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Translating Antigone

Staging Anti-Colonial Protests

by MARIANNE McDONALD

Sophocles’ Antigone speaks to modern audiences, most often and most effectively in languages adapted to those audiences. However, translations of fifth-century BC Greek tragedy in English in the twentieth century are often written in archaic English, which was thought to enhance the ancient dignity of the original plays. Greek tragedy met Shakespeare, and not very good Shakespeare. This misinterpreted the original intent of the ancient Greek playwrights, who each had an individual voice and spoke to audiences at different stages in the history of Greece. Their language differed enormously, from the sonorous obscure lyrics of Aeschylus, to the dramatic drive of Sophoclean poetry, to the colloquial speech of everyday man with which Euripides wrote. It is imperative that whoever translates for the stage should be able to read the ancient language, and also know what language works on the stage and what doesn’t. If the phrases cannot be rolled trippingly on the tongue, they should be jettisoned.

The translations of Greek tragedy have often been used to deliver political messages. I shall digress here to show a parallel situation. Not only plays, but also something as innocent as a game can be reinterpreted or "translated" style, , and used as political protest. Many have noted that cricket has been used as a tool for turning the tables on the colonial occupiers. England exported cricket as a "civilizing" tool to assert their supremacy with rules and decorum and establish the superiority of the occupiers over the colonized. (So much so that "it’s not cricket" came to mean, "it’s not fair"). Soon the "natives" were appropriating the game and not only beating the English at it, but adding their own nuances-or what we could call their translations- such as rituals preceding the action, prayers during play, and costumes (Indian turbans). The "All Blacks" (a New Zealand Cricket Team) begin their games with their signature Maori war dance (Haka, also used before Rugby games), and the West Indies have introduced Caribbean style, song and laughter to an otherwise stolid sport. This year began, however, with the total defeat (5-0) of the English by the Australians in a test series, called appropriately the Ashes. There is literally an urn with ashes of the bails set on fire when England first lost to Australia (March 15th, 1877). This is a trophy for the winner, kept at Lords in London.

This process has a parallel with translation of Greek tragedy in Ireland. The British, who occupied Ireland for some eight hundred years, forbade the native Irish to be taught in schools, and forced their own curricula on the locals. These curricula featured the English classics in addition to Greek tragedy and Roman epic. Once again the intention was to civilize these barbarians and establish the superiority of a culture that recognized classical values. Yet, in the last few decades there have been more performances of Greek tragedy in Ireland than in any country of the world.

In 1984, for instance, in Ireland there were four Irish versions of Sophocles’s Antigone (Tom Paulin’s, Brendan Kennelly’s-written in 1984, but performed in 1986, Aidan Carl Mathews’, and a film by Pat Murphy (Anne Devlin); and if one counts the South African playwright, director and actor Athol Fugard’s The Island, which opened at the Gate and toured Ireland in 1986, there is a fifth. As a Lanigan on his father’s side, Fugard can claim Irish ancestry.

Fugard was born with a fierce sense of justice. He makes Antigone’s King Creon a symbol of the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa, which had one set of laws for the whites, and one set for the blacks. Here again we have another classic from the colonizers, with imprisoned blacks using Antigone to protest the colonial abuses. Africans, like the Irish, have often used Greek tragedy against their colonizers.

All these translations and versions feature different dialects, slants, and media. A film necessarily reduces the original (just as a libretto for opera), and images must replace some of the text. Certain words in Northern Ireland are as incendiary as any bomb. Translations manipulate the emotions of the audience. Performance is itself a form of translation and gestures add more commentary. For the Irish and South Africans, Greek tragedy became a means of national self-assertion against the colonizer.

Greek tragedy is very important to the Irish and its performance is itself a form of defiance of the British. For instance, Hugh in Brian Friel’s Translations, responds to an English Lieutenant’s remark about Wordsworth, "Wordsworthno. I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island."

Why Antigone? Because she stood for individual rights against an abusive government. Many Irish, like Antigone, died defending their rights to establish the Irish Free State in 1922, and there are still some abuses in Northern Ireland of treating Catholics as second-class citizens. These Greek tragedies, translated or made into versions, offer a catharsis for the ongoing frustration and a reminder that something is still rotten in the State of divided Ireland. Tom Paulin’s variation of the Antigone myth (The Riot Act) presented Creon with the same strident rhetoric as the Northern Irish Protestant leader Ian Paisley.

