Theatre and Translation: English translations of Antigone 1993

Workshop of the Centre for Performance Studies at the University of Sydney

Reported by Christopher Allen
Centre for Performance Studies
University of Sydney NSW 2006

'New 'Antigones' are being imagined, thought, lived now; and will be tomorrow.'
George Steiner, Antigones

The Centre for Performance Studies at the University of Sydney is an institution unlike any other in the Faculty of Arts, principally because it has grown from a non-academic theatrical production facility serving the faculty into the base for an interdisciplinary course in Performance Studies offered at third and fourth year levels to undergraduates and pursued in postgraduate research programmes. This historical development explains many of the peculiarities of the Centre and its course, notably the fact that there remains a certain creative tension between the Centre's research programme and the undergraduate teaching course. One of the principal strengths of the course is its involvement with practical projects; but while an undergraduate syllabus is largely the same from year to year, the Centre's research focus changes annually. Each year, therefore, the teaching programme is fed by different primary materials.

In 1992, for example, the Centre's theme was Mask Theatre; in 1993 it was Theatre and Translation. As usual, we tried to cover a range of theatrical styles and cultures, ancient and modern, European and Asian. Thus projects included the translation and public performance of a play by the contemporary French playwright, Michel Vinaver; the workshopping, under the author's direction, of the translation of a play by the Chinese author Gao Xinjiang; a seminar-workshop, with native-speaking actors and directors, on the French and German translations of The Merchant of Venice; and a workshop on the English translations of Antigone. This paper will be a brief account of the Antigone project.

The project was abstract enough in its first conception: it was simply to be a Greek tragedy in the history of its English translations. The next step was to consult with the Department of Classics, whose expertise would have to be enlisted and whose own research interests we hoped to serve at the same time. A meeting was held between the Centre staff and the classicists most concerned; it was determined that Antigone should be the play, both because of its intrinsic interest and suitability and because it would be the subject of lectures in the Department's Classics in Translation course. The general brief for this, as for the other projects during the year, was to explore the consequences which choices made by different translators might have for production and performance.

We then set about investigating the history of the English translations. From various sources we compiled an historical bibliography - undoubtedly not complete - of some 37 English translations of the play, from the mid-eighteenth century to the late 1980s, as well as the principal Latin, French and German versions. At the same time we read and consulted secondary works, notably George Steiner's remarkable Antigones, a study of the importance of the play and the figure of its protagonist in European culture over the last two centuries. As it happens, although the English versions are so numerous, all the important moments in the play's recent history have taken place in France or Germany. Thus Anouilh's rewriting of the play was produced in occupied Paris in 1944, and Bertolt Brecht's adaptation was staged in Switzerland in 1948.

Less familiar today, but equally significant, was the 1841 production of the play in Berlin, the first modern staging of any ancient play in ancient costume; the choruses were set to music by Mendelssohn. This production made a great impression on its contemporaries, and was emulated in Paris, with the Mendelssohn music, in 1844 and later in London and Edinburgh. The Edinburgh production (December 1845) was reviewed by Thomas de Quincey, and it was presumably the London one that provoked Matthew Arnold - alone in his time - to deny the relevance of the play to modern sensibilities in the preface to his Poems (1853); a criticism to which George Eliot replied in 'The Antigone and its Moral' (1856). A minor discovery made during the bibliographical research was that this famous production was taken up in Melbourne (in some form at least) for a single performance at the Town Hall, on Friday 6 November 1885, 'in aid of the building fund of the lying-in hospital.'

The next step was to obtain copies of all the English translations we could find, and to select samples for comparison. Because a Greek tragedy contains two quite different verse forms, in the singing of the choruses and the dialogue of the episodes, and because these present the translator with very different problems, two samples were needed. We chose, for the choral scene, the first strophe and antistrophe of the Parodos (the first chorus in the play); and for the dialogue, a segment of the second episode, the first confrontation of Antigone and Creon. Each of these segments was entered on computer and circulated to all concerned in the original Greek and the following versions: Francklin (1759), Holderlin (German, 1804), Plumptre (1865), Campbell (1873), Robinson (1876-9), Leconte de Lisle (French, 1877), Whitelaw (1883), Young (1888), Storr (1912), Trevelyan (1924), Murray (1941), Watling (1947), Arnott (1950), Wyckoff (1954), Fagles (1982) and Brown (1987).

