Freaks and Greeks

Antigone: A roundtable with Anne Carson, Simon Critchley, and Trajal Harrell

Sophokles, Antigone, 2015. Directed by Ivo van Hove with a new translation by Anne Carson. Antigone (Juliette Binoche). Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

WE JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH. For centuries we’ve compulsively revisited the Ancient Greek myth of Antigone. Nearly every year there seem to be new adaptations, translations, scholarly articles, and various other projects taking up the earliest and most famous variation of her story: Sophokles’s ancient tragedy. Most recently, and following her 2012 comic book Antigonick, poet Anne Carson provided a fresh translation for director Ivo van Hove’s new production of the play, which will soon have its US premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of its 2015 Next Wave Festival. Following stops at the Barbican in London and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg in Luxembourg City, the drama features Juliette Binoche in the title role, Patrick O’Kane as King Kreon, and a minimal set that evokes a Thebes neither old nor new.

In mid-September, managing editor Lauren O’Neill-Butler sat down with Carson, philosopher Simon Critchley, and choreographer Trajal Harrell to discuss Antigone’s history and significance, as well as the play’s trenchant themes, from war and democracy to belonging and autonomy. Trajal, let’s begin with you. Where did you begin your research for your dance Antigone Sr. [2012]?

Trajal Harrell: I’d gone to a theater camp right after high school, and Antigone was the play we all had to read. I loved this fierce young woman, but I didn’t understand why she wasn’t available to me to play. As an adult I gained a different perspective on Antigone. I didn’t see her just as this cool rebel girl. I saw her as fanatical but also as a deeply caring person.

In 2002 I began to think about a series of works titled Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church. The proposition was this: What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing dance tradition in Harlem had come downtown to Greenwich Village to perform along side the early postmoderns at Judson Church? When I got to the “large” size in the series—there are eight pieces that are based on different sizes—I decided that I wanted to go big, to encompass the idea of theater, specifically the foundations of western theater. I felt that there would be people who could come see this work and not know anything about voguing, or anything about contemporary dance, but who would be interested in theater. Of course, the early postmoderns would have been against all this because Martha Graham had claimed Greek tragedy and the star heroine, and they wanted to go against that kind of representation on stage.

I thought a lot about the relationship between the performativity in ancient Greece—men playing female roles—and the performativity in voguing. It seemed to me that ancient Greek theater and the voguing balls were maybe not that different. For instance, there is the link between rethinking what a democracy could be in 1963, in terms of civil rights, and how rights are represented in Antigone—though always in a discussion among men. I was interested in what an all-male version of Antigone could say today.

I also kept thinking about realness, a voguing term, and how it relates to Greek theater. As I’m interested in historical imagination, I tried to come up with some imaginary possibilities drawn from researching how Antigone would have been performed then: What would have been the impetuous, the drive, and the spirit? We might not ever know, and that’s interesting. You can read Greek scholars, but there were no videotapes. Even the scholarship has a certain imaginative practice around it.

Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (L), 2012. Performance view. Photo: Whitney Browne.

Simon Critchley: That’s true—we don’t know. There was dance, but we don’t know what the dance was. There was music, but we don’t know what the music was. We don’t know what the instruments were.

Anne Carson: We don’t even know how the words were pronounced.

Critchley: Exactly. Was the play just fun for the Ancient Greeks, or was there some active questioning and subversion going on? We want to say the latter. But it might have just been men dressing up as women having a nice time. Who knows.

Harrell: I tend to think artists in the past had similar questions about their society, and that some must have felt outside of society's mainstream—just as some of us feel today. There are always different political and social contexts, but often the artists are the people on the forefront asking questions that society doesn’t want them to ask. But as you say, Simon, it could have been men dressing up as women for theater—and it was not drag or camp, which are modern constructions. But is it that they were just dressing up? Or did that performativity have some element of political or social activism?

Carson: Isn’t the question of gender different from actor to actor, as individuals, just as it is for us? Regarding antiquity, just as now, it’s hard to place these things in tiny slots, and moreover to have an opinion on how the Greeks felt about men playing women. I don’t get it either.