Modern productions in Ireland can also offer social critique of abuses in other places, where the Irish experience of a colonial invader trying to civilize the barbarian is replicated. In 2003, Conall Morrison staged his version of Antigone in Galway, which he also brought to Dublin; it illustrated the ongoing Israeli and Palestinian conflict. His spring 2006 production of Euripides’ Bacchae made the abused Dionysus and his bacchantes Iraqis. The Bacchae was translated into production as a parable of religious intolerance (something replicated in my translation performed in fall 2006 at 6th at Penn Theatre in San Diego).

Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes, After Sophocles’ Antigone was performed at the Abbey in 2004. His set also suggested that this was taking place in Iraq, and repetition of the word "Patriot" hinted at Bush’s Patriot Act that effectively silences so many people. Heaney asked "How many Antigones can Irish theatre put up with?" In the article citing this quote, my translation and Irish performance of Antigone (1999) was added to their list. It would seem the answer to Heaney’s question would be, "Quite a few: whenever Ireland and the world face questions of human rights."

My translation can be considered another Irish Antigone, since it was initially performed in Ireland and exported to international festivals with an Irish cast. I have tried to make my translation of Antigone accessible to modern audiences, while trying to remain faithful to Sophocles’ intent. It travels to different historical, political, and performative contexts, bridging themes of justice from ancient fifth-century BC Greece to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries AD.

All translations are interpretations, and not only does the director translate the text further for the actors, but the audience add their own interpretations to the translation, and so further distance the original Greek text. Directors, actors and audiences all interpret and translate in concert, and come up with a new elaboration.

Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, but would not rest until he discovered the truth about himself. All heroes and heroines have a fire that fuels them in their quests. For Antigone it was seeing that justice was carried out. Antigone is truly Oedipus’ daughter, and once she decides to defend what she knows is right (and bury her brother against King Creon’s decree), the "unwritten law of the gods," she will not capitulate.

Written around 441 BC, Sophocles’ Antigone celebrates the earliest heroine in ancient drama. Antigone is the first conscientious objector, opposing Creon, King of Thebes, and what she sees as his unjust laws. The play is often performed as criticism of the unjust practices of a prevailing government.

There are many conflicting interpretations of this play, which the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel claimed was the finest play ever written. Whereas he saw justice in both Antigone’s and Creon’s positions, some modern commentators see right only in Antigone and view Creon as a stereotypical dictator in the wrong. Bertolt Brecht’s version blackened Creon with fascist colors, and Andrzej Wajda had his chorus wearing miners’ helmets cheer Antigone to celebrate Solidarity’s defiance of the Communists in a Polish translation of the play performed at an international festival of Greek drama at Delphi.

However, things are not so simple in the original Sophoclean play. As Hegel suggests, two rights are opposed: the right of the family against the rights of the state. Familial values conflict with state interests, and the duty towards the gods of the underworld is opposed to the duty of obeying the ruler, sanctioned by the Olympian gods. Personal issues confront public issues, and they radically influence each other.

More than an opposition of rights, this play brilliantly shows us the opposition of two passionate people (Creon and Antigone) who go hell-bent to their own destruction. Antigone’s hot-headedness is particularly clear in a couple of angry exchanges with her sister, Ismene. Nevertheless, she is indisputably a heroine who knows her duty to her family.

Creon opposes Antigone with the might of law to control a city, from whose order and smooth running, he says, personal happiness results. With Sophocles’ usual dramatic economy, Antigone is punished by the ruler whose laws she opposes, and Creon is punished by the loss of his own family, whose values he subordinated to the city.

Creon tries to be the best ruler he can be and to benefit the city. There were, in fact, precedents in ancient Greece for not burying the body of one’s enemy. Antigone is also right to honor the proper burial that the gods of the underworld claim. Both should have compromised, but neither did. That’s why we have tragedy. The play illustrates how both human beings and cities are destroyed if the opposing sides will not compromise.

The choruses in this play speak of all that concerns humanity: victory, defeat, life, death, love, hate, crime and punishment. As usual, Greek tragedy gives us insight into ourselves and asks questions. Who is the best person to lead others? When we see clearly that something is wrong, should we take a stand as Antigone does? Or should we choose Ismene’s part, the one who compromises, and follows the leader in every sense of the word? That choice is yours, and translation is your guide.


