Gwen Kelly-Masterton presents “Burial at Thebes

Olivia Hendricks

In a time when the country is hoping to move forward with a new chief executive, a play designed in 2004 to highlight political issues such as patriotism, civil rights and authority does not sound like it would resonate particularly well with audiences. That is not to mention that this play, Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Antigone,” called “The Burial at Thebes,” is based on a story that is about 2,500 years old. However, with the way that Lawrence senior theater major Gwen Kelly-Masterton directed it, “Antigone” became relevant in a new but subtle context.
At 8 p.m. Feb. 19 and 20, audience members gathered in the Science Hall sky lounge to see “The Burial at Thebes” performed. This choice of venue defined Kelly-Masterton’s vision and brought out new aspects of the play.
While the sky lounge might seem open and airy when passing through during the day, for the purposes of the play, it took on a new character. Since the actors entered and exited through the ramps, there was no convenient escape for any audience member who might need to use the restroom or take a phone call. Furthermore, being stuck in the lounge could easily produce dizzying effects for those not too keen on heights.
All of this played perfectly into Kelly-Masterton’s interpretation. In the director’s notes, she explained “Antigone” as “the tragedy of a family too caught up in its traumatic past to find love and connection in the present, a family whose members are alienated from each other as if suspended mid-air, caught between a horrific past and an unthinkable future. These are the reasons for the unconventional space you find yourself in. If you feel a bit vertiginous, good. That is the point.”
This emphasis on being caught between past and future helped make sense of Seamus Heaney’s translation. Heaney was commissioned to translate “Antigone” in 2004 and used the play to comment on the character of American policy post-9/11.
Antigone buries her brother Polyneices out of respect and because she believes it is what is right according to the laws of the gods. However, King Creon has decreed it illegal to perform burial rights on Polyneices’s body. Thus, Antigone is essentially buried alive in a cave as punishment for her disobedience to the state.
A major theme of the play therefore becomes political order versus individual rights. This issue is one that many Americans might cringe to hear brought up again, wishing to associate that with the past and to move forward with the new administration. The discomfort of hearing these political problems discussed once again ties into the broader, deeper theme of past versus rebirth, which is highlighted as King Creon attempts to atone for his errors as a ruler, only to find that he cannot escape his previous choices.
Or rather, her previous choices. The cast starred Cara Wantland as Antigone and Nora Taylor as King Creon; all of the other roles were also filled by women. In finding modern themes in “Antigone,” many previous interpretations have relied on emphasizing gender roles. However, to bring out new interpretations, Kelly-Masterton attempted to neutralize gender by having only women actors. Said Kelly-Masterton, “The story of Antigone is one of a struggle of power – Creon’s struggle to solidify his political power as king and Antigone’s struggle to assert her personal power as a principled individual. It is not only a struggle of gender.”
By broadening gender struggles to power struggles and politics to philosophy, Kelly-Masterton made “The Burial at Thebes” a poignant piece of drama in relation to the most current cultural environment.