Introduction to The Antigone Project

Acknowledgments

The play was conceived by Sabrina Peck and Chiori Miyagawa and commissioned by Crossing Jamaica Avenue with the support of Puffin Foundation. In different stages of the project, we received developmental support from the various theaters: Second Stage, Classical Stage Company, and The Public Theater’s NEW WORKS NOW! These readings were directed by Sabrina Peck. The final production at women’s project was made possible, in part, by Sabrina Peck and Crossing Jamaica Avenue.

Antigone project opens at women’s project in October 2004, directed by Annie Dorsen (Antigone Arkhe), Dana Harrel (Medallion), Annr Kaufman (Hang Ten), Barabara Rubin (Red Again) and Lisel Tommy (A Stone’s Throw), with the cast of Tracie Thoms, Jeanine Serralles, Joey Collins, April Yvette Thompson, Angel Desai, and Desean Terry.

Amy Yoshitsu was the Format Editor for this edition.

 

Preface

O Antigone

Imagine a relay race, but there is only one runner.

O Antigone. Try to grasp her.

Antigone. With a baton of justice in her hand, she runs, runs.

She must bury her brother Polynices, killed at the hand of their other brother, Eteocles, but it is against the law. The newly appointed King Creon forbids it, because Polynices fought on the wrong side in Thebes’ civil war. His punishment is a form of familial torture and shame: they leave his body to be devoured and defaced by wild animals, a form of going to hell. Antigone must sanctify her brother’s body by giving him a proper burial. Now, with the law and fate against her, like her father, Oedipus before her, she must heed her own moral code. She must act in time and against time, and will set off a series of tragedies and betrayals in the process. Haimon will stand up to his father in defense of Antigone, his fiancé. Antigone’s sister Ismene will try to take responsibility for her actions. Eurydice will lose her son Haimon to suicide and then kill herself. King Creon will lose everyone. If it sounds like a Texas soap opera or a Greek tragedy, it is it because it is.

Imagine this is a theatrical relay through time and space, in which Antigone’s narrative is passed from writer to writer, as it is in The Antigone Project. The brainchild of Chiori Miyagawa and Sabrina Peck at Crossing Jamaica Avenue, Antigone Project was written in response to the Patriot Act signed into law on October 26, 2001. Karen Hartman, Tania Barfield, Caridad Svich, Lynn Nottage, (sic) signed on to portray Antigone in a kaleidoscope of historic periods to see how she fares. Antigone’s desperate striving toward sanctity, justice and rest (a step towards peace) are amplified by the hysteria of the post 9/11 Bush War on Terror.

The clock is ticking, because of course, as in all races, Olympian and mortal, the race is against time, which is running out.

Bam.

You are off.

Antigone Project sets out at a sprint in Karen Hartman’s contemporary arrhythmic and rhythmic erotic dialogue in her piece, Hang Ten. The sounds of water are made by tongues and teeth, and Haimon disguised as the otoosexy surfer boy rises in a tide of corporeal images, like, well, like a Greek god, a kouros from the waves, sparking both Ismene’s and Antigone’s desires. Of course they’re hot for him, with his jams taut at his hipbones, its laces begging to be tugged. Surfer boy is hot but, we will learn, he has no power. It’s his very youth that reminds us, the public, that this mythic family is already caught in the entropic vortex of war, that, blinded and dead, has already taken most of the family down.

So we spin into Medallion, Tania Barfield’s 1918 vision of Antionette a black laundress, who, to the sounds of stenographers transcribing condolence letters, demands, with stubborn and dignified beauty, some kind of MEDAL of HONOR in lieu of her missing brother’s body.

“Colored boys got a way of disappearing,” she says to the white officer, who refuses to give anything but the truly tragic answer, “True. It is a pity.”

