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Antigone: Broadway Theatre Archive

"We're not a particularly affectionate family, are we?" asks King Creon (Fritz Weaver) to his niece Antigone (Genevieve Bujold) as they sit at his executive office table deliberating on why she should be executed. Granted, Antigone has seen her share of familial turmoil, coming as she does from the most dysfunctional family in history. Her father, King Oedipus, gouged out his eyes when he discovered that he'd killed his own father before wedding and bedding his own mother, and now he wanders the world in exile. Mom hanged herself. Antigone's two brothers, each ambitious for the throne, ignited a civil war that ended with their corpses locked in a final grapple. Now Uncle Creon grants one of the brothers, Eteocles, a hero's state funeral with all the trimmings. He condemns the other, Polynices, to be left unburied and rotting, exposed to vultures, dogs, and the elements. A young and willful romantic whose deepest feelings of duty and obligation are violated, Antigone is determined to bury Polynices with her bare hands if necessary. But the punishment for shoveling even a thin layer of earth over the carcass is death. It's not that Creon thought any more highly of Eteocles than Polynices — it's just that sometimes the leader of a modern police state has to make a point. It's water blood is thicker than, not politics.

The play Antigone was originally written by Sophocles around 441 B.C. Although Antigone was written first, you can think of it as a sequel to that touchstone of classical Greek drama, Oedipus Rex. It's the Godfather Part 2 of its day. In 1943, French playwright Jean Anouilh found within Sophocles' play elements reflective of his own time and place — France during the Nazi occupation. He stripped Antigone down to its lean essentials, tweaked motivations and characterization, and crafted this powerful contemporary update. So this version isn't about Antigone's choice between human and divine law, as Sophocles' was, but about the conflict between integrity and compromise, especially as that conflict smudges the line between courageous idealism and self-defeating zealotry. After Antigone is caught trying to bury the body, Creon attempts to spare her by asking her to collaborate with him in covering up her crime. She refuses. She struggles to maintain her purity of principle even as her reasons for doing so are punctured one by one and it becomes clear that compromise is avoided only by her execution.

Creon — not a dime-novel villain but a rational, complex man trying to do his job as best he can — seeks to avoid the inevitable through actions dictated by public image, preservation of the status quo, and his views of what's best for a people clamoring for stability. Claiming that he's driven by necessity to such "dirty work" as the desecration of Polynices' corpse, his intractable rationalizations are familiar to Anouilh (and to us) as the self-justifications of an internally calcified politician. Antigone rebels against an unjust law made for political show, and would rather die than join Creon's participation in a morally bankrupt world. Anouilh, writing in France under the Vichy government, most sympathizes with Antigone, the noncompromiser.

But this is no mere black/white morality fable. Both Creon and Antigone are flawed yet understandable in their polar extremism — even Creon, a former aesthete whose current position was thrust upon him, is a reluctant dictator whose tyranny comes less from inherent soul corruption than from an obsessive sense of duty to his laws and to the ship of state he is obliged to captain. This stubborn, unbending absolutism to any point of view is the "Fredo goes fishing" in Anouilh's script, for in the end both tragic characters pay heavy prices for their futile devotion to principle über alles, and Antigone's resistance yields no greater good — other than revealing the electric current at the heart of tragedy.

When staged during the brunt of Nazi occupation, Anouilh's pointed re-interpretation raised him to the forefront of French playwrights, and over the next half century he became one of the most popular dramatists in the world. Few modern plays have been produced as often as his Antigone. This production, broadcast in 1974* on PBS's Great Performances: Theater in America series, was lauded by the New York Times as "well acted, well directed and beautifully staged." It is all of those. This is a gripping, mesmerizing piece of work. Set in a Thebes that's a 20th century martial society, the action occurs on staged interiors (such as Creon's executive suite) and in found exterior locations of cold concrete walls and black-clad guards patrolling the streets.

The production is most remembered for Genevieve Bujold, then a rising star thanks to appearances in King of Hearts and Anne of a Thousand Days. Waifish and soulful, her Antigone encompasses both girlish frailty and a rebel's iron resolve. Fritz Weaver, familiar to decades of moviegoers and TV addicts, is powerful and solid as a layered, nuanced Creon. Anouilh changed the role of the Greek Chorus by compressing Sophocles' group of 15 to a single person with the power to address the audience and the characters to offer omniscient narration and commentary. Here that role is played with cynical, cigar-smoking detachment by Stacy Keach, lately known from TV's Titus and Mike Hammer series.

Of the second-tier players, the standout is Aline MacMahon as the Nurse. Leah Chandler plays Antigone's beautiful but acquiescent sister, Ismene. Louis Zorich provides some comic relief as Jonas, a working-class stiff who's one of Creon's guards. James Naughton turns Antigone's betrothed, Haemon, into something of a drip. It's all skillfully and artfully directed by Gerald Freedman.

*          *          *

This Broadway Theatre Archive DVD is from a videotape master that's in poor shape or is a, say, 3rd-generation dupe. It's plenty watchable, but expect a soft, low-definition image with thin, occasionally bleeding color. Likewise, the audio is less robust than other BTA center-channel audio tracks (which are typically very good), softened by noise and sometimes a "tin barrel" ambience. By no means are the image or audio show-stoppers, but the twitchier DVDphiles should be emotionally prepared beforehand. As with other discs in the extraordinary BTA catalog, Antigone offers up stage/film résumés for its key players, a slipsheet of production info, almost an hour's worth of previews for other BTA titles, and a series-complementing keep-case.

* Although the slipsheet states that the broadcast was in '73 and the keep-case says '72, the original master's closing credits and imdb.com agree on '74.

—Mark Bourne



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