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I dig jazz and single-malt scotch.  I write plays; I direct them too. I love STAR WARS more than is healthy. I walk my dogs every day, unless it's raining or terribly cold.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Antigone in the Americas

PHOTO: Teresa Ralli performing her solo-show Antigona

and now
as in ancient times I see the sorrows of the house,
the living heirs of the old ancestral kings,
piling on the sorrows of the dead
and one generation cannot free the next—
some god will bring them crashing down,
the race finds no release.
And now the light, the hope
springing up from the late last root
in the house of Oedipus, that hope’s cut down in turn
by the long, bloody knife swung by the gods of death
by a senseless word
by fury at the heart.
-- The Chorus
by Sophocles
441 BCE
A girl defies the order of her uncle the king and remains resolute in her convictions even unto death. This is the central action of the tragedy of Antigone, as she faces down the tyrant Creon for denying burial to her brother who died a traitor to their city. This story began its stage iteration twenty-five centuries ago in Athens, the creation of the master tragic poet Sophocles early in his career. But even for Sophocles’ audience, the story was an old one, the final act of a multi-generational epic from the age of heroes, a remote quasi-historical past depicting events that shaped the contemporary culture of classical Athens. Portions of the story were altered by Sophocles to strengthen his theatrical allegory of public law verses family duty, as exemplified by his invention of the king’s son Haemon as suitor to Antigone (in other versions of the myth this son is a victim of the Sphinx that is defeated by Oedipus long before the events depicted in Antigone.)

Just as Sophocles reworked aspects of the mythic story of the death of a family, many twentieth & twenty-first century theater artists have reworked and retold this dire struggle of a young girl’s defiance. Three such works being investigated here are Antigona Furiosa (1985) by Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro, the mono-drama Antigona (2000) by Peruvian performance artist Teresa Ralli, and Antigone Arkhe (2004) by American Latina playwright Caridad Svich. In Sophocles’ Antigone the cultural significance of a girl as the instigating force to the ancient Greek observer is explained by Helene P. Foley in her essay Antigone as Moral Agent, “When tragic poets choose to allow an entire action to turn on the moral decision of a woman or to show women taking or urging significant moral positions in a public context, they apparently make at least a partial break from a cultural ideal and use female characters to explore ambiguous and often dangerous moral frontiers.” While all three new plays reference the primary character in their titles, and all borrow elements from the Sophoclean version, all depict radical reinterpretations of the story elements and depart from the original political intent of the source material. What is gained by reiterating this story? How does reanimating Antigone in these new and varied contexts alter our understanding of her, and reveal our modern assumptions about this ancient story? Why repeat this story now?

Antigona Furiosa
The living are the great sepulcre of the dead!
Antigona Furiosa begins after the end. Antigona is dead, hanged by her own belt, her body dangles over scores of other dead bodies—earlier victims of larger story’s actions—all trapped in a cage. Outside the cage two men drink coffee, seated at a café table. Nearby sits the empty hulk of Creon’s armor. Antigona revives herself, wakes herself from the dead, and loosens the belt she had used to kill herself—moments, hours, centuries, eons ago? The House of Oedipus is already extinct, a recollection that reawakens no matter what efforts are made to erase or belittle the family’s significance and legacy. Antigona rouses herself to address the world that would rather put her away and forget. Just as Antigona’s final actions in life were in defiance of an unjust man-made law, her actions after death are in defiance of forgetfulness and neglect on the part of surviving witnesses to the horrors. Antigona’s attacks are not only against the two men who mock her actions, but also to the audience that watches her. Audience members witnessing the play must also question their own complicity in atrocities, specifically the cycle of violence associated with Argentina’s “Dirty War”. In Argentina between 1976 and 1980 anywhere from eleven to fifteen thousand people were murdered by government and other official agents. The “Dirty War” continued into the early 1980’s, and Gambaro’s play is a very early response to the collective trauma.

Antigona Furiosa is not a veiled critique or questioning, it is direct and explicit in its connections of the ancient story to the current events of the nation. The play presents a dual structure of a synthetic fragment, where all times are present at once, and a circle or loop, where actions are repeating, perhaps endlessly. The synthetic fragment structure allows the character of Antigone to be the young woman from Thebes condemned for trying to bury her brother at the same time as the two men speaking to her can be drinking coffee at a café as it also always all time in between these two disparate events to be possibilities as well. The circle or loop structure becomes apparent when the play’s actions conclude with Antigona hanging herself—the action that is followed by the beginning of the play we have just witnessed.

