Shades of King Creon: The ancient forebears of Trump and Johnson

Our strongman leaders have been behaving like stubborn, intransigent kings in Greek tragedies, crashing blindly up against justice, convinced that they are right and all others are wrong
July 10, 2020

Sometimes I look at Boris Johnson and wonder, did we really have the same education? Did we really study the same classics course at the same Oxford college, learning from precisely the same teachers? It’s true that I did not attend Eton—perhaps this is where my advantage lies—but, rather, an obscure and ordinary grammar-turned-independent in north Staffordshire. But still, why can’t he see it? Why won’t he see what’s staring him in the face, straight out of Euripides and Sophocles?

As news of Dominic Cummings’s trips to Durham and Barnard Castle set off a nationwide bout of bewilderment in May, playwright Zinnie Harris remarked on Twitter that she felt as if we were watching a Greek tragedy play out. She was absolutely right. Harris, who knows her way pretty well around Greek drama—her recent trilogy, The Restless House, is a reworking of Aeschylus’s Oresteia—had spotted that Johnson was behaving uncannily like a stubborn, intransigent king in a Greek tragedy, crashing blindly up against justice, convinced that he is right and all others are wrong. Exhibit A of this literary type is Creon, King of Thebes, who forbids his niece Antigone from burying her brother Polynices. Exhibit B is Pentheus, another Theban king, who simply will not believe that the young man who has turned up in the city is an emissary (or more?) of the god Dionysus.

The plays in which these characters appear—Sophocles’s Antigone and Euripides’s Bacchae—are not simplistic right against- wrong clashes; they are subtle and sophisticated literary masterpieces. However, things end very badly for both of these blinkered kings. After walling up Antigone in a cave as punishment for disobeying his edicts and burying Polynices, Creon eventually changes his mind and realises that he’s gone too far; that he needs to retract. But he’s too late. His niece is already dead, and so is his own son; then his wife kills herself in grief, too. Pentheus is gruesomely torn apart limb from limb by a band of ecstatic worshippers of Dionysus, including his own mother.

Johnson, of course, isn’t the only world leader who has seemed, in recent weeks, to be pushing against the claims of justice. Trump has been displaying impressive amounts of tragic hubris, both in his handling of the pandemic and of the Black Lives Matter protests. In 2016, Antigone was in fact staged in Ferguson, Missouri, a few blocks from the police station that became the focus of demonstrations after the shooting of Michael Brown. The production drew parallels between the ancient Theban world of the play and the modern-day struggles of African Americans.

When you’re right in the middle of a drama, you can’t see the shape of it. The story’s architectonics become clear only when the actors have taken their final bows. Johnson will be familiar with the term peripeteia—a word employed by Aristotle to mean a drama’s turning point, its great event of discovery. Maybe the peripeteia of Johnson’s premiership will turn out to have been the moment when, amid the tragic loss of life brought about by the pandemic, he failed to sack his most important adviser for breaking his own government’s lockdown rules, thus squandering the trust and goodwill of the populace. Or maybe not. There may be a few more twists in this Greek drama yet. Such stories don’t always end unhappily—but most of them do.