The Infernal Machine
Glass Mind’s Antigone highlights the impossibility of family
Published: August 21, 2013
Adapted and directed by Lynn Morton
performed by glass mind theatre at EMP collective through Aug. 25
Antigone is the most easily misunderstood—and therefore most widely produced—of all classical tragedies. At least since the 1960s, it has been seen as an ode to civil disobedience, a work that praises standing up to the laws of the state. Of course, this works both ways and it is as applicable to anti-abortion protestors as it is to marchers against war. When Antigone is produced as a play about civil disobedience, it is decontextualized and robbed of its power. Sophocles actually shows us something far more complex and nuanced: The true nature of tragedy is when two right answers collide and bring to ruin all involved.
It is to the credit of Glass Mind Theatre’s Lynn Morton that her adaptation attempts to recontextualize the play within Sophocles’ Theban cycle, which also includes Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. (She cobbled together a script from all three plays, including several different translations of Antigone.) It is impossible to understand the actions of Antigone if we see her only as a brave young woman standing up to the power of the state. Instead, the play is about the devastation that family brings to us, the difficulties we inherit and cannot control. It is about the way a teenager reacts to the unfairness inherent in birth and fate, taking pride in her misfortune.
At the end of World War I, the poet Jean Cocteau called Oedipus Rex an “infernal machine” set up by the gods to doom him. When the oracle told Oedipus’ father that his son would kill him, he abandoned his son on a mountain top. When the same oracle told Oedipus he would kill his father and marry his mother, he left home. In trying to escape fate, these two men brought it about, for the gods had created a situation impossible to escape.
It is into this context that Antigone is flung, sister and daughter to Oedipus, whose very rationality and pride force him to keep seeking the answer that will result in his doom and the doom of his family. After his mother/wife kills herself and he pokes out his eyes, Antigone leads him out of the land. When she returns, her two brothers create a civil war, fighting for the kingship of Thebes. Each kills the other, leaving Creon, their uncle, as king.
This is when Antigone opens, as the titular character announces to her sister Ismene that Creon has forbidden burial of their brother Polynices, who attacked the city with an army from Argos to regain the throne. In short, like her father, Antigone is doomed no matter what she does, and like any teenager from a fucked-up family, she has a fascination with death.
When Glass Mind’s production incorporates scenes from both Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus into the production, it abandons the dramatic unity of time that, for Aristotle, defined tragedy. Morton also decided to forgo the chorus, which is often the most difficult part of tragedy for contemporary companies to pull off. In making this trade of unity for context, Glass Mind loses some dramatic immediacy, allowing the whole thing to feel a bit loose or slack at times—in fact, the pacing was largely responsible, I imagine, for the three different people I saw sleeping during the production. But the bold willfulness that will trade a faster-paced, more self-contained drama also paid off in forcing us to ponder the larger questions that would have been obvious to the audience of Sophocles.
Spencer Nelson brought the stark teenage insistence on absolutes that should define Antigone with a mixture of bratty loneliness and the kind of pride we can take from our misfortunes. Rather than a female Thoreau, her Antigone could come straight from a John Hughes flick from the ’80s. Matthew Casella’s Oedipus lacks the same focus. Oedipus is an extraordinarily difficult character to play (and he comes across as an entirely different character in Colonus than he does in Rex), and Casella never seems quite sure which way to go. There are moments when his voice takes on the peevish, put-upon tone of Mad Men’s Pete Campbell, a move which could be highlighted to rather brilliant effect (Oedipus, after all, saved the city, was a hero, and was used to getting what he wants, and now—this!). Instead, he wavers a bit between classical hauteur and a more naturalistic mode. In his second role as messenger, Casella overplays it a bit, with t0o much sputtering and jumpiness.
Hannah Fogler’s Creon steals the show, bringing the arrogance, power, and fury to the role, which is admittedly much easier for the actor to imagine than a person who just gouged out his eyes when he realized he had produced four children with his own mother. Still, Fogler brings a forceful charisma and physical presence to Creon, which—though the fact that she is a woman is not acknowledged in the script—is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher. Her movements, her tone, and her delivery exude arrogant power. Her scenes with Haemon (expertly played by Vince Constantino, who also plays the seer Tiresias as a sort of Ziggy Stardust) are the highlights of the play.
It is, in fact, watching the brilliance of this scene that one sees what Morton’s contextualizing the character of Antigone misses. The play is not really Antigone’s tragedy at all; it is Creon’s. It is Creon who acts with hubris and brings about ruin. It is Creon who, in trying to do right, creates an irrevocable wrong, while Antigone, for all her familial misery and youthful certainty, does not change or grow; she merely dies.
Still, one would have to be a youthful absolutist or a tyrannical monarch not to see the degrees of success in what was, to this classics nerd at least, a noble attempt to, as the modernists put it, make it new.
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