Greek Tragedy Week Takes on Antigone: Timeless and Modern
December 12, 2011
It's early 2011. Arab Spring is breaking news. At lunch, Sally Morris, Classical Languages Department chair, mentions to Sarah Ream, chair of the Theater and Dance Department, that Dr. Emily Greenwood of Yale's Classics Department will be coming to campus in the fall. Morris had invited Greenwood to speak as part of an ongoing visiting scholars series, which seeks to integrate classical topics across a broad spectrum of subject areas. Greenwood's interests include the "politics of suffering" in Greek tragedies – their impact in both ancient times and today – and the power of the spoken word.
This spring discussion helped spur November's highly successful Greek Tragedy Week – a collaborative, campuswide effort involving performances, seminars, assembly and classroom visits. During their conversation, Morris and Ream talked about ways to increase the impact of Greenwood's visit by underscoring themes relevant to students. The 2 discussed Antigone, which had been chosen by the Classical Languages Department for classes in the fall. "Antigone appealed to us because its protagonist was not only a teenager, but a teenage girl," explains Ream. "We thought it would speak to this audience of adolescents and pose some interesting questions not only about the need to question authority, but about the role of gender in that debate: 'Who gets to question power? How and why?' " Ream chose to produce Jean Anouilh's Antigone – written during WWII as a critique of France's Vichy government.
Although versions of Antigone differ, they all revolve around the conflict between Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, and Creon, brother-in-law of Oedipus and current king, as they respond to the deaths in battle of Antigone's 2 brothers, Eteocles and Polynices. Creon has awarded Eteocles an honorable burial and has left Polynices to rot outdoors. Antigone attempts to bury Polynices, an act punishable by death. The Anouilh version culminates in a long debate as Creon offers to cover up Antigone's attempt at burial. Antigone rejects this solution and chooses to die.
Ream invited Ellen McLaughlin, highly experienced with Greek tragedy as both playwright and actress, to campus for the fall, and Greek Tragedy Week – designed to "underscore the relevance of Greek tragedy to our lives today" – was formally launched.
Over the succeeding months, Morris and Ream invited colleagues to participate. By the start of Greek Tragedy Week, classes across campus were prepped for engagement.
Prep and lower English classes read various versions of Antigone – including McLaughlin's own contemporary interpretation, entitled Kissing the Floor – and got the chance to discuss the plays with McLaughlin around the Harkness table. French classes read Anouilh's Antigone in its original French, attended the play and wrote analyses of the production.
Greenwood visited the Advanced Greek class to assist with the translation of Sophocles' Antigone and she discussed Catullus' poetry with Advanced Latin. In Speechmaking classes, Greenwood focused on the art of rhetoric in today's speaking and gave critiques of student presentations.
Both women's visits culminated in seminars with the cast and crew of Antigone on the set, where McLaughlin, who started the week off, focused on dramatic aspects of Greek tragedy – interpretation, acting, staging and interacting with the audience. Greenwood, who ended the week, answered questions about Greek tragedies and the various versions of Antigone – why Greek tragedies continue to hold fascination, how they were performed in their historical context and how they relate to modern realities.
A centerpiece of the week, attended by all students, was Greenwood's assembly, "Make Your Words Count," in which she focused on the importance of developing one's own "voiceprint" – the "vocal equivalent of your signature" – and using it powerfully to express yourself and help others. Starting with Demosthenes, she moved on to Presidential Candidate Herman Cain and President Barack Obama, and ended with a story from her own youth in East Africa, in which she drew parallels between the story of a car accident that killed a young Malawi girl and Homer's Iliad. "Whatever you go on to do in life, you will need your voices," Greenwood explained in summation. "Use your unique voice."
During the week, Greenwood gave a public evening lecture on Greek tragedy focused on exploring "what surviving Greek tragedies say about the politics of human suffering, as well as the role of Greek tragedy in mediating suffering in the contemporary world." McLaughlin presented Penelope, a 1-woman show inspired by Homer's Odyssey.
"This interdisciplinary week enabled us all to consider the moral tensions that exist between doing right by the laws of the state versus right by our sense of humanity, from the ancient Greek tale of Sophocles, to the 20th century French version, to the relevance of the 21st century tale of the little girl and her family from Malawi which Emily Greenwood provided," says Morris. "Students commented on how intellectually exciting the week was, especially remarking on Ellen McLaughlin's workshops and performance of Penelope, and Dr. Greenwood's lectures and class visits."
Greek Tragedy Week was hosted and managed by Exeter's Classical Languages and Theater and Dance departments, with support from the Behr Fund. "The Behr Fund provides the resources for us to engage as a community over timeless topics," says Morris. "The professors who have come since we initiated the series have energized the full community, providing a veritable humanities institute several times a year."
Previous visitors sponsored by the Behr Fund include: Professor Joshua Katz of Princeton University, Professor David Potter '75 of University of Michigan, Professor Robert Littman '61 of University of Hawaii, and Dr. Alfonso Moreno '91 of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Interested in learning more?
Read about Exeter's Department of Classical Languages...
Read about the Department of Theater and Dance...
Learn more about Dr. Emily Greenwood...
Learn more about Ellen McLaughlin...
Read about the visit to Exeter of Professor Joshua Katz...
— Nicole Pellaton