Antigone by Sophocles

Directed by Tom Littler
June 2011
Southwark Playhouse

More than two thousand five hundred years ago, Sophocles presented Kreon with a question that still has no easy answer: how do you deal with the dead body of a terrorist? Just as the U. S military summarily disposed of Bin Laden’s body, so Kreon summarily declares that the corpse of the rebel leader Polyneikes must remain unburied. His will becomes law. Over the course of one day, how Kreon as new leader of Thebes handles the fallout of his decision-made-law will demonstrate his fitness to rule.

As the Arab Spring continues and Gaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria strive to cling to political power, Sophocles’ exploration of the anxieties of holding power allows us to consider the lonely figure of the Middle East leader — his insecurities and vacillations, his need for lies. In Timberlake Wertenbaker’s rhythmic translation, Antigone puts it thus: “Tyranny has many ways of prospering, since it can do and say what it wills.” This Greek play holds a mirror to the West as well. Our own politicians’ oft-stated desire for peace and stability jars with their record of ill-considered conflicts in which the voices of dissent are not properly listened to. Like Sophocles’ chorus, we are corrupted bystanders.

Kreon grounds his rule on the symbolic strength of the bloodied, rotting corpse of Polyneikes. He is unwilling to admit that he defies higher laws than his own: the Greeks’ longstanding, unwritten rules for mourning and burying the dead. News of mourners being fired upon in Syria reminds us that for centuries funerals have provided opportunities to stir rebellion of the sort that Kreon wants to avoid. But, as the Greeks knew, the gods always win in the end. In Antigone the gods want what the community as a whole wants yet — with the exception of one woman — lacks the courage to say.

Passionate Antigone — devoted daughter of Oedipus and sister of Polyneikes, over whom philosophers from Hegel to Heidegger have debated — is the last person Kreon would suspect of rebelling against his edict. She is a woman after all, and as a woman has no place in the political arena and is allowed no public voice. To Kreon and his like in ancient Greece, she is little more than a baby-making machine, and Kreon’s son and her fiancé Haemon can “find others to produce his children”. Greek custom mandates that as a woman and family member, she in particular is supposed to mourn her dead. Yet she must not disobey the law nor, worse, speak her disobedience openly and forthrightly to the leader of the city-state.

The Athenian male citizens who gathered in the theatre to see Antigone understood that, in attending to the play, they were at once worshipping their gods and fulfilling their civic obligations. No women were permitted to be present, to participate in this civic and religious rite of worship. Antigone calls attention to their absence as it stresses the expectations laid on women to be equally loyal to the laws of a city even when those laws countermand their duties to their families and their gods. Urging his subjects to place the good of the state before all else, Kreon makes the pronouncement that “anyone who holds his own kin more important than his own country” is “beneath contempt”. Antigone’s sister Ismene believes women have no choice. Because women “are not meant to do battle against men”, total submission to the will of one she calls a “tyrant” is required by the physical force he has at his command.

Antigone turns her private act of burying Polyneikes into a highly public and political act. Without fear she courts her death. In twentieth-century productions, Antigone’s embrace of martyrdom has been used to stand for resistance against Nazism, Eastern-Bloc communism, South African apartheid and, in Seamus Heaney’s 2004 verse translation, British imperialism in Ireland. As women today take to the streets in Arab states to protest against their governments, we should appreciate that they also risk death to inspire others. They are waving Antigone’s flag.