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Greek to Us: Q&A

Image: Antigone and the body of Polynices.

Image: Antigone and the body of Polynices.

With a work like Antigone—especially with a new translation, by the remarkable and always provocative Anne Carson—it’s tempting to focus on text. But as T.S. Eliot reminds us, ancient Greek drama is first and most importantly action:

Behind the dialogue of Greek drama we are always conscious of a concrete visual actuality, and behind that of a specific emotional actuality. Behind the drama of words is the drama of action, the timbre of voice and voice, the uplifted hand or tense muscle, and the particular emotion. The spoken play, the words which we read, are symbols, a shorthand, and often, as in the best of Shakespeare, a very abbreviated shorthand indeed, for the actual and felt play, which is always the real thing. The phrase, beautiful as it may be, stands for a greater beauty still. This is merely a particular case of the amazing unity of Greek, the unity of concrete and abstract in philosophy, the unity of thought and feeling, action and speculation in life.

—T.S. Eliot, “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation”

Why new translation?

New translations of canonical texts get commissioned all the time—often as a way to spotlight a hot new playwright. It’s frequently the case that the playwright doesn’t even speak the original language, so a theater company will commission a “transliteration” from a native speaker and/or scholar. The American playwright Constance Congdon, who has adapted both Molière and Gorki into English, describes “transliterations” as “more of a dramaturgical booklet”—a line by line rendering of a text, heavily footnoted with contextual info on words, meanings, cultural assumptions, how other translators have handled certain passages, and so on.

With Anne Carson, of course, there’s no such intermediate stage. A classicist and poet who’s long tangled with Greek and Latin, Carson brings all that contextual knowledge to bear on each line she translates. To get a good sense of the kinds of issues she must consider, look at her 2010 Nox, a book-length meditation on her brother’s death, in which Carson intersperses personal reflection with lexicographical entries detailing the multiple meanings of each word in a Catullus elegy.

About Nox, Carson has said, “Over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. […] Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light.”

It may be helpful to think of a translation of a play as like a production of that play, in that both are provisional interpretations. The original text endures.

Antigone, Antigonick

This is the second time in recent years that Carson has visited Antigone, the third tragedy in Sophokles’ great Oedipus trilogy. In 2012 Carson published Antigonick, an enigmatic reimagining of the story that in parts hews to Sophokles’ original script but also roams further—to Brecht and Beckett and John Ashbery; to contemporary law; to Hegel’s take on “woman” and Lacan’s and George Eliot’s take on the character of Antigone; to the 1944 Paris premiere of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, before an audience of French Resistance leaders. Antigonick features a mute character named Nick who is onstage throughout and who “measures things.”

Carson speaks of the difficulties of translation in a four-page epistle (“the task of the translator of antigone”) with which she opens Antigonick. Addressing Antigone directly, Carson writes:

my problem is to get you and your problem

across into English from ancient Greek

all that lies hidden in these people, your people

crimes and horror and years together, a family, what we call a family

Of the Antigone we’ll see in Ann Arbor, Carson has said, “Translation cannot convey the complex interactions of [the play’s] metaphorical system or the inevitability of the catastrophe to which it leads.” In particular, she notes that the play’s two main characters, Antigone and Kreon, “stand opposed to one another instinctually, in the very morphology of their language, in the very grain of the way they think and speak.” Watch for how this plays out onstage.

And listen for Carson’s startling rendering of certain phrases—

you greedy pissant little amateur terrorist

run your scam

take your profit

you will not lay that body in the grave

but human beings are susceptible

aren’t they, dear old Teiresias

to the profit-motive

—reminders of how contemporary this play’s meanings are.

Some Particularities of Greek Theater: Q&A

An interview with actress Juliette Binoche, who stars in Antigone by Sophokles

How does the production handle the chorus?

The ancient Greek chorus was an anonymous group of 15 men who typically stayed onstage throughout a performance, in the orchestra (or round stage). Their chief function was to sing and dance the choral odes that divide the acts of the tragedy. They also, occasionally, sang or chanted in lyric dialogue with the actors, and their leader—distinguished by costume—could also take part in the dialogue.

