Sophocles' Antigone

Review by Douglas Cairns

University of Leeds

Sophocles' Antigone. A New Version by Brendan Kennelly, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1996. Pp. 64. Hb ISBN: 1 85224 363 5 [[sterling]]12.95; pb ISBN: 1 85224 364 3 [[sterling]]6.95

In this brilliant reworking of Sophocles' Antigone Brendan Kennelly has produced a work of dramatic poetry that is vigorous and immediate, but also deep and resonant. Contemporary in its concerns and its import, it none the less fully confronts its Sophoclean original and situates itself in the tradition which that model has spawned.

Kennelly's lines are short, his sentences simple, often gnomic; a confidence in rhythm and rhyme and effective use of repetition and anaphora reinforce the direct and emphatic character of his verse; if there is any stylistic weakness at all, it is perhaps the absence of differentiation in style, diction, rhythm or register between dialogue and choral odes; indeed it appears that these are written for spoken delivery by a single voice (cast list, p. 5). His version is neither a crib nor a classroom text. Kennelly compresses and expands freely: lines are omitted or rewritten, especially to favour the universal over the specific; single phrases in Greek are elaborated over several additional lines; the choral odes and Antigone's laments are largely rewritten; and the Eurydice-scene is greatly expanded, introducing a new character with a sizeable speech. Yet the translation is also often stunning in its accuracy, rendering the Greek with an immediacy and directness which puts to shame the versions most often encountered in the Civilisation classroom; where he compresses or rewrites, Kennelly generally remains faithful to the conceptual structure of the original. But it is in the places where he adds most that a comparison of original and version most illuminates the particularity of his vision.

Kennelly gives us a Romantic-Idealist/Existentialist Antigone of a fairly familiar stamp, and adds a quasi-feminist perspective of his own. Some might, therefore, find this Antigone rather one-sided (and others will find it perversely antihistorical). For Kennelly comes down firmly on one side over the other -- Antigone's heroism and integrity in the pursuit of the course her conscience dictates are never in doubt, and Creon is firmly in the wrong from the outset; Ismene's contrasting inability to act `authentically' by transcending the constraints placed upon her legitimises Antigone's harsh rejection rather than providing a perspective which highlights the magnitude of Antigone's transgression; there is mutual romantic love between Antigone and Haemon (line 570 becomes: `But never again can there be such love/As bound these two together./Their two hearts are one. If Antigone dies, so does your son'; 572 is attributed to Antigone and translated, `Haemon, my beloved./Your father wrongs you deeply now'); and the chorus is used to guide the audience's interpretation more directly than in the original (they are made to admire rather than merely sympathise with Antigone at 801-5: `Antigone/Whose fiery heart would never let her tell a lie'; cf. the Guard in the line inserted at 439: `Something about her is so noble, so unafraid' ). By the same token, many of the specifics of the play's ancient cultural setting are effaced in favour of the abstract and the universal: the details of religion and ritual are passed over; the opposition between female transgression and female compliance is general rather than specific to ancient norms; and the particular cultural significance of the maiden Antigone's extreme fixation with death, her refusal of marriage, and her choice of natal over conjugal ties remains at best latent. Similarly, Creon's appeal to and appropriation of orthodox civic norms or the values of hoplite solidarity (at 668-76) are played down or written out. The note of eroticism in Antigone's love for Polynices is ignored in the play's early stages, only to surface abruptly but significantly at the point of her departure (853-66, glossed to imply the persistence of Oedipus' incestuous passion in his daughter).

But to criticise this would be to criticise Kennelly for not doing what he did not set out to do; and there is a very great deal to be admired in what he did set out to do. For this is a version which has a strong and thought-provoking thematic structure of its own. One is immediately struck in the early scenes by the profuse repetition of the notion of the `word' (seven occurrences on the first page of the translation alone). All characters have their own `word' to bring to the stage; between Antigone and Creon there is a quasi-Hegelian conflict of `word' versus `word', though the former eclipses the latter in that her word is actualised in a deed which affirms her being (p. 22): I sought to bury my brother.
That is my word, my deed.
Word and deed are one in me. Ismene, by contrast, is `a sister in mere words' (543). Creon's failure is to refuse to listen to the word of others, as Haemon insists (p. 30):

The world is full of different words, different voices

Listen to the words, the voices.
Do not be a prisoner in yourself
Although you are a King of others.

