17 May 2014

The Personal and the Political

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

I wrote about Greek tragedy last fortnight, its roots in Dionysian rites and festivals. Based so often on myth, couched now in psychoanalysis, ancient tragedy isn’t always as immediate as we’d like for it to be. Always, always, borne out of human fallibility, though, the greatest of Greek tragedies probe our understanding of moral failure and success in many ways, but watching Oedipus blind himself or Agamemnon murder his daughter, one wonders, sometimes, if the actions therein are really for the audiences of today.

The Antigone of Sophocles is a play with heart. It is about the control of the state, the rights of the individual; often, it is about rational thought and civil disobedience. Antigone arrives in Thebes to find that her brothers, Eteocles and Polynieces, are dead; Polyneices’s body remains unburied and Creon the king has issued a royal edict against giving the body a proper burial. Antigone, though, owes her brother burial rites and cannot bear to see him preyed upon by carrion animals. The play deals with Antigone’s rebellion against Creon and the brilliant discourses she has with the king about the moral rights and wrongs of his actions. Polynieces is buried and exhumed and buried again; Antigone is punished and imprisoned and ultimately commits suicide. Creon’s son and wife kill themselves as a result of his actions and the king is left a broken man.

In Sophocles, the conclusion is foregone; he asks us, as the Greek tragedians were wont to, to bow down to the will of the gods. In Antigone’s rebellion against state machinery, it isn’t so much individual will that he champions, it is the hand of destiny, the acts of a greater power, deus ex machina and the ordainments of fate. Even as Antigone fights tyranny for the right to fulfill a personal obligation, individual will is shown to have limitations – not in the face of state control, but in the face of destiny. The real fight in Sophocles is between the laws of man and the laws of the gods.

Antigone’s complexity adds several layers to the conflict: she does not represent virtue or honour or truth; her argument is simply that she wishes to bury her brother, whom she loved, and she does not understand how anybody can stop her from doing so. The daughter of Oedipus was never meant to have a simple life. A lifetime of therapy could not have undone the troubles of her past. In Sophocles, she is constantly plagued by her father’s curse, almost resigned to death as the only thing that will bring her peace.

In every rendition of the play, it shines with her complexity. Jean Anouilh’s version, perhaps the most famous one, written in quiet revolt against the Vichy regime and promptly censored by the Nazis, ends chillingly, with the king’s guards sitting together and moving on with life after the upheaval of the days that just passed; nothing has changed for them as a result of the king’s conflict or the multiple suicides. They resume a game of cards they had begun at the start of the play; the final moment, with the spotlight on the card-game, is utterly eerie.

Anouilh, wholly a modern tragedian, realises that cruelties are inflicted by humans and not gods, by the system that perpetuates atrocity and not by destiny. In Anouilh’s hands, anticipation is key. In Sophocles, we awaited catharsis; we weren’t going to get a happy ending or a wedding or a song, we knew what we were in for when we sat down to watch a Greek tragedy. Anouilh, though, takes that very knowledge and toys with it. By eliminating the Hellenistic pantheon entirely from the picture, he brings the actions of the play to human hands and places the onus of accountability squarely on the shoulders of the play’s characters.


In Anouilh, the monologues of Creon are frightening. Sophocles’s Creon is a tyrant, a ruler who demands absolute power; in the land where democracy was born, this was, perhaps, the worst thing to be. Anouilh’s Creon, though, is a rationalist, and we are asked to analyse his actions carefully. We are asked to look at the burial ritual from a rationalist perspective and see the actions of the king as sheer political pragmatism – a small wrong for the greater good. In humanising Creon, Anouilh creates an even greater tragedy: across the world, as people show themselves as willing to die for their beliefs and their refusal to place their lives in the hands of a state that will bleed some lives to save several others, we are left wondering if there is an answer at all. 

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