Professors Stewart and Gómez wrote the following essay for the playbill for the Hopkins Center of the Arts presentation of Theater of War Production’s Antigone in Ferguson, September 15 and 16.
By Roberta Stewart, Professor of Classics, Dartmouth College, and Christina Gómez, Professor, Department of Liberal Arts, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Visiting Professor, Latin American, Latino, & Caribbean Studies and Sociology, Dartmouth College
In The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (2016) Bryan Doerries calls himself a “self-proclaimed evangelist for classical literature and its relevance to our lives today.” His program “Theater of War” has had impressive success with American military audiences since 2009. Trained actors deliver stage readings of ancient Athenian dramas followed by lively and engaged audience discussion. The greatest acknowledgement of Doerries’ mode of translation: the people of Ferguson invited him to Missouri in order to open dialogue after a protest-filled summer and autumn in 2014.
Antigone in Ferguson? What at first appeared an improbable conjunction delivers a rich perspective on a contemporary problem and offers a reminder of our need as a community to question ourselves and our public officials and institutions about justice.
In an act of defiance against the King, Antigone demands that her brother, Polyneices, be buried, the required respect for humanity and familial responsibility. Antigone reasons from tradition: she claims to be obeying divine law. Creon, by contrast, represents developed political authority, confident and seemingly reasonable, and he forbids burial for an enemy of the state. For an Athenian audience there is an obvious conflict between state authority and familial obligation, but Sophocles’ play focuses on Antigone’s burial of her brother, not on his crime, and Sophocles draws our attention to the unlikely merits of a woman who in a society that idealized silent, silenced women claims the right to speak truth to power. Unlike her conventional and cowardly sister, Antigone pleads for rightful burial, for a death to be mourned, for recognition that a life deserves mourning. Creon cannot accept Antigone’s claims to moral authority. His inability to talk to his son, Haemon, shows that his moral blindness is more than an assumed political role, but a point of view that disastrously affects his personal relations and ultimately leads to the death of many.
Like the corpse of Polyneices, in August 2014 Michael Brown’s body remained on the hot asphalt, under the mid-day sun, in Ferguson, for four hours after being shot by police officer Darren Wilson. This disrespect for Brown re-inscribes a racial animus that was long brewing. The people of Ferguson, like Antigone, wanted Brown to be buried, but they also wanted to address years of racial conflict and disrespect.
In translating Ferguson in terms of Antigone, Doerries unveils the role that the state has in dehumanizing members of the community in the name of law as supreme authority, and he reveals the role of the unlikely, least respected voices in articulating challenging truths. Creon’s inability to negotiate with his family and community echoes our own inability to communicate within our communities, especially concerning race and class. Antigone’s actions–her motivations and Creon’s lack of understanding of them– can be translated in the community’s call for Michael Brown to be treated as fully human and placed in a historical context that considers the long history of segregation, violence, and silence.
It is also important to reflect upon Athenian political practice. The government paid for the production of plays, an intellectually engaging entertainment that enabled citizens and public officials to think through these morally challenging problems. Today–sadly–the frameworks for such artistic production do not exist. In fact, the inverse might be said to be true. The arts, once highly regarded as necessary for a society to call forth the best among our citizens, are being undermined and too often asked to align with pre-determined goals. Our news media often ventriloquize and perpetuate the claims of the state, rather than challenging and questioning authority. The Athenian state at the height of its democratic development fostered critical self-reflection for its citizenry. That’s the tradition we need to embrace today. Appreciating Sophocles and Doerries requires thinking about both the text of the performance and the method of engagement.