Letter from Washington DC

Presently at its best, with sunny weather and unusually high temperatures for this time of the year, the US capital city is a gorgeous place of imposing architecture, exquisite museums, broad boulevards and home prices that have more than doubled in the past three years. With a metro system that is easy to navigate, streets that are cleaner, with fewer potholes since last time I was here, Washington has become a relatively crime-free, inviting capital in recent years. So it came as a bit of a surprise when last Wednesday night, in his State of the Union address, President Bush, concerned with other-than-trivial matters, expressed apprehension about potential criminals and wrongful convictions. «One of the main sources of our national unity is our belief in equal justice,» he said. And: «We need to make sure Americans have confidence in the system that provides justice.» Justice. The subject of justice comes up in Sophocles’ «Antigone,» who refuses – if you remember – to obey the decree that bans anyone from burying the body of her traitorous brother. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, was, no doubt, a very conscientious leader for his time, who reluctantly bows to the pressures of power. «In America, we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit,» said the US president in his State of the Union remarks. Bush, a tragic figure of our times? For all the provocative parallels between Bush and Creon, the choice remains: You are either for state security or an advocate of terrorism. Antigone may proclaim «the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven,» yet behind Bush’s bid to save the innocent some saw a classic tale of Washington’s maneuvering to condemn her anyway. Because, having God and Justice on your side is good, in actual practice though, having the United States on your side is even better. Creon could not possibly honor an enemy of the state – Polyneices. Nor could a girl – Antigone in our case – disobey an authoritative order and remain unpunished. «I think of ‘Antigone’ as an inherently political piece, a study of political power, how you get it, how you maintain it, what it entails,» declares Kimberley Cowell-Meyers, an assistant professor of government in Washington DC. «Twenty-five-hundred years and much remains the same…,» says Gail Humphries Mardirosian, the director, who serves as chair, of the Department of Performing Arts at the American University in Washington DC. On February 4, collaborating with professional actors and designers, American University drama students staged Sophocles’ «Antigone» as a great ancient argument against the abuses of power. It was a production that skillfully layered images of awfulness and American beauty. To honor the work of those involved in theater for the deaf, actors used American Sign Language while speaking their parts. Up to now, there have been several productions around the world mounted in protest against nazism, communism and apartheid. Last year, British writer/director Conall Morrison set the conflict in today’s Middle East and invited us to see the character of Antigone as a suicide bomber; this American version seemed to be targeting issues closer to home. «Greek playwrights saw themselves as the agents of change. But the kind of change you think is being suggested by this play may depend on whether you view ‘Antigone’ as the tragedy of the title character, or the tragedy of Creon,» said Franklin J. Hildy, professor of theater history who participated in a post-performance discussion: «Theater as an Agent of Social Change through the Lens of Antigone.» I flew to this country to take part in this discussion. It is not hard to see why Greek tragedy is currently popular. It confronts us with extremes of suffering and the aftermath of war, I thought aloud. Zoe Kosmidou, cultural counselor at the Greek Embassy in Washington, stressed the fact that Sophocles’ «Antigone» makes a statement about the ideals of Greek humanism, specifically an individual’s responsibility to society and morality. Mardirosian’s «Antigone» may not be as magisterial as Sophocles’, nor as objective as Jean Anouihl’s, which Athens saw performed some months ago by the Theatro Technis. But it’s classical tragedy that speaks our language, and that is flattering to us Greeks in this part of the globe. Otherwise, we don’t have much to brag about. «Did you know that Greece has just started its term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council?» I asked a local political analyst. He seemed genuinely surprised and mumbled… In their quixotic ambition, Greeks themselves are feeling left out more than ever. They have no direct say in the talks between the US and the EU, with France and Germany at its center – even though new US Ambassador Charles Ries should be able to help make Greece’s voice better understood in this city. Things might not go as badly as the pessimists fear, of course. Bush will visit Europe. His itinerary includes stops in Germany and the Slovak Republic, but it will also take him to the 25-member European Commission and the European Council in Brussels. When I use the patriotic bandwagon as a vehicle of my Greekness, I am surprised at how few people here recall the Athens Olympics of six months ago. We Greeks will be paying for decades, depending on which version of Finance Minister Alogoskoufis’s bad news you choose to believe. Yet, «theater can move us to think globally and act locally,» Associate Professor of History Valerie French declared at the public post-«Antigone» discussion Friday night. Right now, all eyes (except those waiting for Sunday’s Superbowl victor) are on new Secretary of State Condi Rice’s first overseas trip. One could discover some provocative parallels between her and Sophocles’ Antigone: erroneous heroism and misled devotion, to name just two. Turkey, of course, is on the itinerary. Greece is not, despite many invitations from Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis. We only hope she finds time soon, even though Washington will be nicer in the spring. Along with Antigone’s sister Ismene, we Greeks have to argue with square humanistic logic: «We are in the grip of those stronger than ourselves, and must obey them in this and in things still more cruel.»

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