Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Theatre notes: antigone (Sophocles)

We went to see Antigone at the Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. In this post I'll describe the original play, and in future posts, I'll get to the famous Jean Anouilh rewrite from occupied France, and the Toronto production of that rewrite.

First, let's get to Sophocles's play from Athens 442 BC. Sophocles had been recently chosen to lead the military expedition against Samos Island. This doesn't prevent him from writing about war and patriotism in an ambiguous and tragic way: as both unavoidable loyalties and ill fated mistakes of pride.

Sophocles' play is about the conflict between two people who are certain about uncertain things. Creon's pigheaded pride causes him to confuse his own will with that of the state. Antigone is ready to die to satisfy the gods, whose will is a mystery she can't solve. Creon wants to maintain the social order, without which violence is unleashed. Antigone feels that the social order has gone astray from the sacred order, although she might be wrong. It's never clear what loyalties humans should have when their own needs, the needs of their society, and of the gods are in conflict.

There's no advantage to being king of Thebes. Oedipus was doomed and his sons, Eteocles and Polyneices killed each other after going to war for the throne. In the struggle, Polyneices led seven armies against Thebes, and died as a traitor. After Creon took the throne, Eteocles was given a full burial, while Polyneices was left to rot. In a sense, Creon worships the state, or at least order and stability, and so he forbids the burial of Polyneices, an appropriate anti-rite for treason.

Antigone fears offending the gods, and so she buries her brother and performs the necessary rites over his body. This dooms her to death. What's great about Sophocles's play, and indicative of the Greek ideas of death, is that Antigone ultimately has no idea what the gods want from men. Should she perform the rites for Polyneices? Do they see Eteocles as just and his brother as a treason? Is there anything after death, or will she be delivering Polyneices to nothingness? Human beings can only guess because the gods are distant and disinterested.

For Judeo-Christians, it's hard to understand dying for gods who toy with humans so cruelly, but Antigone sees no choice. Fate closes in on Creon too. His wife and son kill themselves, his people turn against him, and his pride dooms him. Actually, the same could be said for most characters in Greek tragedy. When confronted with the natural world, humans would do well to keep their heads down and their mouths shut.

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