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Thursday, November 15, 2018

“The country’s in a state of plague.”

Greek and the Tragedy of Thatcherite Individualism

Photo Credit: Jane Hobson.
By Chris Tyler

In Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek–coming to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Dec 5–9–audiences will find themselves transported to a dystopian 1980s London plagued by police violence, racism, and socioeconomic decay. If this litany of ills feels close to home, it’s likely because the U.K. under Thatcher shared quite a bit in common with the U.S. under Trump.

Much like our sitting President, the Iron Lady reviled trade unions, taxes, and the welfare state. She espoused the virtues of the free-market while manufacturing declined and income inequality soared. And she cared little whether or not she was liked, so long as her base supported her frequently unpopular agenda. Ideologically, her eleven-year reign as Prime Minister helped foster a cult of individualism on the British Isles. By privatizing formerly-nationalized industries and squeezing Britain’s social services dry, Thatcher helped consolidate a shift away from postwar collectivist values in the name of economic efficiency.

Upon escaping his parents’ home in the “cesspit” of Tufnell Park, Greek’s protagonist Eddy relocates to the capital in search of a more urbane existence. What he finds, however, is anything but. “The city sits in a heap of shit” as rats run rampant, garbage festers, and young protestors drown in their own blood. Here, we witness the darkest, most chaotic repercussions of Thatcherism. With local government structures dismantled, the polis is left without the ability to manage its own affairs.

Throughout Greek, the spectre of fascism looms nigh. “Hitler got the trains running on time,” Eddy’s father wistfully recalls before goose-stepping away later in the act. In a contemporary update, projected tabloid headlines track the rise of the far right next to news of Boris Johnson’s most recent nationalist sound bite. It doesn’t take long for young Eddy to succumb to his more violent tendencies in a world where “there is no such thing as society.” Such are the perils of a capitalist ethos that downplays governmental responsibility in favor of a DIY, bootstrapping mentality.

Thatcher’s supporters like to argue that she didn’t directly endorse selfishness, materialism, and greed–that these were simply “an unexpected and unwelcome by-product” of her neoliberal agenda. Not only is such an assertion at odds with her own emphasis on personal responsibility, but one needn’t look further than the 2008 financial crisis for evidence of long-term structural flaws in her decision making. By systematically ignoring the needs of Britain’s poor and working class, Thatcher–like Trump–further disenfranchised benefit claimants, immigrants, and other vulnerable members of society by placing them directly in the crosshairs of lower class rage.

At the end of Greek’s first act, Eddy’s mother and Nazi-sympathizing father exclaim that “Fate makes us play the roles we’re cast!” Whether it’s fate or the state is up for debate, but it does seem clear that one shouldn’t have to own property in order to perform.

Greek comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Dec 5–9, and tickets are still available.

Chris Tyler is a writer and performing artist living in Los Angeles.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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