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 five: agamemnon

Le sacrifice d'Iphigénie, by François Perrier, 1633.
Le sacrifice d’Iphigénie, by François Perrier, 1633.

Author: Aeschylus

Translator: David Grene and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty

Published: 458BC

Synopsis: The Chorus and Clytemnestra clamour for the return of her husband and king, Agamemnon, from his victory in the Trojan War. However, a pall is cast as his death at Clytemnestra’s hands is increasingly foreshadowed. It is prophesied by Cassandra (the Trojan princess taken by Agamemnon as his concubine) that his wife will visit her fury upon him for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to Artemis, who had becalmed the winds and so forestalled the Greek ships from setting sail to Troy. She also foretells her own death and enters the palace welcoming its inevitability. Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover, reveals himself as a co-conspirator and the Chorus warns of the return of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, to avenge his father’s death.

What moved me: the impotence of the Chorus of old men.

But we, dishonoured for the ancientness of our flesh,

were left behind then when the army went;

we remain, propping on staffs a strength like a child’s.

For the child’s marrow, too, leaps within his breast

but is only the match of an old man’s;

the god of war is not there either.

And the overold, the leafage already withering,

walks his three-footed way, no stronger than a child;

wanders, a dream in the daylight.

play one: hecuba

Hecuba Blinding Polymestor by Giuseppe Maria Crespi
Hecuba Blinding Polymestor by Giuseppe Maria Crespi

Playwright: Euripides

Published: c. 424 BC

Translator: William Arrowsmith

Synopsis: A tragedy set before the Greek forces depart after the sacking of Troy. Trojan Queen Hecuba, wife of Priam, has been reduced to servitude. Her daughter Polyxena is sacrificed by Odysseus and Agamemnon to appease the ghost of Achilles, who has immobilised their fleet. Hecuba’s grief is compounded when her son Polydorus is murdered by his guardian, King Polymester of Thrace, out of greed. Hecuba seeks her revenge with other Trojan women by blinding Polymester and killing his two sons.

What moved me: Polyxena – the embodiment of regal virtue – speaks to Hecuba of her impending doom. The hard sounds of ‘B’, ‘D’, and ‘G’ are unrelenting and make me feel like my feet have been tied to a concrete block and I’ve abandoned to the sea.

But now I die,

and you must see my death: –

butchered like a lamb

squalling with fright,

and the throat held taut

for the gashing knife,

and the gaping hole

where the breath of life

goes out,

and sinks

downward into dark

with the unconsolable dead.