Thus what Creon fails to respect is difference, as Antigone points out (p. 23): It is my love that makes me different.
It is my difference that you fear. Similarly Tiresias (p. 41): Let him learn respect
For the living and the dead.
Let him think
All day, all night
Until he begins to suspect
He may not be always right. The message is then driven home in a fifth stasimon that addresses not Dionysus, but the `god of the change of heart' (p. 43): `To believe in one thing only is to live with a word alone.
A man burns others with his words, choosing his special mark;
Pity that triumphant man, god of the change of heart.' And finally, in his last words, Creon accepts the lesson (p. 48): I hear only
The accusing words of the dead.
Why did I not listen to the words of the living?
Why did I not listen? The multiplicity of words, of voices, is also a multiplicity of possible worlds -- of the living and the dead, but also of mortal and divine; though Kennelly does not generally make much of the play's religious elements, he exploits the human/divine antithesis to great effect at one crucial point (p. 24, in the exchange between Antigone and Creon to which `difference' is central): CREON. We must live on this earth.
ANTIGONE. Yet never forget the possible difference
Of that other world of the gods.
Thinking of difference there
May make us different here.
Creon, you fear the thought of difference. Compare (p. 25) the expansion of line 557 into: There were two worlds, two ways.
One world approved your way,
The other mine.
You were wise in your way,
I in mine. Worlds collide, but not with equal force, as Antigone's Weltanschauung reveals the inadequacy of Creon's.

The voice which articulates the case for pluralism of worlds is a female one; the fundamental difference which Creon ignores is likewise that between man and woman. His horror of feminization, as prominent here as in Sophocles' original, has both personal and political implications; Creon fails as a ruler because his notion of kingship is based on patriarchal autocracy, and he fails as an individual because (in an insight which Kennelly takes directly from Greek popular morality) his closedness to others and their voices precludes self-knowledge; more particularly, in failing to know woman, he fails to acknowledge the potential of the feminine to illuminate his own identity (p. 35):

What man
Knows anything of woman?

If he did
He would change from being a man
As men recognize a man.

If I lived,
I could change all the men of the world.

In all this, Kennelly speaks as an Irish poet to his contemporaries; and just as it is hard to ignore the Irish dimension in the play's advocacy of pluralism and tolerance of difference or in its critique of the misogyny of male authority, one cannot help applying to the author's own culture such themes as the father's attempt to transmit his enmities to his son or the horror of internecine conflict. But there is no crude allegory or facile didacticism in this; the reader is credited with the intelligence to pursue these and other ramifications without heavy-handed authorial prompting. Nor is the play's contemporary significance confined to the Irish context; its stress on the validity of different voices, on being open to different worlds, also provides a perspective on (for example) the last-gasp nationalism of an England that struggles to negate the otherness of the Scots and Welsh and to turn its back on that of other Europeans.

`Difference', then, is the key both to the play's internal dialectic and to the dialogue which it initiates with its ancient model. Kennelly takes the conceptual fabric of his original (the antithesis/fusion of word and deed, the opposition of different worlds, the politics of gender and of state versus family are all thoroughly Sophoclean themes) and remakes it into something new, all the while with a unity of language and thought which is absolutely worthy of its original. Kennelly is thus more ambitious and more successful than the standard English translations, even though he is unlikely to supplant them for teaching purposes. The text under review is specifically offered as an `educational edition' for the new Leaving Certificate syllabus in Ireland; it includes an afterword by Kennelly himself, programme notes from the original production in Dublin, and an extract from a longer essay on Kennelly's dramatic versions by Kathleen McCracken (who is rather uncertain on the relation between original and version and apparently ignorant of the original cultural context: she imagines [p. 57] that at the beginning of the play Antigone leads Ismene to `a neutral zone, away from the male preserve . . . [where] the sisters are on "female ground"'). Clearly the syllabus for which the play is set is not a classical one. But it would be a great pity if classicists, particularly Irish classicists, ignored Kennelly's translation in their teaching; one would hope that there is room in our curricula for a version which illuminates the significance of Sophocles' original precisely because it brings it so confidently, powerfully, and yet faithfully up to date. But however that may be, all those who rejoice in the continuing vitality of the Greek theatre will surely want to read this outstanding version for the sheer pleasure it affords. Brendan Kennelly has also written a Medea and a Trojan Women (Bloodaxe 1992, 1993); his powerful articulation of the tragic female voice is well worthy of discovery.

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