Antigone in middle age

Peter Parsons

Elle s’appelle Antigone et il va falloir qu’elle joue son rôle jusqu’au bout.’ Anouilh’s chorus states, what most readers would assume: there is only one part Antigone can play, and that is the part which Sophocles gave her. The sons of Oedipus quarrel; Polynices, exiled in Argos, returns to attack Eteocles, who rules in their native Thebes; in the battle, the brothers kill one another; Creon, the next king, orders that Eteocles be buried as a hero, Polynices left unburied as a traitor; Antigone, the sister of the dead men, defies the order and symbolically buries Polynices; Creon condemns her to an underground prison; there she hangs herself, and Creon’s son Haemon, in love with her, kills himself at her side. Before Sophocles’s play (produced about 440 BC) Antigone was a shadowy figure; after it, no treatment escapes the influence.

The story has obvious attractions, even as simple melodrama; the theme – individual conscience against corporate ukase – has recurrent relevance. Even toping Tom May, the ‘tankard-bearing Muse’ whose death gave such pleasure to the poet Marvell (‘came to his death,’ says Aubrey, ‘after drinking with his chin tyed with his cap (being fatt) – suffocated’), showed relative restraint in plumping out the plot and modernising the tone; his Tragedy of Antigone (1631) makes its bow to Seneca with an expository prologue, and to Statius and morality with a retributive epilogue (Theseus arrives and kills Creon); the characters know their recent classics as well, for Creon consults three weird sisters, and Antigone and Haemon discourse out of Romeo and Juliet. Totalitarian times have found the theme especially appealing; Antigone has been the Fidelio of the Greeks. Even so, dramatists have been mostly concerned to individuate the villain. Hasenklever in 1917 made Creon speak words of the Kaiser; Brecht in 1948 presented him as the rabid Führer. Hasenklever, writing on the Eastern Front, had faint hopes that the war would end tyranny; and so his Creon is moved by the deaths, and resigns his power to the people. But 25 years later, in occupied Paris, Anouilh saw no reason to think that the system would ever end; his Creon is polytechnician to the core; the cabinet is more urgent than the corpses, for government must go on: ‘ils disent que c’est une sale besogne, mais si on ne la fait pas, qui la fera?

The familiar story invites nuancing. But there had at one time been another story. Hyginus, who wrote a nursery handbook of myths in the second century AD, begins his version on more or less Sophoclean lines: Creon forbade the burial of Polynices; Antigone, and Polynices’s wife Argeia, took up the body by night and put it on Eteocles’s pyre; when the guards surprised them, Argeia escaped, Antigone was captured; Creon handed her over to Haemon, with orders to kill her. But then:

Haemon, in the grip of love, disregarded his father’s orders. He delivered Antigone to some shepherds, and falsely reported that he had killed her. She gave birth to a son; who, when he grew up, came to Thebes to take part in the games. King Creon recognised him, because all scions of the Theban royal house have a distinctive birthmark. Heracles interceded for Haemon, and asked Creon to forgive him; but without success. Haemon killed himself, and Antigone his wife. Creon gave Heracles his own daughter Megara in marriage ...

Birthmark, frustrated rescue, husband kills wife: high drama or melodrama. This version was already known to Aristotle; you could not, he says sourly in the Poetics, discussing recognition on stage, find a cruder device than the Theban birthmark. It was known also to a vase-painter who worked in South Italy about 340/320 BC; his stately amphora shows named characters in crucial confrontation; Heracles holds out an emphatic hand to Creon (aged, hand on hip, full royal fig); on his other side is Antigone, hands bound behind her, and Haemon, who clutches his head in despair; above Creon, Ismene looks on; unnamed bitplayers fill the rest of the scene (a youth with two spears guards Antigone; behind Creon is a boy, and a white-haired woman, perhaps his wife). The painter probably had a play in mind; the portico, in which Heracles stands, will be part of the permanent stage-set. Aristotle quite certainly had a play in mind, for he quotes a verse from it.

There was, then, not just another story, but another play that dramatised it. But whose? Euripides wrote an Antigone; nothing survives except a few quotations, mostly snippety truisms preserved in the most boring of ancient books, the Moral Extracts of John Stobaeus. Astydamas the Younger wrote an Antigone; it was produced in 341 BC, and that is all we know. These plays went the way of most books, as the Roman Empire sank into piety and inflation. Astydamas was too late to be rated Classical, and vanished without trace. Euripides was too bulky; ten plays survived by choice, since the schoolmasters picked them for set books; nine more survived by chance, a single volume (E-K) left over from an alphabetical set; 66 plays, unwanted by monks and unselected by pedants, disappeared for ever.

Two centuries earlier, in the palmy days of imperial peace, things had been different. A wide range of books circulated even in provincial towns, even in backward provinces. Egypt might seem barbarous to Roman chauvinists; but its upper class, descended from Greek immigrants, thought themselves Hellenes and pursued Hellenic culture. So the solid citizens of a market town like Oxyrhynchus, though they worshipped Sarapis and married their sisters, continued to speak, to write and to read Greek. Now and again they threw away their books and papers; rubbish-dumps built up around the town; sand drifted in from the desert, and covered the dumps; and there they remained, preserved by the rainless climate, until 1897. Then the archaeologists arrived. They dug up Oxyrhynchus, and removed it to Oxford. The find of written material was colossal: ten thousand papyri at least. Publication has taken eighty years so far, and will take another forty. Each new dip into the salvage produces surprises, for the literary or the social historian; the literary historian in particular finds himself able to outrun the Dark Ages and step, if only fragmentarily, into the bursting libraries of the Greco-Roman heyday. Those libraries will have contained all the plays of Euripides. Oxyrhynchus has recently yielded bits of Cresphontes and Oedipus. Now, in the latest volume, we have a novelty which touches directly upon Antigone.

