A little bit about Anne Carson’s new adaptation of Sophocles, Antigonick. The book as such is a pleasing physical object, although I do not claim to understand, or to have put much thought, into relating Bianca Stone’s illustrations to the text. Please see here and also here at the New Directions blog to see what Antigonick looks like. Now I will ignore the art book aspect and just poke at the text.
Antigonick is not exactly a translation of Antigone. Here is how it begins – I will also ignore Carson’s handwriting, capital letters, punctuation, and spacing on the page (I especially regret the loss of the spacing):
[Enter Antigone and Ismeme]
Antigone: We begin in the dark and birth is the death of us
Ismene: Who said that
Ismene: Sounds more like Beckett
Antigone: He was paraphrasing Hegel
Ismene: I don’t think so
Antigone's reply is a compact version of lines actually written by Sophocles (I am consulting the Robert Fagles and Elizabeth Wyckoff translations). This opening is sufficient information for most readers who happen upon Wuthering Expectations. It does sound more like Beckett, and Ismene’s last line is hilarious. Hegel recurs, too.
I wonder what readers who do not know the Sophocles play are doing with Carson’s book. Carson’s version is quite short, for one thing, compressed to essentials, exposition not necessarily being one of them. By compressed, I mean that where Wyckoff uses six lines and Fagles five for the lines of the Chorus that end the play, Carson has “Last word wisdom better get some even too late.”
Fagles actually keeps “wisdom” as the last word of his translation (“at long last \ those blows will teach us wisdom”), while Carson comments on the last word (her actual last word is “measuring”). Antigonick is not just a re-telling of Antigone, but it is about the Sophocles play. Meta, to lapse into Greek, as when the Chorus asks Antigone if she “Remember[s] how Brecht had you do the whole play with a door strapped to your back.”
My favorite moment of Antigonick, a sort of climax of the commentary theme, is Carson’s expansion of the role of Antigone’s mother Eurydike, who in Sophocles only has a few undistinguished lines asking a messenger to summarize the offstage action. Perhaps the centuries have eroded a longer part. Carson finds something to do with her:
Eurydike: This is Eurydike’s monologue it’s her only speech in the play. You may not know who she is that’s ok. Like poor Mrs. Ramsay who died in a bracket of To the Lighthouse she’s the wife of the man whose moods tensify the world of this story the world sundered by her I say sundered by her that girl with the undead strapped to her back…
We did everything we could for her, the mother laments – a bicycle, a therapist – but it was not enough. Eurydike is in the denial stage of grief, though, and Carson eases the modern mother back into the Sophocles play:
Eurydike : When the messenger comes I set him straight I tell him nobody’s missing we’re all here we’re all fine. Why do messengers always exaggerate Exit Eurydike bleeding from all orifices
[Eurydike does not exit]
The messenger, although his report on the new round of deaths is, in both Sophocles and Carson, unusually grisly, is not exaggerating this time.
Messenger: O my Queen I did not see death marry them at last oh so shyly. But I did I did see it. Exit Eurydike
Chorus: Exit Eurydike
Eurydike: Exit Eurydike
Sophocles’s solution to a minor structural problem is transformed by Carson into a surprising and sublime moment of grief.