In Caridad Svich’s Antigone Arkhe, an archivist uses the documents and artifacts unearthed in an archeological dig, to beautifully reconstruct Antigone’s narrative and the rituals inherent in the journey of the body: it’s quest for love, it’s longing for immortality, and the ultimate lament for its own lost life (sic). The piece is an elogy and dirge to Anigone’s own fate, which all of us, including Antigone herself, are aware. But in a dramatic reversal, the writer veers away from Sophocles’s version of the myth and allows Antigone to take her death into her own hands. Lynn Nottage’s piece, A Stone’s Throw, recalls the disproportionate punishment of women in various religions, countries, and political climates, for breaking unreasonable laws. The play opens with the punishment and twirls back through time to show how Antigone’s simple love and sound mortality ultimately conflict with the societal code and the laws and inevitably lead her astray. We witness her as she asks her sister to assure her daughter that she has actually done nothing wrong, while we know, that her death will not be merely her own. Finally, in Chiori Miyagawa’s Red Again, Antigone and Harold (Haimon) re-meet in the Underworld because as Harold says, “We didn’t get to finish our story.”

In a kind of time-warp aria, the piece invokes some of the injustices caused by political conflict worldwide, and Harold and Antigone cannot agree on right action. Antigone accuses Harold of meditating too much, while Harold finds Antigone full of rage. Irene reports on and gives perspective on the world situation. Only which world is it? Iraq, Saigon, New York? As the Antigone Project’s last play comes to a close, Irene reminds us of the very specific Greek way of seeing tragedy and its endless cycles of familial violence. Irene reminds us that Antigone will always be here to remind us.

This collection of plays confirms that Antigone as a metaphor continues to be temporary and relevant. Dead in her cave, it’s hard not to think of Antigone as a Christ-figure, possibly rising. In all of the plays there is a motif of rising. Rising from the dead, rising out of the ashes. While we know from Sophocles’s original narrative she won’t, the playwrights let Antigone’s destiny open to interpretation, to wonder, to the imagination. Tragedy no longer has just one ending. Antigone Project demands we revisit her myth in light of our present circumstances. It also reminds us that to seek justice requires vigilance, constant renewal of the spirit, and the willingness to see anew. It beckons us to rise out of the current of history and to re-envision so that we may create new possibilities, new hope.

While Antigone Project was conceived immediately in the wake of 9/11, I write this preface in the first weeks of 2009, almost eight years after the project has begun. The five Antigone plays remind us of the ceaselessness of political conflict in the Middle East, specifically, the now (seemingly) endless war in Iraq and, of course, of the disastrous Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the wake of these atrocities, Antigone rises. She demands we remember every family member unjustly killed. And everybody, not recovered, every body that cannot receive its proper burial, still unburied. By the time you read this, we as a nation might have collectively forgotten the hundreds of unjust civilian casualties this week, or last week, or last year. But Antigone will always remember. Follow her. Her moral code, her sacrifice, at the very least, will always remind us of what we are willing to risk, of what we are willing to sacrifice, of our very selves, if we dare to listen.

  • Lisa Schlesinger

 

Introduction

Antigone Across Time

Ancient dramatic texts must always be recreated for modern audiences. The myths are eternal, but they can reappear in fresh ways. As T.S. Eliot said:

We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place the first time.
Where the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning. (Little Gidding)

This way every audience comes to “know the place for the first time” and learn something new, not only about the beauty of the ancient myths, but about themselves in the modern world. Antigone may be the first freedom fighter in western literature. She is always inspired playwrights, and plays about her confrontation with organized government has been used it to protest against depressive regimes: Athol Fugard’s 1973 Version of Antigone (the island) indicts a Apartheid in south Africa as black prisoners performed in a play on Robben Island, where many words detained in definitely for opposing the racist system. Nelson Mandela played Creon in that same prison system. In 1984 for versions of Antigone were produced in Ireland to condemn colonial occupation.

Antigone (circa 441 BC) by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles is based on the myth that goes back at least to Homer (eighth century BC). Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus who killed his father and married his mother, but would not rest until he discovered the truth about himself. Antigone is truly his daughter, and once she decides to defend what she knows is right, that “unwritten law of the gods,” she will not waiver.

