An Eloquent, Exciting Performance of a Powerful Play
Genevieve Bujold as Antigone is splendid; Fritz Weaver as Creon, even better. Anouilh's version of Antigone is longer than Sophocles', allocating far more time to the confrontation between the heroine and the king. Bujold has fine moments in this scene, but Weaver's acting skill and stage presence are completely, masterfully at home. What a shame that most of his video work has been with scripts which, compared with this, were poor stuff!
Before the struggle with Creon, there is a love scene between Antigone and her fiance, Haemon. James Naughton's handsome, well dressed, thoroughly decent, college-boy Haemon, is the sturdy male partner, with and around whom Bujold dances in words and movement. Beautifully and affectingly. Stacy Keach as Chorus, Aline Macmahon as the nurse, Louis Zorich as Jonas (the first guard) and Peter Brandon as the messenger suit the performance well and contribute to its excellence.
Jean Anouilh wrote in French. The translation used in this performance is Lewis Galantiere's "adaptation." It was used for the American premiere, New York City 1946, starring Katherine Cornell as Antigone and Cedric Hardwicke as Creon. Galantiere writes beautifully, but so does Anouilh, whom it's a shame to adapt when you can stay true to the original. Often, this production seems to agree, restoring some of the adapter's cuts and deleting various additions and emendations.
Galantiere's understanding of the heroine's motives differs from Anouilh's in important respects. At the beginning of the play, Galantiere has Chorus, when introducing Antigone, assert that she is "on the side of the gods against the tyrant, of Man against the State." That may be how many people, vaguely remembering Sophocles, think of the character. But the take is Galantiere's, not corresponding to anything in the speech at hand, and not consistent with the development of the play.
Anouilh's Antigone does not invoke the gods, the common people, mankind or humanity, or define what she opposes as tyranny or the state. Early in their confrontation, Creon asks Antigone why she tried to bury her brother, Polynices. She replies that she "owed it to him. . . . Those who are not buried wander eternally and find no rest." She feels sure that what she did was right, but does not elaborate. One can tell little concerning her notions of an afterlife, and nothing concerning her belief in any gods.
Creon asks whether she really believes that the dead wander as shades if not properly buried, and reminds her that burial ceremonies are often wretchedly performed by the priests, an insult to the dead and their mourners. Then, in a passage omitted by Galantiere but restored in this production, Creon says: "And you still insist on being put to death, merely because I refuse to let your brother go out with that grotesque passport, which you would have been the first to be embarrassed by if I'd allowed it. The whole thing is absurd." She replies, "Yes, it's absurd." Then, for whom did she disobey the law? "For nobody," she replies. "For myself. For me."
Antigone had not seen Polynices, since he left home eight years ago, when she was only 12. Much of that time, Creon (honestly?) informs her, Polynices and her other brother, Eteocles had spent plotting and attempting the assassination of her father, Oedipus. She is staggered by these charges, but finds a stance, in opposition to the kind of life that Creon exemplifies. To obtain happiness he must continually compromise, doing what he despises, saying Yes to what he hates. On the contrary, it is better to say No to what you would rather not do, even if you must die for it.
This is her position at the end of the confrontation with Creon. In the last scene, as Jonas takes her to the tomb where she is to be buried alive, she dictates a letter to Haemon: "My darling, I wanted to die, and maybe you won't love me any more. Creon was right. It is terrible to die. And I don't even know what I'm dying for." The last three sentences were omitted by Galantiere, but restored in this production. To make sure that they register with the audience, they occur twice, dictated by Antigone and repeated by Jonas.
Was Galantiere's version commissioned by the Broadway producers? Was he asked to soften the radical, existential despair in Anouilh's play?
On another issue, the Chorus says some fascinating things about tragedy, which seem partly contradicted by the play. His ruminations occur shortly before the confrontation between Antigone and Creon. For example: "Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. In melodrama, you argue and struggle in the hope of escape." But in tragedy, you "shout" to express what you are.
The point does fit Antigone's behavior. She has no hope of escaping death and does not try. But Creon argues and struggles with Antigone, hoping to change the outcome. So does Ismene. Haemon argues and struggles with his father. Even the Chorus gets into the argument, with suggestions to Creon on how to prevent the catastrophe. Should we treat the Chorus' aphorisms as evidence that sometimes he (or the playwright?) doesn't know what he's talking about?
Should the audience respond to tragedy as if there were no hope? Thanks to their myths, the Greek audience knew how Antigone was going to end. Thanks to Sophocles, so do we. But while experiencing the play I seem to suspend this knowledge, hoping against hope that a decent way out exists, even if the characters don't quite manage to see or take it.
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