Antigone or The Nostalgia of Tragedy is a modern version of the Sophoclean tragedy and, especially, of Antigone’s myth, written in 1967 as a protest against the Greek Dictatorship. Of it, the author has written:
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 over in Greece, and it upset me. I felt the need to react to it by my own act of resistance.
In Sophocles’ play, Creon, who is then King of Thebes, gives an order that the corpse of Antigone’s brother, Polyneices, should remain unburied, to be devoured by dogs and birds of prey. At the time, it was high impiety to leave him unburied. Antigone, obeying the law of conscience, buried her beloved brother, knowing that the price she would have to pay for her act was death.
For Ms. Lampadaridou Pothou, Sophocles’ Antigone was the ideal of human dignity and of resistance against an unjust law. Antigone had the strength to reject this law, rejecting the tyrant himself at the same time. Her death, the price of her action, would give her the grandeur of a tragic heroine. Ms. Lampadaridou Pothou has written of the play:
At that time, at the Sorbonne, I studied the ancient tragedy in relation to the tragic in contemporary life. I wrote a paper at the University entitled “The tragic sense in the theatre of 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 historic 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 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 guilry. In such a case, there would be a drama, too. He might regret and be saved. The tragic hero is tragically guilry. This means that there is no way for him to regret and 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 hubris, the indispensable tragic “fault.”
Writing my paper at the Sorbonne, I saw that our demystified times could have changed the Aristotelian definition. I understood that the human being is both innocent and tragic – tragic in a different way. Two things helped me adopt this view: A play and an essay. The play was Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Later, I translated it, and because of that I knew him personally. I saw the play performed at the Odeon Theatre in Paris and it thrilled me. The essay was a revolutionary text by Jean Mari Domenah.
George Steiner proclaimed in his book, The Death of Tragedy, that the death of tragedy followed the death of the ancient Greek gods. But Domenah spoke about a resurrection of tragedy, referring to Beckett’s play, Happy Days. He spoke of a new sense of tragedy. It was a sense that Albert Camus had developed in his essays, and that all existential philosophers of European nihilism had described in their works, but theatrically it had not been given yet. Seeing the Beckett play at the Odeon, I felt that it was, indeed a new kind of tragedy. I felt this with the intuition of spirit, the intuition that is more certain than logic.
I said, “Yes, Winnie [the central character in Beckett’s play] i a tragic person, as she becomes aware of her existence vis-a-vis the cosmic identity. She lives an existential tragedy in her cosmic loneliness and nakedness. And the catharsis of this Beckettian character, her transcendence of the tragic, occurs at the moment she accepts this destiny. “Yes,” I said, “she is tragic and she is innocent. There is no fault except: one of birth.”
It was an approach that excited me. I was living my own destiny through her, a destiny that brought me hints of this new sense of rh tragic. I could be Winnie in a metaphor; it could be me in her surrealistic view of the cosmos. It could be me and every other creature in the world in her place.
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 Colon us, a place where Oedipus had lived, at the end of his life. It is now a poor 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 Colon us. 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 that great emotion that I lived through then, this 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. How to say all those miraculous things that had happened inside me? At that exact moment the dictators’ coup took place in Greece. And Antigone came out from within me as from a source of water.
In my mind, I was walking in Thebes. I ttied to dissolve the darkness of the time and to see my Antigone, a creature three thousand years old, always new, always beautiful and angry. I was angry, too, at that moment, because of the dictatorship, and Antigone helped me to revive her in our times.
Writing the play, I didn’t 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 is 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.
Thus Ms. Lampadaridou Pothou wanted with her play to show the irrational nature of contemporary tyranny, to depict a people’s Chorus that was self-aware, and ready to reject absurd authorities based on irrational power. As she has said: “Creons have existed at all times. They are the tyrants who commit the hubris of absolute authority. They may crush the individual, but they cannot break her.”
This contemporary Antigone of Maria Lampadaridou Pothou is intoxicated by death and the legacy of her own destiny as a tragic heroine. In her world, however, the gods are tired, and the royal palace is a mass of ruins. Creon is an old, avuncular figure, not rigid, but willing to compromise. The glorious, returning warriors are a parade of the war’s mutilated. “Beyond the ancient myth, this Antigone is a contemporary human being, made tragic by the incapability of our times to produce a tragedy. So this Antigone carries with her another tragic element: the impossibility of being tragic.”
This Antigone refuses to accept reality and tries to insist on the tragedy of her sacrifice. But her act of defiance is useless. Nobody is touched by it. Everything around her is small, conventional. In this world, nobody believes in anything great. The author says: “What once made them beautiful is lost. This is their tragedy – and ours.”
For the American premiere of her play at California State University, Hayward, in February, 1996, Maria Lampadaridou Pothou said:
As I look at my Antigone now, after so many years, I see that it revealed to me certain naked truths, like the dignity of personal resistance and the demystification of human beings 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 theatre 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 of 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 themselves absurd and strange, at a time that is not interested in their drama. What remains tragic and human in the play is the character 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 an 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.