Sophocles ‘s Antigone celebrates the first heroine in the full sense of the word. She insists on burying her brother who was killed any civil war, even though Creon, the King of thebes, had forbidden it. Antigone is the first conscientious objector, opposing the king, what she sees as unjust laws. Heroine though she maybe, and taking his confrontation with Creon is not necessarily clearcut. There are many conflicting interpretations of this play. The early 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, who claimed it was the finest play ever written, saw two legitimate rights in opposition: the right of the family and against the rights of the state. Familial values conflict with state interests, and a duty towards the gods of the underworld is opposed to the duty of obeying the ruler, whose rights are sanctioned by the Olympian gods. Personal issues confront public issues, and they radically confront each other.

More than an opposition of rights, however, he original play brilliantly shows us the opposition of two passionate people (creon and Antigone) who go hell bent their own destruction. Antigone’s hotheadedness is particularly clear in a couple of brutal exchanges with her sister. Nevertheless she is indisputably a heroine who knows her duty to her family.

Creon tries to be the best ruler he can be an to benefit the city in the aftermath of a bitter Civil War. There were precedents in ancient Greece for not burying the body of one’s enemy, but Sophocles questions such a course of action. Both should have compromised, but neither did. That’s why we have a tragedy.

Creon opposes Antigone with the might of law on which he says personal happiness is based, namely through a well controlled the city. With Sophocles as usual dramatic economy, Antigone is punished by the ruler was lost she opposes entry on is punished by the loss of his own family, values he subordinated to those of the city.

The coral interludes in this place because of all that concerns man: victory, deceit, death, love, hate, crime and punishment. As usual, the Greek tragedy gives us insight into ourselves and asks questions.

Some modern commentators see right only in Antigone, and to view Creon as a stereo typical dictator in the wrong. Bertolt Brecht Black and crayon with fascist colors and my: and Ireland’s Tom Paulin presented Creon with the same Trident rhetoric as the bigoted Northern Irish protestant leader Ian Paisley. However, things are not so simple and Sophocles play. Anouilh Wrote one play on Antigone to be performed during the Nazi occupation of France that shows a reasonable Creon, and a rather silly adolescent minded Antigone, but he still is ultimately on the side of Antigone.

whereas these are all plays written by men, and interpreted by men, what distinguishes the five plays in Antigone project is that women are defining the major issues. These multiracial women playwrights are reclaiming Antigone for themselves and allowing fresh voices to interpret the myth that supplies the syntax behind their words. These authors take the Antigone story out of the patriarchal Greeks setting and bring it into the new society in which a woman can run for president or vice president.

The original performance of Antigone project was in 2004 as a coproduction between the women’s project and crossing Jamaica Avenue at the Julia Miles Theatre in New York. Each of the five parts that comprise the project last about 15 minutes, So the five total about 75 minutes, about the same performance laying on the usual ancient tragedy. Each reflects the authors special concerns. Each part had different women directing.

Hang 10, by Karen Hartman, features a surfing culture with a attractive young women in their 30s. They demo the ruler, Creon ( obviously the head of an oppressive regime), although the play is never so specific. Antigone shows compassion for the boys surfing, but is critical of the culture that produces such surfers and she dreads and accident. Ismene sees everything in a positive light. This contrast also existed in Sophocles play. Ismene represents the complacent majority.

Following the myth, the siblings are Antigone, Ismene, Polynices, Eteocles, and Oedipus, all children of Jocasta (since Oedpius is the father of the previous before, the incest is obvious). There’s a cute joke about the father locking the kids out as he looks at “incest flicks.”

Antigone announces she will bury their brother. It seems there was a conflict between two sides of the family, and now his burial is forbidden. Ismene warns, “we’re under surveillance,” another modern allusion, which could apply not only to America, but also to any country subject to oppressive control.

Antigone makes the speech:

That kid tips over and another pops up. You employee surfer, he finds a real girlfriend, and the new boy comes to work. I get married and if after seven years or 14 or 21 the guy of scones keels over I replaced him…. Birth a kid, kid drowns in the bath, birth another. … to make a new brother, I have to make a new me.

Those who know Antigone would recognize the speech as a reworking of the heroine’s claim that she would not do what she did for a husband or a child, but only for her brother, arguing that the former are replaceable; since her mother and father are dead, a brother is irreplaceable.

A surfer (who turns out to be Haimon) appears and pledges to love Antigone. Then he asked which one is Antigone. Ismene says she is, and she excepts the boys offer. This shows that this Haimon, Creon son, is interested more in doing the acceptable thing, just like Ismene. Here he’s more of a conformist then the rebel he was in the original.

