The classical tragedy of Diana the hunted

Tragedy presented its mass audience with a fragile world where not even royalty and great wealth saved you from its chief ingredient: violent damage
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The Independent Online
For these few days, we are the chorus and participants in tragedy. Tragedy - in its full, precise, ancient sense - has been an extraordinary presence in our capital city, and in ourselves, all week. Everything that happened in Paris, all the forces that led to that moment in the tunnel, all the results and implications - emotional, legal, moral, unprecedentedly public - strike deep into a sense of the tragic that lurks in our psyches in an unlooked-at, sewer-like way, and has erupted everywhere, surprising us with our own tears.

Tragedy is about public feeling. The Greeks invented it as a mass spectacle which gave shape and meaning to unbearable pain. They attended it in a theatron, a place of seeing, in a nine-day civic festival sacred to the god of wildness, violence, drink, madness, and community joy. Tragedy began (probably) as some sort of scapegoating ritual. It lived off publicity. To court public favour, politicians paid breathtaking amounts of drachmas for each play's glamorous costumes. Tragedy was the city watching the pain of an individual who mattered to everybody. You pitied that person but also trembled for yourself - because what happened to them could happen to you. Their pain became the people's pain.

Tragedy presented its mass audience with a fragile, hunted world where not even royalty and great wealth, Ritz hotels or armoured limousines, saved you from tragedy's chief ingredient: violent damage. That the crucial witness to this one is a bodyguard whose tongue has been torn out, who may never speak again, fits horribly. Tragedy is about things torn apart. A royal house torn apart; a specially marked-out, publicly hallowed body torn apart. And other people with it.

But tragedy wants to ask why catastrophic damage happens, and asking why has been part of our experience all week too. One characteristic ingredient in any explanation of tragedy is hubris: unjustly out-of-scale comeuppance, like the driver's boast to photographers, "You won't catch me tonight." And maybe the Princess's refusal of more security, on her holiday. Another tragic ingredient is a set of minor characters interacting innocently, or fairly innocently, to destroy royalty. A command to recall a particular but wrongly licensed driver; a hotel where somebody knew this driver drank off-duty but no one refused a Fayed anything.

Tragic guilt always balances external with deep internal causes. The drive to publicity, which the Princess used to self-destructive as well as beneficent effect, is an inner cause, from within her character. Its external expression, the publicity hounds in the tunnel, are the Furies: tragedy's talismanic demons, who savage their victim's body with whips and blazing torches, but are summoned from their Hades home by something in the victim's own mind. The drunk driver and callous greed of the paparazzi, plus the system they represent, are the external cause. Tragedy calls nothing accident. It offers a complex web of responsibility, through which it desires to make sense of otherwise meaningless pain. That desire is gripping everyone, all over the world, today.

The tragic condition is being alone in suffering, even though you matter to other people. The Princess mythically represented that too, in her own hurt counterpoint of publicity and solitude. For tragedy's main currency is myth. She understood it perfectly, in life and now belongs to it for ever. A figure who loved and gave, but was hurt and alone, dying in a tunnel in the night, pursued by Furies at a moment of brightness and happiness, in a tunnel in the dark, and mourned all over the world: this is the sort of myth tragedy comes from and gives to.

Libation, prayer, and offerings to the dead are the heart of Greek tragedy. Tragic ceremony is the enormously public sharing of pain, when one person's loneliness and violent death become, as far as possible, everyone's. We are part of that ceremony today. Tragedy's question is, Why pain? It never answers; only asks. Or its answer is the performance, the ceremony itself.

One view of tragedy makes it a vision of unrelieved night. People who believe that can repeat today the words Cleopatra hears before she dies:

"Finish, good lady. The bright day is done, and we are for the dark."

But another view says tragedy mixes light with dark. The tragic hero is ennobled by extreme suffering. It doesn't make her innocent, but hallows her as if she'd passed through flame. On this view, tragedy gives you a way of sharing pain that opens some makeshift road to healing. As this week's letters in every newspaper demonstrate, we're all divided on this one. I vote for the side that says tragedy is about life going on. Sharing pain is not sharing meaningless black, but sharing life.

Which brings us to those who traditionally, in our nation, organise ceremonious public sharing: kings and queens. The Greeks, more specifically Athenian democracy, decided tragedy's currency was royalty. Which was odd of them, because they'd kicked royalty out long ago themselves. But it meant they could examine the anxieties of the day, of their own democratic psyches, at one remove. For Shakespeare, royalty was a crucial concept that had a lot to do with self. Like the deepest things - sex, family, the relationships on which society runs - royalty is mythically about giving, and being given to. If royalty was OK, so was the nation. Royalty touched everyone.

Touching is all. The King's Touch is the belief that the royal touch can heal. People have been saying over and over as they queued: "She touched us." They mean it in every way possible. She was royal in the deep old sense of mattering to, touching everybody. When King Lear realises that in his pain he shares some of his subjects' suffering, he passes into true royalty:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your loop'd and windowed raggedness defend you

From seasons such as there? O I have ta'en

Too little care of this.

Royalty in the mythic sense means such taking care. When Diana was stripped of outer royalty, she turned more and more into its archetypal substance. Even back in 1981, when most people thought you could get Aids through skin-contact, she held a patient's hand. She showed her sons people suffering and dying, made them aware of important pain, from Northern Ireland to homelessness to land-mines. Her son rewarded her by suggesting she sold those dresses for cancer and Aids charities. If the point of royalty is to feel with looped and windowed raggedness, she had already started him down that road. So far from wrecking the monarchy, she may have saved it. People are going to want, for their king, the son of a princess who tried to take care of their pain, while sharing hers with them.

Presidents are as expensive as kings. Plus they are not connected. What will matter now is a blood line from the mythic royalty of the heart. If Charles shows himself cherishing in her son that sense of arterial connection to other people, public feeling will gallop to meet him half- way, to everyone's benefit. For tragedy is finally about giving the dead a beneficent, positive, unifying presence in the community which remembers them. Let's hope this tragedy manages that too.