Ivo van Hove, who directed the production of Antigone we’ll see in Ann Arbor, cautions: “If you are not interested in the chorus as a director, better take your hands off a Greek tragedy. Better not do it.” Of the chorus in Antigone, he says it is “almost like the subconscious of the society.”

How does the production handle the gods?

No actual god appears in Sophocles’ Antigone, but the uncanny and the divine are formidable powers in the play, keenly felt and heeded. Carson describes the difficulty of capturing the essence of the Greek term eusebia—the “awe that radiates from gods to humans and is given back as worship”—in this tragedy. She settles on the English word “piety,” but concedes its utter inadequacy in this instance. You’ll hear it in the last words Antigone speaks before going to her death:

I was caught in an act of perfect piety.

The actor who speaks these words, Carson writes, “will evoke the permanent elsewhere of our longing for the love of gods by drawing it up from her own voice and being.” How will Binoche render it?

What about exits and entrances?

In his long and thoughtful examination of ancient Greek theater, Greek Tragedy in Action (1978), Oliver Taplin notes that entrances and exits are not just a matter of “stepping into or out of the action,” but key events that draw attention to the relationships on either side of them. An entrance is a first chance to gauge a character’s features, dress, attributes. By its manner and destination, an exit conjures the future. Pay attention to both.

What objects and tokens does the production employ?

Greek tragedy is sparing when it comes to stage props. When they’re used, it’s to define and substantiate characters’ roles, status, way of life.

What happens offstage? And on? And why?

What we typically think of as the “big” actions—battles, disasters, suicides—take place offstage in Greek drama. Of greater interest is how individuals react to those events.

The slow pace and sustained concentration of Greek tragedy can also seem alien. Antigone is no Shakespearean romp from heath to court to jail to bedroom. The number of actors is limited (generally no more than two to three principal actors onstage at a given time). Time and place are unified. The chorus is ever-present. But this is not a static, verbal, didactic work—it’s deeply theatrical and emotional.

Mirror scenes

Greek tragedians often set up pairs of scenes—almost always so as to underscore the differences between those scenes. The spareness of Greek drama makes these pairings all the more powerful. Often these twin scenes occur on either side of a central catastrophic reversal or peripeteia (Aristotle’s term). Watch for such scenes between Kreon and Antigone; Kreon and those who bring him information (the Guard, Teiresias); Kreon and the chorus.

Why do you think theater makers “return to the Greeks”? Will you see Antigone by Sophokles?

Director’s Note: The Unanswered Question – How to Get to the Dark Soul of Antigone

Editor’s note: Stage and screen actress Juliette Binoche plays Antigone in a contemporary version of Sophokles’ tragedy, translated afresh by Ann Arbor’s own Anne Carson, a T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet, MacArthur “Genius” grant winner, and former U-M professor of classics and comparative literature. The production will be at Power Center October 14-17, 2015. Below, director Ivo van Hove shares his views of Antigone.

antigone production
Photo: Juliette Binoche as Antigone. The production comes to Power Center October 14-17, 2015. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Antigone, by Sophokles, tells the ancient story of one of Oedipus’s daughters, who refuses to follow the orders of her uncle Kreon, the new Head of State. Kreon has ordained that Antigone’s brother Polyneikes, who, along with their brother Eteokles has just died in a cruel civil war, should not be allowed a burial because he is a traitor.

A war of words begins with short but razor sharp scenes between Antigone and Kreon: an exhaustive, long, bitter but also passionate discourse of opposing views on how to treat the dead, especially when they are deemed an enemy of the state.

Antigone states: “I am someone born to share in love not hatred.” Kreon counters: “If a man puts family or friend ahead of fatherland I count him absolutely good for nothing.” Antigone is driven by an emotional urge to bury her brother. Kreon places good citizenship above all else.

To understand Antigone’s deeds, we need to return to Sophokles’s Oedipus at Kolonos, in which Antigone and her sister Ismene take care of their aging father, who has been exiled from Thebes. His sons are to alternately rule Thebes every other year but after his inaugural year Eteokles refuses to relinquish the throne to Polyneikes.