What is left with the bleak feeling as the rest of the “virtual” Play may unfold, following the myth, the disaster for Antigone, but “the rest is silence.” This play will be much richer for an audience familiar with the original story of Antigone.

Medallion by Tanya Barfield is much more straightforward. Antigone here is asking that her brother who fought aerobically in World War I be given the metal and recognition for what he did. She also asks for his body back. It is made clear from the beginning that Americans do not honor their blacks. “Antoinette,” our Antigone stand-in, meet with the bureaucratic stonewalling from the Creon in this play, Carlton, who boasts about the heroes and his family, whom we all know received honors, from burial as a hero to a metal, because they were white. Antoinnette is told “Mrs. Thebes, the French may award Croix de Guerre to the Negroes, but we do not.” Antoinette is finally dismissed and silenced by Carlton turning on a radio. This is a moving play about racial injustice.

Antigone Arkhe by Caridad Svich is a meta-theatrical peace, Very interested in fragments from the past and how they are used. It uses lots of projections and technical aids and is by far the longest of all the pieces and performance time. The words dance with the projections, offering the commentary of a Greek chorus. Digital Antigone announces any fragment that Antigone buried her brothers body, but the context is not elucidated. The “narration” Voice joins on archivist, Who speaks colloquially, and she describes an exhibit of various things (a belt of hand, presumably that Antigone used to kill herself) and body parts, including “a leg torrent from a body.” There is a statute is filled out by the digital Antigone, and the historical Antigone speaks, longing for death martyrdom as a way of accusing someone who has violated the laws of heaven. We are told uncle Creon put his niece in a cave where she hung herself. At one point the historical Antigone speaks about the process of recording her (“what? Talk into the machine?”), Another meta-theatrical element. A possible malfunction is discussed. Antigone herself seems to be the Ur-malfunction in a “civilized state.” And taken he becomes a legend with her death.

Words from the first chorus in Sophocles’s play are cited “Beam of the sun, Eye of Golden Day,” and a paraphrase of Creon’s comment: “remember this: our country is the ship that bears us safe, and that only if she thrives in her voyage can we make honest friends.” The originals of these paraphrases are:

First ray of sun, fairer than any seen before
By Thiebes of the seven gates,
At last you appear,
Golden Eye of Day
Glancing over the streams of dirce.

And Creon’s: “I know our salvation is the ship of state and only those who keep her on the right course can be called her friends and benefactors.

It is interesting that the archivist describes “A wedding dress from the Hellenistic period,” A period which is at least a century later than Sophocles’s Antigone, and several centuries later than the mythical Antigone. Perhaps this is a commentary on how Antigone has survived throughout the ages in a fragmentary form.

Antigone’s body in this play is said to move from place to place, finally to be frozen in time. The body parts, (a finger and an eye), illustrate the fragmentation of the myth. The historical Antigone and the digital Antigone hang themselves for the audience’s benefit, yet they continue to speak. The myth suddenly becomes a ghost. It is said that her body and brain have been preserved. The outcome is that she has become the physical reification of the myth in a museum, and the archivist asks for financial support: now the myth has become a commercial product. The corpse is shown in the final scene as the doors of the palace open. This is the last ironic commentary, the ultimate capitalist triumph, in which, it seems, the imagination is dead. Do these plays themselves sell? Svich’s play aptly shows how the myth has been perverted and Antigone has become the ultimate trophy wife of modernity.

Lynn Nottage’s play, ominously entitled A Stone’s Throw, is set in Africa and in a village where a woman is being stoned to death for a illicit affair with a man, even if he had promised to marry her, and had abandoned her after making her pregnant. It begins with the ending, the execution of a woman buried in sand up to her neck. She is about to be stoned. She suddenly remembers the time when they both said “I like you.”