Critchley: It was different in all sorts of ways, but the similarities are actually much more striking. We’re in the same kind of messes that the Ancient Greeks were in—war, corruption, and migration were huge and constantly pressing issues. We like to think of the Greeks as exotic, as other, because that’s more reassuring in a way, but the uncanny thing is the Ancient Greeks’ similarities with us and our problems.

Harrell: When I play Antigone the thing that strikes me the most is her love for her family and her grief, which also feels contemporary. There’s this piling on of loss. Often I’m just sitting there listening on the stage, and that’s what hits me. It’s not the political situation, and it’s not the larger thematic questions. It’s just this basic condition: My two brothers are dead. That’s the thing that goes beyond some of my intellect.

Critchley: But what is she mourning? What kind of family is it that she loves? Because it’s quite a family, right? When she says near the end, “A husband or child can be replaced. But who can grow me a new brother?” That seems to be about Polyneikes [her dead brother], but it’s also about her father, who happens to be her brother in a way. This family is double, tripled . . .

Harrell: Is a mess!

Critchley: This is family that comes out of this incestuous dirt, this filth of death, as Kreon puts it. So what does Antigone love when she loves? Who does she love?

Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr./Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church (L), 2012. Performance view.  Photo: Miana Jun.

Harrell: I can never play all of what I think and know and think that I know. There are so many ideas around the play, and so many different ways to think about Antigone. I just have to focus on what is it like to lose a brother. I have to concentrate in a way separate from my choreographic mind. I just sit there and go, oh my god. The audience watches me going through a hell of a lot of grief. And they begin to relate to it.

I’m always trying to call people into the moment, to show that we’re in the theater together—as Graham said, before theater was a noun, it was a verb. I’m always trying to get them to realize this imaginative thing that we’re in, all doing in the room together. It’s not just us over here performing something for you. As a performer it starts from just being clear about where you are, and what’s going on in the room with you.

Carson: Sophokles does that with the play, too. He keeps it on this kernel of everything’s lost from this person. What does she do? She doesn’t sit around thinking about the politics of her situation, and all the internecine struggles in her family. She just feels it. I think that weird argument—I wouldn't have done it for a husband or a son—she just comes up with that because she’s pressed to the wall by people saying “make sense of this,” and she has no sense. She just has the grief, and the grief for her takes the place of reasoning. Sophokles made that possible for the actor to take seriously. I think another Greek playwright wouldn’t have been able to do that. Also, when you speak, Trajal, about being in the room I think of Zeami and his idea about faces. The reason we have theater, Zeami says, is so that people can see each other’s faces.

Harrell: That’s great. I need to run to MoMA now for rehearsal—wish we could continue this conversation in a restaurant over dinner!

Excerpt from Antigone (2015).

Carson: Perhaps I should say why I translated the play twice, because that’s confusing for people. Antigonick was meant to be a comic book, and not scrupulously faithful to the original text. Bianca Stone did the illustrations. After it was published, I met Ivo van Hove. He said he wanted to do a production of Antigone. I said, great, I have one. I’ll just send it. But he didn’t like it. He wanted a new one. I was enraged, and then thought about it, and it seemed worth trying. A neat, defeating thing to try. So I did it again. Seeing the new piece performed was quite the revelation. Because I frankly thought I would hate it. I’ve seen lots of Greek plays and various versions of my own translations, and most of them were awful. This one wasn’t awful.

Critchley: What did you think of his decision to play the chorus the way he did, with actors having multiple roles?

Carson: I liked it and it seems to work. Ivo didn’t tell me anything about it beforehand. I just sent the thing to him on email, and he said okay, and that was that. It went into the void. The whole thing works in a lot of aspects that surprised me—most especially the Kreon role.

One thing Ivo specified when asking me to translate the play again—he said the Kreon role in Antigonick is too spare, almost symbolic. At the time, I think I was trying to do the translation kind of the way John Cage makes his mesostics—he always said he was trying to “demilitarize language.” Maybe the difference between Ivo and me is that he wants to remilitarize language. He wants it fleshed out for conventional audience expectations and conventional capacities of an actor. I didn’t appreciate that until I was translating the work again. The Kreon I had originally given him wouldn’t have worked on stage—demilitarized grieving wouldn’t work as a theatrical experience. Patrick O’Kane, who plays Kreon, is amazing. After Antigone leaves the stage. It becomes his tragedy, and he fills the space. You almost forget Antigone.

