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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star