Of Aristotle’s six elements of tragedy, spectacle was the least important, plot the most. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was devoid of plot but a virtuoso spectacle: lucky for him, then, that he wasn’t writing a tragedy. But what was the ceremony? Under what genre could we class it? The modern world is full of these bizarre performances in which nations riven by class divisions present themselves to themselves as harmonious communities. They assume many different forms – plays, films, advertisements, paintings – but Boyle’s, I claim, was fundamentally a chronicle.
A chronicle, in a nutshell, is ‘one damned thing after another’: a series of discontinuous events whose only mutual connection is that they happen to be united by temporal or spatial sequence. Quite why these things occurred, and why they occurred in the manner that they did, is never explicitly explained. But, as Hayden White has observed, they don’t have to be: “The paratactical style of the chronicle falls short of pure nonsense because it presupposes the capacity of its envisaged audience to apprehend both the significance of the events reported in it and the causal connections presumed to link the events depicted in a comprehensible order of occurrence”. In other words, where no causal connection is represented, the audience fills in the blanks by drawing on what you might call the “political imaginary” – the warehouse of (generally historically unsound) common sense which helps us make sense of the everyday world around us.
Thus, in Boyle’s representation of British history, the rolling hills gave way to industrial Pandemonium without so much as a how’s-your-father, and the Sex Pistols followed the Beatles as peacefully as if John Lennon had never been scandalous and “God Save the Queen” had never been written. In the choreographed scenes of the Industrial Revolution, the workers and the bosses were spatially contiguous rather than politically antagonistic. Time and again throughout the performance, history was shown to be one thing after another, a series of contingent happenings in a timeless vacuum, controllable by no one and on account of no human deed. (At a push – and it is a push – you might infer from Boyle’s potted history that technology, void of all context and social relations, is the driving force of change.) But this is almost never registered by the audience because its storehouse of common sense imposes the feel of a narrative onto what is, in fact, just about as far from narrative as you can possibly get.
What the form of the chronicle can never register is conflict as the driving force of history. Where was the Empire, the massacres, the slave trade, the organised theft of indigenous natural resources which enabled the Industrial Revolution in the first place? (Is it too much to see a return of the repressed in the black monsters of the NHS scene? Shooed away, of all things, by a patronising middle-class white woman…). Where were the strike-breakers? Where were the calculated and imposed Hungers? And that’s just for History. At the level of pop culture, we can spot the same lack of conflict: Boyle’s performance captured none of the drama of these musical events. His rock ‘n’ roll was all roll and no rock: where were the grey-suited patriarchs against whom a whole generation rebelled? Where was the sense of outrage and profound libidinal release so central to those heady years?
Here, then, we begin to see why for Aristotle spectacle was less important than plot, which almost invariably included conflict (and, usually, conflict-resolution). Boyle’s implicit non-conflictual historiography affected the very form of the performance as such, because it voided it of drama. Thus, in the pop music section, where the real drama of the time lay in the communal upheavals of young versus old, of new forms of capitalist organisation rendering old ones obsolete, of the Pax Britannica ceding to the Pax Americana, what we get instead is a young couple flirting via SMS. The genre of the romance is grafted onto the chronicle to conceal the latter’s lack of drama; the fate of erotic individuals usurps the destinies of political collectivities. And this, put crudely, is what literary theorists mean when they refer to the ‘ideology of form’: the ideology of Boyle’s opening ceremony was contained, not in its content, but in the very form itself.