Friday, March 14, 2008

Surrealist Antigone

Mac Wellman's Antigone is quite a worthwhile read, and is my current favorite play and piece of writing. I wrote what may be my most interesting pa per on it yesterday, although it's not yet in its polished state. I'm posting it below, but recommend reading the play (it's 15 pages) before you read this post (no plagiarizing!).

Superpositioning Antigone:
Subverting Fate with Science and Surrealism


In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, fate is demonstrated as inevitable and, more importantly, omnipotent: even, or perhaps especially, if every precaution is taken to avoid the prescribed result, those precautions will end up combining in such a way as to work against the one attempting to thwart fate. In this way, Oedipus, in seeming to always be a few steps ahead of an awful fate, is in reality running full-tilt into its jaws. As Oedipus’ half-sister and daughter, Antigone, is heir to a similar relationship with fate, and has given herself up to it without protest or attempt to escape. Using both surrealism’s ethereality and science’s concrete principles, Mac Wellman’s Antigone proposes and executes an experiment testing the idea of fate as an inexorable force. This experiment also implicitly questions whether Antigone’s inheritance must require every Antigone (her namesake, therefore herself), to also be subject to that particular kind of inexorability. It posits that it may be possible to find some unique situation in which she can “[make herself] very small and [slip] out the back way” and escape (12).

To execute its careful experiment, Wellman’s Antigone makes use of the rhetoric of hard science, introducing it within the first few lines of the play via !∃, who is narrator and commentator, “an unknown god with an unknown origin,” represented by a piece of notation used in predicate logic (1). !∃is, as it explains to us, mathematical shorthand for “there exists a unique situation” (3). Such a meaning is particularly appropriate for Wellman’s Antigone, as the play’s main function is as an experiment to find a specific and possibly unique situation in which Antigone will not need to die. Appropriately, and perhaps in an attempt to conduct the experiment in an inert environment, the play takes place when “the three Fates [are] unpleasant young girls,” a time before time, and by implication, before place (2). This introduction of the quantifiable and its rhetorical implication of the presence of the logic, specificity, and measurability of hard science occur within the first two hundred words of the play, bringing to mind the abstract of a scientific paper.

Abstract is a useful word for much of Wellman’s Antigone, partly because the idea of a thought experiment done in a place and time that require the absence of both, and partly because woven through the scientific paradigm of the play’s first small section is the ethereal language of surrealism, which is abstract even before it melds with the scientific. The idea of “a time before time,” for example is an abstract and surreal idea, but even more so is the notion of “Heaps of dead clothing,” as if clothing could be dead, instead of just “strewn all over” (2). This surrealism continues throughout the play, and in spite of its rejection of scientifically predicated cause-and-effect logic and insistence upon the indefinite, it makes a mad kind of sense.

To test his unstated but implicit hypothesis, Wellman uses an hybrid test, using elements of both science and surrealism. Science surfaces in the very idea of an experiment to test an hypothesis, and also later in requiring repetition of the test to verify the results. This presence of the incontrovertible and concrete seems to repeatedly contradict surrealism’s celebration of the indefinite, and at times there seems even to be a back-and-forth argument between the two. Creon’s argument for why he has outlawed Polyneices’ burial hinges upon logical language, “The rule is…if one, then not the other…Truth is true,” but is followed by !∃’s commentary “A rupture. Time backs up and shakes itself like a wet dog” (3-4). Similarly, a sentence beginning, “Vast, electromagnetic…” could be out of any physics textbook, and we expect it to make logical sense, or at least stay within the paradigm of electromagnetism, is followed up with a few phrases that sends logic and fact into a tailspin“…carpets of stars and eggs and all possible hats” (4). This repeating contradiction does not always progress from science to surrealism; the paragraph about electromagnetic hats culminates in an outright rhetorical contradiction, which flies in the face of both science and surrealism, applying the concrete and factual to the indefinite and weird to the benefit of neither, “Most eggs are electrical in some way. Most aren’t” (4). Later in the play, the exchange becomes faster, notably in a string of commonplace truisms that bear no logical relation to one another, and eventually trip up and devolve into a “Dance of Charm and Distance,” and “the Dance no one has ever,” the ultimate surreal expression being a dance that cannot be scientifically described by any amount of language (6).

The idea of science interacting with surrealism contradicts the basic idea of accurate measurement inherent to the general conception of scientific thought; if we allow science to represent the accurate and define the surreal as the imprecise or immeasurable, there is a fundamental problem to arguing that the play contains a scientific element. If an imprecise element is combined with a precise one, precision is annihilated, and recognizing this incompatibility immediately renders suspect the validity of using a scientific lens to examine Wellman’s Antigone. In order to validate the scientific lens, it is necessary to recognize that although science in comparison to surrealism represents the quantifiable, concrete, and logical, not all science must be quantitative; qualitative logic often is equally useful, and so it is in this sense that science can be used in what is most easily described as a surrealist play.