Fugard’s production of Antigone, Cork and Listowel, Ireland, 1999.

Fugard directed my translation of Antigone at the Firkin Crane Theatre on July 20, 1999 in Cork, Ireland. It ran for about three weeks before moving on to a performance in Listowel, County Kerry. The cast consisted of international students who came to Cork to study drama. The actress who played Antigone came from Belfast, and several others came from England. Creon was played by an American who was half black and had taught unruly deprived students in a New York ghetto. Scranton as Creon treated Antigone like one of his students, trying to explain to her what she was doing wrong. But Antigone ultimately would educate him. Too late, however. Compromise it seems is one of the most difficult things for rulers and heads of states to accept. Tiresias was played by a tall Serbo-Croatian, pale-blond, and fey. He projected ambiguity, but also showed a temper when roused. There were many British in the cast, in addition to Irish Catholics, so confrontations alternated with accords. Accent became an additional tool for translation.

The rehearsals showed how Fugard could develop the full potential of the original text. His direction became an added translation. Fugard usually begins the rehearsal process slowly, with a reading of the text with the actors. At the first reading, he gives them permission not to "act" and discourages interpretations by telling them to treat the play as if they were reading the telephone book. Because the actors have permission not to "perform," they can begin to become acquainted with the story in a relaxed way. Fugard also encourages questions, and all can benefit from the answers.

At first, Fugard lets his actors move by themselves and develop their own approach to the role. He begins to give stage directions only after he has seen their first attempts in the rehearsal room. Then he gradually starts to shape their performances. Sometimes he draws on the actors’ own discoveries. At other times he changes the entire initial performance-but so gradually that it seems as if the actors are discovering it for themselves. He will use little tricks, like saying, "As you mentioned the other day, perhaps you should cut down on your hand gestures at this point," so the actors can think that they are giving birth to their own roles in their own way. Successful rehearsals are the result of careful craftsmanship.

Fugard guides the actors gently, even musically, from the page to the stage. He punctuates scenes with changes in rhythms, slow alternating with quick, and he also alternates humor with seriousness. At the beginning, he is all sweetness, but then he develops an edge. Sometimes he loses his temper, which he conveys not by shouting but by silence and withdrawal. The actors find this hell and will do anything to win him back into communicating with them. Fugard gradually becomes more aggressive to get the performance he wants. He sometimes ends a day with everyone frustrated, but himself most of all. The next day, the actors redouble their efforts to deliver what he is asking. The rehearsal room gets very tense the week before an opening. Fugard fine-tunes every performance and becomes even more exacting in his demands, while remaining considerate of the actors’ own needs. On opening day, he simply tries to get them to relax.

Fugard’s aim is to tell the story as honestly as possible while also holding the audience’s interest. For example, he works extensively with monologues, filling them with movement that illustrates rather than distracts. He also makes sure that they never drag. Sometimes an actor’s main function is simply to listen in a dynamic way, both to the director, and also his fellow actors. In a rehearsal for his 2004 Exits and Entrances, Fugard said: "An actor must always stay ahead of an audience or he’s up shit creek." Attentiveness is important and not always a given.

Fugard says every performance has three essential elements: a text, the actors, and the audience. Each contributes something vital to the dramatic flowering of the final experience in a theatre, the beauty created by the actor for the audience to enjoy-the hana of which the Noh drama master Zeami speaks. Again, this is an essential element in the translation and transmission of a text.

Good work, in Fugard’s view, can happen only when actors incorporate themselves into this three-part ensemble. "A play is not simply for you," he says to his actors, and they learn to work together to create something of value for each other and for the audience-a creation that marries the text with their own inner truth.

Finally, Fugard believes passionately that the inherent nature of theater allows it to offer a truer picture of life than is possible in film. In theater, the human being is limited by the reality of the space, but in film, technology can correct defects. On stage, the actors are also limited by time because each performance is a single, unique event that can never be repeated. The stage offers a paradigm for life: brief and at times beautiful-and sometimes beautiful simply in the accuracy of its portrayal of ugliness.