What this hybrid structure underscores is the difference between the Sophocles rendition and Gambaro’s intent—where Sophocles’ Antigone is traditionally a victim of fate who marks the end of an epic cycle, Gambaro’s Antigona is forever trapped in a cycle of doom. Gambaro chooses to display a simple version of the story, the girl driven by familial obligation to bury her brother in defiance of the law set by her uncle the king. Nowhere is it mentioned that the brother Antigona longs to bury was potentially as ruthless a tyrant as her uncle. The greater political implications of the story are ignored or set aside. What Gambaro emphasizes is disabling grief and feminine powerlessness in the face of masculine political might. These lines from then end of the play display this dynamic:
ANTIGONA: I still want to bury Polynices. I will always want to bury Polynices. Though I a thousand times will live, and he a thousand times will die.
ANTINOUS: Then Creon will always punish you.
CORYPHAEUS: And a thousand times you will die. You don’t have to call death, my girl. She comes on her own. (smiles) Pressuring her is fatal.
ANTIGONA: Will there never be an end to this mockery? Brother, I cannot endure these walls I cannot see, this air that seals me in like stone. […] I was born to share love, not hate. (long pause) But hate rules. (furious) The rest is silence! (She kills herself, with fury.)
A compelling transition occurs with the ‘fury” of Antigona. The circle of the play is drawn in two ways, the way the audience sees it happen with Antigona’s suicide, and the way the reader of the play sees the final word—which returns us to the title of the play. The key is to convey this circle through an action and the thing that is felt by the audience at the end.

But something else happens too. Antigona is transformed in this play, or perhaps by this play—she is no longer the girl from Sophocles’ play, or the character from myth—she becomes a “fury,” an ancient female being responsible for blood justice. Antigona is distorted by fury. That is the trap. That is the cycle. Can the ancient power be claimed and not be turned to vengeance? Antigona Furiosa is a raw display of grief, of witnessing, and of seeing the devastation wrought by continuing to remain the woman in the trap.

I want all the dead to have a funeral
and then,
after that,
I’m caught in your snare guard. My death begins.
Remember my name—
one day I’ll be known as the sister who never forsook
her brother:
My name is Antigone
Teresa Ralli, in developing her one-woman production of Antigona, began with an image. A photograph of a woman walking beneath the midday sun and her companion shadow impressed the artist as Antigone returning across the centuries. This image was among an exhibition featuring black and white photographs of soldiers in training, spattered with the blood of dogs they had killed as an exercise. Another image pulled Ralli to it—the image of the woman in the arcade of the Plaza de Armas—that became central to creating her performance piece. Ralli describes the effect of the photo in Fragments of Memory as “an obsession, a recurring image, always waiting for the right moment to emerge and turn into something real.” The image evolved into a girl with short hair seated in a chair, waiting for a verdict, dressed in a white petticoat called a fustan. The theater piece she intended to create based on these images would be used to express the complicated responses of the survivors of a decade-long repressive and violent political regime.

To begin to make Antigone “real”, Ralli and her director, Miguel Rabio, studied the text by Sophocles. She describes the process as “gathering strength to enter the studio, which waits for us, completely empty.” In a strange way, the team collaborates with Sophocles by immersing themselves in his text as though it had been written for them, to express that very moment. Ralli describes the experience, “Discovering the music in each syllable, the importance of one word and not another, the structure of a thought put into words, the inner world the characters expressed in each speech.”
Ralli’s Antigona becomes the story of the witness, told by the surviving sister Ismene. In the story from the Greek, Ismene’s mythology ends with the death of her sister. Ralli has pulled Ismene from obscurity and places her role as central to the survival of the tale. By collecting interviews from surviving family members of disappeared citizens in her native Peru, Ralli resolved to infuse them into this Antigone:
That’s how another image of Antigone was born. Not the strong Antigone that has appeared throughout the history of Antigones. There have been warrior Antigones, furious Antigones. […] Antigone, it’s believed, is strong: she will stand firm until the end. My Antigone is fragile; even her voice breaks, a soft voice not used to confronting others or making demands. Out of this fragility (which she’ll never lose), a limitless strength and determination emerge.
But Ralli’s work presents the memory of Antigone and all of the rest of the characters. She embodies them all, wearing a tunic over pants, she forms herself into the assemblage of characters: Antigone, Creon, Heamon, Tiresias, the messenger, and Ismene, all in an empty space save for herself and a chair. In the end it is revealed that our narrator has been Ismene, the survivor of the tragedy, alive because she did not act with her sister, Ismene leaves us with her final expression of grief and regret:
[A]sk Polynices to forgive me for not performing this task at the proper time.
was frightened by the scowling face of the king. And tell him
how great my punishment is:
to remember every day – a torture
and shame for me.
Ralli’s performance frames the survivor as the storyteller, as the house of memory. The survivor dedicates herself to the survival of the story, and through the story her sister lives. Unlike Gambaro’s Antigona, who is caught in an endless trap of recurring violence that is literally caged, Ralli’s work is fluid, emphasizing the voice as the primary tool, the body as the container of the story that is endlessly transferable as long as the voice is willing to let the story out and as long as the mind remembers.

