Seven Against Thebes

By Antón Arrufat
Translated by Amanda T. Perry

Volume 8, Issue 3 (Fall 2021)

In 1968, Antón Arrufat’s play Seven Against Thebes won the theatre prize administered by UNEAC, the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists. What should have been a major advancement in the young Cuban’s playwriting career instead effectively ended it. Two jurors voted against the play on political grounds, and UNEAC took the extraordinary measure of publishing the piece with a preface condemning its contents. Beyond a small student production in Mexico in 1970, the play would not be staged for decades. Within the next three years, Arrufat went from being a well-connected and promising poet and playwright to working in the basement of a municipal library, banned from publishing throughout the 1970s.

Why would an adaptation of Aeschylus cause such controversy? Within Cuban literary history, the 1968 UNEAC scandal is often seen as the beginning of the end, as dogmatic bureaucrats curtailed the literary scene that had flourished following the 1959 revolution. Arrufat’s role in this drama has generally been overlooked in favour of Heberto Padilla’s, whose collection Fuera del juego [Out of the Game] won the 1968 poetry prize and was both more obviously critical of contemporary Cuba and more strenuously condemned by UNEAC. Padilla’s later arrest in 1971 triggered a major rupture between the Cuban government and members of the international left, and the island moved into a period of increased censorship and state-sponsored homophobia. Returning to 1968, and to Arrufat’s Seven Against Thebes, may help contextualize why an entire literary community, and not only Padilla, suffered in the years to follow.

This long overdue English translation will surprise anyone expecting a counter-revolutionary manifesto. Arrufat’s adaptation of Aeschylus’ tragedy can be strikingly faithful, as he reproduces long sections of the chorus’ lamentations alongside lengthy messenger speeches describing the invading army. The play’s diction is elevated and its overall flavour is decidedly Greek, to the point that I often felt I was translating a translation. The stage directions call for a stylized, minimalist approach marked by ritual gestures. Yet certain modifications, and Arrufat’s provocative epigraph, suggest reading the play in closer dialogue with 1960s Cuba.

First there is the myth itself: Eteocles refuses to share power over Thebes with his brother Polynices and sends him into exile, leading Polynices to return at the head of a foreign army. The potential parallels with the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, where Cuban exiles backed by the United States attempted to depose Fidel Castro’s government, are reinforced by other details. Arrufat invents the scene in which the six defending “champions” of Thebes appear, presenting Megareus as a farmer and Hyperbius as the builder of a school. These additions read as plausible allusions to the revolution’s agricultural reform and its famous literacy campaign, especially when juxtaposed with Hippomedon, one of the invaders, whose thirst for land recalls the plantation owners expropriated by the new state. The most evocative section is the dialogue between Eteocles and Polynices, absent from Aeschylus and only loosely inspired by an exchange in Euripides’ The Phoenician Women. This scene is at once the dramatic core of the play and the major source of Arrufat’s condemnation.

Arrufat frames the brothers’ conflict as a struggle between justice and “derecho”—a word that means both “right” and “law” in Spanish, and which I have at times translated as “lawful right.” Polynices accuses Eteocles of erecting himself as a dictator and of confiscating and redistributing his inheritance. Eteocles counterattacks that Polynices had been a power-hungry ruler who could not “forge the happiness and grandeur of Thebes.” He declares his willingness to accept impurity in the name of justice, insisting that he has done right by the poor, and criticizes Polynices for allying himself with foreigners. Transposed onto 1960s Cuba, Polynices frames the revolution as illegalnot sanctioned by elections or a constitution and violating the rules of private property—whereas Eteocles argues that its accomplishments justify the means and that Cuban exiles have become imperialist puppets.

