Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Antigone (i)

We recently saw a production by the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival of the Bertolt Brecht version of Antigone (which was originally based on Holderlin's translation of the Sophocles play). As it happens, a discussion in Josipovici's On Trust led me to a book by Martha C. Nussbaum called The fragility of goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy, which has a chapter devoted to Sophocles' Antigone. In anticipation both of reading this chapter and of seeing the production of the Brecht play, I was moved to read the Oedipus plays of Sophocles. I'll have more to say about Nussbaum's book later, but for now, Brecht's Antigone.

Here are some passages from the dramaturgical notes for the production, written by Tony Tsendeas:
The basic argument of Antigone is easy to state, but enormously difficult to resolve. Simply put Antigone is concerned with the . . . needs and rights of the individual vs. the needs and power of the The State.

The liberal populist spirit that has been the hallmark of Western culture since the eighteenth century age of revolution, leads us to readily place our sympathies with Antigone. However, Sophocles is even handed. . . .

. . .Kreon represents centralized authority. To his worldview the alternative is anarchy. Indeed we have borne witness to what can happen when centralized authority rapidly crumbles, creating a vacuum which is all too often filled by ethnic rivalry. The Balkan conflict of the 1990’s (where our production is set) and Iraq of today are vivid examples of what Kreon most fears. . . .

When Sophocles wrote Antigone in 442 BC, Humanity had already been grappling with the conflict between the rights of the individual and the power of the state for quite some time. . . .
There is a lot that could be said about this, but for now it suffices to say that I disagree that the problem of the Sophocles play is so "easy to state", and I disagree that it's about a simple matter of the individual rising up against the state, at least not in the way that we understand that idea today. The notes do say that "Sophocles is even handed" but otherwise they don't make much distinction between the Sophocles version and the Brecht version.

Bernard Knox says this about Brecht's version (in his introduction to Antigone, from the Penguin edition of The Three Theban Plays, translated by Robert Fagles):
The prologue is a scene in a Berlin air-raid shelter, March 1945, and it is all too clear what Creon is meant to suggest to the audience: he has launched Thebes on an aggressive war against Argos, and Polynices (conscripted by Creon in Brecht's violent reworking of the legend) has been killed for deserting the battle line when he saw his brother Eteocles fall. At the end of the play the tide turns against Thebes as Argos counterattacks; Creon takes Thebes down with him to destruction rather than surrender. Against this Hitlerian black, Antigone is all white; she is the image of what Brecht longed to see--the rising of the German people against Hitler, a resistance that in fact never came to birth. the poem Brecht wrote for the program of the production, an address to Antigone--

Come out of the twilight
and walk before us a while,
friendly, with the light step
of one whose mind is fully made up. . .

--reminds us that Brecht was a lyric poet as well as a dramatist, but it is a dream poem, a lament, a regret for the rising of a whole people against fascism, which Brecht's political creed urgently demanded but which never came "out of the twilight."
Brecht's play is unabashedly political and is much more black and white than was the Sophocles play. Antigone is unquestionably in the right; Creon is a tyrant. We admire her resistance to him, against his evil. Simple as that. But in Sophocles, the matter is much more complex: both Antigone and Creon have defensible claims. In his version, we learn before it starts that Polynices has fought against Thebes, Etoecles on behalf of Thebes. They kill each other in battle. Creon decrees that Etoecles shall be buried with honors as a hero, whereas Polynices shall not be buried at all; in fact, no one shall be allowed to bury him, for he was a traitor. Antigone buries Polynices, incurring the wrath of Creon. Antigone argues that she is following custom, favored by the gods. Creon cannot imagine that the gods would look kindly on anyone honoring a traitor to the city. As mentioned, in the beginning of the play, both Creon and Antigone hold defensible positions. When Creon argues that the welfare of the city is of paramount importance, this argument is not unreasonable. In fact, the Chorus agrees with him at first, and Knox reminds us that the audience was likely to recognize the validity of Creon's claim (even if it were uneasy about the injunction against the burial of the dead). by the end of the play, Creon has learned that much of the city did not approve of his injunction, or his banishment of Antigone. The Chorus ultimately sees the rightness of Antigone's decision (though critical of her as well). Creon realizes, too late, that he's lost everything. (This, of course, is just a sketch; there is much more to it than that. Nussbaum will argue that, while both Creon's and Antigone's positions are defensible, their positions are simplistic, and that, in part, this is what the play argues against.)