Critchley: What would you think of the idea that the tragedy is Kreon’s rather than Antigone’s? If we take the Aristotelian idea that there’s reversal and recognition. Well, Antigone experiences neither. She just goes her way.

Carson: That’s true. She’s the same at beginning and at end.

Critchley: Right. But Kreon changes after the intervention with Teiresias—a character that raises a question about gender. As a blind prophet, he was transformed into a woman for seven years. T.S. Elliot said he was “throbbing between two lives.”

Carson: Kreon does change, and he has a recognition that Aristotle would have underlined with his highlighter pen. We should have asked Trajal about Teiresias. I sometimes think Sophokles was writing proleptically in defiance of Aristotle’s views, and trying to do things that break his rules. Because the tragedy—if there is one—is between those two people: Antigone and Kreon. Neither of them can resolve their view of law, and they never will, so city-states go on being ruined.

Listening to Trajal, I realized that whatever contradiction of proper Aristotelian practice the play plays out, the core of it is still Antigone’s emotion, and that does convince you that it’s a proper tragedy when you’re experiencing it. I think that it poses one of those nice theoretical questions—whose tragedy is it—that we always have to consider because that’s what scholars and teachers do, but I don’t think it bothers you during the experience of the play. After you go home you might wonder why is it called Antigone when Kreon makes it sadder at the end. But as Trajal says, theater is at the time, it’s what’s in the room.

Critchley: True enough.

Excerpt from Antigone (2015). What is it like to work with Ivo van Hove? He’s a director with a strong voice; do you feel an ownership of what’s on stage?

Carson: No, once it goes to him, it goes to him. He had very strong views all the way along of how it should be.

Critchley: How does he see the play?

Carson: He sees it as… well, maybe you should ask Ivo, but I gather he sees it as a balanced conflict between Antigone and Kreon. Very substantially balanced. Lack of balance was what he objected to in Antigonick.

Critchley: It’s more the Hegelian view then.

Carson: I think so. Well, he’s … Belgian [laughter]. Actually, his whole team went to school together, I believe. That’s one thing that I learned in Luxembourg, that he and his whole design team work together as a sort of molecule.

Critchley: Oh really?

Carson: All five of them eat breakfast together, work all day, and have dinner together, always in a hubbub. They’ve been friends for so long, they have their own language by now. Like twins.

Critchley: It would be interesting to hear more about that from Ivo. What I find particularly liberating about your translations of Euripides—and it’s there for me underpinning your Antigonick as well—is the idea to liberate tragedy from the Aristotelian framework, and in particular the straitjacket orientation toward catharsis.

Carson: I’ve never understood catharsis.

Critchley: It’s that old idea that there should be some moral lesson that we get from tragedy, which is still an omnipresent view. But it’s ludicrous. Tragedy is something else, it’s much more curious.

Carson: More devastating.

Critchley: Much more, yes.

Carson: Because you don’t learn anything from Kreon except, oops don’t do that again.

Critchley: Then, what’s it for, for you?

Carson: The play?

Critchley: In general, this curious art form tragedy. For me, following what you say in the preface to your translations of Euripides, tragedy flows from rage, which flows from grief in the context of war and violence. In Antigone, we are presented with that. We watch people go down somewhere—to a place that we want to look at, but we don’t want to go ourselves. We’re left with this what is it for question. In many ways the entire history of the reception of these plays has been about that question, and it’s that that we have to bracket out. So I wonder how it is for you?

Carson: I don’t really know what it is for me. I came at the plays from studying them in school to learn Greek. To me this is all distant. Listening to Trajal talking about his emotions I understand it, but I don’t feel that when I write the plays—and very rarely when I see the plays. It’s partly that I’m a semi-autistic person [laughter], but it’s also just that that’s not how I went about it; I cared about the grammar more than the feelings. It’s a different angle. I don’t know how to get to the other angle that Trajal has, for example.

