Antigonian thoughts

The following was as my final weekly paper of the Spring Semester and serves a reflection on how Jean Anouilh’s Antigone affected me personally and academically, touching on a few things with which I struggled during the past few months. My writing mentor encouraged me to share it, so if it speaks to you—enjoy!

“In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known.” So says the Chorus of The Saint Constantine School’s recent production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone

If only, last week, I could have said the same.

Adapted from the original by Sophocles, Anouilh’s Antigone tells the story of the eponymous Antigone, who, in the wake of civil war, rebels against her uncle Creon’s decree that the body of her dead brother Polynices is to be left unburied as a warning to the rest of Thebes. Not only had I never read or seen any version of Antigone, but when I attended opening night, it was the first time I had attended any Saint Constantine play. From the acting to the set to the music, I was floored by the quality and poignancy of the production. I emerged from the theater in a state of excited confusion, my emotions ranging from awe to sadness that the play was over to a desire to audition for the next play that the school put on. I felt a palpable burning in my chest, a yearning to do something with what I had just witnessed. I hurried home, immediately hopped on a video call with my family, and begged them to attend Antigone with me next week. Though clearly confused, they agreed, and I eventually went to sleep, the burning in my chest somewhat—though not completely—eased.

The week that followed was Keystone Week, during which I forgot Antigone in the excitement of the entire college coming together to discuss two “Keystone” texts. While both Keystones were enjoyable, after Thursday’s Keystone on Dante’s Divine Comedy, I found myself having a mild anxiety attack over whether I had done the right thing by choosing to come to Saint Constantine. Perhaps it was that the Keystone offered a glimpse of how my discussion cohort will look in future semesters—something about which I have often worried—or perhaps it had to do with the fact that Dante’s journey through the afterlife always leaves a particular impression on me emotionally, but regardless, I found myself in a state of existential panic. My fear was marked by several questions, all of which I had contemplated before, but usually not with as much consternation as I did then. Did I make the right decision in coming here? I wondered. Will everything I’m doing here be worth it? And the biggest one: Why am I here, really? I voiced aloud all these questions but felt no immediate comfort in doing so.

Friday dawned. I remembered that my family would be driving in to see Antigone with me that night. The idea sounded vaguely enjoyable, but I still felt burdened by my unanswered questions from the previous afternoon. Nevertheless, I met my family at the Upper School that evening to see the play. As the lights dimmed and Antigone and Creon began their standoff once again, I felt the same feeling of enthrallment that I had experienced last week return. I drank in the play, becoming excited when I noticed different things about it than I had last time.

Later that night, I sat alone, processing my second experience of Antigone. I felt refreshed and strangely excited, and once again, that burning feeling of do something, do something, smoldered in my chest, more intensely than it had last time. But what could I do? The final night of the play was sold out, so I couldn’t take anyone else to see it. Almost involuntarily, I prayed aloud, asking God how to alleviate this feeling that seemed to reflect something much bigger than me. How do I channel this feeling into something that will glorify You, God? I asked. What do I do with this yearning that seems so important?

And then I was reminded of the question I had desperately asked God the night before: Why am I here?Suddenly, in that moment, the answer to that question hit me, as if God Himself was responding: To figure out how to respond to that feeling. As I sat there, I could feel the play—as if a living thing—speaking to me, calling me to acknowledge its message and, somehow, to spread it. And at the same time, I was acutely aware of the two more years I had pledged to spend at Saint Constantine looming in my future. But how, I wondered, do I learn how to best share an experience that is now in the past? I didn’t know, but—ah. “That is why I’m here,” I realized. Like a line in a play, it seemed important to say aloud. Because I had had that feeling before and therefore would likely have it again; but maybe the next time it came, I would be slightly less confused over how to handle it. My time at Saint Constantine had already taken me so far, but I tended to forget that I still had so far to go. I felt a wave of peace and hope wash over my heart. I sat down to write. That helped.

I also knew from past experience at Saint Constantine that in-depth discussion was part of the solution to responding to the individual impact made by a particular work of art. The next morning, I called a fellow student who had also seen Antigone that night and who was just as eager to understand it as I was. We spent an hour and a half discussing the play, and with every point of interest that we shared, my heart surged with gratitude for the fact that God had deemed it right to place me at Saint Constantine, that I should know so many people who also felt understood what I felt and who, like me, were committed to learning how to channel it into some tool or practice to further truth and goodness.

I don’t know that I will ever fully understand Antigone, but of one thing I am sure: Antigone did to me what tragedy is supposed to do. Aristotle’s definition of tragedy states that a good tragedy will prompt the audience member to experience catharsis—a release of emotions such as fear, pity, or anger—through the experiences of the characters in the tragedy. I remember leaning forward during the climax of the play, lost in the electricity of Antigone and Creon’s verbal battle of emotion and conviction. I remember being especially struck by the intentionality of the characters’ eye contact—or lack thereof. Creon often addressed the audience as he spoke to Antigone, his eyes traveling from face to rapt face. This action had the effect of making me want to respond to his argument and gave the sense that he was trying, desperately, to get me on his side. Occasionally he succeeded, and it was in those moments that I looked to Antigone, ready for her to expound her counterargument to the audience with the same intense eye contact that her uncle utilized, ready for my eyes to reflect—in return—my ultimate support of her, not Creon.

But no matter how much I wanted Antigone to turn her tear-filled eyes to me—to anyone in the audience—she never did. I wanted to help her as she sat there, resisting Creon alone. But she never once averted her eyes, and so I knew that there was nothing I—or anyone else— could do to help her. And somehow, I saw that even if I could help, to try to do so would have been wrong. I understood that she had chosen to be alone. It was necessary for the full impact of her sacrifice. What a sacrifice!

The fate of the characters in a tragedy are set in stone. Both Antigone and Creon are completely convinced of their own opinions; nothing will change. We the audience are told that everyone will die before they do—because they already have. It hurts, for no one—including Antigone and Creon themselves—really wants Antigone to die. And yet the necessary tragedy of Antigone’s rebellion against Creon is an age-old story, one that inevitably continues to be told, whether in fiction or in history. There have been many Antigones and Creons and, to quote the Chorus once more, there will continue to be. Tyrants will continue to rise, and resistors will continue to rise to meet them. They will ultimately die. We are prepared for this. What we are never prepared for is the gradual glory and healing that follows in the wake of their deaths. 

I will not be so dramatic as to say that my life is a tragedy, and so neither can I say that I will ever know mydestiny for certain. But I do think that, somehow, Antigone helped me understand it just a little bit more. In one way, choosing to stay at Saint Constantine is a sacrifice. I know some of my family members don’t understand my choice, having gone to perfectly good large colleges themselves. I even think a few of my state school-attending friends feel like they should pity me, as if I only stay at Saint Constantine because I don’t have any other options or because I’m not bold enough to try something else. The world doesn’t understand what I do here, and this is something I have to bear on top of the other typical struggles of going to college. It is a sacrifice. But Creon didn’t understand Antigone either, and yet still she held her ground. And so I can hear her ask me, “Will you let the sacrifice of your being here defeat you or will you, like me, bear it—see it through—for the sake of what you believe in, for the sake of the right idea of happiness?”

During our phone call, my fellow student pointed out a key moment in the play that had partially slipped my notice. He reminded me that even though Creon spends at least twenty minutes trying to convince Antigone of the ultimate rightness of his decree, when he is finished, instead of giving a rebuttal, she stands and starts to leave. When Creon asks where she is going, she simply replies, “You know where.” And Creon does know. Because regardless of what Creon says, Polynices still lies rotting; and that in itself is enough to make Antigone keep going back to bury him. It is this—not Antigone’s death—that is significant about her story. She is willing to die for a thing that seems, in one way, trivial, and yet also represents her unwillingness to let her opinion on the direction in which the moral compass of Thebes is pointing be pushed aside.

In this way, and in many other ways, Antigone represents the weight, the importance, of the education I am pursuing here, and of the goodness in fighting for it. I hope I, like her, will keep coming back to bury Polynices. I hope I will keep coming back—to Saint Constantine and anywhere else that is truly worthwhile—to do the hard, sacrificial work that fosters true flourishing, genuine happiness, and eternal rewards—no matter the opposition. I am lucky in the sense that, unlike Antigone, I don’t have to be alone as I do that work. While what I do here is alienating in one way, ultimately my sacrifice depends not on choosing to be alone, but on choosing some of the best aspects of community. It is hard to continuously be writing, discussing, giving my time and attention not just to the timeless ideas of Plato and Dante but of my own classmates. But the release will come, and the reward will be great. Antigone proves this. So ultimately it seems that Antigone is right: perhaps Thebes does need to crumble to survive. But so long as Thebes bears the scar of Antigone’s death—as long as it recognizes and remembers the importance of her sacrifice—there is hope.

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