A Calvin classics professor adapted the classic Greek play Antigone. A Calvin theater professor is directing it.
This fall, for his final production as a Calvin theater professor, Michael Page will direct Antigone, a play as ancient as is Greek drama. The adaptation Page will direct, however, is a newly minted one: Antigone as interpreted by colleague U.S. Dhuga of Calvin’s classical languages department.
“I’ve never done a Greek play before,” Page said. “I wanted to do something that went back to the origins of western theater.”
Authored by the playwright Sophocles in the fifth-century B.C., Antigone is the story of the daughter of Oedipus, infamous in both classical literature and Freudian psychology for killing his father and marrying his mother. Antigone defies Creon the king, to give her brother a proper burial after he has betrayed the state. Creon decrees that Antigone must be walled up alive as punishment, then relents—only to find that she has hanged herself.
“There’s enough evidence to suggest that Antigone is the most-performed Greek play in the history of the Western world,” said Dhuga, whose version resists the characterization of Antigone as tragic heroine: “It is easy to look at Creon and say he’s a tyrant …,” he said. “When you examine the ethical calculus of the play more closely, you must come to the conclusion that Antigone killed herself; Creon did not kill her.”
Indeed there is no obvious hero in the play, said Dhuga. “I suppose it depends on which side of the bed I woke up each morning. One day Antigone is my hero. The next day, Creon is my hero.” (An overlooked candidate for the hero role is the play’s chorus of old men, Dhuga suggests—an idea he explored in his recent book: Choral Identity and the Chorus of Elders in Greek Tragedy.)
The moral tension at the core of Antigone is what gives the play contemporary currency, Page believes: “Both Creon and Antigone are taking their beliefs to extremes. And the way that happens today is in people’s beliefs and ideologies. The families of Antigone and Creon are essentially destroyed because of … an unquestioning adherence to what they think is right without any sense of consequences.”
That moral tension is also the reason the play is a dramatic mainstay, Page said: “Theaters the world over have done this play again and again and again … . The issue never goes away because it’s actually not resolvable … . It’s as if we need to see it re-enacted because we need to see the problem again so that we can keep thinking about it.”
Faithful and contemporary
Page’s staging of Antigone will reflect this sense of re-visiting the tragedy: “It’s going to end, production-wise, exactly as it begins,” he said. “So there’s a sense that it re-curs endlessly.” He likes the way Dhuga’s adaptation makes the original text accessible to a modern audience.
“If we want to be completely faithful to the Greek, we can go to the extreme of performing the play in ancient Greek,” Dhuga explained the challenge of adaptation. “If we want to go to the extreme of having the play be popular, then we’d phone up Mick Jagger and have him sing the whole play—I’m not opposed to that, actually.”
Dhuga’s solution was to adapt the play using the four-pulse verses used by T.S. Elliot in his later plays. “It’s what I call ‘responsible popularization.’ Make it accessible, but not to the point of abandoning the original text.”
Dhuga uncovers new meaning, humor, spirit and even staging details in the drama, said theater professor David Leugs, who designed the sets for Antigone. “There’s a good soul to the play; that’s because he’s good at what he does,” Leugs said.
Dhuga admitted he enjoyed the challenge, which he took on, literally, standing up. Throughout the spring and summer, Dhuga was suffering from a herniated disc. “I couldn’t sit,” he said. “I was translating this around the clock … I pretty much plowed through this in a matter of months, with constant e-mails from Michael Page, saying, ‘Are you done yet?’ ‘Are you done yet?’”
Antigone will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3–5 and 10–12, and at 10 a.m. on Nov. 11, 2011 (for high school groups) in Calvin’s Gezon Auditorium. It will be Page’s sixth play as a director at Calvin. Unlike many recent productions, his Antigone will feature a full Greek chorus. Like Dhuga, Page is enjoying the balance of ancient and modern: “We tend to think that the Greeks are just like us. Well, in some ways, yes, but in others they are quite alien,” he allowed.
Also directed by Michael Page: The Return of the Prodigal, Jane Eyre, Arcadia, Dead Man Walking, The Cries of Wolves