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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?