From the comparison of the different versions it was already obvious that we were uncovering vastly more material than we could possibly deal with on this occasion. These samples might have served, for example, as the basis for a study of verse translation in English over a period of a century or so. Some of them were distinguished and others were not, some were by scholars and some by poets, some were relatively obscure and others were familiar, through popular editions, to generations of students and general readers: Campbell in the Oxford World's Classics, Young in Everyman, Watling in Penguin and Wyckoff in the Chicago University Greek Tragedies. What would have been particularly valuable, although it lay beyond the bounds of our project, would be to examine the relation between the poetic idiom of the translators, few of whom were poets in their own right, and that of contemporary verse. A glance suggested that whereas Francklin, around the mid-eighteenth century, used a relatively contemporary idiom based on Dryden and Pope (in fact rather oldfashioned after Thomson, Gray and Collins, but still perhaps suitable for his classical material), Campbell, writing over a century later, uses an idiom that owes more to Shakespeare, and is therefore consciously archaic. All this might be related to the debate discussed by Arnold in On TranslatingHomer (1861). Later translators again try to get closer to contemporary idioms. Gilbert Murray owes much to Swinburne, although by the time he translated Antigone, Swinburne was hardly a contemporary.

In the end, three versions were selected for closer study: Lewis Campbell's for his intrinsic quality and because he is still the only author of a verse translation to have published a critical edition of the text (a further consideration was that his translation was written for performance); Elizabeth Wyckoff's because it is (or was) the version used by Classics for their course; and finally Judith Malina's (1966), because of the Living Theatre's relatively recent attempts to revive the political content of the play. As it happened, the Malina text opened up even more complexities in the project. Her work was not a translation from the Greek, but a translation of Brecht's adaptation, and Brecht in turn had started with Holderlin's 1804 version. Holderlin's brilliant translation has its own idiosyncrasies for at least three reasons: he had a theory about the need to re-primitivize Sophocles' text for a modern German audience; he did not yet have a reliable scholarly text of the original; and although an inspired reader of Greek, he sometimes made mistakes about details. Brecht, in adapting Holderlin, did not attempt to tinker with the translation, but remained faithful to the text in large slabs, deleting material and inserting new passages here and there. Finally Malina appears to have attempted a straightforward translation of Brecht, but seems in a number of places to have misunderstood the German.

By this time, preparations had been made for the active phase of the project. A director with wide experience in classical and modern theatre, Rhys McConnochie, had been engaged, and he had cast the three actors allowed both by Sophoclean tradition and the budget (Angie Milliken as Antigone, Justin Monjo as Creon and Jamie Jackson as the Guard). Director, actors, staff and students participating were able to attend two lectures in the Department of Classics by Professor Kevin Lee as well as two further preliminary lectures by the author and Mr David Pritchard at the Centre. All concerned received copies of the passage laid out in six parallel columns: the Greek text; Campbell; Wyckoff; Holderlin (German); Brecht (German); Malina. The passage finally selected for the workshop was the first confrontation of Antigone and Creon, together with the famous choral ode ('Many a wonder lives and breathes...' ) of the first stasimon which immediately precedes it.

The workshop itself took place over one week of full-time work, during which the director and actors experimented with various approaches to the text segment in each of the three versions. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Campbell version proved the most amenable to performance. Its iambic pentameter, though far from Shakespearian brilliance, was a sturdy vehicle, capable of grandeur and helping the actors establish a stylized characterization. The main problem it raised was in the difficulty (to be discussed later) which the actors found with elevation and stylization of performance.

The Wyckoff version was the hardest to perform. As a translation, it was deceptively faithful. At times, that is to say, it was almost a word-for-word rendition, but a highly analytic language like English does not have the same resources as a synthetic one like Greek; attempts to emulate the concision of Greek lose the density of the original and end up as simply thin. To the performers, the text offered little linguistic substance or poetic guidance. The director felt the idiom had much in common with the contemporary verse-drama revival of Christopher Fry and others, and in the end found a solution in putting the play into a political context characteristic of the fifties: a police state behind the Iron Curtain. The text became performable for the actors, but at a considerable cost: as a police-chief, Creon turned into a bully; Antigone tended to become at best a dissident, at worst a wilful teenager. The setting was an interior in which the fundamental dynamic of the scene - the public contest between Antigone and Creon, their vying for the support of the community - dissolved, so that the debate appeared both over-long and ultimately futile. The Chorus, as representatives of the community, had of course no place in this secret office- world.

