Dr. Susanne Shawyer, theatre historian in Elon’s Department of Performing Arts, compares the experience of ancient Athenians watching Antigone in the Theatre of Dionysus to contemporary audience members enjoying Antigone in Elon University’s new Roberts Theatre in her Talk on the Steps for Antigone by Sophocles, adapted and directed by Fred Rubeck (January 2015).
All hail Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, and theatre!
We gathered here today are citizens of Athens, 14,000 free-born men! And this is the Theatre of Dionysus, a mighty stone structure cut into the steeply sloping hill below the great city of Athens. On the hill behind us rises the Acropolis: temples to the gods, monuments to heroes, the weighty edifices that represent the military power of Athens and the blessings of the gods. Look up and you might see the colossal bronze statue of our patron goddess Athena. In the distance below us are the slopes of Attica: farmland, olive groves, and the sea beyond, shimmering in the far distance.
It is a warm day. The sun shines down on the large crowd. Everyone is excited: today marks the beginning of a festival of tragedy. The best playwrights in Attica were chosen. Wealthy citizens offered funds for spectacular costumes. Our friends and neighbors have been furiously rehearsing—each one eager to put on a performance worthy of the gods, and each one hoping that their performance will help their playwright win the prize. For this is not just a drama festival to honor the gods; this is a competition to honor the best theatre in Athens.
Around the theatre there still hangs the coppery acrid scent of blood from mass sacrifices of hundreds of goats and bulls. The priests are pleased: yesterday’s ritual procession and offerings to Dionysus went well. Look down to the front row of seats—there you can see the high priest of Dionysus in his stone throne. Around him flock the most senior city officials, and nearby, honoured visiting ambassadors. They settle into the front seats with the best view of the playing space.
We ordinary citizens sit further back. But we aren’t worried: the steep incline of the hillside ensures that every seat has a good view of the actors. Right now the chatter of the crowd overwhelms, but when the play starts, the bowl-shaped theatre will help send the voices of the actors to every listening ear with ease. People come and go. Old friends meet. Slaves scurry to bring food and drink. Ushers wander through the theatre, checking tickets to ensure we are seated in the correct section. Poor citizens, the ones holding charity tickets, must stay in the very back.
The stage in front of us is simple. The background could be the facade of any house, or temple, or palace: some columns, perhaps, and several doors leading backstage. In front of the stage we see the large circular space known as the orchestra—the dancing place. Here the chorus will sing and dance their odes to the gods. From here they will offer advice to the characters in the play. But before the chorus can enter to begin the play, we must witness four ceremonies:
- First, we watch as ten generals of Athens pour libations to Dionysus.
- Then we cheer as officials display tribute from our allies: wine, oils, precious jewels, and gold.
- Next we salute honoured citizens, valuable civic leaders, as they are crowned with garlands.
- And finally we pause in solemn contemplation as the war orphans of Athens parade before us.
And then, the play begins: not with words, but with music: the reedy nasal sound of the Greek double-flute, a kind of a cross between an oboe and a bagpipe. The flute player leads the chorus, 15-men strong, into the orchestra. The chorus processes in a stately march, three five-member groups moving in rectangular formations. As citizens of Athens, all members of the army, we appreciate their military precision. When the entire group has entered the orchestra, they dance, using pantomime gestures to indicate their uncertainty and confusion as citizens of Thebes—a city emerging from a deadly civil war, a city that saw two brothers fight to the death.
The first actor steps on stage: We know this is Antigone. Although the actor is male, his long tunic is richly embroidered as befitting a princess. He wears a tall wig with the hairstyle of an upper-class woman. His face is obscured by a wood and linen mask with a large, gaping mouth, frozen in a single expression of horror. His mask reminds us of what we citizens of Athens already know: Antigone was punished by her uncle the king for honoring the law of the gods over the laws of man.
The actor playing Antigone begins to speak, but the music of the flute continues, accompanying him as he recites his lines. A lyre joins in, adding the gentle twanging of plucked strings to the reedy melody of the flute. The flute player keeps time, tapping his wooden shoe on the stone floor of the orchestra. As Antigone speaks his voice is lifted by the natural acoustics of the hill and the funnel-shape of his mask mouth, so that we can hear him above the flute and the lyre, and above the murmuring of the crowd. We can’t see his face, but his voice is wonderfully expressive. His skill and the deft poetry of Sophocles’ words draw us in. And so we forget the press of the crowd, the wandering ushers, the smell of yesterday’s sacrifices, and the hard stone seats. We’re drawn into the dance, the music, and the poetry.
The experiences of Antigone’s first audience, almost 2500 years ago, can seem quite remote to us today in this brand new modern theatre. I promise you that tonight your seats are more comfortable than theirs. I promise you that there won’t be any speeches honoring local military achievements. And I promise you that no animals were sacrificed in the creation of this performance of Antigone. But in one way those ancient citizens of Athens were lucky. They were surrounded by visual representations of the theme of the play: the conflict between a moral law stemming from the worship of the divine and a human law created by civic leaders. Their theatre was next door to temples and statues. Their audience included priests and city leaders. Their theatre experience began with the worship of the gods. Connections to the play’s theme were all around them. We here at Elon tonight have to work just a little a bit harder to see the connections between the play and our everyday lives.
But all we need to do is cast our minds back to last weekend, when the nation stopped to honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We know that Dr. King rejected laws he considered unjust and inspired millions of Americans to actions of civil disobedience that changed the laws of the United States. As you watch the play tonight, ask yourself: what other connections can you find between Antigone’s civil disobedience and similar actions in the United States? What can this play tell us today about the moral and legal rules that surround us and sometimes come into conflict? What can Antigone teach us about the limits of the law?
Thank you and enjoy the show!