- Gail Wilson Kenna
“Your name is Antigone? How special,” I said. The woman on the phone did not reply. She had called from a medical center to set up a “swallow” test for me (no relation to the bird). Who knows what she thought when I commented on her name?
After Antigone ended the call, I went downstairs where I keep a library from the past. There I pulled out The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles, with its complete text of Antigone. The play is marked, of course, because Dr. Berry from England (no U.K. use then) gave oral exams, as he had at Oxford University. In the spring of 1964, as a student in Classical Greek and Roman Literature, I thought of Oxford University as a singular place, not a collection of individual colleges. I did understand that Dr. Berry gave oral exams. And I have this brilliant man to thank for letting me know what a fake I was. Blue book merde in so many of my literature classes, parroting the professor to feed egos, or hoping the poor sap (T.A.) in reading long written answers might be seduced by my empty verbiage.
Face to face, one on one, learning changes.
Dr. Berry would have asked me to name the great trinity of Greek tragedians and spell aloud each of their names. Have I ever forgotten Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles? No! And I would have been asked to explain the background and actions of the Antigone by Sophocles. I would have memorized this material, aware that after the recitation, the questioning would begin.
Mock answer: Antigone’s two brothers were Eteocles and Polyneices (names had to be correctly pronounced). Both were killed in the struggle for the kingship of Thebes. But Antigone’s uncle, Creon, had forbidden, under penalty of death, the burial of Polyneices because he died fighting against his own city and the body was to be left to rot. But Antigone poured dust over her brother’s corpse, and for doing this, Creon sentenced her to be entombed alive. In the cave she committed suicide, as did betrothed Haemon, son of Creon. Stage of bodies, in other words! Then it was time to discuss with Dr. Berry the conflict in the Antigone between private conscience and public duty, between sacred obligations of burying a dead brother and the state’s arbitrary punishment. Weren’t Antigone and Creon both uncompromising and unyielding? Then Dr. Berry, a young, dark-haired, charming man, kept probing my answers to his questions. No hiding one’s ignorance or superficiality. What an uncomfortable and necessary gift from professor to student.
I will end with something I’d marked in the play, between a common soldier and Creon. The sentry is talkative, independent, subtle; and he is the one who tells Creon that someone has buried the traitor’s body (Polyneices). Creon flies into a rage, storms about treachery and corruption, then threatens the guard that he must produce the culprit or be hanged. Here are words that follow:
Sentry: Sir, may I have another word? Or do I go?
Creon: Can’t you see your very voice distresses me?
Sentry: In the ear or in the conscience?
Creon: What business is it of yours to analyze me?
Sentry: Because my voice only hurts your ear. Your conscience is affected by the deed.
Creon: By God, what a born chatterbox!
Sentry: Maybe, but I didn’t do the deed.
Creon: Yes, you did! You have sold your soul for money.
Sentry: Dear me! What can one do when a man jumps to the wrong conclusion?
On it goes, until Creon strides into the palace. Then the Chorus sings an ode which celebrates the glory of man but imagines his downfall should he prove impious or lawless. This ode foreshadows the fates of Antigone and Creon. I wish impious and lawless might foreshadow the downfall of some in our land. I write this as I look down at The Atlantic’s new issue for April and its lead article, “The New Anarchy.”
If you know of persons who retain a love of literature and good writing, please let them know about my weekly posting. It saddens me to see that only 26 read my words last week.