Saturday, August 11, 2012


Erin B. Mee, Helene P. Foley (ed.), 'Antigone' on the Contemporary World Stage. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xxi, 469. ISBN 9780199586196. $150.00.

Reviewed by Mary-Kay Gamel, University of California, Santa Cruz (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Here is another large, handsome, and expensive volume in the Classical Presences series, dedicated to the reception of texts, ideas, images and material culture of ancient Greece and Rome. It differs from earlier books on the reception of individual Greek plays in more than its chosen play: its time frame is limited to post-World War II; it covers a very wide geographical range including not only Europe and North America but Africa, Latin America, the Middle and far East; and its focus on performance is stronger and more specific (see, for example, pp. 10-23 in chapter 1). The editors are an interesting combination—a senior classical scholar who is the leading U.S. expert on ancient Mediterranean drama in performance and a junior theater scholar and practitioner who specializes in Indian theater—and the authors too are evenly balanced between classicists and theater scholars. Mee and Foley make clear that this is a book about reception, not the "classical tradition": they regard the play/figure "not as an exemplar of 'universal high Western culture'" but as something "that has been remade in and on other terms, and consequently now 'belongs' to the world in a wide variety of forms" (3). Since "adaptation can be more of a challenge to the 'original' than a derivative of it" (4), the productions discussed "remake not only the material itself, but ways of seeing the world" (5). They provide an excellent discussion of distinctions between translating, adapting and other kinds of remixing and remaking 6-10.

The editors apparently assume that readers of this volume already know the characters, plot and issues of Sophocles' play, since they devote only nine pages (34-43) to it, including very brief references to the extensive scholarship on the play. They aim "to highlight the choices that might be made in new stagings" (36) but summarize the conditions of the original staging in Athens in only one paragraph. Yet the contributors often refer to Sophocles and Athenian performance conditions. Since some of the productions use Anouilh's or Brecht's versions of Antigone, these scripts are briefly discussed (43-47). The sole essay on Antigone in antiquity is a typically fine contribution by Edith Hall, but it is devoted to demonstrating that Antigone achieved the status of an acknowledged masterpiece within a century of its composition because the subject matter was "unusually susceptible to cultural translation to different kinds of community" (62).

Before continuing I must point out that print is terribly inadequate for performance studies. It is impossible satisfactorily to convey ideas about performance, which takes place in four dimensions, in a two-dimensional medium. Still photographs can help (the volume under review includes forty-eight, an unusually high number) but only so far. As a result performance studies in print must describe in detail the artefacts under consideration before analysis and evaluation can occur. Add to this the need to describe complex historical contexts, and the problems multiply. As so often, performance studies of music are ahead of those in theater: these studies often include a CD or an associated website which contains musical illustrations, There is an intriguing reference in the Acknowledgements of this volume to a "website associated with this book" (x) but Helene Foley informs me that this has not yet been realized, though she and Mee hope it will be. I hope that those involved with future volumes of this sort will understand the importance of including more appropriate documentation including video; of course video recording has its own limitations, but it is far superior to print and still photos. A very hopeful development for performance studies of ancient Mediterranean drama is the resurrection of the online journal Didaskalia under the editorship of Amy R. Cohen, which can include video in its essays and reviews:

Among the plays of Sophocles Antigone is the most explicitly political, and the editors point out that productions of Antigone "often serve as a mask behind which to hide a critique of the government and avoid censorship" (27). The essays in this volume demonstrate how productions at particular historical moments have focused on different political questions important to artists and audiences. The chapters about modern productions are organized into six headings which supposedly differentiate the essays along thematic lines, but at times the essays seem to be grouped according to their historical context: the two in Part V and the two in Part VI fit this model. In any case each essay stands on its own, and few readers are likely to read the whole volume through, as I did; researchers in particular areas are instead likely to mine the essays, appendix, and bibliography. There is much gold here, and every essay has value, but there are significant variations among them in quality and power. My general observations: 1) the fewer productions discussed, the more successful the essay; 2) when authors have personally experienced the productions they discuss, the quality of analysis goes way up; 3) when the importance of the political implications gets more focus than the productions, the effect is diminished; 4) vivid, articulate and powerful writing makes a huge difference.

Herewith the essays which best exemplify these criteria. Erincin analyzes a 2006 production in Istanbul, including very specific details about acting, choreography, set, and lighting, and a brief but effective discussion of the political context. Hunsaker describes how he created a 1984 production in collaboration with Yup'ik Elders and performers from a particular Alaskan village, based on traditional tales and including singing, drumming, and masks. This production toured internationally and finally played at LaMaMa E.T.C. in New York City, where the run ended early because two Elders in the village were dying and the troupe decided to return. Hunsaker comments "Our performers were not actors, after all, but practitioners of a living culture. And that had been the point we were trying to explore from the very beginning" (200). A complete video of this production is commercially available (Bethel, Alaska : Kyuk Video Productions, 1984) but oddly Hunsaker does not mention it. Smethurst's and Van Steen's essays both consider productions which raised issues arising from national responses to the Second World War, a 2004 production in Tokyo and one in Thessaloniki in 2003; Smethurst's discussion of the setting (224) is especially good. Similarly, Seamon's and Chang's essays focus on American and Canadian productions influenced by politics and culture after 9/11, and both examine how particular staging techniques evoked audience reactions.

