One of the pleasures of working on a rich text is that we get to have the kind of discussions while making the play that audiences will eventually (we hope) have after seeing it.
Today we went right to the heart of things: the conflict between liberty and control. In the most basic schematic sense, it’s common to view Kreon as the agent of control, attempting to impose order on a city recently riven by war, and Antigone as the representative of individual liberty, following the dictates of her conscience in defiance of the laws of state.
Sophocles’ play is about an unsolvable contest. No doubt that’s why it’s hung around so long. The matter is so strong it can splinter off, and the splinters sustain their own plays. For example, the question of Antigone’s rebellion is often framed as one of religious vs. state authority. Which master must you serve?
In Mosher’s translation, secular vs. sacred authority takes a little bit of a backseat: it is evident both Kreon and Antigone believe they serve the gods (or at least neither believes he or she is offending them). Instead reason and responsibility are the essential points.
Mosher begins rehearsal by quoting from Isaiah Berlin’s The Proper Study Of Mankind. The question is how do you order society for the increase of liberty? “If all humans are rational, all good things should be compatible with all other good things,” says Mosher, quoting Berlin quoting Kant. Kant’s argument is boiled down to state that no rational law could impair an individual’s freedom. Berlin writes that this paves the way for the rule of the rational dictator: “I cannot consult all men about all enactments all the time. The government cannot be a continuous plebiscite.” I must make laws myself, and, “if I, as a ruler, construct a law based on my own rationality, any citizen should approve in so far as they are rational beings. If they dissent, they must be irrational.”
This is a stunning viewpoint on its face and yet so common in human history as to be in practice unremarkable. “This is the argument,” Mosher says, “that certain people are not fit to govern themselves. This is the Afrikaaner argument about black South Africans.” The history of political theory going back at least to Plato features this argument as a constant refrain, supporting centralized authority in the hands of the wise. Medieval Arab philosophers, in following the Greeks (Aristotle primarily), conceived of wisdom as an emanation of the divine intellect, and the ruler-philosopher as a person closer in proximity, more highly attuned, to this ultimate font of understanding. The people are quite literally feeble-minded in comparison. They are children. Neither the knowledge nor the authority that is proper to the king may be trusted to them.
Now this whole line of thinking gets a pretty good knock in the post-French Revolution, post-Enlightenment, post-Freudian world, where the notion of an objective reason and the rational man who is naturally attuned to it no longer holds water. But it’s such a powerful idea that it endures nonetheless. How often in arguments do you find yourself thinking (or saying aloud) that your position is so logical anyone who disagrees must therefore be illogical (àirrationalàinsane)?
The United States at this very moment is experiencing a crisis over domestic surveillance, and with each new charge the government’s response seems to be “you would come to the same conclusions if you were in my position with my information.” I cannot consult men about all enactments all the time I am rational, therefore my law is rational.
Mosher has been very deliberate, in following Hölderlin, to draw out Sophocles’ theme of insanity. Rebellion against order is insanity. The question of who has actually transgressed, Antigone or Creon, will come up again in a later post, about the famous choral speech on man. But in today’s rehearsal, Mosher notes that Kreon starts the play certain of his reason. “Issue my orders, and if you resist I take it upon myself to suppress the irrational impulse within you.” Antigone’s defiance is an act of madness. “Kreon makes complete sense to the world,” Mosher tells the company. “Antigone is something new.” But by the end of the play, Kreon is the one claiming “the gods have smashed into my head / and shaken me to chaos.”
Header Image by Mark Iocchelli