A brutal war between the brothers ensues. For the sisters, the situation is desperate: their mother killed herself, their father is dying, and their brothers kill each other. Antigone is in deep mourning. Caught in this cruel tragedy, she can’t see or enjoy beauty and has no sense of a future. She follows her impulse to take care of her brother’s body. For her, all human beings are equal and, even if Polyneikes was wrong, the dead should be respected.

Current events

The dilemma of dealing with Polyneikes’s body became a terrifying reality recently when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over a Ukrainian war zone. The dead were left in an open field, rotting in the burning sun for over a week. The whole world saw this as an act of barbarity. Once the bodies were recovered and brought to the Netherlands for identification, the Dutch government arranged for a convoy of hearses, a 100 km burial procession. This was a civilized and humane response, a mark of respect to the victims.

Antigone goes on a long, solitary road towards death. Scene by scene she cuts herself loose: from her sister, who won’t help with their brother’s burial; from Polyneikes; from the love of her fiancé Haimon; from Kreon’s policy; and, as an inevitable consequence, from society. “I’m a strange new kind of ‘in-between thing’ aren’t I/not at home with the dead nor with the living,” she concludes.

In a horrifying, magical scene, she sees herself in her brother’s tomb, which in her mind becomes a bridal chamber. She imagines an emotional reunion with her father, mother and brother. Kreon imprisons her in a cave, buried alive “with a bit of food . . . no doubt if she prays hard the gods of death will save her life.” But Antigone has nothing and nobody to live for. She can’t transform her grief into something positive. Her journey leads to self-destruction. There is nothing left other than to stage her own death, execute the ultimate control. Her life becomes meaningful by ending it.

antigone production

Photo: Another moment in Antigone by Sophokles. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

And what about Kreon? The play starts the day after a cruel civil war with many casualties, provoked by Polyneikes and Eteokles. Also, Kreon’s eldest son has just died. It is clear that the old city of Thebes, a society based on blood ties, has been disastrous and destabilizing. But instead of mourning, Kreon does something positive to stop the atrocities; he tries to create structure, a society based on clear laws, on citizenship. He wants the citizens of Thebes to live in safety.

Before becoming king, Kreon was involved in the military operations of Thebes. Now he wants to run the city as if it is an army. His strategic plan is based on the rule, “you are with us or against us.” Those who disobey should be punished. He thinks purely in logical and hierarchical terms. As a politician he has a new vision but old methods, successful in an army but which fall short in governing a society.

Kreon is his own worst enemy. He sees the value of citizenship but not of individual citizens. He wants to be the enlightened king of Thebes but ends a broken man, alone in the world with no public position and no family.

Both Antigone and Kreon are unable to develop meaningful leadership. A leader must value the well-being of his city or country as well as religious laws. A real democracy should allow its citizens to fulfill religious duties towards family without colliding with the laws of society.

The Chorus

What makes Antigone a drama of epic scale is the Chorus, who comprise senior advisers to the king, while also representing the people of Thebes. They cover the whole intellectual and emotional scope of the main characters in the play. The Chorus listens to what Kreon, Antigone and others tell them and adapt their point of view accordingly. They are empathic; they don’t hide when they are moved or horrified. They are the way people should be. They can be critical, neutral, mad or sad. But one thing they are not: hypocrites. Their journey starts with complete support for the new political views of Kreon. When Antigone enters, they immediately empathise, “O, you poor awful child of poor awful Oedipus.” After the intense discourse between Antigone and Kreon, and later Ismene, the Chorus starts to broaden their picture and awareness.

They tell Kreon the gods are responsible for this carnage. They judge Antigone harshly, claiming she disrespected the gods and the laws of Thebes. She is ‘too extreme.’ They turn their back on her. But, as they are only human, unrest lingers. They remind Kreon that he too is only human and the gods could turn against him.

When Teiresias, the prophet of Thebes, enters, they stay silent. They know he only comes when there is a real problem and that he always speaks the truth. And, what the Chorus daren’t say or even think, he says to Kreon: :The cause is you.” After the imprisonment of Antigone, and Teiresias’s warning, they come to a new conclusion: “take advice . . . set the girl free bury the boy.”

