Juliette: Antigone is like a bomb. She has three scenes and they’re like the bombs of the play somehow. Because from that there are consequences.
Juliette: I’ve heard from other actresses that Medea and Elektra and Antigone – these very strong women’s roles in tragedy – those roles kill you if you get involved with them [laughs]. I believe this is so. But I don’t know whether there’s a better way of doing it. A friend said to me, But why don’t you imagine all this and play from your imagination. But it doesn’t work like this. The body has to believe. You have to change your whole system [to play Antigone] – her belief system has to be tangible to the audience, so that is very tricky. You have to give yourself entirely – there’s no other way.
Ivo: We are lacking humanity in our world and that’s the essential thing that Antigone does: she brings humanity in a way that is for her totally normal, totally natural. It’s not policy, it’s not against Kreon, it’s something that she has to do for her brother, you know, it’s humanity.
I was very much inspired by Martha Nussbaum, the American philosopher. She wrote a book about Antigone [The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy], about the fact that we are lacking humanity in politics at this moment. We have to find in a way to integrate the emotional life within our political life. For me that’s the real urgency of the text of Sophokles today, he shows the clash that comes when things are not in harmony, when humanity’s lacking – that is for me the central urgency of the play.
Will: In aristocratic families in Sophokles’s time it was the women’s duty to prepare the dead and make sure that the dead had all the rites performed in the proper order, but the city-state of Athens was making a concerted effort to take that power away from the aristocratic clans because they had too much power and so the polis began instituting big public funerals for all the men who died in war and forbidding excessive mourning of a single aristocratic soldier killed in war.
Anne: Yeah, Pericles did that in the Peloponnesian War. He was trying to prevent the aristocratic families from being centers of power that would rival his power. Funerals were the place, as they still are in the Middle East, where people will do political organizing because it’s where you have a whole group of people incensed about the death of somebody. At such funerals they’re able to plan what they’ll do next in the revenge system to make this right. It makes sense that Pericles would want that sort of thing to stop and have a nice public funeral instead.
But in Antigone it’s very personal – she wants to bury this particular brother, she doesn’t even mention the other brother; she might not like him. When Pericles did the public funeral ceremonies they didn’t name the dead. It was just a mass, all the people who died this year of the war were commemorated to memory.
There was a longstanding patriarchal complaint in archaic and classical times about female mourning being excessive, with attempts to limit funerals, laments, tears, exhibitionism, melancholy, in various ways. These were motivated by concrete socio-political fears about funerals as pivot points of aristocratic clan power, but also by deeper darker misogynist anxieties regarding female excess in general.
Antigone is in a pickle. There’s nothing more conventional than a female burying her kinsman’s body, although Kreon has exceptionally outlawed this for the moment. Antigone has to oppose him by insisting on her own conventional function, has to force herself back into the female stereotype. But, being Antigone, she does so in a way that undermines the stereotype and draws attention to the undermining – this is perhaps why she buries the body twice, why she orders Ismene, “proclaim it to all! I insist!” In order to mourn but also remain autonomous, she has to mourn to excess.
But to mourn to excess is already a female stereotype. It all circles back into itself. She really can’t escape, the equations are set. This seems to me effectively tragic in a larger way than the usual “gender debates” about this play allow.
Will: Antigone is such an intensely painful role. Is there a way that an actor can protect herself from that pain, when she’s not playing Antigone, or do you have to be constantly open to the role, even when you’re not onstage?
Juliette: Antigone’s pain is not that she’s going to die but that no one hears her or understands her – no one wakes up to her urgency. The chorus is not getting it, Kreon is not getting it – that’s the pain. The real pain is, For god’s sake, can’t you wake up? Be aware! You need to do this! Anybody on earth who has been living needs to be buried! This is the law! There’s no other law! Otherwise the soul will wander around and around until eternity.
No way! Take care of your dead. Take care of who you’re living with, even though it’s your worst enemy. That’s the suffering, for her. After that, as a human being, of course she’s frightened she’s going be killed, but what she needs to do is stronger, so it overcomes the fear. She changes the fear into a higher purpose, so the fear goes away in a way. That’s why she doesn’t care. And she’s free – there’s something very free in her.
At the beginning she’s one whole being full of, Yes, that’s what I need to do, and nothing’s going stop me! But after she buries her brother, and she’s been seeing Kreon, she has these doubts about what she’s done, and that is for me the human side, and so beautiful. Because there’s a warrior in her, but she’s really innocent as well – I’m not even alive and I’m not yet dead, I‘m in between those two worlds, She doesn’t know where she is yet.