Censors are rarely good critics. I have included excerpts from the UNEAC preface and a widely circulated condemnation of the play written under the pseudonym Leopoldo Ávila. Both are laughably literal and at times improbable in their readings, taking issue with holdovers from Aeschylus, including the terror of the chorus and the fact that both brothers die. The play may also have been denounced for extratextual reasons. In an interview with Jesús Barquet, Arrufat points to professional jealousy: Vicente Revuelta had wanted to direct the play, and had his sister Raquel, part of the UNEAC jury, accuse the play of political problems after Arrufat refused. Arrufat could furthermore have been targeted as a homosexual. The vague phrases beginning Ávila’s article may refer to Arrufat’s orientation, and Ambrosio Fornet has speculated that Ávila was none other than Luis Pavón Tamayo, who, as Minister of Culture from 1971 to 1976, set out to remove homosexuals from positions of influence.

Nevertheless, the play was condemned on political grounds, and evaluating its politics has remained the central concern of literary scholars. Most notably, Jesús Barquet, in his monograph Theatre and the Cuban Revolution: Subversion and Utopia in Seven Against Thebes, argues that the play is essentially allegorical, endorsing the Revolution’s central principles but attacking Castro’s leadership. While Barquet’s work is nuanced and rigorously contextualized, his interpretation hinges on a decidedly unsympathetic reading of Eteocles, as well as a one-to-one equation between the Theban leader and Castro. I have my doubts: Arrufat is far more generous than Euripides and no less so than Aeschylus in his portrayal of Eteocles, and productions would have a good deal of flexibility in how they present the character.

A more productive approach to the play may be to allow for its ambiguity. Allegorical readings are complicated by the play’s close ties to Aeschylus, and its commentary on contemporary Cuba is neither clearly subversive nor propagandistically supportive of Castro’s rule. Both brothers are given good lines, and the focus on the horror of war underlines a humanist rather than ideological position. The play’s final scenes, in which Eteocles is honoured for his legacy and Polynices is buried out of mercy, demonstrate a desire to continue the project of social transformation and to break cycles of violence. That Arrufat’s work could raise such ire is a sign of precisely how rigid the Cuban literary landscape was becoming. He had not demonized the enemy, and that was enough to make him a viable target.

After a decade of marginalization, Arrufat slowly returned to public life in Cuba. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, he published new works of prose and poetry, although he largely abandoned theatre. In 2000, he was honoured with Cuba’s National Prize for Literature. Seven Against Thebes was the last of Arrufat’s works to be rehabilitated, as it was republished in 2001, followed by a critical edition and a staging in Havana in 2007. In published interviews, including with John Kirk and Leonardo Padura, Arrufat has typically been frank about the limits and possibilities of making art in the country he has continued to call his home.

My translation maintains the formality of Arrufat’s language, with fewer syntactical inversions than in the Spanish. Because of the rich historical context detailed here, I have chosen to translate the version published in 1968, rather than Arrufat’s 2007 revision, though I have flagged the most significant alterations. Some symbolically loaded terms proved tricky in English. I have usually rendered “soberbia” as arrogance, but occasionally as “pride.” Arrufat also repeats the terms “brazos” and “armas,” both of which would be “arms” in English; I have separated them out into “fists,” to retain the emphasis on physical strength, and “weaponry.” During a reading of the play in Montreal in January 2021, the gendered dynamics within the work leapt off the page. Eteocles and other male characters continually use the term “woman” to refer to members of the chorus, and though the Spanish “mujer” is somewhat softer and more colloquial, the play presents a stark divide between anonymous, terrified women and martial, heroic men. I leave the interpretation of those dynamics, and the play as a whole, to the audience.

Works Cited

Barquet, Jesús J. Teatro y revolución cubana: Subversión y utopía en Los siete contra Tebas de Antón Arrufat. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon Press, 2002.

Fornet, Ambrosio. “El Quinquenio Gris: revisitando el término.” Casa de las Américas 246 (2007): 1-22.

Kirk, John M, and Leonardo Padura Fuentes. “Antón Arrufat: Un escritor al que le sigue latiendo el corazón.” La cultura y la revolución cubana: Conversaciones en La Habana. Gainesville: The University Press of Florida, 1999. 53-89.

