OLMC Drama Department Delivers Powerful Performance of Sophocles' Antigone

 

By any measure, Antigone is a risky play for an acting troupe to undertake: Like most Greek drama, it’s almost without action on stage; it’s replete with awkward and unfamiliar prose; and it’s reliant upon crucial cultural references opaque and unknown to a contemporary audience. So why would OLMC middle schoolers spend months in taxing rehearsals to perform it for family and friends?

For one thing, they welcomed the challenge. OLMC students delight in stretching their limits, whether as scholars, athletes, or actors, and, as is befitting leaders-in-the-making, they have the courage to strive to accomplish something great.

For another, the students wanted to share their own discovery of the abiding vitality of a play more than 2400 years old. Having read and discussed Antigone in class, they appreciate the poignant and imperative questions posed by Sophocles’ timeless work. In today’s political climate, fraught as it is with widespread deafness and hostility to differing points of view, those questions take on acute significance.

As the students have learned, Western Civilization’s tradition of self-government is unintelligible without reference to Ancient Greece—and yet our Greek inheritance is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to us, if not forgotten. On more than one occasion, Pope Benedict XVI warned that our culture’s tendency to embrace or accept “dehellenization”—the gradual severing of Greek thought from our understanding of human nature and creation—will deprive us of the vital animating genius of our civilization. Interestingly, this has implications for both faith and reason. And this is not merely an issue of academic concern. From the Greeks, we have learned the importance and the skill to seek and find common ground with those with whom we disagree. Should we lose the hard-won habits of reasoning together in pursuit of justice and social wellbeing, we would forfeit the very tools that make the American tradition of republican self-government possible. Perhaps heeding Pope Benedict’s admonition means finding a remedy for what ails American public discourse in a recovery of the wisdom of these ancient playwrights.

For the Greeks, the responsibilities of self-government are inextricably linked to a commitment to the Common Good—something that is genuinely shared by all and distinct from an aggregate of individual goods. The shared pursuit of happiness is for them the very nature of politics, and it is played out through deliberative discourse guided by reason and humility.

The Greeks explored and communicated their ideas about self-government through Drama, both tragic and comedic. Sophocles, in particular, expanded the genre to include more voices and so more closely approximate the democratic discourse of his time. He also developed the tragic hero, a virtuous character worthy in many ways of admiration and imitation, yet flawed in at least one way that results in tragedy. Of course, for the Greeks, the cardinal character defect was hubris—the arrogant, self-assured confidence that discourse and deliberation are unnecessary and unworthy of consideration.

In the heartrending tragedy of Antigone, Sophocles presents starkly the disastrous results of such arrogance. The play reveals the destruction wrought by the stubborn refusal to invite substantial deliberation about the demands of justice with those of different viewpoints. Sophocles invites us to consider whether and how genuine politics, stripped of such hubris might be possible. The application of the lessons of Antigone to our own time of political hyper-partisanship is irresistible, and sadly apt.

The other great gift of Greek Drama is the idea of catharsis—the experience of cleansing and release from weighty emotional burdens. Theater allows us to participate vicariously in the experiences of tragic figures like Oedipus, Creon, Orestes, Elektra, and Antigone, and from them we learn lessons that allow us to gain wisdom from their suffering.

After spending months bringing Antigone to life, OLMC’s middle schoolers understand that a lack of deliberative discourse undermines the pursuit of the Common Good. Having “experienced” for themselves the lessons Sophocles imparted to us and all generations through his characters, they are starting to understand the crucial differences between genuine civil discourse and a Twitter war. We pray that this will help to prepare them for the burdens of citizenship.

Even today, at their tender age, OLMC students are preparing to become leaders who will work to restore humility and truthfulness in politics. When they are called upon to sustain the American Experiment in self-government, their efforts will honor the wisdom of Sophocles.

For further reading:

Sophocles, Antigone

Benedict XVI, “Address at the University of Regensburg”