Why I ...believe in 'Tragedy' by the Bee Gees

July 20, 2001

Whoa! Rein the horses, stop the wagon train, form a circle. The vandals have come down from the hills and civilisation is under threat. If we lose this one, well, who cares?

This is it, the big one, the decisive engagement between culture and barbarism, and there is something scary but pleasing after decades of decline to have the enemy in plain view. These are raw days. The enemy has a name and a form at last. It is called the Bee Gees.

You have heard the story. Students of English at the University of Cambridge sit a compulsory paper on tragedy. That tragedy is the only compulsory paper deserves an article on its own with a fat dose of irony, but now is no time for irony. Now is the time for cold steel.

Those who set this exam have stooped to baseness. After years of blameless academic purity - "Ibsen's tragic vision was predicated on the image of disease. Discuss" etc - they have let down their guard and the subculture of inanity has thrown a huge right hook through the gap. That right hook is the Bee Gees.

The walls of academe have crumbled, eaten out by the maggot called relevance. And that maggot has crawled onto the exam paper in the form of the following words:

" Tragedy When the feeling's gone and you can't go on It's tragedy When you lose control and you've got no soul It's tragedy ". Words written by the Bee Gees.

It is tempting at this point simply to take sides, to throw in one's lot with the Mounted Battalion of The Educated Few and rally beneath a standard on which is embroidered the legend, "We shall not dumb down".

The Bee Gees represent everything that education is supposed to drag us out of. They are a pop group (nasty), they are impossibly wealthy (nastier still) and they cause men and women of unimaginable poverty of mind to form "fan clubs" - groups of such unmitigated awfulness that we must be protected from the possibility of infection by shrouding them in inverted commas.

But though the temptation is strong, it ignores the fact that the Bee Gees' words make a rather good question. They invite debate and that is what exam questions are for. To take a tragedy at random, Macbeth by Act V has lost the power to feel the virtuous emotions of pity or grief, has lost, in short, his soul and can go on only as a murderous automaton. That indeed, as the Bee Gees suggest, is tragedy.

Ah ha, perhaps so, scream the defenders of the faith, but the Bee Gees did not know that. They just flung a few emotive words together, found that they rhymed and sang them. And besides, the masses who writhe and squirm to their music pay no attention to the lyrics of the songs. Those lyrics are merely noise, an anodyne addition to the simian rhythm of the drums and that crudest of instruments, the electric guitar. The Bee Gees know not what they say. They gibber like parrots, but are incapable of consecutive thought.

Perhaps so and perhaps not. Nevertheless, I think we should note the fundamental irony in all this. The great tragedians, whose work we revere but do not read, were the Bee Gees of their day. Four-fifths of the population of Athens rolled up to see Aeschylus' latest blood-spattered epic. The pit of Shakespeare's Globe was heaving with impoverished groundlings. The ancient tragedians were popular. Popular does not mean bad.

But I have been trained in cultural supremacy. My education obliges me to take arms against a sea of Bee Gees. Don't shoot till you can see the whites of their teeth.

Joe Bennett is author of Fun Run and Other Oxymorons , published by Simon & Schuster, £8.48.

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