Larger than Life: Scenes from Antigone and Lysistrata

A ReadersTheatre Production,
October 8, 1994,
The Bishops School,
La Jolla, California.

Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
University of California, San Diego

The Friends of Classics of San Diego State University recently offered scenes from Sophocles' Antigone and Aristophanes' Lysistrata. In fact, they produced reduced versions of both plays. Instead of the usual one hour and fifteen minutes that most Greek drama takes, each play was performed in forty-five minutes, for a total of one hour and one-half. To reduce Greek drama to soundbytes is a natural progression in this age of instant entertainment, but it still works. The performances began at 2:00. As in antiquity, the drama was accompanied by social ritual: in this case afternoon tea (a bit of wine showed that Dionysus was in attendance). I would have opted for the entire texts rather than tea, but that is a grumpy classicist talking.

The text for the performance came from various sources, adapted by William Adams and Robert McCoy. The plays were performed without masks, in only minimal costumes (a headband here, a himation there), and some actors took several roles. Texts were mostly memorized, but they were held in hand and occasionally consulted. The entire cast acted as a chorus, sitting on both sides of the stage area, and reacted with moans and cheers as well as with words. There was 'dramatic' music (including Greek rhythms and instruments), which was used to punctuate the text. The choral passages were usually delivered by two older men, one of whom was the accomplished actor Gary Seger, who has worked in radio and television. Alyssa Karalekas delivered an impressive performance as Ismene, and also Lampito. The problem here was that her ability overshadowed the leads playing Antigone and Lysistrata respectively. The two young male leads playing Creon, Kinesias, and Haemon, besides messenger and herald, were amateurish, occasionally fumbling lines and overacting. But they get 'A' for effort, and are to be congratulated for tackling Greek drama. The set was simple, and there were simple props: e.g., Creon carrying a robe which symbolized his son's body, at the end of the play.

The language was accessible and colloquial. An occasional addition of modern songs (e.g., 'God Knows the Trouble I've Seen'), connected the drama with the contemporary. This was Greek drama for the impatient masses. It may have eliminated long choruses, and Lysistrata's metaphor on politics as compared to weaving, but it kept essential choruses and speeches, such as the brilliant ode to man: 'There are many wonders in the world, but none more wonderful than man.' Sophocles' ambiguous use of the term deinos as both wonderful and monstrous, however, was lost in this text and performance. Here the ode was given more as a celebration of man's accomplishments than as a warning of going too far.

Another jarring note was to have the Sentry in the Antigone played by one of the elders from the chorus. This eliminates Sophocles' use of a young country bumpkin (the usual choice for the guard sent to watch the body) confronting the king. Again there was an imbalance, and economy (too few actors) led to infelicities. In antiquity, of course, roles were doubled, but masks solved this problem.

Antigone and Lysistrata touch on major themes which are still current: both show forms of civil disobedience. Tragedy deals with the complexities of issues and teaches through suffering (Antigone dies on behalf of her cause); comedy elides complexities and shows us wish fulfillment (Lysistrata lives and gets what she wants). The Antigone is always shown in the hot spots of the world (a performance was just given by a theatrical troupe from Athens at the border post between Greece and the former Yugoslavia). We remember how Anouilh and Brecht used their versions of Antigone to protest fascism. Tom Paulin, Brendan Kennelly and Aidan Carl Mathews have written versions in the last ten years to protest abuses in Ireland which have arisen from English occupation. Besides symbolizing specific political abuses, Antigone addresses philosophical issues that Hegel noted: the opposition of individual conscience to civil authority. Antigone follows the 'unwritten laws' as she claims, and opposes what she sees as wrong. By giving her life to bury her brother against the civil decree issued by Creon, her courage is a banner for modern freedom fighters.

Lysistrata is another heroine who opposes male civil authority. We enjoy the fantasy of seeing her organize the women of Greece to go on a sex strike to force the men to make peace. In 411 BC when Lysistrata was first performed, Athens was suffering from years of the Peloponnesian War. The play's message was not heeded, and the war went on for some years until Athens was defeated in 404 BC. The city itself was a figure from Greek tragedy: it went too far, but was still majestic in defeat. It also performed the greatest tragedies and comedies of all time, and they are still being performed and admired.

This entire performance was preceded by a presentation by one of the faculty members of San Diego State. With regard to Antigone, he told us to ignore Hegel's ambiguity, but see instead that Antigone was in the right and Creon in the wrong. The performance went on to corroborate his interpretation. Creon was shown as a blustering idiot and Antigone as a sympathetic heroine. This reduction of Greek tragedy through trimming the text and a simplistic performance works better with Aristophanes than Sophocles. Nevertheless, even reduced, both authors were still effective and we applaud the fact that they were performed.

Further Reading

Marianne McDonald