Sophokles, Antigone, 2015. Directed by Ivo van Hove with a new translation by Anne Carson. From left: Guard (Obi Abili), Antigone (Juliette Binoche), Kreon (Patrick O'Kane). Photo: Jan Versweyveld. Simon, could you talk a little about the relevance of Antigone and tragedy, perhaps as it relates today for thinking about the risks and necessity of democratic culture?

Critchley: I’ve got very dark views on this. The way I see tragedy is influenced by Anne’s Euripides translations, which really did twist the way in which I had looked at those before, as well as reading Hellenists like Jean-Pierre Vernant and Simon Goldhill. It’s this idea of tragedy as people in rage. What’s interesting in this new production of the play is that everybody in it is enraged. Even Teiresias is angry. I think of Teiresias as coming in on the arm of a young boy, calmly declaring the truth, but he’s really pissed off here. Everybody’s angry—and all that flows from grief, which flows from war. Not just war, but civil war, the horror of stasis, which for the Greeks was the most horrible of all things. What’s going on in the play is claim and counterclaim. We see these people making claims, absolute claims, and then absolute claims are made against those. If Antigone is the hero, or if Kreon is the hero, then I guess what I take from someone like Vernant is that the hero is a problem. The hero is a pollution. Whatever the hero is, the hero is the source of filth that is screwing everything up.

For me, tragedy is that movement of claim and counterclaim, claim and counterclaim, which produces violence. We find ourselves always in violence and counter-violence. In Antigone, cycles of violence and counter-violence are justified with reference to claims about law. It’s exactly what happened after 9/11, the anniversary of which coincidentally is today. 9/11 was an attack on the United States, which then justified a violent response. But if you read Osama bin Laden on 9/11, all this was justified as revenge for the crimes the West had committed in the Arab world. So, claim and counterclaim, violence and counter-violence spin way back. What we see in tragedies is just that history of violence that we come from, seemingly without end.

Carson: Except that once in awhile a sort of unassailable person intervenes, like Antigone, and then it doesn’t come to an end but sputters into a corner for awhile, then stops, then presumably would start again.

Critchley: There’s a divergence and there’s the form itself, theater—a presentation of violence that’s not violent. That’s true of all the Theban plays, wherein we get this ancestry of violence and counter-violence, which spins all the way back, through all the generations, back to the Gods.

Then there’s this question: What on earth is the relationship between this thing called theater—particularly tragedy—and, this thing called democracy? Both are going on in the same city when this play debuts, in a particular form—which we can criticize for its exclusion of women and slaves. Though it was an extraordinary experiment in politics. We don’t know the answer to that question. But what does democracy do? Democracy goes to war. Democracy leads to tyranny. Democracy destroys itself, which is what happened at the end of the fifth century in the mess of the Peloponnesian War described by Thucydides.

Antigone shows us something about the history of violence that we come from. While we’re happy it’s them and not us going down, it speaks to a flaw that we have, which we don’t see, but which makes us the creatures that we are. So I see this tragedy as absolutely contemporary in terms of that not seeing. It’s what animates violence, grief, and rage—all those things playing out in Antigone—and that happen daily, which we think we know but we’re still blind to. This happens every day in the Unites States, in the world.

Tragedy for me is so much more important than philosophy. Because it’s a form that’s able to do a “both/and”: show that we know and we don’t know.

Carson: In the play they’re always talking about knowledge. And in the structure of the stage there is a process of coming out inside, from silence—this hidden thing. We see the hidden thing. Then it goes back inside and the play is over. All you know is that you’ve gone through it. What would it be to end up with a theory of it? That would invalidate the thing you saw when you were there.

Critchley: Yes, it would make it serve some end.

Carson: It would be reducible to yourself, to what you already know. With that hidden thing, I think of walking around Detroit. Sometimes at night you might pass the Foundry—a place with molten metal burning inside. You can glance in and see it—you glance into a core. It’s burning away in there. Then you go on down the street. What remains in the mind is that core.

Critchley: There’s nothing more important than that. Anne, you’ve talked about Francis Bacon in relationship to that. I’m trying to remember the quote…

Carson: “Paint the scream not the horror.”

Antigone runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from September 24–October 4, 2015 in New York.