It is impossible for me to read Antigone without thinking of Dan Sackett's staging of it at CSHS in the fall of '92 (with Steven Sonnefeld, Giani Cutri, and Brian Krok all wearing ridiculously restrictive gold painted masks). I was taking Mr. Sackett's Acting and Theatre class at the time, so we had to read the play ahead of time, then provide a review of it afterwards.
Still, I think there is something worthwhile in the play itself. It is a rather simple story, and by itself pretty unrewarding. Antigone stands up for honoring her brother – and the gods – in defiance of state authority, which is actually issued by her uncle. She gets punished, her uncle thinks better of it, and in the end she kills herself. The language and the pacing of it is what really makes it work, but it is better understood with the greater Theban story.
Oedipus the King may be one of the most read plays of all time. Sadly, it skips all the cool action of the Oedipus story. What Sophocles gives the audience is a great moment of a man bringing about his own damnation. He is given every opportunity to forestall or prevent it, but Oedipus is too impetuous and prideful to relent in the curse he throws out, unknowing that it will fall on himself. It works as a psychodrama, but is again unsatisfying without a broader understanding of the legend. Thankfully, Fagels keeps the reader well informed.
Apparently, Oedipus at Colonus is the least regarded of the three plays. This baffles me because it has the most to say. Oedipus, in exile, comes to the fringe of Athens where he (briefly) becomes a prophet and comes to peace with his end. It works better as a play and examination of the human character than either Antigone or Oedipus the King. Maybe that is because Sophocles got to work in some notion of the Athenian character; it plays as more than just a removed retelling of a known story.
Wasps doesn't have the sunniest outlook on people's natures – some cannot be helped – but it does put a dog on trial, encourage old men to grope young serving girls, and establish that Athenians used to carry their coins around in their mouths. There is a joke about a daughter kissing her father to get the money (and Aristophanes isn't even going for anything incestuous), but I think it was really a clarion call for the invention of pants and pockets.
The Frogs has a cowardly Dionysus – this was performed during the Festival Dionysia, so Aristophanes had to be the ballsiest person in Ancient Athens – descending into Hades in an effort to rescue drama. Dionysus and his slave Xanthias keep trading places, which works to some degree but was undoubtedly pretty original when presented in 405 BC. There is some argument over the state of theatre in Athens, but Aristophanes comes right out and asks the audience 'what is to be done with Alcibiades?' He used his comedy as a platform to discuss the course of the war that Athens was on the verge of losing (Athens surrendered the next year) and if they should once again turn to the man who may be history's first recorded psychopath. Still funny, but oddly weighty.
The Women at the Themosphoria is, at times, funnier than Lysistrata. It requires more of an understanding of Athenian society, sure, but it fancies Euripides being tried by the women for presenting them in such negative light (see The Bacchae and Medea). Euripides dresses his relative Mnesilochus as a woman – and singes off his manly hair with a torch – to go speak as an advocate for him. Instead, Mnesilochus recites the many betrayals and foibles of women that Euripides has not publicized in his plays. It is consistently funny and even a little offensive.
Agamemnon is one of the plays that most literate people have gotten around to reading. Sure, Agamemnon needed to sacrifice his daughter so his forces could (eventually) defeat the Trojans, but in doing so he sealed his own fate. Leave your wife alone for ten years with an intense hatred of you for killing your eldest daughter and maybe you should suspect she's going to kill you. Bringing back the hot, young priestess of Apollo – your reward from taking a temple at Troy – isn't going to make things go any better. Everyone is in the wrong and the right in this story; they do what they have to and have to endure the consequences.
The Libation Bearers brings Orestes back to his father's kingdom and surviving sister Electra. The plan? Kill his mother and her lover to avenge the death of his father. The problem? Well, killing one parent to avenge the other seems to be the start of a vicious cycle, doesn't it. Eventually that debt can't be paid.
And that brings us to The Eumenides. So there are these furies pursuing Orestes, driving him mad and forcing him to suffer the consequences of having killed his mother. Except that to read the actual text of the play – actually any play where the furies come into play – and they are really just mentioned as, well, "fury". It may have been that there was some fear in actually invoking the furies, or maybe the state had to been driven by the entities. At any rate, The Eumenides deals with the the primacy of grievances; is one's first duty to blood or to the state? What are the burdens of civilization? Of course, all of this needs to be answered in Athens (great propaganda).