Friday 1 June 2012

On Being Gutless

Tyrants are more frightening than this
A paranoid tyrant reacts to dissent by issuing absurd retributive mandates and persecuting the young, the poor, and the vulnerable. Arguments about common decency from citizens and counsellors fail to make any impression. Torture and arbitrary death sentences, as well as sacrilegious neglect of corpses and funeral customs, become the stuff of everyday life. Am I talking about Syria in June 2012? No. This is the situation in the Thebes run by Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, currently in production at the National Theatre in London.

Antigone, under arrest, brought to Creon
Not that you would notice that the play is about tyranny and terror.  The National Theatre is now only interested in television stars, irony, and gimmicky special effects.  For some time now I have been increasingly discomfited by the social and political cowardice of its productions of the Classics.  

It was disturbing when the 2008 Oedipus starring Ralph Fiennes was 'sponsored by Shell', a company with a reputation for cosying up to dictatorial regimes (some humourists at the time suggested the connection could be explained by the parallel between the ancient Theban and modern Nigerian experience of pollution).  But last Wednesday night, it was actually hard for me to keep still.  

How is it possible that actors of the calibre of Christopher Ecclestone and Jodie Whittaker can fail to engage us in a superb play about taking a stand against a brutal despot who has the state army at his disposal?  How can it be that there was no audience reaction whatever when Sophocles’ answer to Bashar al-Assad threatened his proletarian guardsman with slow death by torture? 

Houla Outrage
How it is possible that in a world where just last week dozens of children and women were slaughtered in Houla, this Creon had been directed to play it for laughs when he called the bereaved and distraught sisters Antigone and Ismene ‘neurotic’?  

Don’t get me wrong. I like radical, amusing and subversive adaptations and reappraisals of canonical literature and drama. I LOVE having a good laugh in the theatre even when—or especially when—the planet seems cruel and depressing. I don’t particularly like being preached at about human rights by earnest liberal thespians who have never been persecuted, either. 

Antigone and Rosa Parks
But  respect is required if you are going to put on a masterpiece which has been performed, at personal risk to the personnel involved, under conditions of state terror. Antigone has protested against tyranny in Jaruzelski’s Poland and in apartheid South Africa, for the independence movement in Manipur and for the mothers of the disappeared during the Dirty War in Argentina (see Antigone on the World Stage ed. E. Mee & Helene Foley [2011]).  At the National Theatre she comes over like a spoilt child who has been told by the manager of her riding school that she has been excluded from the annual gymkhana. NUL POINTS, NT.


  1. I confess I'm a bit confused by your take on Antigone. Is it really as straightforward as you suggest? On what I take to be your account, Creon is obviously wrong and Antigone is obviously right. I had always thought that the play was rather more subtle than that. Dismissing Creon as a tyrant issuing desperate edicts and painting Antigone as a righteous rebel with only noble motivations (standing up to tyranny) seems to ignore the subtleties of the play's moral debates and characterisation. In fact, I thought the National's production at least attempted to grapple with these ambiguities.

  2. Hi Jenny! You raise a very good point. I USED to think (and indeed have published to the effect) that the play takes a more balanced position between Antigone and Creon than we might imagine. But then I discovered the way the Greeks themselves read the play in the 4th century (Demosthenes), which leaves no doubt that THEY thought Creon was hopelessly and completely in the wrong. The adaptation that really does try to take Creon seriously, and gives him a very good speech on the unpleasant responsibilities that come with trying to govern a community in crisis, is Jean Anouilh's--interestinly first performed in occupied Paris during World War II.

  3. That's very interesting - I'd appreciate the Demosthenes reference if you have it to hand. Is he claiming that all Greeks read it that way? Either way, is there a reason we should believe that his account of how it was read 'leaves no doubt' - is there no chance that he had an agenda?

  4. OK Jenny: Reference to Antigone provides ammunition for the author of one of the most famous fourth-century Athenian political speeches now extant. In 343 BCE, the Athenian statesman Demosthenes delivered a great judicial speech known as On the False Embassy, in which he accused his rival Aeschines of misleading the Athenians, of treacherously favouring King Philip of Macedon, and of venal and corrupt conduct while engaged on embassies to the Macedonians. One of Demosthenes’ rhetorical strategies in attempting to undermine Aeschines’ credibility relies on his audience’s knowledge and understanding of Sophocles’ Antigone (Oration 19.246–50). Aeschines had previously been a professional actor (in the fourth century it was not uncommon for actors to become involved in politics), and frequently quoted well-known plays in his own political speeches. Why, then, asks Demosthenes, has he never recited the great speech by Creon concerning the importance of putting his duty to the city before any loyalty to his personal friends? Here Demosthenes certainly means Creon’s ‘inauguration’ speech on his first entrance in the play (ll. 162–210). He especially means the central lines in which Creon, after excoriating the sort of man ‘who considers a friend to be more important than his fatherland’ (ll. 182–3), proclaims, ‘I would never make a man who is an enemy of my country a friend of my own’ (ll. 187–9). Demosthenes supplies some fascinating information about a particular fourth-century production of Antigone. He tells us that Aeschines had often played the role of Creon when the other roles had been taken by the great actors Theodorus and Aristodemus (Demosthenes actually belittles Aeschines by emphasizing that he had played the role of Creon as the ‘tritagonist’, or third most important of the three actors who shared all the speaking parts in the play). What is fascinating about this passage is that at first sight, it seems that Demosthenes is simply endorsing Creon’s sentiments and saying that Aeschines could not live up to the patriotic principles articulated by the character he had himself acted in the theatre. But what the greater context suggests is absolutely the opposite: what sticks in Demosthenes’ audience’s memory is not that Aeschines had failed to live up to some of the sentiments Creon expresses in his very first speech, but that Aeschines had played Creon, the greatest failure as a civic leader in all the Greek tragic repertoire.The socio-political stereotype of the self-seeking and incompetent ruler who leads his people into injustice, death,and destruction has by the 340s clearly found, in Demosthenes’ Athens, its most conspicuous and immediately recognizable literary prototype in the Creon of Sophocles’ Antigone.