Antigone, a symbol of woman’s dignity
and the contemporary sense of the Tragic
Welcome to our country – the country which gave birth to the theater three thousand wears ago.
We are proud to have you, people of the theater, in the place where the first theatrical word was heard. And what I will today is to travel through time – to find the traces of Greek spirit with reference to the human tragic element.
The Spirit, once in its history, gives birth to great work. But this work lives forever, to glorify he place. And this moment we speak here about dramatic poetry. Great
Greek tragic poetry.
Poetry only can transcend time and create eternal human models.
And great poetry is always contemporary, because it elevates Life to the eternal.
The fact that Sophocles chose a woman to incarnate one of his most beautiful tragic heroes, a woman unyielding with regard to her moral duty, but also deeply human with regard to her love for her dead brother, is not coincidental.
This great Greek Poet knew that only women have such superior virtues and such mystic powers, which enable them to despise death, loyal to the unwritten Laws.
The plot of the Sophoclean “Antigone” is well-known.
After Oedipus’ death, Creon became king of Thebes. He was Antigone’s and Ismene’s Oedipus’ daughters uncle.
Their brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, killed each other outside the town walls, because the first did not keep his promise to respect the other’s right to authority.
Creon ordered that Eteocles should be burried with royal honors whereas Polyneices would be left tombless, his body prey to dogs and crows.
But in those times, it was great impiety to leave the dead unburried. It was believed that their souls would never find rest, that they could not go the Hades.
The people of Thebes complied with the order out of fear.
But Antigone considered it unfair and impious. And said no.
She went all by herself and burried her brother’s body with her own hands.
From this point the tragic process begins.
Antigone knew that the price she would have to pay for her action would be death. But she did it. And perhaps all of you, theater people, realize how much pride and dignity her attitude had. At a time that woman’s value was only to be mother or wife.
From that moment the tyrant Creon knew that he could crush her or put her to death, but would never be able to bend her.
But Sophocles chose a woman as a symbol of revolution against unfair authority.
He created this beautiful tragic heroine, to prove the nobility of woman’ nature. To prove, also, that her strength is intuitive, prophetic, and deep-rooted and innate.
As Antigone says:
My nature is for mutual love, not hate
Thus, Sophocles, the greatest dramatic poet, in Antigone elevates woman, making her a symbol of all moral values.
Because, that prophet and connoisseur of human nature, saw her great moral powers, her perception of life, her nobility – spiritual nobility.
No one is born tragic. He becomes tragic the moment he encounters Moira ( Fate ) and must confront her. The moment he must chose to say “no” and because of that to transcend his own limits and walk alone, experiencing the misfortune until he achieves the liberating catharsis.
Turning now to the contemporary sense of the tragic, I would like to refer to my own experience, as I lived it, when, at a moment of my life, I wrote an Antigone, too. An adaptation of the ancient Antigone myth to our times.
My Antigone was for me an act of personal resistance. When it was written, I was in Paris, for theatrical studies at the Sorbonne. Then the junta took in Greece. And I felt the need to react to it by my own act of resistance.
At that time, at the Sorbonne, I studied the ancient tragedy in relation to the tragic in contemporary theater. I wrote a paper at the University entitled “The tragic sense in the theater of Samuel Beckett”.
The ancient Greek Poets taught us that the tragic exists only as tragic conscience. Since then, many forms of tragedy have been born, each of them reflecting man’s attitude to the world of his time. The main difference between the ancient tragedy and the tragedies of all other times is that the ancient Greek poets used exclusively symbols of myth. They used mythic archetypes, which are symbols. Their tragedies are symbols which helped them to explore the depths of the soul wisely. The tragedies of other times are tragedies of historical man.
The tragic hero in the ancient tragedy is the innocent who at a moment commits a fault. But he is not evil. The ancient tragic hero is never evil. If he is, there is no tragedy, there is a drama.
The tragic hero in our times is innocent and remains innocent. He does not commit a fault. This is the main difference.
The tragic hero is not morally guilty. In such a case, there would be a drama, too. He might regret and be saved.
The tragic hero is tragically guilty. This means that there is no way for him to regret and to be saved. He can achieve that only by transcending his tragedy through catharsis, after having collapsed.
Here I must say that in spirit he never collapses. The ancient tragic hero stands in a spiritual relationship with events. That was the first prerequisite of tragedy.
When I was preparing my paper in Sorbonne, two things tortured my mind. One was that, in the ancient tragedy, the innocent man could not be tragic, as Aristotle said, because he did not commit Ybris, the indispensable tragic “fault”.
Writing my paper at the Sorbonne, I saw that our demystified times could have changed the Aristotle definition. I understood that the human being is both innocent and tragic – tragic in a different way. It was what all existential philosophers of European thought had described in their works, but theatrically it had not been given yet.
After I read my paper, students used to come up to me, and the only thing they admired in me was that I might know Colonus, a place where Oedipus has lived, at the end of his life. It is now a neighborhood in Athens, and I might have walked its small streets. But that inspired me, that thrilled me, because I found that it was very important to have lived in almost the same place as Oedipus.
I said, yes, I know Colonus. I walked there. And in my memory I saw its small streets. Little by little, I moved away from the exact images. I knew, and started to see the blind Oedipus walking there, holding Antigone’s hand.
Even now, I remember the great emotion that I lived through then, the existential shiver in discovering my country’ s mythic past. Antigone became in my mind a wonderful, magic means by which to travel back through centuries. However, at that moment I could not find a way to write about her.
In my mind, I was walking in Thebes. I tried to dissolve the darkness of the time and to see Antigone, a creature three thousand years old, always new, always beautiful and angry. I was angry, too, because of the dictatorship in Greece at that moment.
Writing the play, I did not know that she could be tragic by the very fact that it was actually impossible for her to be a tragic heroine in the ancient sense. What I needed to do at that time was to present a tyrant Creon demystified, small and powerless, collapsing in our times. With such a Creon, the only thing I knew, as far as Antigone was concerned, was that she was to experience the tragically impossible.
To this day, regardless of what value my play has, she gives me the same emotion. It is the emotion that beautiful creatures can give us, when with deep dignity and nobility of spirit they accept the price of their pride.
As I look at my Antigone now, after so many years, I see that it revealed to me certain truths, like the dignity of personal resistance and the demystification of human being from the myth – a demystification that is the fate and the tragic essence of our times.
This Antigone was written at the moment of my initiation into the theater of the Absurd, in which the characters enter the stage without history or identity. My Antigone posed a different absurdity, entering as she did with a history of three thousand years, and with the courage to want to continue that history in a world that has killed all the ancient gods.
Today, as I look back at the play, beyond the youthful intoxication of those days in Paris, its characters with their long histories seem absurd and strange, at a time that is not interested in their drama.
What remains tragic and human in the play is the characters’ breakdown itself, occuring so painfully in the process of their irrational conflict with modern times.
But a play, like a theatrical character, has many aspects. Its writer is the last person who can tell what it means. She is emotionally tied to the play, she feels affection for the characters she has created, she feels compassion for them. She does not know how to explain them. She only knows that she gave them life.
This play – together with 3 other plays of mine – has been included in a volume prepared by Rhoda Kauffman, professor of drama at the California State Hayward University, and is to be published by Guernica Editions Toronto, Canada.
It would be interesting to know that this volume is the result of the acquaintance and friendship which started in the course and because of the Women Playwrights Conference.
I can only express my gratitude for this and wish that in this and future Conferences similar collaborations may develop.
Less that two pages of my Antigone will be read. The introduction of the play.
Speech for the International Woman’s Playwright Conference, in Athens October 2000