In her updated rendition of the play she calls the Antigonick by Sophokles, Anne Carson fashions a protagonist with the headspace of a suicide bomber. Her Antigone is in love with the idea of martyrdom, and the fact that she is so public about it undermines her noble motives. Born from the incest of Oedipus, she has a cursed life, so this is a respectable way out for her. Carson highlights the aspect that she is more than slightly crazed when she responds to king Kreon’s question: “And you with your head down you’re the one?” With the one-word reply, “Bingo.”
Based on a Theban legend, the original Antigone was written for the ancient Greek stage in Athens, where it was first performed in 441 BC. The Parthenon was nearing completion in that year and the large audience watching would look up to see the massive building in the background.
At the time, King Kreon in the play could easily be associated with Pericles, the Athenian statesman who was ultimately responsible for the construction of the Parthenon and the ethically problematic formation of the Athenian empire.
From the beginning, there were political overtones to this play. The German philosopher Hegel obsessed on this work and declared it in his Aesthetics to be “one of the most sublime and in every aspect most excellent works of art of all time.”
In the play, Antigone ignores an edict forbidding the burial of her brother Polyneices, citing the sacred laws of the gods, and buries the body. Then, under King Kreon’s order, she is locked in a mausoleum to starve to death.
Carson’s work is more of a rewriting than a translation of the Sophoclean story. It is riveting and humorous. At one point, Kreon arrives with his new powerboat, “the ship of state” he claims to pilot in the play. At another point he calls the guard a goat’s anus, a play on the word “tragedy” in Greek. It is full of such unexpected surprises and wordplay. However, it does cut out some of the balance of equal claims of the original. Antigone’s valid claim of conscience overshadows King Kreon’s claim of law. In deliberately presenting the story as Carson has, she shows an imbalance in the sentiment of our time. On a stage, this version could even be acted as a tragi-comedy.
As it is presented, it is a complete reading experience. The book begins and maintains itself with little punctuation. Given that was one of the problems with ancient texts, it is as though Carson is having fun with us. The book is also reproduced in Carson’s own capitalized printed handwriting, which is at times difficult to read. The pages are deliberately not numbered. At first appearance, it looks like a graphic novel of outsider art. It is gutsy to present this as a fringe book. It makes the argument for the graphic novel saving the printed-book format alongside PDF books. Bianca Stone’s illustrations are immediate and visceral, and Robert Currie’s overall book design has elegance and strength.
It may be Carson has digested Plato’s comment in the Laws when he says: “Strip what the poet has to say of its poetical colouring and you must have seen what it comes to in plain prose. It is like a face that was never really handsome when it has lost the fresh bloom of youth.” Her poetry is an embodiment of the opposite of this. This is why her poetry will last in lines like this:
KREON: “Late to learn o yes I am late too late o then o then some god slammed down on me a heavy weight some god shook me out on those rain roads alas for the joy of my life that I’ve trampled underfoot alas for us all going dark”
Ewan Whyte is a writer and translator living in Toronto. His work includes translations of the poetry of Catullus and the odes of Horace.