play twenty: antigone in a version by bertolt brecht

'Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices' by Nikiforos Lytras, 1865
‘Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices’ by Nikiforos Lytras, 1865

Author: Sophocles/Bertolt Brecht

Translator: Judith Malina

Published: 441BCE/1948/1990

Synopsis: Polyneices, son of Oedipus and brother of Antigone and Ismene, is refused burial by their uncle King Creon for fighting his brother Eteocles in the Theban civil war. Antigone refuses to allow this transgression against divine law – the gods decree that all bodies must be buried – to occur and condemns herself by covering her brother in dust. Creon, headstrong with his own power, refuses her clemency and orders her to be walled up inside a mountain to die for her disobedience. Her fiancee, Creon’s youngest son Hamon, plees on her behalf to no avail. The city begins to dissent at the King’s treatment of Antigone and, as its barricades are threatened, Creon travels to the mountain to reverse his decision. His arrival is too late: Antigone has hung herself with a sheet and Hamon has fallen upon his own sword at her feet.

What moved me: if Antigone were stone, then her gentle sister Ismene is water. Unable to face the punishment she would receive for burying her brother, she declines Antigone’s plea for help. But there is a subtle strength in her, like a rich seam of metal, which seems more durable than her sister’s headstrong brittleness.

ANTIGONE

I won’t ask you again.

Follow someone who gives orders. And do

what you are ordered. But I

am following the custom and burying my brother.

And if I die for it? So what? I’ll rest in peace

among the peaceful. And I’ll have left

something holy behind me. I prefer

to make friends in the underworld,

for I will live there forever. As for you,

laugh at shame and live.

ISMENE

Antigone, bitterly

hard as it is to live in disgrace, still

even the salt tears stop. They don’t

flow from the eyes forever. The executioner’s ax

puts an end to life’s sweetness, but for the survivor

it opens the slow veins of pain. He can’t stop

screaming; yet even while screaming, he hears

the birds swooping above him

and sees through curtains of tears the familiar

elms and rooftops of home.

play eleven: the caucasian chalk circle

BB. What a guy.
BB. What a guy.

Author: Bertolt Brecht

Translator: James and Tania Stern with W.H. Auden

Synopsis: to make sure we never get too close, the primary narrative is presented as a play-within-a-play. Soviet peasants in dispute over land abandoned by retreating Nazi forces tell the story of young servant woman Grusha Vashnadze and how she saves the life of child prince Michael in a time of civil war. Abandoned by his well-bred parents, Grusha crosses mountains in her attempt to save him from his pursuers, adopting him as her own son and sacrificing any thought of her personal happiness. Ultimately rewarded for this sacrifice, she is the Everywoman whose courage and selflessness in the tumult of war is only matched by her innocence of its cause.

What moved me: the simple, painful lyricism of Brecht’s poetry. The exchange between Grusha and Simon (Grusha’s fiancee) when he has returned to find her married is excruciating. They cannot tell each other what they have been through and so it is left to The Singer to tell us what we already know.

SIMON: Is the young lady saying that someone has come too late?

Grusha looks up at him in despair, her face streaming with tears. Simon stares before him. He picks up a piece of wood and starts cutting it.

THE SINGER:

So many words are said, so many words are left unsaid.

The soldier has come. Whence he comes he doesn’t say.

Hear what he thought but didn’t say:

The battle began at dawn, grew bloody at noon.

The first fell before me, the second behind me, the captain sabred the third.

My one brother died by steel, my other brother died by smoke.

My neck was burnt by fire, my hands froze in my gloves, my toes in my socks.

For food I had aspen buds, for drink I made maple brew, for bed I had stones in water.

SIMON: I see a cap in the grass. Is there a little one already?

GRUSHA: There is, Simon. How could I hide it? But please don’t let it worry you. It’s not mine.

SIMON: They say: Once the wind begins to blow, it blows through every crack. The woman need say no more.

Grusha lowers her head and says no more.

THE SINGER:

There was great yearning but there was no waiting.

The oath is broken. Why was not disclosed.

Hear what she thought, but didn’t say:

While you fought in the battle, soldier

The bloody battle, the bitter battle

I found a child who was helpless

And hadn’t the heart to do away with it.

I had to care for what otherwise would have come to harm

I had to bend down on the floor for breadcrumbs

I had to tear myself to pieces for what was not mine

But alien.

Someone must be the helper.

Because the little tree needs its water

The little lamb loses its way when the herdsmen is asleep

And the bleating remains unheard.

play seven: don juan comes back from the war

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, Otto Dix, 1924
Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas, Otto Dix, 1924

Author: Ödön von Horváth

Published: 1938

Synopsis: Don Juan returns from the Great War in search of his jilted fiancee. In this period of massive inflation and despair he is the only man left alive. The world now revolves around women, who cannot help but revolve around him. Contracting influenza, his journey to the house of his fiancee’s grandmother (where he believes she is staying) is delayed long enough for his reformed nature to gradually deteriorate with each new affair. He is constantly looking for a reminder of his ideal beloved. With his health steadily declining, his eventual arrival is met with the grandmother’s triumphant news that her granddaughter died of heartache in 1916. He visits her grave and sits down in the snow to die beside her. His ideal may have always only existed in death.

What moved me: the way Don Juan tries to love a part of every woman he encounters in order to reconstruct his ideal love, just as every woman tries to recreate him in the image of the men they’ve lost. It creates a terrible melancholy and the sense that he is Frankenstein trying to make his own bride in a world where all values have been dislocated.