Antigone (781-882): Eros Chorus and ‘Farewell Aria'

You may have noticed at certain times in the ‘Ode to Man’ an individuation within the chorus. A far more radical notion is individuation from the chorus. If Aristotle is right, it was Aeschylus who first thought of pulling a dancer out of the chorus to represent one of the protagonists in the story that they were telling. When he pulled out a second dancer so that they could reenact a dialogue, they became actors; drama made its appearance in the world, and turned the world into a stage. Instantly the chorus also became an actor; unlike in the world of lyric, the chorus of Antigone’s ‘Ode to Man’ was playing a part; it was in fact a chorus of old Theban men.

Here we perform the lyric chorus on Eros, a beautiful and economical poem that begins the strophe with an invocation of Eros the masculine god, and ends the antistrophe with an embodiment of the goddess Aphrodite. In between we see a number of manifestations, in the luxury of the bedroom and in the rusticity of the barnyard; in the soft cheeks of a young girl, in the desire that conquers from the eyes of a bride. The force being evoked here is one that destroys order—Eros is addressed as ἀνίκατε μάχαν, unconquerable in battle—but an ode is itself a highly ordered thing. You may have noticed that the antistrophe, ‘converse’ in Latin, almost exactly matches the rhythm of the strophe, except that it is danced to the left, while the strophe is danced toward the right. Care is also taken that the ode as a whole begins and ends on the right foot, the auspicious foot.

On the word θεσμῶν the dancers come to rest on each others’ feet, a move we saw also in the ‘Ode to Man’ in the notion of ‘stitching’ together the laws of the land. Θεσμός occurs only once in Homer, describing the bedroom ritual that Penelope and Odysseus are about to reenact when they are finally reunited. The old men are civic-minded, and they revere the institution of marriage; and they claim that the conquering desire that emanates from the bride’s eyes is ‘seated at the right hand’ (πάρεδρος) in the offices of these θεσμοί.  But it is only ‘sitting by’; the ode ends with the notion that Aphrodite is invincible when she plays; and that is what she does—she plays. The previous scene between Haemon and Creon has demonstrated the ever-potential conflict between the erotic and the civic; the very entrance of Haemon into the play is a kind of blindsiding by erotic motives in a play that has so far been largely political.

The chorus also sets up what follows: the evocation of Eros prepares us to see Antigone and her entrance in a new light. She was proud, willful, self-centred, mean to her sister; but she is also young, principled, and yes, beautiful, a victim of a most cruel punishment. She becomes for the first time, even in the silence before she speaks, a profoundly erotic object.

The chorus pushes her forward in a transitional, anapaestic rhythm. We had been afraid of rendering these verses because on the page they have a slightly silly, Gilbert & Sullivan quality. But as usual, things come to light when you simply get up and try them. The drumbeat on the floor in these verses turns out to be a most potent way of changing mood and tone; they are transitional in a most decided and artful sense. Here also we see the chorus leader (χορηγός) emerge, the figure who had participated in the dialogue scene as the chorus’ spokesman. He improvises as he leads the group around. Ideally he would speak the lines in syncopation with his troupe; in the recording Mr. du Hoffman and I split the role, he doing the dance improvisation, and I doubling the voice, both of us talking to Antigone. He is a leader but not a protagonist; he leads within the chorus; a union boss, if you will.

The old men are in tears of sympathy as they see Antigone come forward. She dances a solo lyric, turning by herself in strophe and antistrophe, strophe and antistrophe. Each set of verses is responded to by the chorus, who therefore break the mood each time. Look at me, she says, the road I am travelling; I am going to be the living bride of Acheron. Note her perfuming herself like a bride-to-be, and her crowning herself on νυμφείοις (referring to the wedding rite), as she laments that she will not hear the marriage hymn herself. The gesture of crowning, which we see also in the Eros chorus, is ambiguous: the crown is an interwoven thing, an adornment and a bind; it signifies the perfection of its wearer, whether a victor, or an animal fit for sacrifice; or a bride fit for marriage.

But there is something glorious and praiseworthy in this, say the old men; you are not forced by disease or the sword; a law to yourself, you are going alone and alive into Hades. She responds in the antistrophe by comparing herself to Niobe. Niobe was transformed into a rock, she becomes a weeping mountain. Antigone is going to be entombed in rock. An almost protean level of metaphor informs the dance here; rock becomes at one time vegetative, at another liquid; a rain-beaten mountain is at once a mourning woman, and at the centre of the antistrophe is the notion of ‘melting’ (τακομέναν).

This time the chorus turns on her. But she (Niobe) was a god and born of gods. We are mortal! they say. Antigone is deeply insulted. οίμοι γελῶμαι, ah now you’re making fun of me. But after her outburst she returns to her supreme lyric composure, at the heart of which is a sweeping sequence of long syllables in which she invokes the fountains of Dirce and the sacred grove of Thebes, the feminine sources of the masculine prowess and wealth that she now slightingly alludes to. She calls these sources to bear witness to her plight, over the heads of the men surrounding her.

Now the chorus responds differently; they raise themselves to lyric iambs; our intuition is that they become a group again here. You have stumbled against the sublimity of Justice they say. (The foot imagery is marked.) Their last line is the clincher: You are paying for the struggles of your father.

This is the button that perhaps the whole audience has been waiting to have pushed. ἔψαυσας ἀλγεινοτάτας ἐμοὶ μερίμνας, you have touched me, the most grievous of my cares, she says. In her final antistrophe Antigone returns to the source of all her woeful story, the ‘thrice-renewed’ fate of her father. In the series of long syllables that correspond to the evocation of the springs in the strophe, Antigone now circles backward to the source, to her mother (δυσμόρου ματρός) and her mother’s bed. It is curious that the father is here verbally and rhythmically deemphasised; she speaks of the attacks of divine blindness, the ἆται, that afflicted her mother. She is imagining a different play than the one that Sophocles later gave us in his Oedipus Rex.

In the last lines of the second antistrophe Antigone bewails the ill-fated wedding of her brother; θανὼν ἔτ᾽ οὖσαν κατήναρές με. Though you are dead, and I am yet living, you have slain me. Translators and commentators dutifully footnote a reference to something outside the play here, to a political marriage of Polynices’. But surely there is at least an equal and more cogent reference to the brother who is also her father, whose marriage has ultimately captured her from and for the grave.

At this point the chorus seems to have recovered its distance from the heroine. Reverence is fine, but power, for whom it belongs, cannot be transgressed (παραβατὸν) or ‘stepped across’—more foot imagery. Their last word in the scene is that it is her own self-willed passion (αὐτόγνωτος ὀργά) that has destroyed her.

But Antigone gets the last word, at least until Creon bursts on in mood-changing mockery. We end with her epode, where she stands uncircling, defiant, herself tearless, perhaps, but crying out that she has no friend to mourn her.

© A P David 2019