In Cork we had six weeks before the first performance. Fugard gradually drew out the best from the cast. He seated the chorus and all the actors in a circle to watch and listen to the actors who were featured in a scene. As the actors rose to enact their scenes, they left the circle. Fugard noticed that some of the actors in the circle weren’t paying attention but were looking at the ceiling or closing their eyes. He lost his temperonce. After that, all the actors paid attention because they realized how important they were both to the other performers and to the audience. Even if characters have no lines, they must never let themselves become static or lose concentration on the action taking place on the stage. They must remain in dynamic contact with the other actors and the audience at all times.

Some of the final decisions led to the following: at the start of the play the theatre is blacked out and the voices of the actors provide a whispered curtain of sound made up of names chosen from the text: "Acheron," "Salmydessus," "Dirce," "Thebes," ‘Dionysus’. Four actors choose the names they like, and one begins. In something that roughly parallels fugal entries, the next gradually follows at a higher decibel level, and the others higher still. As the volume increases, the four voices that began fade out until both Antigone and Ismene are the only voices left calling each other. Antigone calls "Ismene" from one side of the stage, or theatre, beginning softly and then repeating the name with increasing urgency and force. On the fourth call, "Ismene," she answers, "Antigone," and with that the lights go up, but dimly, and we see the two girls embracing. As Ismene tries to speak, Antigone puts her hand over Ismene’s mouth and glances around the stage to establish that they are alone before launching into the opening scene.

One could argue that this is not translation, per se. But it becomes so. Fugard used the repeated words as music, which the original Greek tragedy featured with its chorus that sang and danced, and which led Nietzsche to write The Birth of Tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, 1872), linking the origin of tragedy to music, parallel to the claim of the Florentine Camerata in the 17th century tracing the birth of opera to Greek tragedy.

Only when the first chorus (played by one woman dressed as a man, instead of a group of Theban male elders as specified by Sophocles) enters do the full lights fill the stage to coincide with the sunrise as described in the first choral ode. When Creon first appears, he is greeted by a shout of "King Creon!" and is cheered at appropriate times. All the actors seated around mutter in agreement with certain points Creon makes.

Fugard insisted on making Creon plausible and sympathetic so he would not be demonized, as he is so often in modern productions. He was fortunate in having an actor (Damen Scranton) who rose admirably to this challenge. Fugard made sure that Hegel’s principles of equal rights on both Antigone’s and Creon’s side were given flesh and blood in this performance by the actors who played them.

When Creon arrives to give his first speech, he goes around and shakes hands with many in the audience. During the debate with Antigone, he stands behind the audience (it was a small theatre, almost in the round), as if the audience itself is interrogating her. Damen Scranton as Creon moved the audience to tears in his final heartrending lamentation at the deaths of both his son, Haemon, and his wife, Eurydice, at the end of the play. Fugard acts as Virgil to Scranton’s Dante as he leads him into his personal hell, and he takes the audience with him on his journey.

Just before the entrance of Tiresias, the ensemble makes sounds like a wind blowing; the chorus looks nervous as the holy man approaches.

At the end of the play, the dead bodies are symbolically represented by articles of clothing. Haemon throws his leather jacket at his father. Eurydice lays her cape down at Creon’s feet. Finally, Antigone puts the circlet of little flowers that she wore on her way to death next to the two "bodies." The four actors who began reciting the names at the beginning start again. They fade away, and Ismene calls quietly, "Antigone?" three times. But this time silence answers her. The lights go up.

Fugard also had moments of humor to relax the actors. Just before opening night, he told them to give an "abbreviated" performance. Patricia Logue, the actress from Belfast who was playing Antigone, gave the most abbreviated of all: she simply raised her middle finger to Creon in the classic obscene gesture, which summed up her act of defiance explicitly, the ultimate translation. Scranton’s soul-wrenching performance as Creon made audiences see that the tragedy was possibly more Creon’s than Antigone’s.

Luke Clancy wrote in the London Times of the production:

Sophocles’ Antigone has a habit of turning up when the political chips are down, whether that is in wartime France in a version from Jean Anouilh, or South Africa in the shadowiest days of apartheid, in Athol Fugard’s The Island. Now an American classical scholar, MARIANNE McDONALD, has written a new translation of the tragedy to be performed in peace-process Ireland, and convinced Fugard to direct.

A quick glance at Irish newspaper front pages, peppered as they are with news of the latest efforts to find and give proper burial to the disappeared victims of "the Troubles", is enough to demonstrate the shocking contemporary heft of Sophocles’ story.

