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Antigone and the House of Oedipus

by Dr. Emmanuela Bakola

Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the most widely read and frequently performed Greek tragedies, and was equally popular and successful already in antiquity. Its themes resonate powerfully until today, and the debates on them have never abated. The play’s reflections on the clashes between polis and oikos, public and private, law and custom, authority and freedom, male and female have captured the imagination of generations of scholars since antiquity. For all their heatedness and richness, however, these debates have often reduced the play to judgements of two personalities, Antigone and Creon on the basis of their words in the play.

Thinking about the clashes and the dilemmas unfolding in the Antigone while experiencing the play as a mere text is very different from engaging with it as a performative entity, as it was conceived to be. In Greek theatre – as in all theatre – it is not only the words of the characters that are understood to produce meaning; equally significant is the meaning produced through performance, including the meaning conveyed by the symbolic characterisation of the spaces in which the characters move and with which they interact, the manners in which they interact with these spaces, the ways that the images they construct through their words are mapped on the stage. All this adduces far richer and more refined meaning to characters’ words and the dramatic action, and contribute to the play’s complexity.

The dramatic action of Antigone takes place in front of the palace of Thebes, the house of the royal Theban family, the most famous inhabitant of which was Oedipus. This house is not a mere backdrop, nor a space with mere representational function: it is not there for the characters to come in and out of, nor even for the royal power of Creon to be represented physically. It is something much richer symbolically and haunts the play from the beginning to the end. It is a space which in its darkness hides terrible memories of acts of murder, incest and suicide, and the terrible history of a family that is plagued by inescapable flaws and their terrible consequences.

In the play the house is spoken of as a space that conceals a power which the Greeks understood as having psychological but also divine provenance and effect: a daimon, an Erinys, a Curse:

From ancient times I see the troubles of the dead

of the Labdacid house falling hard upon one another, nor does one generation release another,

but some one of the gods shatters them,

and they have no means of deliverance.

For lately the light spread out above the last root in the house of Oedipus;

it too is mown down by the bloody chopper of the infernal gods,

folly in speech and the Erinys in the mind. (Soph. Antigone 594-604)

These words are part of the song that the chorus performs at the first climax of the play - immediately after the clash between Creon and Antigone, Antigone’s condemnation to be buried alive in an underground pit, and the imprisonment of the two sisters in the house. They articulate what we had earlier on heard in a concealed fashion, through cryptic words of Ismene, Creon and the chorus members, namely the history of the family, especially that of Oedipus: once a powerful king and hailed as saviour of Thebes, Antigone’s father Oedipus discovered that he had in fact murdered his father Laius, slept with his mother Jocasta and had four children with her. At the realisation of his unwitting crimes, Jocasta killed herself in the house, and Oedipus took his own life soon after (in this play). All had started one generation earlier, with Laius’ falling out of favour with the divine and bringing a ‘Curse’ upon the family. This lasting effect of the Curse can be seen in the recent mutual killing of Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, over the rule of Thebes.

What is this Curse, however, under the effect of which so many members of the family are presented to act? Is it something that operates independently of the characters? Are the characters just passive victims of it? Not exactly: a force like a Curse in Greek tragedy operates on both a psychological and a divine level, and these are not mutually exclusive.

In tragic texts, Curses are usually attributed to families and are spatially located in the house of those families, the dark interior space which in many plays broods in the background. In this way, the psychopathology of a family, that inner power that pervades members of the family, generation after generation, and both pushes them to their actions but also ensures the punishments they suffer, is captured by that highly significant space – the house. The best examples of this effect are two works of Aeschylus, the Oresteia, and the (now partially lost) trilogy which contained the Seven Against Thebes. In Antigone, Sophocles draws extensively on both. In both, the power of the Curse/Fury pervades both the house and the characters’ innards. Interiors of both house and characters become one in more than one ways. Its brooding presence in the background and the ways the characters are related to it has an enormous dramatic effect in respect of the characters’ psychologies.

What does this mean for Antigone and the eponymous heroine? It is no secret that in the play it is not only Creon’s tyrannical behaviour that is disturbing, but also, as generations of scholars have pointed out, by the spirit of Antigone, which tends to excess. Her aims are noble, but her manner and her passion betray something deeply problematic. For all that we sympathise with the heroine, and for all that we see that her aims are noble, we cannot shy away from descriptions which suggest that a destructive power seethes inside her. Understanding the importance of the interior space that looms in the background, the dark house that houses a disturbing family history and a force that pervades its members, generation after generation, during performance may help us shift our assessment from pure psychology, which does not really do justice to the play, to something wider, that includes psychology but also other factors that push and ensure the family’s demise. In many ways, the house captures the very spirit of the Labdacid family, who, however noble their aims, would always suffer for it.

In this production, the house of the Atreids has been designed as an oppressive space that weighs heavily over the members of the Labdacid family, with its heart trapping them both metaphorically and literally – even at the most noble moments – in an ever perpetuating cycle of loss and death. Its shape evokes a tomb, playing on, and accentuating, the irony that Antigone is sent to an offstage tomb to die. The really deadly space, however, that looms in the play is the spatial heart of the family – the house.