In the late 1960s, a group of inmates in South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison, staged a performance of Antigone, Sophocles’ 2000-year-old tragedy. One prisoner, with little stage experience, was keen to participate. His name was Nelson Mandela.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela describes his role as King Creon:
At the outset, Creon is sincere and patriotic, and there is wisdom in his early speeches when he suggests that experience is the foundation of leadership and that obligations to the people take precedence over loyalty to an individual.
But Creon deals with his enemies mercilessly. He has decreed that the body of Antigone’s brother, who had rebelled against the city, does not deserve a proper burial. Antigone, who is grieving, rebels on the grounds that there is a higher law than that of the state. Creon will not listen to Antigone; neither does he listen to anyone but his own inner demons.
Antigone symbolized our struggle; she was, in her own way, a freedom fighter, for she defied the law on the ground that it was unjust.
A few years later, the South African playwright and director, Athol Fugard, produced a play based on the prison performance. He called it The Island. Fugard’s play highlights the parallels between Antigone's situation and Mandela’s struggle against an oppressive regime.
South Africa’s apartheid laws prevented Fugard’s bi-racial troupe of actors from performing together, so The Island debuted in London. Shortly thereafter, it opened in New York. And ultimately, the play was performed around the world. Audiences, horrified by the cruelties of apartheid, encouraged their respective governments to bring sanctions against the South African government.
Mandela attributed the defeat of apartheid, in part, to the political activism encouraged by Athol’s play. And this was not the only time that Sophocles’ 2000-year-old-play mobilised modern audiences to fight for political change. The main oppositions depicted in Antigone—young versus old, powerful versus powerless, divine laws versus human ones—endow the play with wide-ranging applicability.
In 1944, during the Nazi occupation of France, the legendary French dramatist, Jean Anouilh produced a version of Antigone in which the struggle between Creon and his niece served as a symbol for the freedom fighters defying the German conquerors. The play became an effective recruitment tool for the Resistance.
In the late 1980s, when Poland suffered under martial law, Andrzej Wajda directed what is known as the “Solidarity” Antigone. The play was designed to rally support for Lech Walesa’s anti-government Solidarity movement. Just to make sure that the audience got the point, Wajda dressed Antigone and the chorus in blue workers’ overalls, while Creon and his henchman wore the loud suits favoured by Mafia dons.
More recently, Seamus Heaney, the Irish Noble Laureate, recreated Antigone calling his version Death in Thebes. Heaney used the struggle between Antigone and Creon to draw attention to the troubles that plagued Ireland for decades.
I could go on, but you get the point. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner claimed, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Antigone’s timeless themes, and its influence on modern politics, prove Faulkner was correct.
(From a speech delivered to the Ramsay Foundation for Western Civilisation, July 2022.)