When you hear the words Greek tragedy, you might think of white masks, or even the ongoing economic crisis – ancient drama and modern depravity in its most enticing form. These first impressions may seem simple, but within them lays a theatrical form that refuses to die.
Maybe we have never truly progressed beyond this classical period; maybe we just have no other way to express ourselves; but regardless of reasoning and the plethora of scholarship that exists, Greek tragedy remains the most modern form of drama. It is unafraid to question everything we value.
There has been a surge of modern translations, adaptations and everything in-between of Greek plays in both Australia and the UK. This is indicative of our times, where we are beginning to question the ethics of democracy, something Greek tragedy was born to do.
This week, those in Melbourne will have a chance to see another modern interpretation of Greek tragedy, when the Malthouse Theatre stages Sophocles’ Antigone (442BC), adapted by Jane Montgomery Griffiths and directed by Adena Jacobs. Unlike most adapters and performers of classical drama, Griffiths is a Classical Studies scholar who is fluent in Ancient Greek.
That allows her to translate and adapt the nuances of Greek verse into a convincing modern Australian context, with the intellectual rigour of an academic as well as the vigour of a performer. In Griffiths’ 2015 version, the lines between translation and adaptation are blurred. She uncovers the blanket of silence that covers the voices of the dead and dying in Australian society, bravely deconstructing the doublethink surrounding recent asylum seeker and terrorism policies.
This is reminiscent of Aeschylus’ The Persians (472BC), through which Athenian audiences were asked thousands of years ago to sympathise with characters that were responsible for the death of their friends and family members. Could any theatre maker in Australia dare do this? Portray a terrorist sympathetically? We struggle to portray ourselves on stage, let alone our so-called enemies.
Lucky then we have Greek tragedy, the mask we can still put on to face the identity crisis existing within our own culture.
Greek tragedy, like all things Greek, has been migrating around the world since its conception in 5th century Athens. Back then it was a religious festival, known as the City Dionysia, and it was a civic responsibility for Athenian citizens (male and white) to attend the theatre where they saw competing adaptations of well-known myths.
The playwrights were usually financially backed by politicians whose primal aim was to indoctrinate citizens into the ideology of democracy that celebrated debate.
Sophocles’ Antigone puts these two loyalties (religion and state) against one another and questions whether the political realm can control personal faiths. In Griffiths’ adaptation, the political figure is no longer the authoritarian Creon, Anouilh and Brecht adapted post-WW2, but a Julie Bishop-like Leader whose supreme convictions are executed with the type of order and precision Australian citizens would admire.
She has both style and grace and she is even unafraid to do dirty man’s work – the perfect female politician in all its beauty and gore. On the other hand, there’s Antigone, not the glorified freedom fighter, but the self-indulgent idealist who is just too young and naïve to realise that the state knows best.
Who wins? State or religion? Creon or Antigone? Old or young? In Greek tragedy there is never a winner, just a set of competing answers, striving to prove their worth.
For that reason, Greek tragedy remains the perfect vehicle for philosophers, from Hegel to Butler, as it can be appropriated to suit any episteme, from dialectics to gender performativity. What other dramatic form has been appropriated and re-appropriated into many art forms for thousands of years?
Greek tragedy can fit into any time and place and yet it still seems to evolve and change, reflecting our public concerns in the most private ways.
This is how Plato defined all art forms: a reflection of life known as mimesis. This new adaptation of Antigone bravely reflects not the self, but the abject other, epitomised by the corpses that dominate and resonate on the stage. Plato exiled poetry from his ideal republic and now Griffiths takes the violence out of the backstage and makes us smell it.
This is what Aristotelian catharsis is all about: purging out our inner fears and pities. Freud used Greek tragedy to illustrate unconscious desire; Lacan also used it to portray desire in its purist form, then Zizek revealed how it can be politically dangerous.
The “danger” in this production, however, is not actually the blood or vomit, but the mundanely apathetic manner the business of death and ruling are portrayed.
This truly is an illustration of what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt termed the banality of evil. The Leader is not an inhumane monster, just a woman who is very good at her job. The Leader is not a murdering psychopath, just a bureaucrat doing her duty. It is the political system itself that remains elusive and God-like, controlling everything, but never appearing precisely anywhere, not unlike the form of Greek tragedy.
It presents you with a seemingly neat binary, only to rip it apart and destroy it with ongoing critical questioning, all the while you are wondering, what was that?
Earlier this year, The Guardian reported that the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, justified taking any measure to save the Euro:
Because Greece is the country of Sophocles, who taught us with his Antigone that there are moments in which the supreme law is justice.
Sophocles also taught us to question supreme law as well as justice. Greek tragedy is a debate, not a recession that we have to have.
Antigone is at the Malthouse, Melbourne, from August 21 to September 13. Details here.