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Watching Antigone: The Most [Blank] City in America

Editor’s note: Andrew Morton is a theater maker and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Andrew saw Antigone, starring stage and screen actress Juliette Binoche and in new translation by award-winning author Anne Carson. Below is his response to the performance.

When I learned I was accepted to the UMS Artist in Residence program earlier this year, I was on a farm in Grinnell, Iowa, working on a new project about Flint, Michigan. I was in the middle of another residency program with Grin City, an arts collective and residency program with a focus on social practice, and I was working on an early draft of an outline for The Most [Blank] City in America, a community-based play I am developing for Flint Youth Theatre’s 15-16 season.

Flint, Michigan

flint city signage

Artwork for performances.

The project was born from conversations with colleagues at Flint Youth Theatre and members of the Flint community about creating a performance that would explore what it means to call a place like Flint, Michigan “home.” It also came from a collective desire to create something that might challenge the dominant narrative of Flint.

If you ask people to share a word to describe Flint, quite often the response is something along the lines of:

  • “Violent”
  • “Dangerous”
  • “Miserable”
  • And so on…

Far too many times the City of Flint has been, and still is the subject of sensationalist articles that focus purely on the violence, poverty, and economic woes that continue to plague the city. Most recently the city and state’s disastrous handling of the water crisis has meant that once again, Flint is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The people of Flint know the city has its fair share of problems, but they also know that is only part of the story of this place. As part of the research for the Most [Blank] City… project, we’ve had conversations with community members in schools, churches, community centers and parks, and we’ve asked people to tell us what other words they would use to describe their city. We’ve heard words and phrases like:

  • “Misunderstood”
  • “Tenacious”
  • “Secretly Vibrant” (one of my personal favorites)
  • And many more.

With a team of local artists, I’ve been having these conversations for the last few months. In April 2016, Flint Youth Theatre will produce the performance inspired by these important conversations. A collaboration with two incredible Flint-based arts organizations (Raise it Up! Youth Arts & Awareness and Tapology), the performance will incorporate drama, dance, spoken-word, music, and hopefully more. As we begin to develop an idea of what this performance will look and sound like, we’re realizing that while we want this project to tell a different story of Flint, we must also accept that our community can’t ignore our problems. If we want to change these problems, we need to face them head-on.

Antigone, listening

antigone production

I saw Ivo van Hove’s production of Antigone in October, and the play inspired me greatly as I continue to work on the project in Flint. Going into the performance, I was most interested to see how the Chorus would be represented, as I’m considering the idea of including a “Flint Chorus” in The Most [Blank] City… as a way to represent the people of Flint from both the past and present. Watching Antigone, I found myself drawn to the Chorus as they watched from afar, listened intently, and served as a voice for the people of Thebes. They empathized with the characters, but were also quick to criticize, show their despair, and change their views as the events of the story unfolded before them.

I’d like The Most [Blank] City… to be a conversation about the story of Flint’s past and the unwritten story of its future, and I hope our audiences (those who are from Flint and those who are not) will be able to see themselves as a necessary part of this conversation.

As part of the ongoing research for this project, last week I led several story circles (a common practice in community-based theater) with young people in Flint. One took place at a High School just outside of the city, another was with students in a dual-enrollment program at U-M Flint, and the other was with members of the student ambassador group at Flint Youth Theatre. While it’s my job to ultimately construct the shape and content of this performance, for this piece to be an honest reflection of the diverse voices of Flint, I believe that my main role in this project is to simply listen. Listening to the young people I met with last week, I heard their anger at the injustices in Flint. I heard their descriptions of how local and state elected official have failed them. I heard, for many, a strong desire to leave this community as soon as they can. I heard mourning for the lives they’ve lost. However, I also heard, despite it all, that many of them are still immensely proud to call this place their home and are hopeful about its future.

An honest story

antigone production

There’s little to be hopeful about in Greek Tragedy. People often ask me why I stay in Flint, as often the perception is there’s also little to be hopeful about here. In Antigone, the city of Thebes is in crisis, as Flint is today. As Kreon attempts to bring order and structure to the city, Antigone is in mourning and she is angry. Much like the young people in Flint. Her anger fuels her to take action and challenge Kreon’s authority. Many of the young people I meet in Flint have a strong sense of justice and want to see their community thrive. They want to be part of the conversations about the future of their city but are often left out. They want to take action, but often feel that no one will listen.

We’re trying to do many things with The Most [Blank] City in America project. I don’t expect the performance to incite a political revolution in Flint, but I do hope it inspires some change. I hope it will tell an honest story of this place, one that celebrates the hidden beauty of the city but also asks the difficult questions about why we continue to struggle. At the very least, I hope it will provide a space for the elders and the leaders of this community to hear the anger, the passion, and the hope of the young people who still call this place their home.

Photos of Antigone are courtesy of the artist.

Antigone at the Big House

members of antigone cast and crew visit the big house
Members of the Antigone cast and crew visited the Big House on Saturday. Did you attend the performance? Share your thoughts.

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.