The tragedy of getting what one wants

September 04, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The tale of Princess Diana is indeed sad, but is it tragic? While we're waiting for the tide of nonsense and hypocrisy now attending the princess's demise to ebb, that's a question it might be constructive to consider.

It may ultimately be unanswerable. There are countless definitions of tragedy, ranging from the classical to the tabloid. In our era they've all become entwined with the honeysuckle of politics. Three centuries ago, Francois d'Aubignac confidently asserted in ''La Pratique de Theatre'' that ''tragedy represents the life of princes; comedy serves to depict the actions of the people.'' That simple view won't wash any more.

Hamlet and Lear and Macbeth may have been royals, but they're only dead white male characters in a dead white male playwright's works; who's to say that their stories are more tragic than that of the poor child of minority parents whose puppy is run over by the limousine of a computer tycoon?

Even without an infusion of egalitarianism, it's possible to question whether the death of a jet-set princess in a crunched Mercedes is any more tragic than the death of Mrs. Rosemary Ordinary of Overlea in her Saturn sedan on her way home from working the night shift. Mrs. Princess' children, for one thing, will surely make out better without their mother than will Mrs. Ordinary's, who depended on her income.

Diana did not die, it's worth noting, while helping to clear land mines from a Bosnian schoolyard. That would have been indisputably tragic. Nor was she, whatever the French courts may conclude about the photographers from whom she was fleeing at the time of the fatal crash, the helpless victim of events beyond her control.

The press has made much of her search, after her divorce from Prince Charles, for a ''normal life.'' But that search was as phony as a senator's smile. Princess Diana was destroyed not by seven paparazzi on motorcycles, and not by the media institutionally, but by the celebrity existence she quite willingly embraced.

She didn't want privacy, any more than most show-business types do; she wanted to be a celebrity, but without all the inconveniences. She and her playboy companion weren't trying to escape from potential assassins when they were killed. They weren't being robbed. They were trying to avoid having their pictures taken.

They could have driven home safely at 30 miles per hour and endured the cameramen, but with the arrogance of the very rich, they didn't see why they should have to. It isn't hard to imagine the ill-fated lackey at the wheel being ordered to lose the photographers at all costs -- and being suddenly presented with the bill.

''In this world there are only two tragedies,'' Oscar Wilde caused one of his characters to observe in ''Lady Windermere's Fan.'' ''One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst.'' Princess Diana's undoing was not that she didn't get what she wanted, but that too often, she did.

With regard to privacy, it's patently obvious that her stuffy and unfaithful husband, though in many respects a dolt, had a higher regard for it than she. He understood, as other members of his family have for generations, that it's perfectly possible to be royal and have a private life. Charles' sister Anne, for example, seems to have managed just fine.

What isn't possible

But what isn't possible is to be royal and lead the life of Everyman and Everywoman, eating fish and chips with the boys, shopping undisturbed at Harrods, going to a nightclub without causing a scene. Royalty can't be put aside like a raincoat when it's convenient to do so, and as a young princess Diana never quite accepted that. It was one of many frictions in the marriage.

We have been told endlessly and with nauseating solemnity in recent days that Diana was not only one of the most famous women of the day, but one of the most admired as well. But it's neither unreasonable nor hostile to ask why. She was certainly very pretty, and had good taste or good advice in choosing clothes, but otherwise she gave new meaning to the concept of Royal Lite.

That said, however, it seems appropriate for Britain to mourn her officially as the mother of two potential heirs to the throne, and both fitting and human for others around the world to join in. Her death was untimely as well as unnecessary, and she was a minor ornament to her era. No other reasons are necessary.

Three lines of Lord Byron's might do for an epitaph. ''All tragedies are finished by a death,/ All comedies are ended by a marriage;/ The future states of both are left to faith.''

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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