Thoughts on Antigone

In the early 1970s I did an MBA at the newly created London Business School.  My tutor, Charles Handy had created an elective called The Art of Decision Making.  Each week we would study a classic where we would engage in Socratic debate about what the play could teach us as future managers.  The first play we discussed was Sophocles’ Antigone.  I had never heard of it.  However it created such an epiphany to me that I wrote an e-book: The Emotional Intelligence of Antigone.

Last week I saw an exciting new adaptation by Damien Ryan performed by the Sport By Jove Theatre Company.  It is a creative modernisation that keeps much of the original play’s dialogue but brings it into the 21st century with conversational quips, black comedy and allusions to a setting straight of a contemporary war zone.

What do we do with the corpses of home-grown enemies of the state? Should they be buried in the soil of the country they have attacked, or have they forfeited that right?  Sophocles raised this issue in Athens in 441BC, and people are still trying to solve the problem 2500 years later.

The play sets in conflict the rights of the state and those of the individual.  The sons of Oedipus by his own mother have fought a civil war for the throne of Thebes.  Their uncle Creon, the king, forbids the burial of the brother who fought against the state and sentences to death anyone who disobeys.  Antigone believes her brother must be buried, and is willing to die for her convictions.  Antigone inspires us with her courage, fortitude and impenetrable strength of conscience. But her excess of feeling and fundamentalist zeal are hard to reconcile in a world crying out for unity, order and the rule of law in a time of chaos.  Her uncle, Creon, who has become the ruler of Thebes by default, selflessly places the state above the welfare of his family, pursuing a principle with the sort of consistency of will that we cry out for in politicians who so often stand for nothing.  The debates in the play resonate today.

What do you do with the body of a terrorist who sincerely believes he or she is following a divine order to blow up people watching a marathon in Boston and is subsequently killed.  The authorities tried to bury the body in cemetery but it was then dug up by community members who refused to have it buried in their town.

William Zappa is magnificent as Creon.  Often, the character is depicted as the out-and-out villain of the piece.  Instead the journey from confident, beaming authority to increasing self-doubt and then emotional disintegration was splendidly done.

I was particularly pleased to see that Damian Ryan kept the wonderful scene where the sentry chosen randomly by lot to tell Creon about the attempted burial rapidly becomes an innocent victim.  The sentry, Janine Watson, was witty and charismatic and stole the show.

I must confess I was disappointed with Ryan’s ending which uses J. S. Bach’s church cantata Ich habe genug (English: “I have enough” or “I am content”), BWV 82.  I don’t think someone who has lost his wife, son, niece and potential daughter-in-law would be in a contented state.

In the version of the play we studied in 1972 Sophocles has the chorus saying in the final lines that we only have perfect wisdom at the end of our life.  What he meant is that during our lifetime we are confronted with many decisions—perfect wisdom means never making the wrong ones.  The reality is that this state of perfection only occurs when we die, when we no longer can make decisions.  Till we die we are always going to make mistakes.  I prefer this lesson which every manager should never forget.

Finally may I congratulate Damian Ryan on the piece he wrote in the program.  I thought it was terrific and in my 50 years of theatre going one of the best I have read.  Here is a summary.


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Chris Golis - Author


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