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(Re-)storing Collective National Memory: Two Argentine Adaptations of Sophocles’ Antigone

Victoria Brunn. Independent scholar

 

(Re-)storing Collective National Memory: Two Argentine Adaptations of Sophocles’ Antigone

Victoria Brunn. Independent scholar.

victoria.brunn@gmx.de

Several dozen adaptations of Sophocles’ Antigone have appeared in Latin America in the past two centuries. The sheer scale of such revisionary efforts bespeaks the importance of the Antigone theme in the local cultural discourse. This presentation addresses two Argentine versions of the Greek drama, which have achieved their own canonical status within the country’s literary tradition: Antígona Vélez by Leopoldo Marechal (1951) and Furious Antigone by Griselda Gambaro (1986). A study of these plays discusses how some of the patterns encoded in ancient Greek cultural production participate in structuring contemporary reality and in shaping national or personal identity. While separated by over three decades and inscribed within different socio-political environments, both plays look to Sophocles’ tragedy as they search for ways to negotiate crisis and explore the instrumentality of the canon in the (re-)construction of history and collective memory.

At the same time, these adaptations conjure up the ghost of Antigone for very different agendas. Marechal’s reworking of the tragedy, being an encomium to Juan Perón and his national doctrine, expands the repertoire of the cultural imagery employed to vindicate the anti-democratic, hegemonic discourse of the state. A critical look at this play will reveal the conservative, even reactionary potential of classical adaptations. The playwright reconfigures collective national memory as he transforms Sophocles’ drama of utter destruction into a foundational myth for his native land. Transplanting the Greek tragedy to the nineteenth-century Argentine Pampas, Marechal re-presents and reinterprets a crucial moment in the country’s history and offers a solution to Argentina’s long-standing “civilization vs. barbarism” dilemma that has forged its national identity. By converting the paradigmatic story of dissent and disobedience into a parable about unity and consensus, the play functions as a tool of propaganda for the Peronist regime with its illusory rhetoric of integration.

Whereas Marechal capitalizes on the authority of the ancient myth to legitimize the political status quo, Gambaro’s Furious Antigone is an overt critique of the government’s tactics in the wake of Argentina’s Dirty War. The play is concerned with re-presentation, in its most literal sense of making something reappear, as it addresses the problem of the desaparecidos – the victims of violence undertaken by the Military Junta. What reappears here is, in fact, disappearance itself, as absence and loss are being brought into focus. This reinterpretation lacks the tragic pathos of the original drama, since Gambaro re-invents Antigone in the form of a parody. The product of such rewriting is a highly self-conscious, self-referential theatre piece that, due to its farcical, grotesque tone, refutes its categorization as tragedy at the same time as it points to the real-life tragedy of the Argentinean disappeared. Such reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone was bound to make it difficult for the Argentine audience to continue treating the original drama as a cultural artefact, as a fossilized work of the Western canon. Emphasizing the impossibility of eluding the canon – both its scenarios and its discursive limitations, - Gambaro’s “irreverent” treatment of Sophocles’ tragedy invites us to question the very precepts on which the canon is constructed. The playwright dis-members the original, turning it into a postmodern bricolage of abundant quotations from the Greco-Roman canon as well as other literary sources and from contemporary public discourse. However, as the play suggests, the process of re-membering cannot be successfully completed, due to the politics of amnesia as an official response to the national disaster.

 

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“Un éxito caluroso: Antígona Vélez, con Fanny Navarro.” Rev. of Antígona Vélez, by Leopoldo Marechal, dir. Enrique Santos Discépolo. Teatro Cervantes, Buenos Aires. La Razón [Buenos Aires] 26 May 1951.

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