A student has just sent me an email apologizing for missing his assignments this week. “I lost focus on some of my classes,” he explains, addressing me by name.
But he isn’t my student. I’ve been retired for a year. Exegi monumentum aere perennius, sings Horace, confident that genre is forever: “I have built a monument whose bronze is everlasting.” For Horace the genre is the ode. For students it’s the excuse.
The headline reads, “Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. Workers of the world, unite. Day of Soviet Propaganda.” The caption reads, “Knowledge for all!” The four books behind the librarian’s peasant-booted right heel are titled History of Bondage (or History of Serfdom), Socialism, Capital, and Class Conflict, and the book behind his left elbow is titled History. The names on the pediments of the buildings are University, Academy, and Library.
And there, on February 19, 2016, he reads the headline, “Martin Shkreli really is a bad boy of pharma, government argues.” The text by Daniel McDonald explains that the hedge fund guy Martin Shkreli, a middle-aged white man who dresses like a teenager and talks like a gangsta rapper, is being accused of witness intimidation.
But because Mr. Shkreli is already under indictment, he has an advocate.
Reading the advocate’s email in defense of his client, the English professor uncaps his red pen and goes marginal.
During the summer break that’s about to end for me next week, an ancient classic that I put on the syllabus for the sophomore poetry-and-drama course changed itself in advance. That kind of change is one of the defining characteristics of the classic, of course. The classic is always younger than we are, always growing faster. That’s why every new encounter with it is a different joy. But this fall I’m afraid the joy is going to radiate so intensely from one particular classic, Antigone, that it will blast one of the subtexts my class and I will be reading in its vicinity. The history of events may wind up forcing us to read a modern text in an unanticipatedly ancient way — and at that, a way that isn’t Greek but Jewish.
When I ordered Antigone for the course several months ago, I was interested in trying what for me was a new idea: to teach it in versions from three epochs. The first version of the ancient but ever new myth would be Sophocles’s original, and the third would be a near-contemporary adaptation from 1987, A. R. Gurney’s Another Antigone. In between would come a version I’ve never taught before: Jean Anouilh’s darkly cynical adaptation, written and performed during World War II in occupied France, in which the Creon is a conscientious administrator (like, as Anouilh may have tried to hint between the lines, Pétain or Laval or Anouilh himself) doing his bitter best in an impossible situation.
Another Antigone I have taughtseveral times in the past, and each time it has been popular with the students. For them, Gurney domesticates the myth by resetting Thebes as a contemporary American college where the conflict between Antigone and Creon plays out as a disagreement between a student in a literature course and her professor — a disagreement about the ritual to be performed over the corpus of Antigone. For the student, the classic has done its perennial work once again, and she is now so inspired that she decides to write a play of her own for the professor instead of the required paper. The professor, however, is unimpressed. Because he has lived with Antigone all his professional life, he has seen the inspiration before, and read the undergraduate attempts at dramas written in homage. “Another Antigone,” he sighs — and then he orders the student to go back and fulfill the assignment as written, with the paper specified on the syllabus. In the course of the catastrophe that follows (the Creon-professor launched on his lonely way to forced retirement; the Antigone-student launched on her lonely way to craziness) the professor delivers a lecture about tragedy which provides, per classical model, both instruction and delight. Before Gurney was a playwright he was a professor of classics, and my students who encounter Sophocles at the University of Hawaii have always been grateful for his guidance.
But they’ve also needed a little preliminary orientation. The world of Gurney’s dramas is upper- and upper-middle-class USA, northeastern and (so far as I’m aware) 100% white, and when I’ve taught Another Antigone to my mostly Asian-American studentsin Honolulu I’ve accordingly had to explain the connotations of terms like Andover and Martha’s Vineyard. More consequentially, most students at the University of Hawaii have never met a Jew and have no idea what a Jew is, and in Another Antigone the Antigone is Jewish and the Creon’s tragic flaw is unrecognized antisemitism. So I’ve explained that too. Until now, at least, that part of the pedagogy was just as easy as the rest. It was only another technical detail.
The play, too, helps with the explanation. Early, in an effort to forestall the catastrophe, the Chorus (a sympathetic woman dean) spells out the plot’s exposition phase this way for the professor’s benefit and ours:
“Henry: this is a free country. And academic life is even more so. You may write four-letter words all over the blackboard. You may denounce the government, blaspheme God, take off your clothes . . . You may do all of these things in here, and most of them out there. But there is one thing, here and there, you may not do. You may not be insensitive about the Jews. That is taboo. The twentieth century is still with us, Henry. We live in the shadow of the Holocaust. Remember that, please. And be warned.” (20-21)
. . .
Well, Another Antigone dates from the twentieth century. One of its topical details is already an anachronism: the binder of printouts (as of 1987 they would have been on large, green-barred sheets of paper) that the dean consults when she discusses enrollment. Another anachronism is a passing reference to the word processor as something new.
A third is a reference to the Modern Language Association’s annual convention as a scene of genteel passion between professors in hotel rooms. Oh yes, the twentieth century was a long time ago. In this year of the twenty-first century, between the time I placed my book order and now, some posts on the members-only website hosted by the MLA for discussing a proposal to boycott Israel were antisemitic in the crudest racist way. This year, too, in the second-largest newspaper in Spain, a distinguished playwright has published feuilletons laced with traditional Catholic Jew-hatred; in Italy, a distinguished Marxist philosopher has endorsed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and in the United States one synod of the Presbyterian Church has informed the Jews that it will decide where, and whether, they are to live. This semester with A. R. Gurney is going to be interesting accordingly.
But here’s one contribution to the idea of a happy ending: it probably won’t hurt A. R. Gurney’s feelings if I file this blog as evidence that he isn’t as good a playwright as Sophocles. Another Antigone has gone old now and I can’t imagine its story will be sympathetically imaginable for much longer, but Antigone (I’ve just opened the book again and checked) remains evergreen.
Source: A. R. Gurney, Another Antigone. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1988.