Antón Arrufat (1935-) is a Cuban playwright, poet, essayist, and novelist. His first works appeared in the late 1950s, and he was a prolific writer during the 1960s, as well as the editor of Casa de las Américas magazine from 1961 to 1965. After the 1968 controversy surrounding Seven Against Thebes, he would not publish again for over a decade. He has since written two novels, La caja está cerrada (1984) and La noche del aguafiestas (2000), in addition to works of poetry and non-fiction, notably Virgilio Piñera, entre él y yo (1995). In 2000, he was awarded Cuba’s National Prize for Literature.

Amanda T. Perry teaches Caribbean literature at Concordia University and English literature at Champlain College-Saint Lambert in Montreal. She has published articles in Small Axe, The Global South, and Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies, as well as numerous book chapters. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University, and her current book project reframes the Cuban Revolution as a Caribbean event. More at http://www.amandatperry.com.

Seven Against Thebes
by Antón Arrufat
Translated by Amanda T. Perry

Followed by translations of the UNEAC preface and the article “Anton Goes to War” by Leopoldo Ávila

A certain friend, no stranger to letters, told me when he read Iphigenia, “Very good, but it’s a shame the subject is foreign.” “First of all,” I answered, “the same could be said of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Goethe, Racine, etc. What’s more, through my interpretation, the subject becomes my own. And finally, name Iphigenia Juana González, and already your deceptive desire for originality would be satisfied.

—Alfonso Reyes
Commenting on his play Cruel Iphigenia

(Murmurs, stirrings, unintelligible phrases. Men and women move around, forming small rhythmic groups that act out apprehension or terror. Suddenly an imposing silence. The Chorus forms a circle: it opens and Eteocles appears in the center. His chest and feet are bare. As he delivers his speech, the men arm him in a ceremony of precise, dynamic gestures that should render unnecessary the physical presence of weaponry.)

ETEOCLES: Citizens, the time has come
for him to speak who watches over the homeland
without yielding his eyes to soft sleep
without listening to enemy voices
or surrendering to the memory of his own blood.
Listen to me. My own brother, Polynices,
fleeing from our land, forgetting
the shared days, the brotherhood
of youth, the paternal hearth,
our language and our cause
has armed a battalion of foreigners
and approaches to lay siege to our city.
I have sent spies and scouts.
I trust they’ll soon return
and we’ll know new details of the enemy camp,
the number of its weapons, its strategy,
the bravery of its men. Nothing will stay unknown,
and guided by these accounts,
we’ll be prepared against all surprise.
The moment has arrived. It’s our time.
In it we affirm our cause,
its justice and valor. For us
this battle flowers and etches
our faces in history.
Here I have the shield of my father,
the helmet of my grandfather, the sword
that my brother Polynices abandoned
so it would not remind him of his treason.
I shine these arms, I seize them.
With them I gather the breath
of all my family, its ancient
vigor, and swear to defend this city
and its cause. Let the day begin
when we will be the work of our own hands.                        

CHORUS: Release the birds of prophecy!

(THE SEER leaps out from the group and acts out the release of the cocks with his body. THE CHORUS, with anxious intensity, moves and chants like the cocks in an abrupt manner that then ceases)

THE SEER: Eteocles, the auguring signs
of song from the solar birds
that unite the sky and the earth
and sketch the future with their voices
declare that the invading army
has determined to attack the city
tonight. Its men are preparing.

THE CHORUS: The spies! The spies! The spies!

(The name is repeated as though passed along a chain of sentinels, until it fades)

SPIES 1 and 2:

(While one speaks, the other remains silent, physically dramatizing the narrated scenes)

We bring you news from the enemy camp
noble Eteocles. Hidden, breathless,
we watched seven commanders, ardent fighters,
sacrifice a bull over a black shield,
wet their hands in its blood and swear
to destroy this city or die in this land.
After, with their hands still bloodied,
they said goodbye to their wives
and their children. They wept. We saw their tears
drop thread by thread, but their faces
were stoic. Not a word
of mercy sprung from their pressed lips.
Their steel chests breathed in war
and advanced toward the massacre together
with their eyes. Before leaving, noble Eteocles,
we spotted your brother. He was there, beside
the foreign leaders. We saw him shake
the dice, we saw him start the game.
The game would assign each commander
one of the seven gates of the city.
In that moment, without seeing
which gate fate would throw them,
we decided to come inform you. We can still
hear the prophetic clacking of the dice.
Quickly, choose our most skilled
fighters and post them to the entryways
of the seven gates of the city.
Don’t waste time. All could be lost.
The enemy army is raising a thick
cloud of dust, their weapons creak, clots of foam
drip from the mouths of their steeds.
Quickly, organize the defense, select
the ideal moment. We already seem to
hear the hoofs close to the walls.
Don’t waste time. We’ll continue
for the rest of the day, loyal and vigilant,
beyond the gates.

