Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Apprentice as Greek Tragedy

The Apprentice as Tragedy

A fearsome presence descends from the heavens, attended by two hovering Furies clashing their teeth, ready to dispense justice upon the mortals quivering below. An unearthly light permeates the air: the scene is metaphorically dripping with blood. It is, as Cassandra says when she arrives at the house of Atreus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, ‘a human slaughterhouse’; a body has just been displayed to the baying audience, whilst the other characters have been through a test of psychological and physical endurance. Yet one person will be saved; one who has performed correctly; one person to make some sort of order out of the chaos left behind by a glut of misunderstandings and errors. You might be forgiven for thinking that I’m describing the end of a Greek tragedy. I am – up to a point. In fact, it’s The Apprentice, with Lord Sugar as the deus ex machina, and Karen and Nick as the crime-pursuing Furies.

Yes, it’s the closest thing we have today that both follows the same arc and has the same effect as a traditional Attic tragedy. An audience of Athenians, settling in at the City Dionysia (a festival of plays and other events), would have known exactly what to expect from what was put in front of them. When it came to tragedies, they were in for a bout of kin-killing, incest, or another sort of god-defying behaviour; the point being, according to Aristotle, that having watched the antics of a Pentheus (torn apart by his own mother) or an Agamemnon (slain by his wife), afterwards they would be ‘purged’ of pity and fear, and thus be able to live happily.

So it is with The Apprentice. Like the City Dionysia, it brings the country together in voyeuristic pleasure – what Mrs Radcliffe called ‘the strange delights of artificial grief’. We settle down in front of the television, and as ‘Montagues and Capulets’ kicks in, our brains spark with the knowledge of what we are about to receive. We are gripped by the consistency of the narrative, with all its dramatic ironies and reversals of fortune, just as the Attic audiences were. The formal nature of the program feeds our synapses in exactly the same way. Aristotle posited that a tragedy has unities of time and space. The tasks in The Apprentice take place over 24 hours. The house and the boardroom function as fixed loci, with the beautiful London townhouse standing in for the ancient palaces of the nobility (the skene, from which characters emerged to meet their fates); and the contestants’ tasks do tend to be confined to a certain place, such as a shopping centre.

Greek tragedy concerned the misbehaviour of people in an elevated position – kings, queens and heroes. In our meritocratic society, what more elevated position could there be than someone in Lord Sugar’s ambit? Fighting for position in an ‘agon’ (contest), just as the actors in the Dionysia contested to win a prize, these are Brtain’s ‘brightest business hopes’. And, in the same way as Pentheus refuses to believe in Bacchus, or Agamemnon walks upon the purple cloth, thus showing his pride, the contestants yap and bark about their brilliance at various different skills (well, mostly selling.). They’re riding for a fall. They have committed hubris – an assault on the gods.

Of course the real tragedy in all this is that the prize of the one who’s saved is a job with Lord Sugar. This, to my mind, makes The Apprentice a far more effective tragedy than even the Agamemnon. That cycle came to an end with the Furies tamed; we know, however, that The Apprentice could go on for ever. And that is what makes it so brilliantly tragic: with no limit, it reflects the endless vicissitudes of human existence. So let us pour libations to Lord Sugar (anax glukus?) and joyously acclaim the next series.

(Incidentally, Chris Bates should have won. Anax Glukus seems always to be swayed by where people come from. Is that prejudice? I think so.)

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