A flashback follows. This Antigone discusses her situation with Ismene as they pound grain. Ismene warns her. Then another flashback as the gentle seduction unfolds gradually. The man offers to wait a year, and brings a dowry (she is widowed, but he must still bring a dowry to her father to win him over to his proposal). He offers to leave, but she tells him her name, Antigone, and he asks why she did that…And then they exchange the “I like you” phrase we heard at the beginning. They kiss passionately and we are back hearing the accusations of the reporters that we heard at the beginning as they accuse her and take pictures.

This ring composition is effective, besides showing a feisty Antigone following her heart in passionate rebellion against the state as she tells Creon: “I was born to love, not to hate.” This play is an excellent illustration of how injustice still operates against women. Caridad Svich’s play showed the theoretical underpinning of the myth; the play adapts it to a story that moves our hearts as much as Sophocles’s play did for the abuse and suffering of this young woman.

Red Again by Chiori Miyagawa also touches on the heart. It is very political much as is Medallion, because it deals with racial and ethnic prejudices, in addition to the other themes that are found in the original Sophoclean Antigone. The play is set clearly in the present, with a vivid memory of atrocities. Here we have an Asian, and specifically Japanese, perspective that incorporates beliefs from Buddhism. It’s rather like a Zen no exit, but here an exit is offered through reincarnation: “Red Again.” Unlikely hero and heroine’s in Jean Paul Sartre’s 1944 play set in the underworld, these people in Barto (the Tibetan Buddhist transition chamber between death and a new life) Will not be condemned to rehearse their mistakes for eternity, if indeed they learn the lessons offered from their past lives. Nevertheless, in both plays the characters look at their past life, and hear the people left on earth, and both are in pain held by an existentialist drive to define themselves in spite of the absurdity of the world they face. Neither of them suffers from anything so crude as “Hell fire,” or physical torture.

Antigone broke the law by defying the king and attempting to bury her brother. Her brother here was innocent of any crime, the the victim of racial profiling: police officers misconstrued his wallet for a gun. Haimon, Here called Harold, Followed her because he thought she would suffer without him. He is more interested in meditating and fighting.

Antigone was protesting against the abuses of the world and the new police state under which they were constantly under surveillance ( clearly brushes America after 911 2001) period. Each has different approaches to the world: Harold thinks the world can be changed through meditation, whereas Antigone opts for defiance and revolution. She now chooses to honor her ancestors enter traditions; this is a Japanese twist to honoring the unwritten laws of the gods, As the Sophoclean Antigone did period.

Irene knows about the abuses, including the Japanese and America in concentration camps during World War II, besides the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with Americans dropping atomic bombs that targeted civilians. Then she cites Treblinka (an infamous Nazi concentration camp in Poland), together with the racial atrocities of Bosnia and Cambodia. Irene, whose name means peace in Greek, sends peace at any price and does not defy the law in the way Antigone does. She recites the problems of their families incestuous origins, a father “who gouged his eyes out for his crimes of unnatural sex and parricide” and two brothers, named Eteocles and Polynices, killing each other. The reasons are not given.

In the Bartha waiting room, they have books that tell them about themselves, looks of fate and human effort, and blank ones for The future. And taking you read about one friend left her comfortable bourgeois house to strike out on her own, like Ibsen’s Nora, in his 1879 Dolls House, or Ms. Helen in Fugard’s 1984 Road to Mecca. Her name is Kate. Is this the shrew that left after taming?

Perhaps Antigone’s lesson is that she should not be so much of a madwoman, as Irene pointed out, although she can still defend its human rights, and perhaps Harold will learn compassion and humanity towards others even while meditating and in a convent: both are convinced they will find each other in their new lives. This is a love story about two admirable people, and it ends with more hope then any of the plays in this project about Antigone: like Buddhism, it allows learning from one’s mistakes and giving those in error another chance.

To quote the Sophoclean original:

There are many it wonders in the world,
But nothing more amazing than the man!

And in this case that ‘man’ is a ‘woman.’ These new plays celebrate the potential of women to achieve glory, not in winning wars, but in following in their conscience. They also show us the victims, but at least all of them followed in their passionate dreams.

Should we take a stand as Antigone does when we see clearly that something is wrong? Or should we choose Ismene’s part, and follow the leader? Will no one ever learned the lessons of from their past, and how compromise benefits both cities and individuals? That choice of what to do is always yours.

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