Adaptation: Antigone Throughout History
by Walter Bilderback, Dramaturg
“Sophocles is the playwright of heroism, and Antigone is the first female character in drama to be a hero in the full sense of the word. She is the first conscientious objector.” - Marianne McDonald,
As the Irish critic Fintan O’Toole writes, “There is not and never has been a pure, universal text of Antigone divorced from contemporary politics.” This is a result of the intense conflict at the center of the play. Hegel championed the play for opposing two absolute rights: the right of the family (honoring your kin) against the rights of the state (punishing traitors). This includes the first performance, which scholars agree contain topical references to the Samian War, where victorious Athens left the bodies of the enemy dead to rot in the sun. (Sophocles served as a general in the war and had personal knowledge of it.)
In the twentieth century, Antigone has frequently been adapted in response to authoritarian states. In the 1940s, Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht each adapted the play as a commentary on Nazism. In the 1960s, the radical Living Theater revived Brecht’s version. Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, and John Kani used the play as inspiration for The Island, where two imprisoned anti-Apartheid activists perform Antigone on Robben Island.
Several Irish playwrights adapted the play with a setting in “The Troubles” in the 1980s and 90s (Marianne McDonald’s translation was originally produced in Ireland, directed by Athol Fugard). In recent years, the play is again seeing multiple revivals in response to political turmoil, including a production by female Syrian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya uses the myth as inspiration for his novel The Watch, where an Afghan woman stands guard over the body of her brother, killed attacking a U.S. combat outpost.
THE ISLAND at the Royal Court Theatre, London, 1974. Photo by John Haynes.