She starts the play with humanity on her shoulders, and Oidipous too. He’s the cursed man and Antigone decides to sacrifice herself, not because she wants to be in pain, but because there’s a need to turn this family upside down.
pity for my father
all that plowing in the dark …
father mother mother son it all
from what kind of badness was I born
alien foreign and strange
I am nowhere at home on this earth
I go to them now
a final family reunion
Will: To end the curse?
Juliette: And to heal. Yeah, stop the fucking curse in that family. So for me as an actor, even though you start with losing two brothers, losing your father, being condemned, being given a death penalty because you want to bury your brother and having your mother being your grandmother – it’s pretty complicated – but her need for transformation is so big, there is something in her that is very joyful, very hopeful, very full of light.
That’s why Antigone is such a symbol. She overcomes – she let go of her need of possession, she lets go of a need for power and she lets go of the need for enjoyment. She becomes another level of consciousness, but Kreon is still in need of power, he’s still in the need of possession – he is right and he wants to make sure that every being in the house knows that he’s right.
Catastrophe has to happen for him to accept that he did wrong, but it took his wife committing suicide for him to become aware of it. He loses everything at the end. As for Antigone, she let go of everything, and so it’s the play that says as well, Come on, guys – do it yourself. Don’t let life teach you where to go, just go by yourself.
Antigone wins at the end. Yeah, she sacrifices herself, but that’s because it’s a big yes from the beginning, because for her there’s no other way. If you accept that task of losing yourself for a bigger task than yourself, than the abnegation of yourself, then it’s what humanity is evolving into – when you have great people whose consciousness is so high and on another level that it brings humanity to a higher level.
Will: In Luxembourg, after seeing Antigone five times in three days, I ended up in a despairing place. I know it’s a terrible cliché to try to see the Greeks as our contemporaries, and yet I came away feeling the play was very much about the world today in the sense that globally all states seem to be heading toward some form of totalitarianism and massive surveillance and anyone who risks opposing that gets crushed, and all resistance gets labeled as terrorism or anarchism. This all seems to be rolling so efficiently into place now, and in a way the play ends up reinforcing the idea of the world as a closed system. Politically and economically all these horrible things are happening all around us and everyone’s like, Oh, here’s another horrible thing, worse than the horrible thing yesterday, and there’s fuck-all we can do. Did it have that effect on you?
Anne: Maybe because I had already gone through that at some earlier stage because of working on it for years and years, but I don’t think I came away with that sort of global political despair. If we want to talk about how it’s relevant to the modern day, which people always do, the way it struck me was that, around the time I was re-translating the play for Ivo, the New York Times had a photograph on the front page one day of some town in Africa where they had the Ebola virus. It was a hospital courtyard and they were bringing a body out from the inside to outside to bury – two attendants in their big white suits carrying this corpse on a stretcher in the empty courtyard, and there was a woman kneeling in the dirt the middle of the courtyard, and as the corpse passed she was throwing a handful of dirt onto the body, and it really struck me … it really slammed into me the fact that this is what happens to real people in Sophokles’s time or nowadays.
I didn’t think of it like that’s the answer to all the horror of the play that here’s this person still willing to throw a handful of dust on the body, but somehow it made a whole picture of the various agonies of that play and the political despair of it. The world is going to the dogs, but the despair of it is balanced somehow by this crazy girl throwing dust on a body, not in any logical rational way, but emotionally that’s how I came out of thinking about it.
Will: The fact that it’s a girl doing it?
Anne: Yeah, that it’s a girl and that it’s somebody who comes up through the system but is utterly other than the system and who insists on that otherness prevailing in the way that it does … Judith Butler says somewhere that Antigone represents the permanent elsewhere in our moral chaos. I like that idea of somebody who brings another whole moral valence into the picture because she is who she is and insists on doing that to the end.
Excerpt from Will Aitken’s Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson, Ivo Van Hove And The Art of Resistance, University of Regina Press, 2017. Posted from the original with permission from the author. Please check back for an interview with Will Aitken and a review of Antigone Undone to be included in our third volume, due out March 15th. Also, if you’re in Montreal, come and hear us read and celebrate at a launch at Notman House on Sherbrooke. Details to be announced.