Almost two and a half millennia separate the ancient Greek version of Antigone (attributed to Sophocles) and its modern adaptation written by A.R. Gurney. The classic version is part of Sophocles’ trilogy of Theban plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. The great Greek myth of Oedipus continues to be integral to the Western literary canon even today. Starting from 5th century B.C., various ancient writers of the Hellenistic era made references to Oedipus in their works. The modern adaptation for theatre by A.R. Gurney offers an interesting contextualization of heroine Antigone’s fight against authority. In both the cases, the theme is the same, one of confrontation of the individual will against a powerful authority figure. In Sophocles’ Antigone, this antagonist was Creon the King. In Gurney’s play it is the Professor in Classics Department George Henry Harper. But the nature of struggle of the two heroines is the same. This essay will argue that the depiction of the power of Higher Authority is crucial to the dramatization and moral deliberation of the two plays.
Professor Henry Harper is equated to the all powerful Creon of Sophocles’ conception. To match with his role as an intimidator Harper is given a grizzly white beard by author Gurney. The University of Boston and its hierarchy of administrators provide the power structure for Another Antigone, with Henry Harper assuming a key position of power within in the Department of Classics. He is a tragicomic character in an academic environment that is struggling with reduced government funding and decreasing student enthusiasm. It is in this backdrop that Judy Miller plays out her tryst with power. (Diski 49) Miller, a candidate for valedictorian, presents her bold reworking of Antigone in blank verse form in the place of a formal term paper. Taken aback by this disrespect for rules, the professor exclaims “Another Antigone!” in reference to both the work being presented and its author. At this point a antagonistic position of the rebellious student and her convention respecting professor is established.
In Sophocles’ Antigone, by contrast, the confrontation between Antigone and her uncle Creon (the ruler of Thebes) begins with the demise of her two brothers Eteocles and Polyneices. Since Creon was on the side of Eteocles during the combat between the two brothers, he decrees to honor him in death. In sharp contrast he decrees that Polyneices be left rotting in the battle field sans a proper burial. This is the highest form of punishment in ancient Greek and its evocation is a measure of Creon’s hostility toward Polyneices. (Botton 20) In Creon’s own view, what legitimizes his decree is his authority as the supreme ruler of Thebes. He performs very little moral deliberation before setting his order to execution. It is unfair to compare Creon with Gurvey’s Harper, for the latter is not so much arrogant as formal and conservative. Henry Harper’s power in the University is nowhere near equal to that wielded by Creon, the emperor of Thebes. Hence, although the two authority figures share a position of prestige and power, their personalities and purviews are very different.
The overbearing undergrad Antigone, Ms. Miller, has “as great an irrational self-confidence in her thespian powers as Shakespeare’s Bottom, and when Henry Harper, that old Creon, refuses to give her play at least a B, she launches a campaign against him, including charges of anti-Semitism, that leads to a proper catastrophe.” (Disch 174) But in Sophocles’ classic, Polyneices’ beloved sister Antigone is a balanced, intellectual and humane person (as evidenced from allusions in the play). Her love for her brother impels her to bury him properly. Though this action would invoke the wrath of Creon and jeopardize her life, her humanity and love supersedes all other considerations. Antigone believes that though she may die as a consequence of her rightful action, she anticipates being rewarded for it in the afterlife. Hence, what legitimizes her actions is moral fortitude that has a founding on ancient theology. So the approach and the basis for confronting power in the two plays are varied. Both heroines have their moral standpoint, but Sophocles’ Antigone’s rebellion is more weighty and intense than her contemporary alter-ego.
Coming back to the way in which authority figures utilize their power, Creon is so consumed by his power that his decisions lack elaborate moral scruples. His stubbornness will tragically lead to the death of his own son Haemon, his beloved wife Eurydice and also that of his niece Antigone. Through these great losses he learns a lesson in humility and realizes all too late that one cannot become a law onto oneself. In other words, even the supreme command of the King will have to submit to the natural laws of humanitarian justice. Harper, on the other hand, is not so much dictated by vanity or egoism as he is by a conservative view of education. He sincerely believes that following the framework of rules set for the curricula is in the best interests of his students. It is for this reason and also for instilling decorum in her pugnacious pupil that he takes objection with her alternative paper.
Studying the two plays through Aristotle’s conception of tragedy makes for an interesting scholarly exercise. One of Aristotle’s most influential works concerning literary theory is his Poetics. In it he articulates with eloquence and clarity various facets of good theatre. Tragedy is acknowledged as a powerful genre of drama. Aristotle goes on to set out various rules of thumb for making aesthetically and emotionally satisfying tragedies. His concise definition of tragedy is that it is “an imitation of an action that is serious … with incidents arousing pity and fear, in order to accomplish the catharsis of such emotions.” (Botton 20) Tragedy is relevant to the discussion to the extent that it is often the by-product of abuse of power. This is clearly evident in the two plays in question.