February 13, 2003

Incoming Frosh To Read Antigone

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Next year’s freshman class will be getting a very Classical introduction to their college education.

The Class of 2007 will be reading Sophocles’ masterpiece Antigone as part of the First Year Reading Project. In addition, the Department of Theater Arts will be staging a new production of the play this Sept. in conjunction with the campus-wide forums and discussions about the book that will take place at the start of the 2003 academic year.

‘Timeless Text’

“We picked this play as a timeless text with timely issues,” said Prof. Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate affairs. “It has been a fundamental text for 2500 years, with an incredibly powerful hold on the Western imagination.”

The play, which describes the struggle of the title character and her uncle Creon, the king, over the burial of her husband, is expected to spark discussion about many complex themes and issues relevant to today. Among these is the primary struggle of individual conscience versus the obligation to the political state.

“It would be honest to say that we were fully aware that this might be read when America was conceivably at war,” Kramnick said. “The confrontation of Antigone and Creon speaks powerfully to contemporary dilemmas.”

In addition to the reading of the play, the Department of Theater Arts will be staging a new production of Antigone under the direction of Prof. David Feldshuh, theater, film and dance. The play will run at the start of Sept., and will feature a new and different representation of the play than usual.

“The approach we will take is to capture the sense of majesty, mystery and ritual it had 2500 years ago,” said Feldshuh. “We will be dealing with the text in ways where it can be spoken, chanted and sung.”

To further achieve the effect, a mask maker will be brought in to craft original masks for all cast members, and a composer will be scoring original music.

“It’s a world of ritual storytelling, it will be very interesting and unusual,” Feldshuh said.

In addition to the four professional actors who will work with the student actors and actresses, there will be open tryouts for the 21 other cast openings this April.

“I encourage any student or faculty member interested in singing or acting to audition, or even anyone with musical ability since there will be live music,” Feldshuh said. “It’s going to be a wonderful theatrical adventure.”


The First Year Reading Project started with the Class of 2005 reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. It continued last year as freshmen read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

In comparison to Frankenstein and Guns, Germs, and Steel, Antigone is much shorter at 68 pages, compared to 156 and 428, respectively.

“We thought it might be good to change genres, from a contemporary academic argument like Guns…, and a novel like Frankenstein to a play,” Kramnick said. “We also see it in part as a tribute to Hunter Rawlings, who is a classicist and has taught Antigone in class. We feel it would be a fitting tribute to his presidency.”

Since its inception as a brainchild of the provosts and the deans, the book project has exceeded all expectations in terms of its success and reach, according to Kramnick. In addition to the first year students, last year’s book was read by the Board of Trustees, the 300 volunteers, mostly faculty, who ran discussion sections, the Cornell Council and many alumni groups, including the class of ’74.

“We’ve discovered that it has become an important way for the alumni to relate intellectually to what’s happening on campus, the same way they relate to athletics,” Kramnick said.

The Ithaca community has also joined in the project. Last year, a joint town-gown effort saw the Tompkins County Public Library showcase a Frankenstein exhibit, while Ithaca joined many larger cities in a community reading effort, making Frankenstein the first such community book. Residents were aided by the provost’s office, which donated 700 copies to the library and 600 to Ithaca High School.

Kramnick said that his office had learned a great deal from the last two years’ projects.

“Last fall I scheduled many lectures throughout the semester about monsters and monstrosity in society. They were poorly attended. We learned that the excitement and energy are mainly during the beginning of the semester, and that is appropriate. People become busy quickly.”

In addition, while last year’s book project cost ran approximately $50,000, Kramnick estimates that this year’s project shouldn’t cost more than $20-30,000. Penguin Classics will be publishing a special Cornell edition of the play, which will be mailed to all of the incoming first year students.

“We considered other books and other genres, but really we assume this book especially will involve an emotional and effective response to the reading,” Kramnick said. “There are just so many different issues to be discussed and themes to be explored. Among them is the existence of higher standards of justice and morality against the particular edicts of a particular system, as described in Martin Luther King Jr.’s doctrine of civil disobedience.”

“I am very pleased that they chose Antigone … it’s really unique among greek tragedies because it’s a play that people are in conflict over all the time. Everyone who has ever read it is sure what it means, and they don’t agree,” said Prof. Jeffrey Rusten, classics. “It’s also a play and a translation, and I think both need to be studied.”

Asked if he anticipated a greater interest on campus in this year’s book project due to the current political climate both on campus and throughout the nation, Kramnick replied, “Yes, that could very well be. Along with the other issues that will be debated are the justice and morality of the U.S. at war. Both Antigone and Creon are given powerful voices to make arguments for both sides. It is a powerful and resonant text.”

Archived article by Gautham Nagesh