Antigone Arkhe
Accuse me of being Death’s bride, and I will accuse you for centuries of going against the laws of heaven, which are beyond time.
--Historical Antigone
As the center and longest piece in the five-part Antigone Project, Antigone Arke by Caridad Svich is also the most technically elaborate. The project was conceived by two initiators, Chiori Miyagawa and Sabrina Peck, in the aftermath of 9-11 to address multiple aspects of world conflict that has marked the twenty-first century. The works were performed in 2004 in co-production between the Women’s Project and Crossing Jamaica Avenue at the Julia Miles Theatre in New York. Antigone Arke (Arke from ancient Greek philosophy as the beginning or first principle of the world) is organized as a synthetic fragment, with multiple temporal possibilities coexisting—or co-performing— all in the same time-space continuum.
An archivist explains the basic functions of the archive and the artifacts on exhibit in this location, which may be a museum, or perhaps the actual location of the historical event being described, or perhaps someplace else. A narration persists, made up from pieces of what could otherwise be interpreted as stage directions, complete with notation in italics throughout, and perhaps these words are intended to scroll across a screen, ala CNN. A digital version of Antigone exists, perhaps exclusively on a screen, perhaps not, the script is not explicit on this point. There is also Historical Antigone existing alongside Digital Antigone. Sometimes the two speak together.

The action of the play is the resifting, rehashing. retelling, the story of the girl sealed in the cave. Artifacts from the event, like her sash and bits of bone, are preserved and on display. Words on screens, a digital character, an archivist—an ancient story told in a new way. The tension in the telling lies not in the story itself, but in the actual telling of the story. When presented as “history” complete with artifacts, a museum, a body, and a gift shop—the story becomes removed from “truth.” This play reveals the greater truth alive in the myth shaped as story rather than fact. As history, Antigone has no blood in it—as myth and tragedy Antigone breathes and speaks.

In the final lines of the play, Svich returns to the archivist who has led us through many of the proceedings:
ARCHIVIST: Antigone’s body has been preserved forever. Her entire body including her brain has been preserved. Some recordings have also been found recently, and while the quality is not good, you can hear Antigone’s voice in a special room next to the gift shop as you leave. You can also visit the archeological museum, and delight in a prehistoric collection, a sculpture collection, a vase collection and a bronze collection from various sites and ancient cemeteries. The taking of photographs is strictly prohibited. A new extension to the museum is being planned, pending financial support. We welcome your contribution.
What do we really need to know about this story? Do we need evidence, or material things? This play pits the storied myth, a name and an action that survives, against proof through tangible objects. Which is more potent? In the end, the story is the true thing, not history or fact.

In her introduction to the collection of plays inspired by ancient Greek works Divine Fire, contributing playwright and editor of the collection, Svich describes the need for current reiterations of ancient works:
The Information Age has changed the way we view the past, and in part unleashed a desire to retrieve knowledge that has been seemingly buried in the great quest for progress. The turn of the millennium has also caused Western society to try to imagine Web link upon Web link what our origins must have been like. Easy access to information nd the multiplicity of it has made us a curious and “curiouser” breed, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll. We have become enraptured by the possibilities available to us and the immediacy with which we can conjure ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt. This imaginative act of conjuring, aided by technology, has affected how we interpret our world. Histories whirl in bits and bytes and bleeps, and as artists and citizens we try to keep up by taking time to remember. We seek myth because it is our inheritance. In it, we look for origins. […] Theatre, ancient and already called “dead” many times over, has been finding ways to speak to its past for many years. Each generation “kills” what has come before it, and resurrects it at the same time. Art is made through active renewal and reinterpretation.
With Antigone Arke Svich explores the relationship of technology and myth, of modern and ancient. Later in the introduction, Svich cites several 20th century reinventions of the Antigone story:
In times of war, and extreme global conflict and division, Greek dramas rise to the fore on the world’s stages. During World War II Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, a version of Sophocles classical drama, became a worldwide hit, because of its thinly disguised attack on the Nazis and the Vichy government. Bertotl Brecht’s 1948 Antigone achieved international recognition due to its uncompromising attack on tyranny, while Sophocles’ play also served as the centerpiece of Athol Fugard’s acclaimed South African protest drama, The Island. During the Vietnam War and it aftermath, powerful adaptations of the Greeks were presented in New York by the Living Theatre, and Andrei Serban at La Mama.
The Antigone Project offered Svich an opportunity and a political reason to add her exploration to the Antigone canon.

