Antigone in 1939
Today I took a small part in a symposium in Cambridge, held to coincide with the triennial Cambridge Greek Play (this year a double bill of Lysistrata and Antigone). I am sure that I have confessed before to a bit of an ambivalence about ancient Greek plays performed in Greek: I am fascinated by the phenomenon in an intellectual kind of way (and I wish them every success), but I really dont enjoy actually watching them. And the truth is I haven't actually seen a Cambridge play since the Medea in 1974. This year I had a cast iron excuse as I was away all week, but I suspect that I would have chickened out even if I had been around.
Anyway, I was down to speak briefly on a panel on "Politics and Revolution", and I decided to look a bit more carefully at the first time Cambridge tried Antigone -- in 1939, almost exactly six months before was was declared.
It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I almost came to the conclusion that if Oxford had its "King and Country" moment in 1933, the Cambridge (on similar themes) had its "Antigone" moment. It was almost certainly the first time that the "Greek Play" in Cambridge was ever politicised.
There was no doubt that this was a production that had modern dictators in mind (you can find a plot summary among the links here). Some newly composed Greek verses were printed in the programme to the effect that "modern Creons" had better watch out. And almost ever review picked that theme up. As the Telegraph reviewer put it, "There are Creon’s everywhere today too numerous to mention, and most of them too obvious to miss."
In truth, not quite all reviewers picked this out. Surprisingly perhaps Louis MacNeice (who reviewed it for the Spectator) alluded only briefly to the fact that "Creon is always with us", and was more concerned with the play's use of "old" Greek pronunciation, and (odd this) with the “far too feminine” features of the man who played Creon. But most of them did, while remaining rather vague about which modern Creons they had in mind. The only candidate actually mentioned was not one of the most obvious; it was Metaxas of Greece. And those allusions were partly prompted by the fact that the Greek ambassador came to see it one night. As a comment piece in the Guardian had it: “I can imagine no more apt dispatch from his excellency to Athens than one that advised General Metaxas to re-read his Antigone.”
I find myself partly agreeing with Simon Goldhill, who also spoke at the symposium: that there is something unsatisfying about the usual (slightly self-congratulatory) view that this play parades the conflicts with dictatorship (did we need Antigone to tell us that oppression was bad?).
But amongst all these good political pieties, my eye was caught by the name of that "feminine featured" Creon (whom, to be fair, most reviewers liked a lot). It was Ronald Millar, who later in life became Mrs Thatcher's speech writer, and penned "the Lady's not for turning" speech. (He is also one of the main characters in my friend Peter Stothard's new book, The Senecans, which actually touches on this performance.)
There was a thought a very satisfying irony in contemplating the real-life future of the boy who played Creon, not as dictator but as loyal courtier to a very iron lady.