Saturday, September 27, 2008

Trinity Rep's "The Dreams of Antigone"

In 1981, during the long, gray evening of the Leonid Brezhnev years, Georgian filmmaker Tengiz Abuladze began writing a movie about the death of a small-town dictator named Varlam Aravidze. The problem is that Varlam doesn't stay buried: the daughter of an artist whom he had persecuted exhumes his body and props it up against a nearby wall. When authorities re-bury him, she digs him up again and leans him against his own family’s house. She knows her dissent is illegal and she welcomes the trouble that follows; she chooses a proper reckoning over intentional forgetting. With her defiance, Abuladze was making a case for iconoclasm and confrontation in a society conditioned by years of totalitarianism to idolatry and meek acquiescence. He was also calling on ancient tragedy; Repentance, as the film was called when it was finally released in the Soviet political thaw of the late 1980s, inverts Sophocles's Antigone, in which the act of burial is a statement of principled rebellion. Repentance evokes Greek tragedy without naming it, so, if it endures, it will endure not only as a reflection on the timelessness of the conflict between the prerogative of the state and the moral responsibilities of the individual but also as a record of its specific time and place. Curt Columbus and his collaborators, the cast of Trinity Repertory Theater, have taken on Antigone as well; the result of their revision, The Dreams of Antigone, is an interpretation, a modernization, and a meditation, and, unsurprisingly, its effect is diffuse. They have maintained the plot (more or less) and the setting of Sophocles's tragedy, but they have ceded the territory of the Greek mind without convincingly charting the landscape of our own modern paranoia, anger, and hope. The show feels neither as foreign and transportive as a traditional performance, nor as immediate and urgent—as dangerous, really—as a more radical revision. It is, in the words of another great tragedian, to double business bound: too committed to Sophocles’s framework to shock us, and too intent on proving its relevance to challenge our imaginations.

itself is an elegant and spare play, distinguished from its predecessors in the so-called Theban trilogy by its brisk determinism: it dispenses with the self-discovery of Oedipus the King, and abandons the philosophical paradoxes that animate Oedipus at Colonus. Antigone is about people who have already discovered themselves and who have settled their moral and existential questions. Creon, ruler of Thebes after a civil war and the simultaneous killing, each by the other’s hand, of the two sons of Oedipus and rightful heirs to the throne, decrees that one son, Eteocles, will receive a hero’s funeral, while the other, Polyneices, who had tried to take over the city himself, will be left unburied and dishonored. Anyone who buries the treacherous Polyneices will himself be killed. Antigone, his sister and Creon’s niece, defies the order and her own sister’s admonition and buries Polyneices; Creon, determined to restore order after years of bloody battle, insists that she must suffer the established penalty. He condemns her to death in a sealed cave, but is persuaded to spare her by Haemon, his son and Antigone’s wife. His clemency comes too late: a messenger—Greek tragedies bustle with the comings and goings of messengers—brings news that Antigone has hanged herself in her cell. In his grief, Haemon kills himself; to complete the cosmic punishment, Creon’s wife Eurydice kills herself as well. The violence and chaos that was supposed to be curtailed by the restoration of legal order has simply been forced inward. As much as Aristotle, Sophocles understood that establishing peace within a city’s walls is more difficult than defeating the enemies outside of them.

Antigone is not merely a study in civics, of course, and Sophocles was not only a philosopher or moralist; he wanted his audiences to feel the tremors that emanate from the collision of strong wills. Indeed, Antigone and Creon appear to be will alone, removed from a sense of caution or contingency, which accounts for the austerity, the glacial impenetrability, of their drama. Still, there is terrible beauty and frightening resolve in their lines. When Antigone’s sister, Ismene, confesses in the play’s first scene that she is not interested in following Antigone’s terminal path, Antigone retorts, “I wouldn’t urge it. And now if you wished to act, you wouldn’t please me as a partner.” The scene goes on:

ISMENE: I shall do no dishonor. But to act against the citizens. I cannot.
ANTIGONE: That’s your protection. Now I go, to pile the burial-mound for him, my dearest brother.
ISMENE: Oh, my poor sister! How I fear for you!
ANTIGONE: For me, don’t borrow trouble. Clear your fate.

ISMENE: At least give no one warning of this act; you keep it hidden, and I’ll do the same.
ANTIGONE: Dear God! Denounce me. I shall hate you more if silent, not proclaiming this to all.
Antigone is as single-minded and intractable as Creon; even if we find ourselves sympathetic to her notion of compassion, we must concede that her sense of justice is as arbitrary and remorseless as his. As a dramatic motive, Antigone’s conviction is so strong as to be alien to most of us: Sophocles has given us a model as impossible to resist as she is to understand or to emulate.

This is where Dreams of Antigone departs from its source material. Columbus’s Antigone is sensitive, empathetic—she apologies to her servants for not honoring their husbands and sons killed in the war—and insistently human. In Sophocles, Antigone’s life may be cursed and wretched, but it is, at the last, hers. Her victory, and her tragedy, is in renouncing the Theban community; she is, she boasts, “not ashamed to think alone.” This is independence but it is also foolish obduracy. It is also not entirely true, for she believes that, by burying Polyneices, she is doing what the gods wish. But Columbus has exorcised the gods from his version, as though their disapprobation or advocacy were purely metaphorical to Sophocles and thus incidental to the play. (The gods are not jealous and meddling characters in Antigone, but a solemn and severe presence.) If we understand that their vigilance was more real to Creon than his subjects’ and their judgment more important to Antigone than her sister’s—that the gods represent universal order in a way that abstract talk about “the rules” cannot—then we realize that their exile from Dreams of Antigone mollifies the play’s despair and foreshortens its tragic dimensions. Antigone, in presuming to know the gods’ wishes, aspires to godliness herself: without the gods, there is no measure of Antigone’s hubris; without her hubris, there is no tragedy. Dreams of Antigone is so fascinated by its own central, intellectual conceit—that, to this day, well-meaning individuals clash fatally with self-justified governments—that it neglects the existential thrill of Sophocles’s particular vision: there is real terror not only in Creon’s intransigence but also in Antigone’s presumption. The show abrogates one of the theater’s unique responsibilities: to force an audience to imagine, if only briefly, the world as it appears to someone else. Instead, Dreams of Antigone tells us that we understand the past only as much as it can be made to resemble the present.

So gone are the gods, gone is Tierisias, the blind seer whose counsel Creon brashly ignores in Antigone, and gone is the Chorus—or, rather, gone is the Chorus as a poetic, metaphorical entity. Here, the Chorus explicates and demystifies; it is didactic when it could be suggestive, and obvious when it should be oblique. The Dreams of Antigone opens with an antiphonal recital of the preamble to the U.S. constitution, and is interrupted halfway through by a meditation on the nature of heroism. But this is what the play is about! Antigone is performed because it addresses, better than an essay and as acidly as any play since, the isolation of the moral individual and the perilously sharp edge of hubristic heroism; the story gains nothing by the addition of ruminative diversions. If Antigone is a straight line between points, direct and irreducible, The Dreams of Antigone is curved, tentative and provisional. The Dreams of Antigone must not be confused with Antigone, I am sure to be reminded—then what is it for? As a remark on contemporary anxiety it is elliptical, and as a performance of Sophocles it is timid. It appeals when it ought to offend; flatters when it should scold; and, at the very end, folds, when by rights it should burst. Antigone, I think, would have liked that.

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