Why Antigones?
Creon, who [after the deaths of Eteoclos and Polyneices] then succeeded to the Theban throne, caused the bodies of the Argive dead to be thrown out unburied, issued a proclamation that nobody should bury them, and posted guards. But Antigone, one of the daughters of Oedipus, stole the body of Polyneices and gave it secret burial; and when she was caught in the act, she was buried alive in the grave by Creon himself.
For the second century BCE author Apollodorus, the two sentences noted above are the entire story regarding the actions of Antigone and her subsequent fate. She is a minor historical character—but the mythology that binds itself to her name and her final actions continues to inspire investigation and expression. In his Forward to the collection of Greek-inspired plays Divine Fire, playwright and historian Charles Mee writes:
One of the great pleasures in a work of art that knows it comes from the culture is that, inevitably, inherently, it contains a tension between the past and the present, the given and the possible, the enduring and the ephemeral. This tension between what is made and what is re-made lives in the very essence of the work—so that our common human project of making life on earth, making a society, making a bearable or wonderful civilization, is alive in every particle of the work. And so we have, in these works, intrinsically, as great a human drama as we get.
In all three Antigones examined here (and Sophocles’ Antigone as well), this tension between the ancient past and the present reiteration of the ancient story is apparent. Additionally, the tension between a recent past and the plays is also present—in the form of atrocities or war—there is an immediate social relevance associated with re-imagining Antigone in each of these plays.

In a lecture given at Trinity College in London in 2000, theater director Peter Hall describes the continued relevance of the Greek epic stories over millennia:
The form – the invocation – is intended to take us up to a level where mighty emotions and mighty conflicts can be expressed. The stuff of these epics became, many centuries later, the raw material for the first great period of drama that survives: the Greek. The myths were interpreted, reinterpreted, and contradicted. And they have gone on being reinterpreted for nearly three thousand years. A myth cannot be ancient: it lives and is still potent – it speaks to us. In that sense, it remains modern by definition; otherwise it would not be audible. It would not have survived. Theatre and myth helps us to understand the mysteries of life – birth and desire, love and death, revenge and forgiveness. And the Greek theatre began the task of representing them. They always have been and always will be the stuff of theatre – the stuff of the actor’s art. And every age must reexamine them because of our desperate need to understand.
And so, Antigone is not an ancient myth, she is vital. All three authors have found her story to be a foundation from which to build a new dialogue.

The act of tragedy is to compel the observer to engage in an individual relationship to a shared public event. The story becomes ours as a community, and ours as a personal experience, all at once. Modern theater theorist Bert O. States calls upon this unique attribute of tragedy’s potential in his book Great Reckonings in Little Rooms:
We often say that comedy arouses laughter and tragedy tears. The fact is, it is melodrama that arouses tears: tragedy arouses silence. The point of the distinction is that tragedy is a noncollaborative form, as usually performed. Tragedy creates an empathic experience wherein we are dissolved in what could be called a magnificent loneliness, felt most deeply in the absolute stillness of the auditorium when tragic characters say such things as “Thou shalt come no more.” What the audience shares in such moments, and in the play at large, is less important than what isolates each spectator vicariously in the experience.
Both Gambaro and Ralli utilize this mechanism inherent in the tragic form. Both plays ask their audiences to question their level of collaboration beyond the world of the play – what part is their collaboration with the world? What sort of collaboration has been played in the face of atrocity? Svich, on the other hand, works to thwart tragic associations, and in its place asks the viewer to consider why this tragic story is not tragic when viewed in this manner.

These Antigones, reborn and re-dying over and over again, are revived and revitalized to rattle the observer just as these Antigones are born and reborn to rail against Creon. Creon himself rarely appears in these plays—he is a name or an empty shell or a minor physical presence. Antigone is the center of these play-worlds, and it is through her that the question of public versus private duty is explored—strong—or fragile—or digital.

This ancient Greek story, elegantly told by Sophocles, continues to inspire. In a panel discussion led by Ken Urban on Contemporary American Playwriting, The Issue of Legacy, Svich elaborates on American playwrights interest in investigating aspects of tragedy, and by extension, our relationship to the Greek plays and provides the perfect observation on which to end:
It is also about trying to remember in a world that is constantly forgetting. Going back to the classics is one way to do that. I wouldn’t use the word “sincerity,” but “purity.” It is an impulse to look back to something pure.

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