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Textual Ruins: The Form of Memory in José Watanabe's Antigona

Cristina Perez

Columbia University

José Watanabe’s Antígona (Perú, 2000) is an exercise in memory, not only in its subject matter but also notably in its innovative form and in its relationship to Sophocles’ tragedy. In this paper I propose a reading that foregrounds the play’s formal, multi-layered engagements with memory as a poetic device. My focus on textual aspects aims to raise fresh questions about how we understand reception and the relationship of texts to performance.

            Scholarship on this version of Antigone has highlighted how it reflects on the importance of historical memory for the purposes of reconciliation, especially after socially traumatic events—in the case of Perú, decades of state-sanctioned violence that resulted in thousands of deaths and disappearances (A’Ness 2004; Lane 2007; Brunn 2009; Milton 2014; Robles-Moreno 2016). While this is true, the text is far from being a commentary on particular historical circumstances. It completely avoids references to Perú and to specific locations, historical characters or events. Interestingly, most of the scholarship has drawn its interpretations more from the production of the play by Yuyachkani, the theater company that originally commissioned it, than from the text itself. Yuyachkani has been intent on drawing attention, through a series of paratextual devices (talks, programs, etc.), to the ways in which the play comments on the Peruvian experience of massive state violence, an aspect that becomes visible only in performance. My approach excludes all links to historical events, with a double purpose: to contribute to the scholarship on reception with an analysis of aspects that have not been the focus of attention; and to do justice to the text’s conscious decision to avoid historical marks, to be an open exercise on memory that could be received anywhere, not as talking about the violent experience of the Other but about our very own.  

            The structure of the play mirrors the dynamics of memory: discontinuities, selections, erasures. Instead of dialogues, it employs a sequence of twenty-two individual poems, interwoven by a narrator—a witness and survivor of the catastrophic events of the story. Constrained to these poems, the characters take a fragmentary form, appearing only in evanescent monologues in succession without ever talking to each other. Not every monologue responds to the previous one, and each could in fact be read as a poem in itself. The characters are thus disarticulated from an all-encompassing narrative, and the plot, even though it develops just as in the original, moves forward through a series of important gaps (for a contrary argument, see Alonso 2011).

            The incorporation of the narrative voice of a witness introduces the topic of memory while also testing its limits. Watanabe’s use of the dramatic monologue gives depth to the characters, but, at the same time, it calls into question the veracity of the story told by the narrator. For one, it is impossible that she witnessed these interior moments. As the narrator returns to the events of the story in order to find reconciliation with her sense of guilt, the characters appear as versions filtered through her own desires, feelings, and projections.

            At a metatextual level, one could argue that the narrator remembers the plot of the Sophoclean version. Just as I suggest that the characters are fragments of memory, the play is also a fragmentary version of the Play: not all the scenes of the original make their way into Antígona, rather, the narrator selects some parts and forgets others; she misassigns lines to characters; she even inserts moments that never happened in the Greek, most notably the burial of Polyneices by Ismene after Antigone’s death. The text is a monument in ruins, as if the author were reconstructing an archaeological object but knew only partially how the original looked like—or perhaps was more interested in the partial artifact, more in speaking about the memory of the archaeologist in relationship to loss.

Session/Panel Title

Ancient Drama / New World

Session/Paper Number

58.3

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