Theatre and Plague

Theatre and Plague

Quién puede borrar las huellas? (2003) by Regina José Galindo
Photo: Victor Perez, Courtesy: the artist and prometeo gallery di Ida Pisani, Milan/Lucca


PRIEST: Disease infects fruit blossoms in our land,
disease infects our herds of grazing cattle,
makes women in labour lose their children.
And deadly pestilence, that fiery god,
swoops down to blast the city, emptying
the House of Cadmus, and fills black Hades
with groans and howls.

Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, verses 29-35
(translated by Ian Johnson)


TIRESIAS: Listen, Creon:
I was sitting in my chair of augury, at the place
Where the birds gather about me.
They were all a-chatter, as is their habit,
when suddenly I heard a
strange note in their jangling, a scream,
Whirring fury; I knew that they were fighting,
Tearing each other, dying
In a whirlwind of wings clashing. And I was afraid.
I began the rites of burnt-offering at the altar,
But Hephaistos failed me: instead of bright flame,
There was only the sputtering slime of the fat thigh-flesh
Melting: the entrails dissolved in gray smoke,
The bare bone burst from the welter. And no blaze!
Our hearths and altars
Are stained with the corruption of dogs and carrion birds
That glut themselves on the corpse of Oedipus’ son.
The gods are deaf when we pray to them, their fire
Recoils from our offering, their birds of omen
Have no cry of comfort, for they are gorged
With the thick blood of the dead.

Sophocles, Antigone (782-793 and 797-803)
(translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald)


[…] the action of theater, like that of plague, is beneficial, for,
impelling men to see themselves as they are, it causes the mask to fall,
reveals the lie, the slackness, baseness, and hypocrisy of our world;
it shakes off the asphyxiating inertia of matter which invades
even the clearest testimony of the senses; and in revealing to collectivities of men
their dark power, their hidden force, it invites them to take, in the face of destiny,
a superior and heroic attitude they would never have assumed without it.

Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double,
(translated from French by Mary Caroline Richard)

This is the way Antonin Artaud completes his essay ‘Theatre and Plague’, where he draws a parallel between the two conditions, arguing that ‘the theater is a disease because it is the supreme equilibrium which cannot be achieved without destruction’ (Ibid.). But if theatre and plague can bring to a sort of equilibrium after a disaster in the sense that they are both apocalyptic, they reveal hidden truths and turn down masks, if they are both the powers of ‘alchemical transformation, leading through the nigredo of dissolution towards a new genesis’ (Goodall, 1990: 529), how are these powers interwoven in the Sophoclean Labdacids’ circle?

The two fragments cited in the beginning of this fieldnote are eloquent: Oedipus Rex famously begins under the urge of a spreading disease, whilst Antigone, the last tragedy of this circle, finishes with Tiresias announcing that ‘the gods are deaf’ because the polis is polluted by the unburied body. In the two plays, the plague enters the stage as an apocalyptic trope and as the catalyst of the action: counting down to the collapse of both kings.

Plague as a trope revealing what remains unburied is particularly interesting for Latin American re-inscriptions of Antigone. As many of these plays substitute the unburied body of Polinices with all those bodies who were, and still are, forced to disappear in, and because of, different political contexts, the advent of the plague marks an apocalyptic moment of cruel truth. Antigone’s living tomb is often in Latin America transposed with the river as the watery grave of those unburied. In plays such as José Huercas’ AntigonaS. Linaje de Hembras, Borges/ Tiresias invites Creon to taste the polluted water of the river, whilst with the advent of the plague (peste) the personified Rio ends up overflowing its banks, and throwing up its unburied dead.

In some versions, the plague invades the stage with sounds: in Antígona Velez, screams of vultures digging in the unburied body of Ignacio/Polínices are balefully heard as the play advances. This sonic haunting of the plague echoes the well-known alliteration of Oedipus Rex’s first scene: νοσείτε δε πάντες και νοσούντες ως εγώ/ ουκ έστιν εξ υμών όστις εξ ίσου νοσεί (‘For I well know that you are ill,/ and yet, sick as you are,/ there is not one of you whose illness equals mine’, verses 60-1, Ibid.). Yet, in plays such as Griselda Gambaro’s Antígona Furiosa (1986), the plague gets materialized. Towards the end of this play, the sound of wingbeats and squawks (aleteos y graznidos) only foreshadows immense wings and other objects (supposedly parts of Polinices’ dead body, devoured and dismembered by the vultures) which gradually fall on stage.

Antígona Cerda (1983), Luis Riaza’s Spanish version of Antigone, is worth mentioning in this regard. This play contains a detailed author’s note on the scenography: a central elevated platform is placed on stage (depicting the palace and the polis), confined by a vertical surface (depicting the walls): ‘an iron gadget with hooks as those existing in slaughterhouses in order to hang the sacrificed beasts’ (un artilugio de hierro con ganchos como los existentes en los mataderos para colgar las reses sacrificadas). Around the platform and the ‘walls’, piled or dispersed here and there, they are ‘mannequins and dolls, entire or chopped, some naked and some dressed’ (maniquíes o muñecos, enteros o troceados, unos desnudos y otros vestidos). This represents the battlefield, which also contains:

several dead animals – chickens, monkeys, dogs etc. – real or false. Some of the chicken are plucked and one of the dogs is skinned. Chunks of sanguineous flesh. Finally, orthopaedic pieces, arms, legs, etc.

(algunos animales muertos – pollos, monos, perros, etc. – reales o fingidos. Algunos de los pollos están desplumados y alguno de los perros despellejado. Trozos de carne sanguinolenta. Por ultimo, piezas ortopédicas, brazos, piernas, etc.)

Two identical plucked chickens represent the two dead brothers. The chorus will punish one of them, the one that represents Polinices’ body: they will spit on it, and hang it on an iron hook, at the walls of the city. Antigone’s dissident burial will be to cut the cord from which the chicken-Polinices is hanged. This matter composed by pieces of flesh, dismembered bodies, human simulacra, animals real and false, becomes the real protagonist of the play. At the end, when Aemon will invite her to their nuptial dinner, Antigone will place the chicken-Polinices on a tray and bring it on a ‘table-arc’ (sobre la mesa-arca). There, reproducing the ‘act of patriarch Abraham, substituting the victim but without substituting the real death’ (Domingo Miras 1983: 249, my translation), ‘she cuts significant slices of the chicken and puts them in front of Ismene-Creon-Aemon’. When, at the end, the latter asks her if she feels something magical floating on their love, she agrees: ‘like a plague’ (como una peste).


Marios Chatziprokopiou