Sophocles in Melbourne

When 11-year-old Luke Batty arrived at cricket practice in the Melbourne suburb of Tyabb last Wednesday, he wasn’t just excited about playing his favourite sport. It was a rare chance to spend some time with his father. His parents had split up, he lived with his mother, and his father had been away for many weeks due to illness. But now dad had come to watch him play and was offering to bowl a few more balls for him. Luke begged his mum for ten more minutes on the pitch.

Greg Batty adored his son. The boy was the meaning of his life. While Greg was having a difficult time in many areas, their occasional evenings together were what he looked forward to most in the world. But alone with Luke on the pitch, with the other classmates and their parents heading back to the club house, certain dark thoughts which his strong medication had not managed to dampen wrestled their way to the front of his mind. Overcome by a sudden impulse, he took the bat they were playing with and repeatedly struck Luke around the head with demented force. He killed him in minutes.

When armed police arrived at the scene, the frenzied man, soaked in the blood of his son, bellowed “shoot me” before rushing at the officers with a knife. He was shot in the chest and died in hospital after trying to fight off the paramedics who were attempting to save him.

This is, at first glance, a story of sheer madness. There appears little to do other than to turn away, perhaps with a shudder at the increasing insanity of modern life.

Rosie Batty, Luke’s mother, speaks to ABC news

We shouldn’t be so hasty. What the news has brought us is an opportunity to enlarge our humanity.

Every year, at the end of March, the citizens of ancient Athens would gather under open skies on the southern slopes of the Acropolis in the Theatre of Dionysus and there listen to the latest works by the great tragedians of their city. The plotlines of these plays were unmitigatingly macabre, easily matching anything our own news could provide: a man kills his father, has sex with his mother and then gouges out his own eyes (Oedipus Rex); a man has his daughter murdered as part of a plan to revenge the infidelity of his brother’s wife (Iphigenia); a mother murders her two children to spoil her unfaithful husband’s plans to start a new family with another woman (Medea).

The Greeks turned meaningless horror into tragedy

Rather than regarding these stories as grotesque spectacles that all right-minded people should avoid, the philosopher Aristotle looked generously upon the human fascination with them. He proposed that, when they are well written and artfully staged, such stories can become crucial resources for the emotional and moral education of a whole society. Despite the barbarity they describe, they themselves can function as civilizing forces.

But in order for this to happen, in order for a horror (a meaningless narration of revolting events) to turn into what Aristotle called a tragedy (an educative tale fashioned from abominations), the philosopher thought it was vital that the plot should be well arranged and the motives and the personalities of the characters properly outlined to us. Extreme dramatic skill would be required in order that the audience spontaneously reached a point at which it recognised that the apparently unhinged protagonist of the story, who had acted impetuously, arrogantly and blindly, who had perhaps killed others and destroyed his own reputation and life, the person whom one might at first (had one come across the story in the news) dismissed as nothing but a maniac, was, in the final analysis, rather like us in certain key ways. A work of tragedy would rise to its true moral and edifying possibilities when the audience looked upon the hero’s ghastly errors and crimes and was left with no option but to reach the terrifying conclusion: ‘How easily I, too, might have done the same’. Tragedy’s task was to demonstrate the ease with which an essentially decent and likeable person could end up generating hell.

One might dismiss Greg Batty, the central character of the Australian tragedy, with words familiar from a thousand news reports: pervert, weirdo, sicko, crazy. Across the world, the news is not known for its sensitivity. The average tabloid newspaper would probably not handle the material beneath many of the great tragedies in the Western tradition with particular grace, if it came into the newsroom in its bare form late at night. The story of Othello might end up billed as ‘Love-crazed Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter’, Sophocles’s Oedipus the King as ‘Sex with Mum was Blinding.’

Tragedy on stage: ‘Sex with mum was blinding.’

If Sophocles or Shakespeare had turned the Melbourne story into a play, we would be reliably thrown into the deepest reverie, shocked into a state of fear and pity. We cannot expect the news to rival the methods of the great artists. But all the Greg Battys and their sons deserve to share in the dignity we would naturally accord to the central figures in our culture’s most celebrated works of theatre.

The challenge is to resist easy moralism, and to see that there are in fact connections, far more than one might wish, between oneself and the most apparently alien figures the news introduces us to. None of us is a stranger to extreme states of mind, it’s just that most of us have had the good fortune not to be pressed too hard by life in those areas where we are most vulnerable.

There are, sadly perhaps, in the end no monsters or weirdoes. There are only humans, all of them dreadfully fragile and prone to destroying what they love.