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Antigone, Once Again: The Right to Live and To Die with Dignity

Rosanna Lauriola

Undoubtedly Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the Greek tragedies that ever since the fifth century BCE has been reconceived, remade, and reproduced, over and over, around the world (e.g., Mee-Foley 2011, 1-10 with nn. 1, 2; Fletcher 2013). This “2,500-year-young” (Fradinger 2010, 15) woman has indeed proven to be able to shed light on the specific problems of almost every historical generation by posing substantially the same existential questions that her story posed in antiquity, questions about the tension between power and justice, the questionability of some civic laws, the competing demands of the state and the family, the rights of the state over the individual citizen’s life and death, and so forth. Against this background, Antigone -as all know- has become the par excellence-icon of a freedom fighter, standing against iniquities perpetrated in the name of the state, and championing the defense of human rights, such as the right to a proper burial.

This paper hopes to add to the ever-lasting relevance of Antigone’s cause by analyzing the innovative adaptation of Sophocles’ play by a contemporary Italian writer, Valeria Parrella. Published, and first produced, in September 2012 (Calligaro 2012), Parrella’s Antigone appropriates the story of the heroine’s “crime of piety” (Soph., Antigone 74) to address such a burning and timely issue as the euthanasia. A quasi corpse is in fact the catalyst of this new Antigone’s fight. She claims, once again, the right of her brother to be consigned to the realm of death to which he belongs. In doing so, she rebels against a decree that would keep him ‘in the upper world’. The outrageous act of the Sophoclean Creon to “keep up on the earth a corpse belonging to the gods below” (Soph., Antigone 1069-70) is turned into the unshakable determination of Parrella’s Creon, Il Legislatore, literally to keep alive, or rather, to attempt to return to life a quasi dead Polynices. Having been in an irreversible coma for thirteen years, this Polynices, now just a phantom with a resemblance to the ‘person’ he was once, should be granted the freedom finally to rest, and thus win the right to a burial, ending with dignity his life (Lauriola 2014). The crime of piety perpetrated by the new Antigone is the removal of the feeding and breathing tubes that were obstinately keeping her brother’s body in the upper-world. The punishment that she will suffer for her rebellion is again ‘to be entombed alive’, not in a cave this time, but in a similarly uninhabitable environment, a prison. Reenacting the gesture of her model, this Antigone, too, will not let herself suffer such a debasing end. She will freely end her own life in dignity, and will commit suicide.

Inspired by the recent case of Eluana Englaro (Il Post 2014), whose father –a male Antigone– liberated her (Portelli 2012) from the prison of the artificial life in which she was held for seventeen years, after entering a permanent vegetative state upon an irreversible brain damage Eluana got in a car accident, Parrella reinterprets Antigone’s story to contribute to the debate on euthanasia, which Englaro’s case has re-opened, and which, with all its medical, ethical, political and religious implications (Lucchetti 2010; Moratti 2010), has divided an entire nation (Veronesi 2008; Donadio 2009).

The right to live and end one’s own life with dignity is indeed the claim of many terminally ill persons (see,  http://www.deathwithdignity.org/aboutus), as the recent case of Brittany Maynard, in the US, has proven (Egan 2014; Slotnik 2014; Wallace 2014). Therefore,  “Would not it be worthy” – as Parrella’s Antigone asks, defending her act (Parrella 2012, 6)– “at least to attempt an action which would re-open the questions?”

Where the institutions fail, Antigone might represent the possibility of change and new beginnings. Antigone’s powerful message might challenge us even over such a ‘painfully human’ issue as ‘the right-to-die-with dignity’.

Session/Panel Title:

New Wine in Old Wineskins: Topicality in Modern Performance of Athenian Drama

Session/Paper Number

66.3

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