The poet Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone is retitled Antigonick (New Directions, 180 pp., $24.95), as in “nick of time,” suggesting that the play is all about timing. This is Ms. Carson’s first book since 2010’s Nox, a kind of scrapbook-as-poem that she calls an “epitaph” to her estranged brother who died in 2000. Antigone, the final installment of Sophocles’ trilogy of so-called Theban works (though it is widely considered to have been composed before Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus), also takes the death of a brother—more specifically his burial—as its jumping off point. This translation, which also includes illustrations by Bianca Stone, is less focused on the tragedies that befall a family than it is on the perfectly timed events that lead to them. To emphasize this, Ms. Carson, a professor of ancient Greek, writes in an extra character named Nick, a pun on the book’s title. Nick never speaks. “He measures things” is his only stage direction, but he remains onstage even after the rest of the characters have left, still measuring.
It’s not the only major revision Ms. Carson has made. She has whittled most of the play’s long speeches down to one or two lines. Her Antigone is fond of quoting Hegel. Her Greek chorus is full of snark (“I hate to mention it,” they say after a doomed prediction from the blind prophet Teiresias, “but historically his prophecies are never false”). Antigone has been given countless modified treatments onstage—it has been set during the French Resistance, the Vietnam War, in North Ireland, among other backdrops—and classicists have been revising it for centuries (it has also attracted a number of poet-translators, Hölderlin the most famous of them). Most of these new versions have hewed close to the original, but Ms. Carson does more than just update the language and quicken the pacing—she rewrites the play, mines its subtleties, its absurdity and its strangely comic timing and manages to produce a unique text out of a story that goes back much further than the fifth century when Sophocles wrote his version.
There are a number of perfectly timed moments in Antigonick that the presence of Nick, Ms. Carson’s broad sustained metaphor for time itself, casts light on: first, there are the simultaneous deaths of Antigone’s brothers, Eteokles and Polyneikes, explained in some translations as a “double blow that killed them both” or “common death,” but described in more direct and powerful terms by Ms. Carson with the statement, “our two brothers are dead by one another’s hands.” Also, Antigone’s uncle Kreon—who became a surrogate father of sorts to Antigone and her siblings after Oedipus, their biological father (and half-brother), cast himself out of Thebes because, well, you know why—has found himself at the right place at the right time: he’s suddenly become ruler after the mutual fratricide of Eteokles and Polyneikes. His first act as king is to prevent Polyneikes, a rebel soldier who tries to seize control of Thebes before the story begins (a war has conveniently just ended as the first rays of dawn shine their light on the play’s opening), from having a proper burial. In another moment of unfortunately perfect timing, Antigone has been caught in the act of administering burial rights to her brother’s corpse to prevent it from being, in Ms. Carson’s words, “sweet sorrymeat for the little lusts of birds.” Kreon has sentenced his niece, who is engaged to his son Haimon, to death.
Sophocles begins his play with Antigone meeting her sister Ismene outside the city gates before dawn to ask her help in burying their brother. Antigone wonders if there is not an evil (or grief, depending on the translator) in the world that has not been handed down to their family by Oedipus. Ms. Carson, however, makes her characters suspiciously like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon: it works so perfectly, it’s a wonder no one has thought of this before. It’s night on a lonely country road—Beckett’s characters are waiting hopelessly for Godot (whom they know will not come but they wait anyway), Ms. Carson’s are waiting for more pain to greet their already sad lives. They share this exchange:
Antigone: We begin in the dark and birth is the death of us
Ismene: Who said that
Ismene: Sounds more like Beckett
Antigone: He was paraphrasing Hegel
Ismene: I don’t think so
Antigone: Whoever it was whoever we are dear sister ever since we were born from the evils of Oidipous what bitterness pain disgust disgrace or moral shock have we been spared
That Ms. Carson defers the play’s beginning in order to make room for this Laurel and Hardy routine once again brings to mind timing: in a play with perfect pacing, where every action falls into place down to the second—and especially in a translation that has cut out all the fat in order to magnify this fateful accuracy (this version moves so fast, Ms. Carson rarely uses punctuation, as though she does not have time for such embellishment)—it is as if all the tragedy of the play could be blamed on this small and ultimately pointless exchange. If Antigone had gotten to her brother’s body a few seconds earlier, she wouldn’t have been caught, but instead she was busy debating a line from Hegel (the line does, in fact, come from Beckett’s A Piece of Monologue—“Birth was the death of him”—but it is a pretty good, if slightly crude, distillation of Hegelian dialectics).
Ms. Carson’s adaptation is filled with such moments of self-conscious comedy. As Antigone prepares to enter the cave where Kreon has ordered her buried alive, the chorus says she is “clumsy like her father.” In other translations, this elicits a speech from Antigone about her “worst grief” that ends with one of the play’s pivotal lines: “From what kind of parents was I born?” (that version comes from the succinct 2011 translation by poets Robert Bagg and James Scully). Ms. Carson, however, cuts out this monologue. Instead, the chorus continues; after they compare Antigone to Oedipus they refer to another famous revision of Sophocles: “Remember how Brecht had you do the whole play with a door strapped to your back [?]” The funniest and most memorable moment here, though, comes from Sophocles’ least-memorable character, Kreon’s wife, Eurydike, who in other versions seems to have been added in as an afterthought in order to make Kreon’s fall just a tiny bit worse. Ms. Carson lets Eurydike have her revenge:
This is Eurydike’s monologue it’s her only speech in the play. you must not know who she is that’s OK. Like poor Mrs. Ramsay who died in a bracket of To the Lighthouse she’s the wife of the man whose moods tensify the world of this story this world sundered by her I say sundered by her that girl with the undead strapped to her back.
The passage in To the Lighthouse that Ms. Carson refers to here is the famously abrupt parenthetical aside that announces the death of the novel’s matriarch: “(Mr. Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty).” Eurydike’s role in Antigone is nearly as sudden. She appears onstage, to ask a messenger what the bad news is. The genius of Ms. Carson’s translation is that Eurydike stays onstage, essentially in order to recite an Anne Carson poem, which is quoted here in its entirety:
A state of exception marks the/limit of the law this violent thing this fragile thing/try to unclench we said to her she never did. We/got her the bike we got her a therapist that poor/sad man with his odd ideas, some days he made us sit on the staircase all on different steps/or videotaped us but when we watched/it was nothing but shadows. Finally we expelled her/we had to. Using the logic of friend and foe that/she denies but how can she deny/the rule to which she is an exception is she autoimmune no she is not./have you heard this expression the nick of time what is a nick/I asked my son/what is a nick/I asked my son/when the messenger comes I set him straight I/tell him nobody’s missing we’re all here we’re/all fine. Why do messengers always exaggerate/exit Eurydike bleeding from all orifices.
Eurydike exits only after the messenger and chorus tell her to.
The play’s tragedy is not that Eurydike, after her brief appearance, then kills herself because her son Haimon has also killed himself after learning of Antigone’s fate; or that Antigone kills herself inside of the cave where she is buried, rather than, as Ms. Carson puts it, “lie in the bed of the river of death while I am still alive.” The real tragedy is that at the last minute, the chorus convinces Kreon that he should spare Antigone. By that point, it’s too late.