Antigone…A Riff on Sophocles

Whoof. So, this was pretty painful, and the production was really nothing but a sprawling forest of problems for me: incompetently executed, practically incoherent, stage images stapled together at the expense of rhyme and reason, punctuated by rap interludes that served no positive function within the script whatsoever. But I was still sitting there, feeling boatloads of sympathy for the actors, struggling mightily to come up with polite things to say, when the cast suddenly burst into an interpretation of “Up Where We Belong.”

Let’s all take a moment to enjoy that again, shall we?

The play came to a grinding halt, so that we could watch the cast act out the lyrics from “Up Where We Belong.” From beginning to end. Without a hint of irony. Illustrated by every cliche from every eighties music video — a single spotlight on the male protagonist, his hand outstretched — the willowy girl running, leaping into his arms, as they spin around in a circle while the music swells. I nearly bit my goddamn tongue off trying not to burst out laughing. And, I’m sorry, if you’ve managed to build a creative environment in which nobody will tell you why this is a terrible decision, then there’s nothing I can do to help you. You’ve tied the rope around your neck and pulled.

Normally I’d be prepared to leave it here. But as usual, my problems with the show run deeper than that.

The play opens with the cast holding up images of various rebels throughout history — Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, the unknown rebel from the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and Antigone — asserting that all of them represent, in fact, the same archetype. Creon is a kind of amalgamated authority, equal parts Stalin (whom he quotes), Hitler, George Bush, and Darth Vader. Antigone represents all rebels who stand against all authority throughout history. Here’s an excerpt from their programme: “Antigone is a political play — now, then and forever. It is timeless and eternal because it is connected to a deep place in the universal human heart.” Let’s get into details about exactly why this is bullshit.

You hear this argument a lot, that characters who share some of the same broad outlines are all part of the same universal blah blah blah — that, for example, Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is fundamentally no different from Johnny Depp in “The Curse of the Black Pearl.” But, as both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis correctly observe, the landscape is every bit as much part of the point — the wild west is not the same thing as the open sea. Who Josey Wales is is defined by the texture of the Civil War — and the fact that he’s trying to flee into Mexico is fundamentally different from Jack Sparrow’s relationship with the various governments that he’s fleeing. These things are more than just the background texture of the story, they’re the point.

That’s why productions like this are silly. Here’s why they’re dangerous.

They’re dangerous because the concept they present the audience — that of a kind of universal rebellion, opposed to a kind of universal authority, irrespective of surrounding context — is exactly why teenagers have started wearing Che Gueverra shirts with no real understanding of who he was or what he represents. We admire the founding fathers because they were rebels, because they stuck it to the man — we don’t examine the philosophical underpinnings of their rebellion, or what they were rebelling against. These things don’t matter, when we ignore them as individuals and reduce them to archetypes.

After all, the Palestinian suicide bombers are rebels, too. So were the 9-11 hijackers. So was Hitler. That doesn’t make them heroic — but they certainly fit the same archetype that Antigone does, which illustrates the danger of this kind of thinking — they were men who fought and struggled and suffered, in defense of an evil, monstrous cause. So was John McCain, in Vietnam. What he went through was tragic — intensely tragic — at the level of Greek tragedy. But he’s not a hero. And his campaign demonstrates effectively how these archetypes can be used.

I’m sure there’s still an audience out there that’s prepared to accept this — an audience of people who read Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung until their brains bled right out their ears, who are going to think that productions like this are brilliant. But I say that this is nothing more than a kind of intellectual pornography, and I say fuck it.

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