In my personal favorite, Treu describes how powerfully the setting was used in a 2006 production staged at a German military cemetery in Italy, arguing that the "core message" was "Germans and Fascists were also citizens, sons, brother, not just enemies" (312) and that the directors wanted to evoke "pity both for the dead and the survivors and for all wasted life" (323). Foley's strong essay, defying my first observation above, very effectively discusses U.S. productions of Anouilh's play in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2009 and concludes with the thoughtful suggestion (no doubt drawing on her forthcoming book on U.S. productions of Greek tragedy 1) that "Twenty- first-century America seems uncomfortable with an Antigone who is not a talented, immature, damaged, volatile obsessive . . . The contemporary US stage continues to have trouble making meaning, if not social satire and criticism, out of such dramatic attempts at political resistance" (390-91). Finally, Hardwick very thoughtfully delineates a 2001 production in Edinburgh by a Georgian theater company in light of both political events in Georgia and protests at a recent G7 meeting in Genoa. She combines acute attention to detail with a broad perspective which could serve as the conclusion missing from this volume: "The Edinburgh production and its reception by audiences and critics brings together a number of the issues that concern historians of Greek drama—how a play 'migrates' across time, place and language and what adheres to it or is shed on the way; how it is 'read' in performance by practitioners and spectator; how it is experienced in different ways in different context; what the spectators (and readers) actively bring to the experience in terms of their expectations, their cultural frameworks of reference and the links they make between theatre and current events" (395). It is worth noting that each of these essays except the last make excellent use of photographs.

Some of the other essays are problematic. Mee has perhaps taken on too much by combining a survey of Indian history since 1947 with discussions of two productions which require explaining Indian attitudes to theater and complex theater practices to nonspecialists. Selaiha's essay, the longest in the volume, takes on even more—eight productions in Egypt from 1965 to 2008! A more detailed analysis of fewer productions more carefully located in their historical context would have been far better. Worthen, Fradinger in "Danbala's Daughter" and Goff and Simpson discuss plays they have not seen, which leads them to focus on the text and secondhand information about theatrical effects (though lack of evidence does not stop the latter authors from making proclamations about such effects 333). Such strategies undercut the focus on performance so carefully spelled out in the introduction. There is no substitute for firsthand experience of live drama.

Overall this volume makes a definite contribution to performance studies of ancient Mediterranean drama.2 Given its importance I urge OUP to issue it in paperback. The single thing that would take this field to a higher level would be the ready availability of moving images of a greater range of live theatrical productions and the inclusion of moving images in critical studies. Happily, this technological development seems not only possible but coming soon to archives, books and journals near you.

Table of Contents

I. Antigone in Antiquity
1. Mobilizing Antigone, Erin B. Mee and Helene P. Foley
2. Antigone and the Internationalization of Theatre in Antiquity, Edith Hall
II. An Ancient Greek Play?
3. An Argentine Tradition, Moira Fradinger
4. Irish Antigone and Burying the Dead, Fiona Macintosh
III. Cultural and Political Freedom
5. The Fight for Regional Automony Through Regional Culture: Antigone in Manipur, NE India, Erin B. Mee
6. Danbala's Daughter: Felix Morisseau-Leroy's Antigòn en Kreyòl, Moira Fradinger
7. Antigone Inculturated in Tainan of Southern Taiwan, Dongshin Chang
8. How the Fish Swims in Dirty Water: Antigone in Indonesia, Cobina Gillitt
IV. Antigone and Human Rights
9. Performing Rebellion: Eurydice's Cry in Turkey, Serap Erincin
10. To Mock the Spirits: Yup'ik Antigone in the Arctic, Dave Hunsaker
11. Declaring and Rethinking Solidarity: Antigone in Cracow, Marc Robinson
V. Individual vs. Collective
12. Are We all Creons and Ismenes?: Antigone in Japan, Mae J. Smethurst
13. The Antigone of Aris Alexandrou on the Urban Stage in Thessaloniki, Gonda Van Steen
VI. Antigone as Dissident
14. Antigone for Young (American) Audiences: A Protest Parable, Mark Seamon
15. Democracy at War: Antigone: Insurgency in Toronto, Dongshin Chang
VII. Cultural Memory
16. No Grave in the Earth: Antigone's Emigration and Arab Circulations, Edward Ziter
17. Never Too Late: Antigone in a German Second World War Cemetery on the Italian Apennines, Martina Treu
18. Voice from the Black Box: Sylvain Bemba's Black Wedding Candles for Blessed Antigone, Barbara Goff and Michael Simpson
VIII. Sophocles versus Anouilh
19. Antigone in Egypt, Nehad Selaiha
20. Millennial Antigone in the US: Anouilh Revisited, Helene P. Foley
21. Antigone's Journey: From Athens to Edinburgh, via Paris and Tbilisi, Lorna Hardwick
22. 'Humanism', Scenography, Ideology: Antigone at the Finnish National Theatre, 1968, Hana Worthen


1.   Reimagining Greek Tragedy on the American Stage. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
2.   For a volume in a distinguished series from a first-rate academic press this volume has quite a few mistakes. The editors' introduction is written mostly in the first person plural but the singular (apparently Mee) appears 22. Haemon is spelled "Hameon" 96; Alcestis is described as "tragic-comic" 99; a quotation on 135 reads "I added it the Haitian people understand life and death;" there is no period at the end of the first sentence on 161; "principal" is misspelled 190, 374; photographs on pp. 244, 245, 247 refer to Antigone by Aris Alexandrou; "fiancée" is misspelled 325. And the handsome cover photograph of a Manipuri production discussed in Mee's essay is ruined by the ugly green color scheme.

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