McDonald’s version, performed on the round, sunken stage of the Firkin Crane Centre, opens with a welter of buzzing sound as the cast, seated on stage, hiss and whisper the names of figures from Greek history, before finally alighting on the word Antigone and segueing into the opening scene.

This telling of the tale is sharply compressed, pulling the chorus into a single figure, played by Celina Hinchcliffe in male costume, who gently guides the plot as though it were a kite, rather than a mythical jumbo jet. Fugard keeps his actors on stage throughout and occasionally sends them into the audience to drum up support. There is no doubt that hoi polloi have a role to play in this clash of wills.

Damen Scranton’s Creon moves with an imperial swagger, free of self-doubt until the moment when the ceiling of his little world falls in, while Patricia Logue, as Antigone, marches towards her fate as though hungry for a tragic end. Steffen Collings delivers Haemon with squaddie-like vim without short-changing his character’s intelligence.

But it is McDonald’s text that is the star of the evening, lending the play plenty of punch without depending too heavily on anachronistic language. The translator’s focus on the central ideas has an emotional clarity that is entirely seductive. There may be, Sophocles and McDonald whisper to anyone who will listen, a tremendous moral power in compromise.

It was Fugard’s directing that brought this text to life and made it politically significant for modern Ireland. The multi-ethnic cast also extended its significance to the world, and showed the power of theatre to blur boundaries, whether of nationality, culture, or gender. At one point accent and dress functioned as a type of mask when one actress played two different Messengers. The first Messenger (played by an actress, again blurring the gender of the original) spoke with a strong rural Irish accent, and the second Messenger (played by the same actress) spoke like a well educated American. Antigone, with its strong ideas, conveyed in a truly human drama, was a perfect vehicle for this mingling.

There was a sacred quality to this production. On two occasions the gods serendipitously ratified Antigone’s comments. On the tape of the production one hears church bells as Antigone makes the statement, "I know that whatever I suffer, I shall die with honor". Bells also chimed as Antigone spoke words before her death (and final exit, just before Creon enters): "All wretched, no longer may I look on the holy eye of the sun’s light" . Then one evening, it was raining as a performance was taking place. When Antigone delivered the blood-chilling line, " ifhe [pointing at Creon] is guilty, I curse him and I demand that the gods make him suffer the same pain he unjustly inflicts on me" lightning flashed and the heavens thundered mightily. In Ireland and in Greece, words and curses have consequences because the gods are listening.

The gods heard this translation.

An Irish Antigone in Delphi and Vienna, 2000

This same translation, opened in Cork (Half Moon Theatre), in a different production by an Irish company called DonAd. It traveled to festivals in the millennium in Greece and Vienna. It may well have been the first visit to Greece by an Irish troupe performing Greek tragedy.

Every Irish version of Antigone could be construed as a reminder of the defiance of the late Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in 1981. The Greeks, having lived under Turkish occupation, and military juntas, also knew the value of the individual voice that pleaded for justice, and so Antigone had particular resonance for them. In Vienna, memories of Hitler were still alive, and Antigone aptly celebrates defiance of unjust brutality.

In both this performance and the original one directed by Fugard in
Ireland, Antigone was played by Irish Catholic actresses from Belfast. In the DonAd production, everyone was Irish. It began with singing by Colm Ó Suilleabháin in Irish, and bodhrans (Irish drums) were used to accompany his singing and much of the text. It recalled the banging of dustbins in the North of Ireland, a sign used to let the local Catholics know when the British Army or Royal Ulster Constabulary were approaching. This music made the performance not only political, but it reintroduced music as a characteristic element of Greek tragedy. The Greek aulos, a reed flute, was reborn in the haunting Irish pipes or tin whistle or uillean pipes or bagpipes. In Greek tragedy the choral sections were danced and sung, and this version restored this musical component as the actors and actresses dance their joys and sorrows.

The opening scene has Antigone and Ismene wandering the battlefield looking for their brothers among the dead. Antigone finds them, and begins to keen. Her piercing cry stabs the audience.

The Irish accents make the Irish context-in addition to the ancient Greek one-clear. However, one critic complained, "My wish for Irish theatre in the new century is that producers and directors make a holy vow not to cast people in classical plays unless they can speak English plainly and correctly." She objected to the Irish accent. Does this mean all productions in English must be performed in BBC accents? Actually the BBC is more progressive than that critic because they now incorporate regional accents. According to this way of thinking, companies like Northern Broadsides in England performing Shakespeare with Northern accents (which some say were Shakespeare’s own) would also be out of line, as would most American productions. Sometimes local accents add to the richness of the performance and translation.

