September 7, 2007


Staging Antigone in Switzerland following the Second World War, the continent remaining to be rebuilt, Bertolt Brecht reached into the tragedy for its essential dramatic resource: a lesson of absolute ruination. In this treatment, he said, the played is allowed to work its inherent powers upon those who dare stage it.

Thebes in a climate of war has no room left for a position reserved for what we crave to call humanity. The Chorus of Sophocles, over the scattered bodies, speaks of a coming wisdom. But for Brecht, there can be no instruction given the atmosphere within which the tyrants are able to operate and the individuals, whatever their claims to the law, are seduced into vulnerability and smashed into subjection or suicide. No law, no family bond, no rebellion through a "fierce presence" (as Lacan says of Antigone herself) can be extracted from the wreckage.

"Violence," Brecht writes, "splits the forces instead of wedding them together; basic humanity, under too much pressure, explodes scattering everything with it into destruction."

The point of catharsis, given this, is death itself. No appeal to the law will aid the future once the tyrant Creon, operating through the gruesome trivium of power, fear, and retribution has made his declaration. His faith in his right position, a self-serving selflessness that promises protection for the city, blossoms under the heat of the circumstance. Therefore, Brecht insists, rightly, that the voice affirming always his decision-making authority can only be unteachable. The tyrant is, by definition, incapable of ever responding to reason, to insight, even to the bloody stains of the carnage. His own "daughter"--and any allure of a future escape through what follows--perishes in the conflations of power and prejudice.

This reading also rejects any sense that Antigone has been somehow vindicated by her choice of holding to obligations of the the family despite all risk (she is protected, this thought goes, by the higher law). In Brecht's version, the law is no match for the "inadequacy" of those who inhabit the positions of decision. The tragedy eclipses all that is on the stage and the very terms with which one may long to intervene for the sake of doing what is right through the rites of memory and blood and mourning. All to no avail. Such is the lesson of the circumstance.