Princess Diana’s game of thrones – BBC News

 In World
I bought my first television set so I could watch the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. I’d been in graduate school until a few years earlier, and in graduate school it was a point of pride not to watch TV – unless one did so ‘ironically’.

But that was still the era of network TV, well before the revolutions in production and technology that would make possible the new ‘golden age’ of television. Since then, writers of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under have gone on to create levels of dramatic sophistication and complexity (and violence and profanity) unimaginable in the primetime dramas of the 1990s; while lavish cable budgets have raised visual spectacle to new heights, whether in fantasies such as Game of Thrones, with its dragons and sorcery and undead armies, or in meticulous historical recreations such as The Crown, the hit series about Diana’s mother-in-law.

The late ‘90s was also the era of AOL and 14400 bps phone connections, and it was, in fact, because I had dialed in for my nightly email check (“You’ve got mail!”) that I saw the news flash about what had happened to Diana. Until then, I’d successfully ignored her; she had always struck me as perfectly uninteresting while a member of the Royal Family and irritatingly needy once outside it. It’s true that, like many other Americans, I’m susceptible to British royal pomp: the austere and comparatively recent ceremonials of our republic haven’t been able to fill the regressive yearning that people seem to have for elaborate rituals and royal, or at least heroic, personages to enact them. Like millions of other Americans, I woke up at 4:30 on the morning of 29 July 1981 to watch Diana get married, and the display on show – the carriages and horses, the dresses and the uniforms and the hats, Kiri Te Kanawa singing Let the Bright Seraphim – was certainly worth the inconvenient hour.

But that show wasn’t about Diana herself. At that point, she wasn’t so much a character in a drama – the way that, say, Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte were characters in Brideshead Revisited, that other lavish British TV spectacle of the 1981-1982 season – as an attractive mannequin in an eye-popping spectacle. And I supposed that’s what many wanted her to remain.

Performing for the world

Personal drama, impersonal spectacle: we seem to crave both equally and irresistibly, and the greatest entertainments, from Greek tragedy to Game of Thrones, have delivered both in equal measure. ‘Drama’ suggests that we are all alike, subject to the same emotional needs whatever the differences of class or provenance. Pomp and spectacle, however, emphasise those very differences, reminding us that certain people are always going to be special, to be powerful and wealthy, while reinscribing those differences in such an aesthetically stirring way that we are seduced into applauding the specialness of those others while accepting our own ordinariness. Just as, indeed, we accept the reality that certain people are always going to be stars, while the rest of us are mere spectators.

The tension between private and public is at the core of fascination with the British monarchy

The tension between drama and spectacle – between our private selves, on the one hand, and our public selves, on the other – has itself always been the fulcrum of great theatre; it is also at the core of public fascination with the British monarchy for the last 100 years. As the characters in The Crown never tire of pointing out, the success of the ‘crown’ – of the monarchy and the public spectacle that symbolises it – long depended on the suppression of what they call ‘individualism’, of the human needs that flow from our private selves.

The greatest threats to the crown’s stability were moments when drama threatened spectacle – when the individuality of the people relied upon to play their ceremonial roles threatened to break through the carapace of the performance. Although Diana was, in some ways, representative of a specific generation, the ‘Baby Boomers’, with our expectations that life owes us happiness and fulfillment, in other ways she was just the latest in a line – from Edward VIII to Princess Margaret – of royals whose personal dramas imperiled the greater spectacle, which was the monarchy itself: mythic, symbolic, impersonal.

Her story ended as so many do, with an awful inversion – Diana the huntress now the hunted

By the time I logged onto AOL that night two decades ago, it was hard to get away from Diana’s dramas, try as one might. As the years since the fairy-tale marriage passed, we watched with either alarm or sympathy as she attempted to carve out an authentic kind of personhood, to be a figure with a genuine psychology – or, at least, to have some say in which myth she would be reenacting.  I doubt I was the only classicist who, as “the people’s princess” became bolder in her efforts to strike out on her own – first by courting the sympathetic press, then by taking up causes both worthy in themselves and, invariably, worthy of photo-ops – observed that she’d started out as Iphigenia, a young virgin sacrificed to the powerful ambitions of royal men, and then moved on to become Alcestis, the vibrant mother and wife underappreciated by her husband, ferociously protective of her offspring and, indeed, solicitous of their success after her death. A story that ended, as so many tragedies and myths do, with an awful inversion: Diana the huntress, herself hunted to extinction. For all her attempts to create a new paradigm for herself, what strikes me now is how imprisoned in the old paradigms Diana was: how doomed she always seemed, how inevitable her death.

A mythic chord

So drama had finally outstripped spectacle – or rather, the two had become fused. How could I not go out and buy a TV set to watch it all? And yet what surprised me was how strangely wrong it seemed, the ceremonial that I had once enjoyed so much. Whatever emendations they’d made to accommodate Diana’s tastes, her charities, her showbusiness friends – Elton John, this time, instead of Georg Handel – it was still, in the end, the grand old Windsor ceremonial, flawlessly rehearsed in every detail, as measured as the tiny steps of the pallbearers struggling beneath the weight of the leaden coffin.

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