Thus Sophocles; but, we were at a production of the Brecht version, not the Sophocles. What did we think of it? We found ourselves discussing Brecht's ideas and the play's obvious political subtext (Bush, Iraq, etc.). The performances were strong, and some of the costumes were distracting (we wondered whether this was intended to be a Brechtian distancing effect, designed to draw us out of the play). Overall the play was entertaining, interesting, at times stirring, though we wondered at the purpose. Who is this play for? Why perform it now? Political art always risks being accused of “preaching to the choir”, and it was hard to miss the parallels with Bush and Iraq. Kreon was clearly a tyrant, and Antigone was an almost angelic individual voice of conscience. This lack of difficulty is a potential problem. Where is the drama, where the tension? We noted that the production was based on a translation by Judith Malina, who wrote her translation from prison in 1967, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. (Malina was a founder of The Living Theatre, which viewed theatre as political agitprop, and was heavily influenced by Brecht.) So you have layered analogies: Bush/Iraq over the Balkan conflicts over Vietnam over Brecht's post WWII German context over Sophocles.

It's interesting that, for Brecht, the purpose of the theatre was to teach. Though it may be true that many of Brecht's ideas have been absorbed (I wouldn't know firsthand), this particular idea is unpopular today. We rail against the politicization of art, against didacticism--we don't want to be lectured when we consume our entertainment--in favor of art for art's sake. I've made such arguments myself (arguments I'm not so sure about anymore). But the interesting thing here is that the purpose of Greek tragedy appears to have been didactic as well. It was concerned with goodness--how to live the good life, how to achieve practical wisdom in the face of uncontrollable contingency. Sophocles' plays were much more nuanced than Brecht's version of Antigone appears to be, and the complex lessons involved might not have come off as a glorified lecture to his audience. In any event the audience was large and contained and would have likely had shared knowledge of the play's background and subtext. Today, there is little chance that we share any such common store of knowledge. One person's moving drama about real life is another's tedious smug lecture.

But if we remember that the Chorus in Greek tragedy in part acts as the audience's proxy, we might be better able to approach even Brecht's blatantly didactic play, performed today, with Kreon obviously meant to represent Bush (even if Kreon is necessarily more coherent and articulate than our fearless leader). For, through most of our production, the Chorus is firmly with Kreon, cocky about military victory, all but strutting about in the midst of war and ruin. By the end of the play, when it's evident that things aren't going so well after all and that the public is increasingly against Kreon, the Chorus turns on him, attacking him and his "stupid war" (this line in particular felt to me tacked on, possibly by Malina, in the context of Vietnam). But Kreon will have none of it. He is going down, but not before he reminds the Chorus that it was their war, too. This accusation rattles the Chorus a bit, and then, more or less, the play is over. Even here, it is all too easy for us to see the Chorus as the Democrats to Kreon's Bush. This is slightly better than simply a one-note dumping on Kreon/Bush would have been, but not by much. It isn't a terribly trenchant political point to make, that the Democrats were just as implicated in the invasion of Iraq as was Bush and the neo-cons. Everyone knows this now: who really needs convincing? (And if viewers would need convincing, odds are they aren't at this play--again, the perils of political art.) But, recall that the Chorus actually stands in for us. We are responsible. We wanted blood, we wanted oil, we wanted video game carnage, we wanted revenge, we refuse to recognize the implications of the invasion and the occupation. This is better. But, here, too, there is a difference. Because remember that at no time in this version of Antigone is the audience encouraged to sympathize with Kreon, so the idea that the audience, through its proxy the Chorus, might be implicated sort of falls apart. And we're left with the obvious criticism of Bush through Kreon (and possibly the Democrats through the Chorus), and a weaker--though entertaining--production.

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