By Mary Christian
“Someone has to do the dirty work,” says Creon. He didn’t want to be king, particularly. He didn’t want to leave his rebel nephew’s body unburied and kill his niece for trying to bury it. But it’s all politics—someone had to bring law and order back to the country, and make a show to make people recognize his power. Once he’s made the law, he can’t repeal it. Politics has to get dirty sometimes. Or at least, that is Creon’s argument.
“Dirty work” seems to have become a repeating motif of this semester at IU Theatre, in keeping with IU’s “World at Work” themester. In recent months, in Hedda Gabler and Sweet Charity, we’ve seen the dirty work of sex on which the women’s economic survival depends—sex with the boring husband whom Hedda neither loves, desires, nor respects; with the equally unwanted admirers who pressure Hedda through sentiment or blackmail; or with customers whom Charity and her co-hostesses must entertain in the dance hall. The ugly matter-of-factness of these women’s job demands is made most visible as the ballroom hostesses line up to sing “Big Spender,” exuding exhaustion, gloom, and boredom as they beckon to the patrons:
Do you wanna have fun—fun—fun?
How’s about a few laughs?
The miserable irony of the cheerful words and the grim women singing them almost made me laugh out loud.
Now, in Antigone, we see the dirty work of politics, with the story of a mythical political crisis in ancient Greece, adapted and produced during World War II in Nazi-occupied France. Creon’s arguments for necessity, for conformity, for law, order, and stability at all costs must have sounded familiar to Anouilh’s audiences—to the young German men who had volunteered or been drafted as soldiers, and who tortured and exterminated because they were ordered to, and to ordinary Parisians who faced pressure to collaborate with the Nazi government in their purges. Creon repeats the word “purge” frequently—he leaves Polynice’s corpse to rot, and by this posthumous punishment he symbolically purges the country of traitors—now that I think of it, the word literally means “to purify, make clean.” This sense of helpless political necessity is most pointed, perhaps, in Creon’s futile attempts to spare Antigone—his efforts to hush up the story of the burial, to persuade her of the worthlessness of both her brothers—the reputed hero and supposed traitor, he says, were both ignoble thugs, and killed each other while quarreling over the loot. (Did Creon say all this in Sophocles’ Antigone? I need to go back and look.) Ironically, when Antigone chooses to resist her uncle’s “dirty work,” she can only do so by covering her brother’s dead body with dirt—by literally getting her hands dirty—a fact that is reinforced by her grimy white sleeves.
This dramatic discussion of political necessity and nastiness seems especially timely as the country looks forward to a presidential primary season in which candidates and voters seem to have flung all normal political rules to the wind—as world leaders try, by dint of political negotiation, to alter weather patterns—as violence in Paris triggers fresh debates on whether to bar refugees from Europe and the U.S. More dirty politics look to be on the horizon, both in the world at large and at IU Theatre (did someone say Scottish Play?). Yet Anouilh allows us, through Antigone’s defiance, to think about what it might look like to say No to this dirty work—can one gain freedom simply by acting as if one is free? I am reminded of the closing lines of one of my favorite books, George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. . . . For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. . . . A new Antigone will [not] spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which [her] ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But . . . the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Mary Christian is working on a Ph.D. in IU’s English department, specializing in drama and Victorian Studies. Her dissertation, Performing Marriages in Late Nineteenth-Century Theatre, examines changing attitudes toward marriage in the 1880s and 90s, and the ways in which these changes were represented onstage in the plays of Henrik Ibsen and Elizabeth Robins, among others. She is also author of an article on Ibsen’s Doll’s House, scheduled to appear in Theatre Survey in January 2016.