“Perhaps there is no happiness in life so perfect as the martyr’s,” O. Henry wrote; he might well have added that there is no person so perplexing as the martyr. The man or woman who rushes to give his or her life for a cause fascinates and frustrates us no end. Whether it’s an ancient Christian facing the lion-filled arena or a modern Muslim suicide bomber, a resistance fighter in Northern Ireland or Nazi-occupied France or a California cultist dreaming of rebirth aboard a UFO, the martyr appalls us–and makes us question our own lives. As we go through our days making imperfect choices, constantly compromising principle in our pursuit of success and even a little happiness, we read of such people and their self-sacrificing passion and we wonder: What cause could be so important that someone would die for it? And, lacking a similarly intense commitment, are we better off than they?

Jean Anouilh devoted some of his finest plays to examining what makes martyrs tick. “I am always a trifle mistrustful of saints, as I am of great theatre stars,” he wrote–yet his first great success was the 1944 Antigone, a reinterpretation of the Greek myth (and Sophocles’ tragedy) about a young woman who comes as close to sainthood as anyone in the pagan past, giving her rebel brother burial rites in defiance of her city-state’s civil law. And in the next decade, in his “pieces costumees” The Lark (1953) and Becket, or The Honor of God (1959), he depicted two of Christianity’s most inspirational figures–Joan of Arc and Thomas Becket, the 12th-century archbishop of Canterbury murdered for upholding churchly authority against the intrusion of earthly politics.

As it happens, Becket and Antigone are currently being performed by two of Chicago more adventurous off-off-Loop theaters. Becket is by far the better play–more dramatically involving and philosophically mature, though historically it’s less than fully reliable–and also the stronger production in the hands of Shattered Globe Theatre. But Lucid Theatre Productions’ Antigone has its merits, and the script–written when Anouilh was in his early 30s–offers an intriguing reinterpretation of the tale. In both works the protagonist is not an inspirational hero or insane fanatic but a complex subject for ethical and psychological inquiry, far more significant for the willful embrace of death than for the religious beliefs and political crises that set their martyrdoms in motion.

Best known from the 1964 film version starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, Becket is one of several religio-historical dramas written by Europeans that were popular with U.S. audiences in the early 60s. Like John Osborne’s Luther and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Becket seemed to offer the inspiring example of a man of conscience standing up to oppressive authority. But scratch the surface and one finds in the richly worded Becket a morally ambivalent protagonist driven to a sort of suicide. The play is also an intriguing exercise in theatrical artifice, a fact lost in the lavishly realistic film but well captured in Shattered Globe’s inventive minimalist presentation.

A Saxon in Norman-ruled England a century after William the Conqueror’s invasion reduced the native population to peasant status, Thomas Becket is a confidant to King Henry II, William’s great-grandson. A medieval Dick Morris who can talk to various factions, he’s also Henry’s best buddy in the throne room and the whorehouse (and, Anouilh and this production hint, the object of Henry’s repressed sexual desire). But while the coarse, dissolute, flamboyant Henry makes a loud show of his love for Becket, the cool and enigmatic Becket returns the friendship with reserve at best; he keeps his emotional distance from Henry as he does from everyone. His conscious collaboration with the Normans, he thinks, is a way to both blunt the oppression of his people and achieve personal success; in one scene, he claims a peasant girl as his sexual prize to keep her from falling into Henry’s brutish hands, meanwhile explaining to Henry why he shouldn’t simply do away with the peasant-farmer population altogether: “The troops have to eat.”

At once worldly and world-weary, Becket is convinced he’s incapable of love and says he feels “a gap in me where honor ought to be”–until Henry appoints him archbishop of Canterbury. A tactic to increase the king’s control of the church, the maneuver quickly brings “the honor of the realm” into conflict with “the honor of God” for Becket. The specific issue is historically trivial (Becket’s excommunication of a nobleman whose minions executed a priest suspected of sexual debauchery) and, Anouilh suggests, not very relevant to the battle of wills between Becket and Henry. The core of the conflict is rather within Becket, as he rejects the sensual world he once soullessly inhabited in favor of the martyr’s perfect happiness.

In his introduction to Lucienne Hill’s translation of Becket, Anouilh notes that only after writing the play did he learn that Becket was in fact a Norman, not a Saxon; historical scholarship had vastly improved in the 50 years since Anouilh’s source (The Conquest of England by the Normans, by Augustin Thierry) had been written. By then it was too late to change the script–and besides, Anouilh’s own experience as a citizen of German-occupied France during World War II was fundamental to the story. Though at odds with the militant anti-Nazi resistance and its guerrilla tactics, Anouilh was also well aware of the cost of collaboration. “One collaborates to survive,” Becket says; but only when he stops collaborating does he find emotional satisfaction, even if–or perhaps because–it means his death.