It was once a book-roll de luxe (huge margins, elegant serifed script). What now remains is 15 lines, torn at beginning and end, so that the first word or two, and the last word, have gone. The last four lines overlap two moral mottoes in Stobaeus’s collection. The first, ‘In bad times, uncompromising courage may amount to stupidity,’ is quoted without author. The second, ‘The man who bears his fate equably, just as things fall out, will be less unhappy,’ has an author – Euripides; and a play – Antigone. The end, then, is certain and commonplace. With the rest we’re less fortunately placed; even small gaps leave room for ambivalence. There is ‘you’ and ‘me’, there is a slave (male) and a female (unidentified): at its simplest, a dialogue between a woman and a slave. Violence is threatened, and around this theme beginning and end easily cohere. ‘If you don’t leave this place willingly, these men will drag you by the hair’ (slave threatens woman)... ‘Keep your hands off me, you are a slave and I am a free woman. I’ll go willingly. Resistance would be foolish; one must put up with the inevitable’ (woman yields to threats). The intelligible words in between are much more problematic. ‘You live (in the house??) of Heracles.’ ‘You (the woman) come here dressed as a bacchant.’

Problematic or not, Heracles constitutes half a fact. Antigone and Heracles normally move in very different mythical circles. But Heracles did have a part in the Antigone-play which Hyginus summarised; and he does have a part, it seems, in the Antigone-play of Euripides. Conclusion: the plot of Euripides is the story of Hyginus; it is a Euripidean scene that the vase-painter painted. If that’s right, we can silence a dispute which has been going on since 1841. Welcker then guessed that Hyginus drew on Euripides; some later scholars have agreed; others – the cautious, and those confident of privileged access to Euripides’s creative limits – have turned the whole thing over to Astydamas, irrefutably (you can attribute almost anything to a writer about whom you know almost nothing). We can even reconstruct part of the play. The woman in the papyrus will be Antigone, the man will be a guard; she takes refuge in the house of Heracles, he forces her from sanctuary and arrests her. In the next scene, we might guess, he would bring her bound before Creon, and Heracles would emerge from his house to intervene – and that is precisely the scene which the amphora captures.

Not of course that everything quite fits. The scene has an oddity: why should Antigone be dressed as a bacchant? One can guess (it is the festival of Dionysus; her son comes to Thebes for the games which are part of the festival; she wears Dionysiac costume so as to mingle with the crowd), but it is a guess without evidence. Evidence does produce a Euripidean bacchant with a similar name, Antiope; perhaps the papyrus refers to her; we should need to assume only that Stobaeus muddled the two plays, Antiope and Antigone. But then what happens to Heracles? The play, too, has an odd pattern. The games are a familiar motif in Euripides; so is the recognition (something he handed on to Menander, and Menander to Beaumarchais and Oscar Wilde); so is the rescue in the nick of time. But the rescue is abortive, the upshot grim. Unexpected. But then we might expect the unexpected from Euripides.

Suppose, then, that the question is settled: we now know what happened in Euripides’s Antigone. It’s a rare chance to see the playwright at work. His Antigone, and his Oedipus, no doubt came later than Sophocles’. He had to rework old material for the old audience: a challenge, and an opportunity (since he had preconceptions to play on). In principle he could choose a new plot; or use the old one with new moral or aesthetic weighting. The second method served for Electra: he played up the pathos of Electra’s oppression at the beginning, and the pathos of her oppressors’ murder at the end; the sympathy of the audience, which Sophocles assumes throughout, is first wooed and then dashed. (Hofmannsthal’s play grew in the same sour soil, but tinged with Todgeweihter Krapp from Tristan: Electra dies of gratified hate, as Isolde of gratified lust.) Oedipus and Antigone received more radical treatment. Whether Euripides invented the new plots, or inherited them, we can’t tell; Greek myth will have reached Classical Athens as a tangled mass of incoherent variants (it was the dim decent systematisers of the decadence who took the shaggy beast and poodle-cut it into some sort of linear rationality).

In Sophocles, Oedipus is foolishly proud of his own intellect, and wrongly suspicious of his brother-in-law Creon; he rushes on his fate, and blinds himself when, at the single intersection of different strands, he finds himself the murderer of his real father Laius, and the husband of his real mother Jocasta. Euripides had Oedipus blinded by the servants of Laius (directed perhaps by Creon); and the servants do not know that their master’s killer is also their master’s son. The contrast is clear and deliberate. Euripides dismantled the well-made plot; presented Creon as ring-leader and Oedipus as victim; turned a story of pride and fate into one of intrigue and revenge. It was the same policy, as we now see, in the Antigone. In Sophocles, the heroine is young; in Euripides, middle-aged. In Sophocles, her main concern is with burying a brother; in Euripides, with rescuing a son. In Sophocles, she turns aside from love; in Euripides, she is saved and then killed by it. Contrast again. Sophocles had written a drama of clashing principles, which ends in the heroine’s suicide. Euripides turned this into a melodrama of disguise, recognition, capture and intercession, whose final disaster centres on the heroine’s husband. By coincidence, the scrappy lines that survived among the Oxyrhynchite waste-paper sound the key-note loud and clear. What was the Sophoclean Antigone least likely to say? Exactly what the older and sadder Antigone of Euripides says at the end of that scene: ‘Discretion is the better part of valour.’

The Antigone papyrus is published by David Hughes in ‘The Oxyrhynchus Papyri’ Vol. XLVII (1980), No 3317.