The Greeks welcomed this production at Delphi and appreciated the fact that it was so faithful to the original text. When the Chorus spoke of Dionysus (who shared Delphi with Apollo), there was a sudden hush, because Dionysus’ sacred Castalian spring was right down the road, and his Corycian cave and the cliffs of the Phaedriades (part of the Parnassus range) where Dionysus roamed loomed above the theatre area:

Burning pitch lights your way
bove the two-crested peak
When the Corycian nymphs
Roam in your honor near the Castalian Spring

Come, healer,
Over the slopes of Parnassus.

Ancient seats surrounded the acting space (the old Stadium), and out of their instruments-circular drums that shone white as stones-the actors created a sacred circle that resembled some of the raths (ancient "fairy circles", or defensive earthworks) in Ireland. These drums were banged on the ground like bin lids after Antigone was condemned. They reverberated round the hillside.

Actors and actresses left the circle to play their roles and returned when they were not needed, just as they did in the production directed by Fugard. The ancient theatre was invoked by these circular spaces (and at Delphi, the seats also were semi-circular, as in most ancient Greek theatres). The actors were dressed in flowing robes, a cross between ancient Greek actors and Irish druids.

The Greeks always welcome this particular play, and it would be performed when their liberties were in question. Eleutheria i thanatos (‘freedom or death’) was a common Greek cry of rebels, and Saoirse (‘freedom’) functioned equivalently in Irish. The actors shout this after the victory was announced at the beginning of the play. Ireland was occupied for about four hundred years, from the 1640s until 1922 (some would claim the Northern six counties still represent occupation) and Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1354 until 1821. Both had wars of independence. Freedom has a special meaning in these countries.

This production went on to Vienna and the festival at the site of the ancient Celtic town of Carnuntum. Under the able leadership of Piero Bordin (half-Austrian and half-Greek), this festival performed both Greek and Latin translations and versions at the theatre on the ancient site of Carnuntum.

Various lines had resonance for the Germans: everyone remembers Hitler and the rallies where cheering was required. Antigone says to Creon: "Everyone here would cheer me, if fear didn’t silence them. But the tyrant is lucky: he can do and say what he likes with impunity". Haemon says when he confronts his father: "No city belongs to one man". These lines are also significant for Americans living under Bush, as audiences affirmed during the San Diego performance when they recognized the obvious parallels between Bush and Creon.

In 1999, the award winning documentary filmmaker, Tania Kamal Eldin went to Ireland and made a video of the Antigone choruses interspersed with film clips of the "troubles," and rare footage from the 1916 rebellion in Dublin, Bloody Sunday in Derry (Jan. 30, 1972), and the Maze prison hunger strikers.

The choruses speak to the Irish:

The sorrows of the living pile up
Over the sorrows of the dead:
There is no peace for any generation.

Or of the hunger strikers:

The children wasted away weeping
Offspring of a mother
Unblest in her marriage. (p. 39)


And are particularly apt as a commentary on the Irish Civil War that began in June 1922 and ended with a ceasefire in May 1923:

Passion always wins the fight;
Passion ravishes all
All who are passion’s slaves are mad.
You tear the just away from justice
Into violence;
It is you who have stirred up this fight between relatives.

This crime calls for vengeance.

And to all of Irish History:

Bad seems good to the mind of him
Whom the gods would destroy.
He is happy for only a moment before disaster.
Happiness is the shortest candle of all:
Light for one minute, then darkness.

In this video, shown before the stage performance began, Michael Collins and Éamonn de Valera, two leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising and the War of Independence that followed it, were seen speaking to large audiences in the streets, rallying support for the Rising; Bernadette Devlin, the Northern Ireland civil rights leader and Member of the Westminster Parliament (1969-74), featured prominently and was clearly representative of Antigone in risking her life for Republican causes.

And Paisley, the ruthless Northern Ireland spokesperson for the Protestants, seemed like a Creon who opposed the Catholic Irish. Irish music played in the background as pertinent choruses were recited.


