live with more secrecy than he can. The thought of government agents working in the shadows makes me feel safe – as long, of course, it’s our government they’re working for. About the body count, though, we are as one.

I haven’t done much killing myself. By about my third novel I was wondering whether I was even going to allow anyone to die by natural causes. Characters make their own fates, but you can always subtly intervene. If not by miracle cure then by silence, for silence, too, is an intervention and the novelist can decide to look the other way when his characters fall ill.

The first time one of mine gave up the ghost I sank into a depression that lasted half a year. “Cheer up,” people told me. “It may never happen.” But it already had. I’d assisted at a death-bed scene. I’d been a party – no matter how unwilling – to the gravest of all human events. There’s no cheering up after that. It’s hard enough just to rejoin the living.

I did once ask a distinguished crime writer how she – funny how often it’s a she – coped with all the bodies. She laughed. “Oh, you just knock ’em off,” she said.

How you do that without feeling you’re in some way an accessory is what I can’t fathom. Nor do I understand how you can litter the page or the stage with corpses if you’re not yourself familiar a) with the sight of them, b) with the psychology of those that turned them into corpses, and c) with murder’s aftermath of remorse and sorrow. I don’t say a writer needs to have fired a gun herself, but to kill in art is a crime in itself if the deed and its repercussions are not felt to outrage and perplex our humanity.

If that sounds as though I’m asking every writer who assists at a murder to be possessed of a little of the Shakespeare who wrote Macbeth, then yes, that is exactly what I’m asking. It’s not that difficult to hear Macbeth if you write in English. Our language is permeated with Shakespeare and with Macbeth especially. Dr Johnson cited it more often in his dictionary than any other Shakespeare play, and alongside the Old and New Testaments it remains central to the way we imagine the act of taking life and the price we pay for doing so.

“If the assassination could trammel up the consequence,” Macbeth ponders – the strangled expression mimicking the strangled hope – “we’d jump the life to come.” If. If only. “But” – the fatal but – “in these cases we still have judgement here.”

What makes Macbeth the most interesting murderer in literature is the ground he imaginatively covers, the dimension of pity and damnation he enters, even before he lifts a hand. If tears don’t drown the wind for an assassin, you have to wonder why. Is this one too lacking in ethical and spiritual foresight to feel the enormity of the act? Is that one too motivated by hate? It’s a drama of the profoundest significance either way.

After the initial fun of watching bodies pile up in a Tarantino movie, or being fed into wood chippers in Fargo, the being blasé starts to pall. Grand Guignol degenerates into pantomime. I enjoy the spectacle of Mr Punch laying into everyone around him, but he inhabits a universe in which assassination trammels up consequence only because it’s comic.

It’s not the number of bodies that makes the contemporary thriller ridiculous. It’s the corresponding lack of poetic seriousness. And that’s more than a passing failure of expression. To kill in art and not give a damn is a failure of mind and senses. For an antidote, go to a literary festival and hear Alice Oswald reciting Memorial, her version of Homer’s Iliad, in which the victims of the Trojan War – a body count to stop the heart – are commemorated in all their disgrace and majesty.

“The first to die was PROTESILAUS.

... He died in mid-air jumping to be

first ashore

There was his house half‑built

His wife rushed out clawing her face.

 

“And HECTOR died like everyone else ...

a spear found out the little patch of white

Between his collarbone and his throat

Just exactly where a man’s soul sits

Waiting for the mouth to open.”

 

Did I say go and hear her? Let me put that another way. Kill to hear her.

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