Dramaturg Noa Gelb delves into Matt Minnicino’s comedic adaptation of Sophocles’ classic tragedy.
“We have only a little time to please the living. But all eternity to love the dead.” —Sophocles, Antigone
When approaching the Greek Tragedies, Sophocles’ quote rings truer than ever. While in his case, he uses it as a theme in his play Antigone, in mine, as a dramaturg, it means honoring the dead and bringing more meaning to the words that make a play. As a dramaturg, it is my job to make sure the artists have all of the information needed to turn words into living, breathing people. This takes many forms, including history, context, definitions, references, and pronunciations—basically any information needed to fill the gap between actor and character. This is especially important in adaptations, as new blends with old, and history becomes modern. Honoring the past is just as important as celebrating the new interpretation. So when director Jon Jon Johnson asked me to create a dramaturgy packet for a Scripts in Play Festival reading of Matt Minnicino’s new adaptation of Antigone, I was ready for the challenge.
We were lucky to have Minnicino in the room during rehearsals, available for questions and clarifications. Minnicino’s script is written in modern verse, with no punctuation, reminiscent of Sophocles’ own tragedy. For fans of Sophocles’ play, Minnicino’s adaptation may bring comfort in how closely it follows the original story. Others may find it hard to believe that this often comedic retelling contains not only our stock characters (Antigone, Creon, and the rest of the motley House of Cadmus), but also sassy staffers, reporters, and most uniquely, an intern. We asked Minnicino what changes he made to the script and why.
In Minnicino’s Antigone, the character of the Intern plays an important role in telling Antigone’s story. She is a modern take on a Greek Chorus. The Greek Chorus, traditionally, was a theatrical device intended to represent groups of people, frequently the common townspeople. The Chorus was also used to describe the events of the play as they happened offstage and provide emotional context, as special effects were far more limited. The Intern serves as our inside man, a commoner placed inside the palace, with access to the news and secrets of royalty. Unlike our protagonist, Antigone, who exists for the people but was raised inside the royal bubble, our Intern grew up among the people. She offers us a more authentic voice for the masses, and her station, while lower than Antigone’s, proves to be more valuable, as Creon considers her more of a representative of the people. She is the people’s voice, while Antigone is their leader.
Minnicino’s adaptation focuses on updating the female characters in Sophocles’ play. Often forgotten (if not the protagonist), the women in Greek tragedies are seen very briefly before dying. Minnicino gives Sophocles’ female characters much more life. Eurydice, the Queen of Thebes, only appears at the end of Sophocles’ play before committing suicide as a result of grief over the death of her son. In the adaption, however, she lives, a queen who serves as the ear and shoulder of the tyrannical king, the comfort of the staff, and, ultimately, a leader in her own right. She makes the impossible choice to stay with her murderous husband, whom she blames for her son’s death, for the sake of her people and the stability of Thebes. She is a rock, a constant throughout the entire play, and a character audiences can rely on throughout the distressing events of the play.
Antigone and Ismene, her sister, have a very fraught relationship in Sophocles’ play. Ismene disagrees with Antigone’s choices completely, choosing instead to obey the law of the land. Antigone is left alone in her choice to bury her brother and the consequences thereafter. In the adaption, we, as an audience, are privy to a more loving sisterly bond, one of trust, patience, and solidarity in the face of tyranny, violence and injustice. In fact, with Ismene ending the play, one is left with the question, what happens to Oedipus’ family now? Ismene is left alone, entrusted with continuing her sister’s fight for justice and peace. It leaves the audience with the sense of a continuing world, one that does not end with the final words of a script.
Why place the script in modern times? Why not just update the language? Minnicino’s answer is simple: relatability. When originally penned in 2016, the central themes of Antigone stood out as timeless in a rapidly changing society. As Antigone fought for justice on the page, so too were thousands marching in the streets. As Ismene stood in solidarity with her sister, so too did thousands on social media. Even as Antigone stood for what she knew to be right, even if the lawmaker saw it as wrong, her struggle in Thebes was mirrored across the world. Sophocles’ script held true no matter the era. All that needed updating was the antiquated language. In our culture, in which action speaks louder than words, Minnicino found a way to take a script written in a speech-based theatrical tradition and make it more nuanced, and more engaging. Whether laughing or crying, audiences can find a character to resonate with, even if it’s just a staffer working late trying to order some dinner.
Noa Gelb is a Washington, DC, native and a graduate of the University of Michigan. She is a local theatre artist and writer, working primarily as an actor and freelance dramaturg. She has lived in Dublin, Ireland, and Athens, Greece, and loved every minute of it. She enjoys traveling, reading, cooking, eating Chinese food, and being with her friends and family. Noagelb.com