Though the fact of death destroys us, the idea of death can save us.
-- Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner
Long ago when I was a professor of theatre, she came to me with a problem. Her project was to direct Antigone, and she didn’t know what to “do with” the chorus. How to deal with their strange lyric interruptions to the action, those choral odes so clumsy in speech, so difficult in tune. This is the most essential question in Greek drama: what do we have to substitute for a convention of song and dance that is utterly lost? Nobody asks what to “do with” a number like “Hernando’s Hideaway” or “O-o-o-klahoma, where the wind comes whistlin’ down the plain;” you sing and dance them in the best Broadway style, silly. But what are the steps and vocal styling for “Zeus hates with a vengeance all bravado”?* You’ll have to make it up as you go, and it had better be good. Few professors have the chops for it. (They think the play will “speak for itself.”)
But this problem was only the container of a deeper one. She couldn’t see what to “do with” the chorus because she couldn’t feel what to do with the play.
Her leading character baffled her. “Why does she do it?” Why would Antigone (a woman about the same age as she) choose to die? Why perform a gesture of respect for one of her dead brothers, no better than the other one, knowing the lethal consequence?
That, I told her, is yours to answer. The answer to that question is your interpretation of the play. If you can’t answer that question, you won’t know what to do.
“I can’t answer the question,” she said. She was young and immortal. And honest.
There’s nothing much good about death as far as I can tell, but it’s not the worst thing that can happen to you. It’s only what we all must do. There are worse things than dying, and discovering what those worse things are is the recovery of soul.
When you know what is worse than death, you know what is better than living forever. Which is a good thing to discover, since we shall not live forever.
If you can answer the question, you might understand why a person would choose to die now rather than later, knowing the better thing rather than the worse would happen because of their choice. You might know what it is to live for something, ready to die for something.
Thoreau went to a life in the woods so that, when it came time for him to die, he would not discover that he had not lived. People around us – firefighters for instance, or doctors who take their skill to chaotic countries – put their lives in danger to save lives. It’s not just the lives of others that they save. They save their own lives as well, ensuring that they have lived. Others may jump out of airplanes, or climb mountains. Their insurance brokers would rather they did not.
Speak truth to power. Declare your sexual orientation. Stand in front of a tank. Save your life.
It’s a lot to ask – that a young suburban woman, from a pampered country and class, never subject to violence and unacquainted with grief, should know what is worth dying for. I praise her honesty. She knew her deficiency. She could have pretended to knowledge, like many of her bright-eyed peers. She could have latched on to schools of criticism, ideological slogans of right or left, to cults or theologies eager to explain everything. But she knew her answer had to come from the gut rather than the liturgy.
The interpretation of a play, as of a life or a song, is not a matter for the seminar table. It doesn’t help to be clever. It’s not a matter of getting the right answer, but rather of getting an answer that serves. Can you feel what it’s trying to do? Does it move you? Does it wake you at three in the morning? Does it burn without consuming? Does it resound? If your project resounds, you know what to do.
For the moment, this honest youth wasn’t qualified for her project. She didn’t have the chops. Her play couldn’t be saved. Not till she would begin to recover her soul.
*trans. Robert Fables