But the catastrophes are unstoppable and Kreon’s efforts to turn around his punishments come too late. By the end of the play his wife, Eurydike, and two sons are dead. Like Antigone, Kreon is “alone on his insides.” He has been driven by a sincere ambition to turn Thebes, his beloved city, into a better place and has failed. In every scene he is given the chance to adjust his law but he can’t. His inflexibility leads to his downfall.

Antigone develops from a play about a brutal war into a play about politics and public policies and ends as a play about the helplessness of humans, lost in the cosmos. It is a play about survival: not the survival of an individual or a family, but of a whole society, perhaps even the world. The play is ambivalent and dark, modern and mythical, leaving one with more questions than answers.

Antigone is at Power Center in Ann Arbor October 14-17, 2015.

Interested in more? Explore our Greek theater Q&A.


A Dancer’s Life After Merce

Editor’s Note: Before he passed away, choreographer Merce Cunningham began planning for the future of his company without him.  He decided that, upon his death, or at a suitable time thereafter, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) would embark on one final 2-year Legacy Tour and then dissolve.  You can read more about his Legacy Plan here.   Silas Riener, a dancer with MCDC, shares some reflections from his time with Merce and the company, and tells us a little bit about what life looks like for him after this final tour comes to a close.

Ann Arbor marks the beginning of the 3rd week of this part of the tour, full of winter weather (Iowa, rural Pennsylvania, minus seven degrees at times…) and lots of good times.  We have been performing lots of different rep, notably BIPED, which has only been seen once before on the Legacy Tour, and a few Soundance’s, which is always really nice for the company.  Ann Arbor will see Split Sides and Squaregame, two of our more high energy pieces, which we have been looking forward to getting back into.

It has been interesting touring Merce’s work since he died.  I feel like for many of us his presence was vital to our experience, and his input was crucial to our understanding of the material.  Sometimes even his lack of input would be just as important; I learned so much from what Merce would say, or what he wouldn’t say.  He was guiding our experiences, and in his absence, we have been forced to find governing principles for ourselves.  Sometimes it seems easier than others; the vacuum persists.

Much thought and discussion has gone into planning the future once the company closes.  For many of us dancers in the company, working for Merce was all we were ever interested in doing.  It was a goal to be reached, and it certainly wasn’t easy.  It’s strange to imagine other possible paths when the thing you have been trying for so long to get, you already have.  It has made many of us reconsider our values and whether we are interested in continuing to dance or maybe more interested in doing something else.

For myself, I know that I still have a really strong interest in continuing to dance.  I have been with MCDC for three and a half years now, and it has been a wonderful experience, but I have begun to feel the lack of my own creative voice.  It has been hard since Merce died, that all the new work the company has taken in is revival.  I can’t fully impart the sort of ecstatic paradigm shift that came when Merce was making a new piece, and I only really got to experience it once (Nearly Ninety).  It was as if the steps were coming out of the air, and even if it was a familiar one, as it often was, say a triplet, it still felt special because you knew that no one had yet done a triplet THIS way.  The revivals are wonderful, but it’s a different experience learning from video, or knowing that you are re-interpreting steps made for someone else.

It’s for this reason that I have begun to think about making work myself.  Along with another dancer in the company, Rashaun Mitchell, I have begun creating dance projects, and we have put some showings together.  It’s difficult to find rehearsal time inside the busy Cunningham touring schedule, but it’s been liberating at the same time.  We are able to set our own schedule, and we are able to think of ourselves as makers with a real will to create something that maybe hasn’t been seen before.

Our first project together, a collaboration with poet Anne Carson ( a sometime Ann Arbor resident) was first shown last summer, both at Mount Tremper Arts Festival in New York, and at Boston’s ICA Co-LAB.  Here in Ann Arbor, we’re taking some time to revamp a few sections of the dance, which takes Carson’s new book Nox as its subject.  We’ll be showing a bit of it Thursday, February 24 at 3:10pm in Studio A of the U-M Dance Building if anyone is interested.  An excerpt of the Boston performance can be seen below.

Hope you have enjoyed this bit of insight into the company life, and I hope you come to the show!  Friday and Saturday, February 18-19 at the Power Center.