Las Antígonas

Sophocles’ Antigone starts at the end of a civil war. Two brothers, on different sides, have killed each other in battle. The new ruler, King Creon, allows one of the brothers, Eteocles, to be buried with honors as a hero. The other brother, Polyneices, has been denied burial with anyone daring to cross the decree facing the penalty of death. However, their sister, Antigone, resists both the state elders and King Creon, demanding that Polyneices, like Eteocles, be given a proper burial with funeral rites. Her resistance is naturally followed by tragedy.

Although Sophocles’ work has been adapted globally, Latin America’s history of civil wars and tumultuous politics set a particular stage for this drama of female resistance and tragedy; as such, Antigone is a popular source of inspiration in Latin American literature and theatre. The onerous, collective trauma from the “practice of disappearance, when the military apparatus erased every trace of the dissidents whom they abducted and, in most cases, murdered. Their relatives and friends,”--especially women-- “unable to complete the proper ritual of burial, were destined to live with the lasting pain of not knowing." (Brunn, 2009, p. 12) In Spanish, this humanitarian crisis is known as la época de los desaparecidos. Pianacci, the author of the comprehensive Antigona: Una tragedia latinamericana, connects these gendered histories and crises in his analysis of Antigone. He argues that the play is:

“representante de las mujeres del continente, reactualiza la función efectiva y simbólica, fundamental y emblemática de las mujeres en el entramado social y político de la cultura…”

(“representative of the women of the continent, its effective and symbolic function is updated [and is] fundamental and emblematic of the role of women in the social and political framework of the culture”)

(Williams, 2017, p. 3-4).

Although many Latin American adaptations were written in the 20th century (see further reading), we will focus on two compelling 21st century adaptations.


Author Sara Uribe describes her adaptation of Antigone as “una pieza conceptual basada en la apropiación, intervención y re-escritura” (Uribe, 2016, p. 103). Her work is a non-linear bilingual poem set in Mexico, weaving the classical tale of Antigone with real excerpts from news articles, blogs and community documents that chronicle los desaparecidos in Mexico. Unlike Sophocle’s version, Uribe’s Antígona (Antigone) González's brother Tadeo, (Polyneices), is not involved with the state, civil or criminal conflict. He just inexplicably disappears.

Antígona González “emerges not to oppose an edict” as the original Antigone did, “but to reveal the devastation, the loss - both personal and political - and the grief experienced by her community of San Fernando, Tamaulipas” after the forced disappearance and massacre of many of its citizens that mirror the 2011 San Fernando massacre (Williams, 2017, p. 6).

<<< Book cover of Antígona González (2016).

Sophocles’s Antigone includes the classic greek Chorus, a collective that comments on characters or situations within the play. Likewise, in Uribe’s adaptation, the community Antígona reaches out to for help acts as the traditional Chorus. However, this community fears repercussions from the state by helping Antígona and abandon her, adding to her feelings of isolation and grief, not knowing the fate of her brother.

Sophocles’s Antigone and Uribe’s Antígona share one line but with different significance: “Will you help me carry the body?” In the beginning of Sophocles’ play, Antigone asks her sister Ismene to help carry Polyneices’ body back for burial. In Uribe’s work, Antígona also asks the question "¿Me ayudarás a levantar el cadáver?" (Uribe, 2016, p. 101), but the question is not directed to her sister, but to the reader. Uribe’s Antígona cleverly engages with the classical work by using the same line, but with the intention to move the reader through tragedy onto to advocate for los desaparecidos. Uribe further calls her readers to action:

"A todas las Antígonas y Tadeos, a los miles de desaparecidos en una guerra injusta y, por supuesto, inútil. Sin justicia no hay descanso posible. Ni remanso alguno"

(For all the Antigones and Tadeos, for the thousands disappeared in an unjust and of course, useless war. Without justice, no rest is possible, nor any haven of peace.”)

(Uribe, 2016, p. 113).


In Jose Watanabe’s and the Peruvian theater collective Yuyachkani’s adaptation of Antigone, they keep mostly to Sophocles’ original except for a few differences: there is no chorus, it is a one-woman play, and the main character is not Antigone, but her sister Ismene. In this work, Watanabe purposefully “rescues from oblivion Antigone's sister Ismene” in order to “deal with the issue of collective trauma in the aftermath of state violence in Peru" (Brunn, 2009, p. 19).

Cleverly, and in recognition of “la época de los desaparecidos,” Ismene is not revealed as the narrator until the final scene when she acknowledges her complicity in her family and community’s tragedy and trauma:

"Yo soy la hermana que fue maniatada por el miedo"

(“I am the sister that was bound by fear”)

(Watanabe, 2010, p. 43)

Programa para Antigona (pagina 2). Dedication page from the playbill, featuring actress, Teresa Ralli. Among others, the play is dedicated to "All the women who have suffered firsthand, the violence of civil war that Peru has lived through in recent years".

In Sophocles’ original, Antigone tries to recruit her sister Ismene to help her bury their brother’s body in defiance of Creon’s edict. Ismene responds with hesitancy and anxiety, acting as a good-girl foil to Antigone and her audacious, resolute nature.

As Ismene’s passivity affected her family and the community of Thebes in Sophocles’ play, Watanabe and Yuyachkani’s Ismene is given the opportunity to take ownership and express regret for her meek reaction and inability to do the right thing.

"By means of performance, Yuyachkani encourages the spectators to bear witness to the past crimes and acknowledge the passive stance that many of them took in the face of genocide, without ascribing blame for the past inactivity." (Brunn, 2009, p. 197). As Ismene reveals:

"La culpa que sentimos esta en nosotros, tebanos,

no en la intención de su mirada porque nadie,

ni el consejero más sabio, se atrevió a refutar la orden de Creonte

que es dañosa para nuestra alma."

(“The fault that we feel is of our own making, Thebans,

not in your intended gaze,

because no one, neither the most wise advisor, dared to refuse Creon’s order

that is most harmful for our soul.”)

(Watanabe, 2010, p. 21)

This collective grief and guilt the play evokes through Ismene’s monologue was purposeful. Yuyachkani’s performance was a collaboration with Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, intending to prepare the people for the upcoming public testimony from the citizens affected by Peru’s collective tragedy. In this way, Watanabe’s Antígona engages with the original classical text by drawing meaningful parallels to the contemporary issues of collective trauma of diverse peoples.