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.
The day after Antigone premiered, my fellow Athenians maintained that their mythical King Theseus had led troops to Thebes to force Creon to bury his dead niece. In the heated exchange we had in the crowded and hot Agora, this was held up as an example of the virtues of an interventionist foreign policy. George W. Bush wouldn’t understand a word even if he tried to read Antigone in a children’s book, but some insist that the grotesque Cheney had some researcher dig all this up before they went into Eye-rack. In Periclean Athens, the play preached to the converted. Athens was an imperial power, and Sophocles kept his own thoughts to himself.
Mind you, Antigone was a drama queen. She hated her suffering and made it clear that she did. She told everyone about her fear of death but also about her love for her brother. She would have been perfect for one of those grotesque reality shows where inarticulate slags spill the beans nonstop. Antigone loved the limelight more than Lady Gaga does. She courted arrest, shunned the advice of her sister Ismene, and chose martyrdom to gain celebrity and fame. A bit like Amy Winehouse, wouldn’t you say?
Which brings me to the protesters polluting London and New York, as if the two places needed any more pollution.
I wonder how many of them would protest if they had to deal with Creon rather than Boris Johnson or the ludicrous Bloomberg? Since protesting became chic during the 60s—among them the rich, the spoiled, and the bored—Antigone has always come to mind. Buddhist monks still immolate themselves against the ghastly Nazis who are the Chinese in Tibet, as they did back then.
Not so today’s publicity-seeking protesters. We all know that Wall Street is crooked and the best inside traders win out. But who allows them to do this? The protesters should be badgering politicians to stop taking bribes from lobbyists, not stinking up St. Paul’s and the Wall Street area, one of the nicest in the Bagel. They also should be burning down the EU offices in Brussels and beating up the bureaucrooks inside. Talk about arrogance and contempt for democracy. How dare these people attack the cops instead of the true Nazis, the EU technocrats and their enablers?
Antigone ends with the following words:
For proud men who speak great words come in the end to despair, and learn wisdom in sorrow, when it is too late.
Soph and I discussed the ending during many a night of drinking retsina just below the Acropolis on balmy Athenian nights. We both agreed that great literature teaches us everything but we understand nothing. That is why I never tried to compete with Sophocles. I had better things to do than write plays that no one understands.
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