Antigone in San Diego

When this same translation of Antigone came to San Diego in May 2005, it expressed the growing war weariness with America’s invasion of Iraq. It opened first at Sixth at Penn Theatre in San Diego, directed by a black director, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. To escape economic hardship, many blacks and Hispanics enlist to fight in Iraq, a war that they may have believed in initially since they were duped by the propaganda. The multicultural casting of this production reflected this fact. One chorus that praised God (Dionysus) was sung like a black spiritual.

There were many telltale signs that showed this was an American, and specifically Californian interpretation. For instance, when the chorus invoked Dionysus, they used Buddhist gongs and a quartz crystal for the invocation.

The costume choices were political statements, and they were modern. Antigone was dressed in a sweatshirt, fatigues, and hiking boots. She came across as an outraged Cindy Sheehan, the woman who became an anti-war protestor when her son was killed in Iraq, and is now a representative of the democratic protest that wants President Bush to account for misleading the country into war.

Ismene, by contrast, was dressed like a fat-cat Republican with hair up, heels, and a fashionable suit. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, and Creon likewise came on stage in formal wear. The women wear expensive-looking jewelry suggesting wealth, and the politics that usually go along with that.

A large sign at the back of the set featured a large sign said "Mission Accomplished" in Greek letters, reminiscent of October 2003 when Bush addressed the nation from the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln against the backdrop of a similar sign to impress television audiences. Yet the war continues. Both for Bush and Creon, the gloating was premature. It was particularly effective to see the sign as the backdrop for Creon mourning over the corpses of his wife and son at the end of the play. "Mission Accomplished" takes on a new meaning as the final chorus chants: "Never show disrespect to the gods" . The gods’ mission to send punishment was accomplished.

The actor playing Creon (Dale Morris) had a southern accent, an obvious take on Bush. He appeared charming at the beginning, and danced with his wife to celebrate the opening victory. As one reviewer said, "The steely intractability reveals itself when he debates Antigone, whom one reviewer called ‘a hothead with a heart’." When the play begins we see her (a white blonde actress, Jennifer Eve Kraus) kissing Haemon, Creon’s son (played by a black actor, Mark Broadnax, who also plays the Messenger).

Tiresias was also played by a black actress (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson), whom few recognized as a woman. She captured well Tiresias’ bisexuality (Tiresias spent time as both a woman and a man in Greek myth).

In neither the Fugard nor the Irish (DonAd) production of this play were the roles doubled (except for the Messenger in Fugard’s), but they were, here. Haemon announces his own death at the end, as does Eurydice. She gave particular emphasis to the words: "She killed herself with a sword near the altar. She closed her eyes and welcomed the darkness, weeping for Haemon. Finally, she cursed you as the murderer of her child".

In San Diego Arts, Jennifer Chung said of the performance:

The drama shows the importance of compromise and balance between a government and its citizenry, between public good and personal needs. It reminds us, too, that we are never entirely powerless. And in these current political times of silence before authority, when dissenting voices are often branded as unpatriotic, the drama is as relevant today as it was nearly 2,500 years ago.

For the San Diego Union-Tribune, Jennifer de Poyen wrote:

The conflict between the state and the individual, between the public and private realms, is at bottom a struggle within every human heart between the yearning for freedom and the need for security. It’s a struggle-manifest in all times, and in all societies-that seems especially fraught in our own restricted, insecure, post-9/11 era.

At the same time this translation was being performed at Sixth at Penn Theatre, it was offered at the University of California, San Diego, directed by Jeremiah LaFleur. The cast consisted of undergraduates and was also multiethnic, reflecting the student body.

The realities of Iraq and the Patriot Act haunted both these American performances. Sometimes these performative translations risk losing the ambiguity of the original, and end up demonizing Creon. Perhaps the reception gains from the catharsis of expression, but some of the original textual richness is lost.

All these plays show that Antigone shows up in venues around the world, just as she is needed. She is translated anew for the cultural spaces she visits. The best translations do not simply serve up literal word-by-word renderings to allow someone to master the original language, but rather serve the new contexts offered by directors, actors, and audiences.

MARIANNE McDONALD is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and Professor in the Department of Theatre and Classics Program at the University of California, San Diego. Her latest co-edited book (with J. Michael Walton) is the Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek and Roman Theatre (2007). See: http://mmcdonald.info. She can be reached at: mmcdonald@ucsd.edu