Theater 32.2 (2002) 56-61
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A Play for a Broken World
Mac Wellman, Interviewed by Carrie Hughes
CARRIE HUGHES In an interview with you when Theater published Cat's Paw andThe Difficulty of Crossing a Field [volume 27, no. 2/3] Shawn-Marie Garrett talked about how you shy away from absolute morality in your plays. You responded that the only meaningful morality is intuitive. How do we figure out the morality of this play?
MAC WELLMAN What I was trying to suggest was not that morality is not important—quite the opposite. It's simply that there aren't any external, metaphysical systems determining these things. It comes down to basic issues of kindness and decency and generosity, which all human beings can recognize. In tragedy characters are faced with situations in which there are no easy answers; the moral universe on a human level has been disrupted somehow. That's why it's so difficult to write a tragedy now: because the universal absolutes simply don't pertain anymore. Ninety-two percent of Americans say they believe in a personal god but I don't believe them because they don't act like they believe in anything. There are huge moral issues in Antigone, but it doesn't offer solutions; it presents situations.
When you were adapting it, did you look at the other Antigones?
Actually, this came out of Gordon Rogoff's Exiles' summer theater, where I taught for two years. The first year the theme was Antigone, a play I'd not read since high school and didn't remember liking very much. We read six or seven Antigones. We dealt with Anouilh's Antigone, which is French, and Brecht's, which is German, and I made my students write their own fragmentary Antigones. After that I put it aside for a while, but I read George Steiner's book Antigones, which is quite wonderful and discusses in detail probably thirty or forty of them and in less detail maybe eighty, and mentions all together probably three or four hundred. You didn't realize there were that many of them, but there are. So, it took me a long time to figure out that I wanted to do it, and actually the things that finally drew me to the play were things that initially I didn't like.
Steiner talks about the fact that there are dichotomies at every possible level in the play. He said it's probably the most impacted of all the Greek tragedies: it's age against youth, it's men against women, it's gods against people, it's political rulers against their subjects. There's almost no room for movement.
What do you mean by impacted?
There's a little bit of a melodrama about whether Antigone will be saved or not, and the melodrama about her love for Haemon, but almost no story. She does this thing, this sort of symbolic burial of her brother that creates a horrible situation, and she's walled up. In a way what is appealing about this tragedy is just the very implacable stuckness of it and of everybody in it. It's full of baleful warnings; she gets [End Page 57] walled up, everybody else is miserable and dies. But the more I thought about it, I saw things to mess around with.
Such as . . .
I work with Big Dance Company, run by Annie-B Parsons and Paul Lazar. They have wonderful female performers in their group, and I thought it might be fun to leave out as much of the text as possible and express its impacted nature through dance. This meant cutting back the story a lot.
It's really hard to do tragedy. It turns into melodrama, and the tearing of hair and the gnashing of teeth and big speeches about gods, which none of us believe in. So then what is the point of tragedy? We know things are tragic, but we don't really believe in anything necessary anymore. I think this is...