In fact, scientific rhetoric serves a vital function for Wellman’s play; aside from enabling an experimental paradigm for the play to work within, it is a very effective way of explicating what Wellman’s play tries to do. The play’s primary work is to search for a unique and specific situation in which Antigone will not have to die; without setting forth parameters for the test, the results would not be helpful. Indeed, without a scientific lens, “results” would be a foreign concept, and we would not know whether any situation existed. Scientific rhetoric (and thought) lets us define what it is that we are looking for, and allows us to know if we have found it; these two attributes are vital to any search, and thus to Wellman’s play.

Scientific rhetoric can define its own use, and once that use is acknowledged, surrealism’s function in the play becomes strangely out-of-focus. The role of science, if taken to an extreme and left unchecked, would dictate the variance of each minute aspect of every carefully-defined parameter—a calculation better done by a computer, and of so many iterations that performing it onstage would require lifetimes. In the end, we would be aware of every possible situation, and would know if a unique one existed such that Antigone does not die. However, the inexorable process of scientific conclusion is very close to the inexorable progress of fate’s conclusion; it is possible that within the boundaries of the power of the inexorable, no unique situation would exist, and this is where surrealism becomes of utmost importance to Wellman’s experiment. In decoupling the play from the inexorable through limiting the use of deductive logic, the hope is that the play will also be decoupled from fate, or at least that fate’s power will be somehow limited. In this light, surrealism becomes not “the fallacy of many questions, or the / fallacy of accident; or the fallacy of bad faith,” but an integral part of a sophisticated experiment (8).

Unsurprisingly, however, science and surrealism interact to subvert one another, surrealism acts by filtering through science’s logical rhetoric, and science acts by creating a kind of sense out of that surrealism. “You can’t carry an egg in two baskets. You can’t be in the same place at the same time. You simply can’t,” observes one of the guards who brings her to Creon (4). Clearly logical observations, the need for them are cloudy: the egg statement relates to the electromagnetism statement a few sentences earlier, but has no obvious cause or effect, though it is structurally and thematically related to the next sentence. It is an incomplete and strangely structured accusation, and that is important: surrealism has subverted legalistic language and instead of a clear statement that Antigone lacks an alibi, the guards make a muddled statement that sounds more like a commentary on the nature of Classical Mechanics than a strong accusation. The repetition of “You simply can’t,” pushes reality further from sense, as it is more of a protest than an assertion (4). This is followed up by the guards’ childlike language; they use incomplete sentences that intimate a kind of sleeve-tugging which, given their social power, edges them into the surreal. “She did it. Creon, she…You know. The bad thing, at the bad place,” although the words make logical sense, the juvenile register (shying away from important nouns) and the broken, near-hysterical tone sounds odd coming from the guards (4).

Science and surrealism are both subverted in more obvious ways as well. The Three Fates, representative perhaps of the malleability of fate necessary for the existence of our sought unique situation, or simply representative of the extra-temporal setting of the play, become the three FACTS over the course of the play, and subsequently become the three Graces. Fate’s conversion to FACT is a subversion of Fate; FACTS are investigated and equivocated via scientific language, in much the same way as !∃, a symbol of mathematical precision, at times devolves entirely into surreality (13). FACTS then change to Graces. Embodied Graces, aside from being outside the realm of fact, also defy causes and their effects: to embody the concept of any Grace, one must be devoid of everything ungraceful, and thus cannot interact in a normative cause-effect paradigm. Grace, then, is surreal, and this surreality seems to free Antigone from the constraints of her Fate: “The Fates turn into Graces just at the precise moment, [dead] Antigone, in their enactment, turns into a flame” (14). Antigone is dead, but rather than being cremated (as heroes were), she becomes a flame, perhaps to cremate herself. Whether or not that is the case, because she is not entombed in the crypt of Sophocles’ play, because she is not confined to Haemon’s arms, she in some way escapes the eternity of fate; as a flame, she surmounts the concrete and immutable. Why would a body spontaneously combust? The cause-and-effect paradigm implied by fate’s apparent supremacy decomposes at this moment into the mad-sense flickering of surrealism.

This overthrow of the traditional conclusion, while it does not express a complete subversion of fate or the Fates, does represent a partially successful experiment. Although fate still defines all the major plot-points (Antigone buries Polyneices knowing that she will be first imprisoned and then die for it; her lover dies of grief, and Creon is left in a post-apocalyptic depression), it does noticeably change after her death, and it stretches slightly before. Before dying, she is imprisoned, just as in Sophocles’ play. However, instead of in a crypt there is “High above us…a brilliant geode, violet and luminous. Antigone is enshrined within,” and Antigone is no longer a “nasty girl,” one of the “symparanekromenoi, one of the living dead,” but a goddess (11, 12, 5). Surrealism (a geode floating in the air) allows for such a space to be hollowed out in the general progression of fate, and instead of her last words being mocked, as in Sophocles’ play, she is able to articulate her death herself. She does so with a list of ‘last words’ quotations that run from the heartily melodramatic (a reference to Dumas fils’ Camille) to the laconic (a military commander’s last words to his men), giving her an oddly multifaceted, but unoriginal, deathbed speech (12).

The partial subversion of fate (and Fates), although not successful in uncovering a unique situation, nevertheless enables the interpretation of Wellman’s Antigone as an Hutcheonian parody—that is, as a repetition of an original, but with a critical difference that marks the difference, rather than the similarity . That Wellman’s play differs greatly from Sophocles’ is apparent from the beginning; the presence of surrealism is a difference that must be recognized as critical in the sense that it demonstrates a very important difference in our perception of the play, and also particularly because it is surreal in the service of criticism and subversion. However, the ultimate subversion of fate, although minor and after-the-fact, is still important. Wellman’s play congratulates itself on this minor triumph by immediately following Antigone’s transformation into a flame by discovering “a puppet SOPHOCLES in a wooden box…(Actually, there is no puppet, just a girl’s hand enacting the puppet),” in emphasizing Sophocles’ (and therefore, presumably, his Antigone’s) inadequacy even as a puppet, the play celebrates its critical difference (14).

This very celebration cements the critical difference by immediate and staged comparison to Sophocles’ Antigone in the recitation of a stanza from that play to the non-puppet SOPHOCLES (14). This, and presumably the difference between the two, brings amazement and wonder into the non-puppet’s eyes, implying that the critical difference is an improvement (14). Given this implication, and also the established before-time and before-place of Wellman’s play, it is important to note that in a sense, Wellman’s play came before that of Sophocles, and suddenly the word “parody” also works the other direction. If Sophocles’ play is an Hutcheonian parody of Wellman’s, then the word also takes on one of its other meanings, that of a 'feeble imitation'.

As if those two parodic elements were not sufficient, Wellman’s Antigone requires self-parody by defining either five or nine iterations, each one significantly different than the rest, before the play is over. The stage directions (or possibly a dialogue) specify concretely to “Repeat the whole X 3 so that each may play ANTIGONE, each CREON,” and that is the first set of three (14). Then, the specific degrades slightly, as the directions next require “Repeat X 3 exactly the same (only different),” specifying decreasing time increments to be spent on each repetition (14-15). It isn’t clear if the first three replicates of the experiment are each to be repeated three times (rendering nine iterations in all), or if only two additional replicates are called for after the initial three. In each repetition, the casting or the timing will be different, and thus may constitute a critical difference; driven by the scientific requirement of verification, each parameter must be varied. Driven by the requisite imprecision of the experiment, it is patently unclear how many replicates are necessary, or indeed, will be performed. Driven by both the scientific and the surreal aspects of the experiment is the total disregard of the question that would surface in the audience after the second or third replicate as to why it is being performed again.

After the play’s final iteration, which “takes no time at all,” it reports its own results, including its propagated error: “Now the play is truly finished (some may not think so)” (15). The significance of “some might not think so” is twofold: it is a scientific acknowledgment of the possibility of other valid experiments in the future; and it also represents the uncertainty allowed in science, which is a half-bow to surrealism, the epitome of uncertainty. Combining these two meanings yields an acknowledgement that although no unique situation has been found that allows Antigone to escape from her fate entirely, it has not proven that such a situation does not exist.

Similarly, the phrase “Now the play is truly finished,” drips with multiple meanings (15). If Antigone is equated with Antigone the play, and thus with all possible renditions of that play, it is possible that the phrase is an assertion of the annihilation of the archetype: once fate has been circumvented in one way, it may not hold in others. This reading is not supported by the reported result of the many repetitions of Wellman’s Antigone engendered by a single performance of Wellman’s Antigone, but the idea of ambiguity in results leaves it as a possibility. Alternately, whether or not Antigone is Antigone herself, Wellman’s transcription is in a sense an infinite recursion (each performance requires at least four additional performances; each of those may also engender at least four more, and so on), and so Antigone can’t ever fully die. However, if some of those recursions take no time at all, then she must be both alive and dead—or, since the two terms definitively exclude one another, she is neither.

The first reading involves taking the phrase “Now the play is truly finished” at face value, and not according it any depth, while the second requires that the second half of the sentence (the part in parentheses) be applied to our understanding of the first part, rendering it more of a joke. The overweening presence of surrealism and subverted definite statements support the second reading, because it does not seem likely that the play would end with a completely straight face. An Antigone neither alive nor dead, or somehow in a superposition between those two mutually exclusive states, is exactly what the play itself tells us is required for her to escape her fate, albeit partially: “You can’t be at the same place at the same time. You simply can’t,” the guard tells her, right before handing her over to Creon (4). The implication is that if she could have been superpositioned between two places at once, then she could have escaped Creon, and thereby escaped the subsequent fateful cascade of accusation, imprisonment, and death. “You can’t carry an egg in two baskets,” the guard says; Wellman’s play discovers that only when Antigone puts herself in two mutually exclusive baskets and enters the realm of Quantum Mechanics—a surreal realm defined by pure mathematics—will she escape her fate (4).

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