With its huge roster of characters, medieval setting, and elegantly phrased dialogue, the three-hour, three-act Becket would seem best suited to a theater like the Goodman (which did the play in the early 60s, shortly after a Broadway run starring Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn). But in the hands of plucky Shattered Globe, it still works well enough to make one wonder why a theater with large technical resources and access to classically trained Equity actors doesn’t attempt it. Greg Kopp as Becket and Brian Pudil as Henry bring strong conviction to their roles and relationship. Pudil sometimes recalls Peter O’Toole in look, voice, and line reading but imparts plenty of his own passion to Henry’s outbursts of bawdy humor and wounded rage. Kopp, his clipped British accent a bit too Etonian for even a well-educated Saxon, conveys the enigmatic aloofness of a man long used to quelling his feelings even as he explains them. Fairly spilling off the tiny stage and into the audience (which is seated on either side of the playing area as well as in front of it, like the choir and congregation of a church), the large supporting ensemble effectively take on multiple roles–bishops and barons, peasants and priests–with only a couple of missteps, among them Louis Contey’s vulgar overplaying of the king of France. Director Joe Forbrich makes imaginative use of the cramped space (the candlelit church rituals are especially impressive), and above all Anouilh’s literate, sharp-edged script more than compensates for cheap-looking costumes and a few wayward accents (why does Becket’s Welsh mistress have an Irish brogue?).

Like Becket, Antigone defies a ruler she could easily have accommodated, not for any specific religious or political belief but for personal reasons. Antigone’s uncle Creon has taken it on himself to restore peace to the city-state of Thebes following a bloody civil war in which Antigone’s brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, battled each other for power; as an example to other would-be troublemakers, Creon has decreed that Polynices’ body be left to rot, unburied–a sacrilege that, in Sophocles’ version, must be rectified by the righteous Antigone, even though breaking Creon’s law will lead to her execution. But Anouilh’s Antigone doesn’t really believe that Polynices’ ghost will wander without rest until she buries his body; and Creon reminds Antigone that Polynices was just as treacherous to their father, Oedipus, as Eteocles was.

What motivates Antigone to oppose Creon is her disgust with the world, with its “humdrum happiness” achieved through compromise and hypocrisy. Her love of life is too fierce to sustain mere existence; better to die than “to be sensible and satisfied with a scrap–if I behave myself.” It is this suicidal passion, not her insistence on burying Polynices, that gets Creon’s goat: thrust by circumstance into a kingship he’d just as soon not have (like the politicians who ran Hitler’s puppet government in France during World War II), this bureaucrat-tyrant simply can’t comprehend his niece’s death wish. Nor can he understand the suicide of his son Haemon, Antigone’s fiance, after Antigone dies–nor that of his wife, who kills herself in grief over Haemon.

“We must only do–absurdly–what we have been given to do–right to the end,” Becket tells Henry, and that insight applies to Antigone and Creon as well, who are locked in roles they must play out. In Anouilh’s ironic interpretation of tragedy, “It doesn’t matter if one person kills and the other is killed,” as the chorus in Antigone says, “it’s just a matter of casting.” For Anouilh, martyrdom neither ennobles the martyr nor changes the world. Where Sophocles’ play ends with Creon’s cathartic self-recrimination, here the king merely goes on with his job, leaving his three guards to their game of cards. Someday, the chorus reminds us, those guards will turn on Creon–as indeed the liberated French turned on the government leaders who sought to mitigate the effect of German occupation.

But Anouilh’s take on the tale (performed in Lewis Galantiere’s translation) doesn’t really support Lucid Theatre’s claim that Antigone “exemplifies personal conviction being a validation for operating ‘above the law.'” Nor does this production develop the potential of setting the action in 1940 Belfast, as director Kay Cosgriff has done. Except for Emma Victoria Cutney’s wonderful 40s costumes and the strains of Celtic pipes, little here suggests Northern Ireland or the “troubles” that have divided its population. The chorus, a role written for one actor, has been divided among several women–a nice touch except that none of them shows the strain of living in a war-weary city. Jennifer Riskind’s Antigone, not at all the “thin girl” Anouilh envisioned, is alternately smug and stubborn, but that may be due more to her limits as an actor than to Cosgriff’s interpretation.

When Riskind locks horns with John O’Meara’s Creon, however, the play strikes emotional as well as rhetorical sparks. At first the epitome of the bookish bureaucrat, O’Meara brings unexpected fire to Creon’s angry attempt to make sense of his niece’s decision to die, standing in for everyone who’s ever tried to affirm a rationale for living while facing the fact that for some people death has more meaning. “I am very fond of truth, but not at all of martyrdom,” said Voltaire; but to some, martyrdom is truth. Becket and Antigone hold that fact up to a probing light, dispensing with prejudice and sensationalism as they examine one of the timeless mysteries of human nature.

Becket, or The Honor of God

Shattered Globe Theatre


Lucid Theatre Productions

at the Preston Bradley Center for the Arts

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): scene from Becket, or the Honor of God/ scene from Antigone.