December 01, 2011
NEW YORK—Today’s protesters could learn something from Sophocles. A man before his time (496-406 BC), Sophocles was a schoolmate of mine, although he was a few years older.
Antigone, among his greatest plays, is one that makes us think not only about politics, but also about what sort of ethics drive us to take a stance.
If any of you missed it when he first put it on Broadway, here’s how it goes: The two sons of Oedipus (his name means “swollen foot” and he had bad luck), Eteocles and Polynices, had arranged to rule Thebes by turn, a bit like Blair and Brown. Eteocles got used to being number one and refused his brother his turn. Polynices did what many politicians would do when screwed—he marched against his own city with foreign support.
Both brothers were killed in the battle, and their uncle Creon decreed that Polynices was a traitor who should lie unburied outside the city. To the state he was a public enemy. The indignities on his body served as a warning to all aspirant revolutionaries.
Enter Antigone, the dead brothers’ grieving sister. To her, Polynices is a man, and the gods had decreed that every man must have a burial. He is also her brother, and who the hell is the state to tell her differently? She defies the state and gives him a token burial. Unlike the modern Greek state, my ancient countrymen did not fool around. Antigone is buried alive on orders from her uncle Creon—who is also the father of her betrothed—and who belatedly discovers only too clearly the cost of power.
I sat next to Sophocles during the premiere, and when it was over every lefty he and I knew stood up and cheered their heads off. To them Antigone was a rebel, someone willing to take a stand against laws they cannot accept. When they finally sat down, my fellow righties and I stood up and began to cheer. To us Antigone was a conservative, one who prized individuality and conscience above the will of the state. Old Soph never told me what side he was on, even when I asked him on his deathbed. But I don’t think Antigone was ever performed in the Soviet Union or present-day China because of its message. When the great Jean Anouilh produced his version of Antigone in occupied Paris, the German censor (Otto Abetz) missed the point because he was a civilized man who loved the classics.