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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner / Caretaker / Storeman

£15500 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has become available...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Sales - SaaS B2B

£60000 - £120000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This conference call startup i...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
File photo dated 11/3/2014 of signage for the main entrance and emergency department at a hospital  

Weekend opt-out is stumbling block as BMA and NHS negotiate new consultant and junior doctor contracts

Charlie Cooper
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms