18 June, 2012Issue 19.5PoetryTranslation

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Everything in Excess

Kit Edgar

BritishAnne Carson (trans.)
Antigonick by Sophocles
Bloodaxe Books, 2012
112 pages
ISBN: 978-0224090278


On the back cover of Anne Carson and Bianca Stone’s sturdy and provokingly designed Antigonick is a quotation from Hegel’s Aesthetics, in which he claims the Antigone as “one of the most sublime and in every respect most excellent works of art of all time”. Time is a central concern in Antigonick: time and the eternal; time and foolishness—how humanity reacts against time and against its judgements. Carson has underlined this in a curious way by introducing an invisible and semi-eponymous new character, Nick. Nick is silently onstage throughout the action. He never leaves: the last stage direction is “Exeunt omnes except Nick who continues / measuring”.

Nick measures time but is never measured by it: he is never subject to it as Antigone, Kreon, Haimon, and the shadow of Oedipus all are. Nick is eternal. He may represent us, the audience of the now; or the intertwined future and permanent present which infiltrates the world of the play through references to its reception history in the shape of offhand nods to Beckett and Brecht. Or he may only represent Carson asking us to consider him and what he may represent. In fact, it is difficult to say who or what Nick represents, unless it is time itself—the “Nick of Time” in which the Chorus stands toward the end of the play, just before Kreon’s world comes unstuck.

This collapsing of time and reality which enables mythological characters to allude to 20th-century dramatists both emphasises and elides the speed of the play’s action, a typically tragic succession of deaths: Antigone, Haimon, Eurydike. Most readers know what will happen, so we both anticipate—playing Fate, seeing Kreon’s downfall “plunging towards [him]”—and stand still, tasting the moments and the poetry, seeing Kreon’s eternal Words of the Day inscribed on the walls of the city and meant to last through the ages.

The play is not about Antigone at all, but about Kreon. It is his edict against which the action of the play is thrown, and his niece, his son, and his wife who die as a result. Carson makes him into a Spitting Image puppet of himself, hilariously pompous and bombastic, full of cartoon misogyny—”You women and your beds make me sick”—but also terrifying. He is the man with his finger on the red button, and on the shoulder of the guard who waits to take Antigone to the cave in which she will die. Kreon’s grand entrance, signalled by the Chorus, is made on his updated ship of state, again both oddly absurd and chilling in its absurdity: a powerboat.

In the Sophoclean text, Kreon’s first speech is a long, kingly affair, reassuring the Chorus of Theban elders, in the well-known Penguin Classics translation by Robert Fagles (1984), that “the ship of state is safe”. Kreon spends 50 lines or so of the original Greek underlining for the Chorus his statesman-like qualities and his priorities: the protection and honour of the city of Thebes. Again, Fagles’s translation: “Never at my hands / will the traitor be honored above the patriot.” In Carson’s translation, this speech is radically stripped down, its kingly propaganda compressed into 12 well-chosen words. Kreon’s verbs are “adjudicate / legislate / scandalize / capitalize”. His nouns are “men / reason / treason / death / ship of state / mine”. “Men” and “mine” are shunted to the right of the page; “reason”, “treason”, and “death” to the left. “Ship of state” floats in the middle, literally Kreon’s central concern. The Chorus points out that “mine” is not a noun, and Kreon replies, with telling semantic playfulness: “It is if you capitalize it.” This strikes the reader with a sense of modern absurdity—the modern distrust of political speechmaking, and the fear underlying that reaction: if this is our king, then who knows what could happen.

In the book, this page of text first appears overlaid by one of Stone’s intriguing ink-on-transparent-vellum illustrations: an unravelling spool of red thread. This symbol reappears three times in the text, recalling Clotho and Lachesis, two of the Greek Fates, spinning the thread of life and measuring it out, and also Theseus, using the thread to guide him out of the timeless labyrinth. Here it also seems to represent the blood-red tangle of the children of Oedipus and the short time left to them in this play. It may also recall and, to the classics-savvy reader, add a further interpretation of silent Nick who, like Lachesis, is always measuring time.

Carson is a true child of the classical tradition in that, like the ancients, she knows that reinterpretation, making new and making modern, is the thing to do. The Antigone is, more than most, a modern drama, re-interpreted by, among others, Jean Anouilh, whose 1944 version addressed the Nazi occupation under which it was produced, Jean Cocteau, Bertolt Brecht, and Seamus Heaney, who compared his Creon, in The Burial at Thebes, with George W. Bush. A new staging of the play by Don Taylor is showing at the National Theatre into July this year. It is a work which cries out to be modernised, to speak about the time in which it is being produced.

Carson has met the task of translating ancient Greek drama three times before. Her first translation, Electra, came out in 2001; Grief Lessons, a collection of minor plays by Euripides, was released in 2006; and 2009 saw the publication of her innovative An Oresteia, which combines the works of the three extant Greek dramatists (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) into one vision of the story of Orestes and his family. The Antigonick represents, then, a further evolution of an extensive classical project within Carson’s work as a whole and, in particular, a refinement of the translated form. It is best understood through the frame of Carson’s broader approach to classical drama. “Why does tragedy exist?” she asks in her introduction to Grief Lessons. The answer is: “Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

Sophocles’s Antigone, the earliest of his Theban plays, is also the work which most clearly shows the concern with balance between parallel and conflicting forces which informs all his plays and his approach to drama in general. Carson, however, has unbalanced the text, introducing a feeling of chaos and irony. Hegel, in an analysis of Antigone with which Carson is consistently in dialogue, claimed that the play was not a conflict between good and evil, but between two goods. The defence of one must offend the other: to uphold divine law Antigone must go against the law of man; Kreon defends the city for the good of man but contravenes the law of the gods. Yet Carson’s Antigonick is not convincingly Hegelian. Both Kreon and Antigone have a point, and as per Hegel, both uncle and niece are convinced that they are in the right. Neither seems good, however: they are both lost.

It is easier for us moderns to sympathise with Antigone, who is trying to do the best by her dead brother. Indeed, Carson seems to have made Antigone the one whose side we ought to take. But even this Antigone, who is certainly a tragic heroine, is hard to love. She admits that she is “a strange new kind of inbetween thing … not at home with the dead / nor with the living”. Carson does nothing to smooth the edges off Antigone. Knowing and ironic, she is a potent foil to Kreon’s bombast. Yet she still ends “despoiled”.

Carson’s poetry convinces. Her translation is an argument—the familiar argument of the classicist—for the eternity of these stories and of our condition as it is reflected within them; the classics are not pristine things, at once admirable and frightening, but experiences to be felt. But Carson’s work is irrepressibly modern and provoking, featuring knowing conversations between the two sisters—stony, immovable Antigone and the slightly damp Ismene—which metatheatrically refer to Hegel and Brecht, who “had [Antigone] do the whole play with a door strapped to [her] back”. It is also a beautiful argument, furiously made, throwing us against the text fearlessly and asking us what we would do if we were standing in the “Nick of Time” and about to be measured by it; asking whose side we pick, and who, in the end, is right.

Kit Edgar graduated in 2004 with an MA in Classics from the University of Leeds.