The Malina-Brecht-Holderlin version, with Brecht's overtones of the Third Reich, seemed more accessible to the company. It lent itself to the modern understanding of the play as the drama of an individual standing up to the state, but that view - and indeed such a confrontation - is itself very impoverished beside the complexity of Sophocles' tragedy; and so it was in this version that the fundamental difficulties of both actors and audience in relation to the play became most apparent. The moral world of popular culture today is one of simplistic contrasts between good and evil; there are heroes and there are villains, and evil will be exorcised once the wicked have perished. The moral universe of Greek tragedy is far more complex and mature: the most painful conflicts in human life - those precisely which achieve a tragic stature are irreducible to a polarized view of good and evil. Our sympathies go primarily to Antigone, but even her tragedy is diminished if we fail to understand that Creon too speaks for crucial social values. Antigone speaks for one, private, domain of moral values, Creon for another, public set of principles. In the normal course of events, these sets of values would be complementary in the functioning of the community; the tragedy arises from the exceptional circumstances in which they come into conflict.

The performers' greatest difficulty was in seeing that both Antigone and Creon speak in the name of something higher than themselves. Trained in the tradition of psychological realism which has prevailed over the last century, whether in its original Stanislavskian form or in subsequent more or less 'avant-garde' modifications, most actors have absorbed as axiomatic the idea that the ultimate human reality to which they have access is that of their own personal experience. Diderot was surely right to insist that the actor is someone whose art consists in creating a character greater than himself; but modern practice leads all too often to the reduction of the character to the scale of the performer. Hence the peculiar discomfort the actors also felt with such qualities as grandeur, elevation or nobility which are all part of playing a role greater than one's own personality, but which they found hard to distinguish from pomposity.

I should emphasize that these remarks are not intended as criticism of the competence of the actors who worked on the project, and who did an outstanding job with a considerable amount of material in a short time; they are observations on general cultural facts which the project brought to light. Indeed the difficulty or reluctance of the actor to play a role larger than life is inseparable from the corresponding difficulty of the audience in understanding it: the actor intuitively apprehends what they can and cannot be made to see; and so ends by mirroring the audience's limitations.

The week's work culminated in a Friday afternoon showing of the three versions, preceded by an animated reading of part of the text in Greek by Professor Lee, Professor Harold Tarrant and Dr Suzanne McAlistair (Classics). Over the following weeks lectures and seminars discussing the project or related material were given by the director, Rhys McConnochie, Professor Gay McAuley, Dr Penny Gay and the author (Performance Studies) and Professor Richard Green (Archaeology); an additional paper was presented at an end of year forum by Ms Francis Muecke (Senior Lecturer, Classics). Essays and papers were also written by students who had attended the workshop.

The Antigone project raised a great many questions that were not exhausted even by all the talking and writing it provoked. Particularly relevant to the academic setting of the workshop were the potentially competing demands of the scholar and the performer or director: on the one hand to reconstruct the original meaning of the work; on the other to make it accessible to a contemporary audience. But although tensions can arise between these aims, they are not in principle mutually exclusive (a quarrel of dust versus greasepaint); the case of Creon's and Antigone's motivation was one in which the actors and director turned to the academics for advice when they realized that the text presented problems they could not solve. Scholars cannot tell actors how to perform in a way that will be understood today - that is the actor's art - but they can sometimes help to explain what is to be performed. Conversely, the experience of the performers helped the academics to become aware of certain difficulties of interpretation in the text. In the end, the problem of performing a work of the past is only an externalized and therefore more conscious version of the problem of reading: to understand what has changed in order to find what has remained the same.

Christopher Allen
University of Sydney

Christopher Allen is Theatre Projects Co-ordinator in the Centre for Performance Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia.