A classic tragedy and a modern one come together in “Antigone and Letters to Soldiers Lost,” an original production designed and directed by professor Al Schnupp of Cal Poly’s Theatre and Dance Department.
Schnupp has taken touching letters that were placed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and woven them into the drama by Sophocles, written in the fifth century B.C., to create a timeless tribute to lives lost in every era and every area of conflict.
“Antigone” tells the story of a brave sister whose brothers are killed fighting on opposite sides of a war. The king decrees that one brother shall be honored and the other be disgraced and remain unburied. Antigone chooses to honor both her brothers and is severely punished for her civil disobedience.
This is a Greek tragedy that is part of the curriculum of many college theater departments, and Schnupp teaches it in his script analysis class. In an interview from his office, the professor, who is known for his innovative and provocative productions, explained his inspiration for bringing the classic into the 21st century.
He said it began 12 or 13 years ago when he read the letters published in three books, “Shrapnel in the Heart,” “Letters on the Wall” and “Offerings at the Wall.” The letters were written by family members, friends and comrades to the men and women who lost their lives in the Vietnam War.
“I found them so moving and heartfelt. The more I taught ‘Antigone,’ I realized how they could go together,” he said.
After studying four different translations of the Greek play, Schnupp created his own version of the script.
“It’s fairly short, but the plot is there,” he explained. He eliminated the traditional Greek chorus. Instead, the action of the play pauses and actors share the Vietnam Memorial letters.
“The letters are haunting, gripping mementos, prayers, and expressions of grief,” Schnupp said. “The letters enrich the story and the story complements the sentiments of the letters. The letters serve as another mood or motif.”
Permission was received to use the letters, and some of the writers may be attending the play.
Deciding how to segue from the play to the letters “has been both a challenge and a joy,” the director said. The language of the play is “poetic, heightened modern.” Movement is somewhat stylized, and the 12 actors and musicians use speaking, sign language, pantomime and music, including two songs written by students.
The play’s tragedies—deaths and suicides — “are quickly covered in a sterile, cold, reporting way.” But the letters, often heart wrenching, enhance the emotions of the play.
The set is dramatic, with monolithic revolving “rocks” with words including “mother, “sister,” “brother,” “father,” “son” illuminated through frosted glass. Letters, enlarged and stitched together, create an additional backdrop for the action. Names are silk-screened on the actors’ simple costumes. Thomas John Bernard is costume designer, and Tim Dugan is lighting designer. The sets and costumes were built by set and stagecraft students.
The Sophocles play deals with civil disobedience as Antigone goes against the orders of the king, and in the letters, there is sometimes mention of the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, Schnupp said, but it’s on a softer level.
“This is not an anti-war piece. It’s about honoring the dead — about brotherhood and love. It’s not antimilitary. It’s about what it means to serve your country.”
But it’s not really patriotic, either. It has a more universal theme, he explained. In one scene, a piece of cloth is folded into the shape of a flag, but it’s not an identifiable flag. There are empty picture frames and a hanging boat and a spirit house. The generic atmosphere emphasizes that all men are brothers, Schnupp said.
“We are dwelling on how survivors deal with the loss of ones we love. The message is alive today.”