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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Antigone, Interpreted

Last weekend, book lovers convened in the seat of justice in Brooklyn to discuss a play translated, adapted, and performed in countless iterations: Antigone, which comes to BAM in a new translation by Anne Carson September 24—October 4. In the ornate Borough Hall courtroom, philosopher Bonnie Honig and playwright Ellen McLaughlin joined performer Kaneza Schaal to discuss the play.

Discussion begins in stately Brooklyn Borough Hall. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan





by Nora Tjossem

Approaching Antigone from a philosophical standpoint, Honig kicked off the event by proposing lamentation as political action—the eponymous character not as martyr, but as activist. McLaughlin introduced the piece as “perfect theater,” living on in such works as The Island, a two-man, play-within-a-play performance of Antigone set in South Africa, and her own Kissing the Floor, an adaptation set in the Depression era US.

All of the great classical tragedians were veterans, Honig explained. In a society always at war, theater was a venue for veterans to speak to one another. The agon, a dialogue constituting the simplest structure of theater, is also the model for democracy and threads throughout Antigone as an unresolved struggle between characters. If someone is “winning,” the panelists agreed, you may be reading it wrong.

Despite shared beginnings, theater and democracy have at times stood in opposition—in fact, Antigone itself can be studied as a response to the political silencing of women’s public mourning. An aristocratic practice, long and ostentatious funeral events take on a class dimension, raising politically salient questions of how to mourn.

We are still confronted by bereavement as a political act: occupy ourselves with mourning, or spur ourselves into action and advocacy for the living? Schaal invoked examples of the AIDS epidemic and the widely disseminated images of Emmett Till, a boy lynched in Mississippi in the 1940s whose mother shared the images with the media as well as allowing an open casket.

Honig, McLaughlin, and Schaal discuss Antigone. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
McLaughlin added that the Madres of Argentina, who protested through dance and occupation of public space in response to the desaparecidos of the 1970s, took a step closer to Antigone’s form of protest when they dressed as unlikely political actors: grandmothers. Staging powerlessness led to a power and protection they would not have otherwise garnered. Like the Greeks, the women of Argentina were the locus of tragedy because they could express suffering vocally.

The ambiguity of mourning as personal and political, commendable and condemnable, is at the core of Sophocles’ tragedy. Introducing the possibility that Antigone’s sister, Ismene, first buried their disgraced brother in secret, followed by Antigone’s loud public mourning, Honig argues for the complexity of the two women’s stances on preserving both life and death. While the two sisters are often posed as respectively pro-life and pro-death, Honig’s claims expose even more tragedy. The suffering of the two women is not simplistic.

McLaughlin added that the obligation felt by both women is because the family was plagued by incest (Antigone, Ismene, and their brothers are all children-siblings of Oedipus). This adds a horrifying element that complicates their view of justice and amplifies the pain of their situation. “No one wants to be Antigone,” McLaughlin claimed. “The only people who want to be these characters are actors—and that’s because we want to be them and then go home and have a nice dinner.”

Antigone, in a new translation by Anne Carson, is at the BAM Harvey Theater September 24—October 4. Tickets are currently not available online due to limited seating. Please contact BAM Ticket Services at 718.636.4100 to purchase tickets.

Nora Tjossem is BAM's Humanities & Educations Events Intern.

1 comment:

  1. So, very well written. Bravo, Nora!

    ReplyDelete