ETEOCLES: To the ramparts, to the gates, to the towers.
Grab your arms, old or new.
Breast plates on your chest. Steady. Courage.
Do not fear this crowd of schemers.
Our own fists will protect us. Steady.
To the ramparts, to the gates, to the towers.

(The men exit. Eteocles stands aside for a moment)

May these homes not crumble
under the enemy’s blow. May the dust
of their stones not scatter in the wind.
If it is necessary
that I face my brother Polynices,
if it is necessary, so be it.
I am willing.
I deliver myself to Thebes’ cause.
Must I strike
my brother with this sword?
Must I sacrifice myself?
Will my blood appease
his yearning for disasters?
Is sacrifice now necessary?
May I finally know
the breast I must annihilate,
the moment,
the memories.
May I finally know
the gate our triumph opens.
Now I am alone. I will be Eteocles. Let’s go.

(Exits)

(Offstage, the chanting of cocks in the distance. The women of the chorus remain. They shake with terror)

CHORUS 1: I see the enemy fighters lurch
toward us in a savage assault.
I glimpse it through that dust that rises,
surrounds us, stains our faces,
a mute but certain, infallible messenger.

CHORUS 2: My face burns. My forehead sweats.

CHORUS 3: The dust blinds me. My eyes water.

CHORUS 4: Oh friends, who will save us?
Who will come to our aid?

CHORUS 2: The dust grows. I listen, listen
to the rumble of the earth, shaken
by the hoofs of their horses
that emerge from the dust
and come closer, and fly, and moan
like a victorious torrent, oh!

CHORUS 5: I see their shining weapons rise
from the dust, advance seeking
our breasts. Here, here.
Their sharpened spears pierce me.  

CHORUS 3: What can I do but throw myself
begging before our altars?

CHORUS 1: These swords seek the hearts
of our men, of our husbands.
They split their flesh. The lips of their wounds,
trembling, spill their life forces,
and they close their eyes, and they forget their names.

CHORUS 4: I hear the clash of the shields,

CHORUS 2: of thousands of spears,

CHORUS 3: of thousands of chariots

CHORUS 4: of stones that batter the walls

CHORUS 5: of bronze that strikes our gates.

(The chorus, consisting of women who speak while others act out the images with their bodies, reaches a state of hallucination.)

CHORUS 2: Horror! I see from the ramparts
a vast field of the beloved dead.
Their body parts scattered on the ground,
mute and blind,
smashed by horses and shields.

CHORUS 4: Oh friends, who will save us?
Who will come to our aid?

CHORUS 4: Over there, over there: someone raises his arm
twitches, moves his fingers, calls to me.
He calls to me. It’s a terrifying cry.
I’m on my way. Wait. But he’s rigid,
his fingers parted. It’s the wind.
Now it slaps the ribbons of his shield.
It’s the wind. He’s not breathing. He’s frozen.

CHORUS 1: Eteocles’ chariot is calling
at the seventh gate: it’s empty.
His horse’s reigns are loose,
its bridle stained with blood.
It neighs and wanders alone
through the field of cadavers.

(Some women strike their thighs with their open palms, recreating with tragic force the movements of a horse, its neigh, while others repeat the same text from another part of the stage)

CHORUS 4: Oh friends, who will save us?     
Who will come to our aid?

ETEOCLES: Women! Is this the way
to serve the city, to give
courage to its besieged defenders?

(He speaks to different women. He grabs their arms. He berates them.)

Can’t you do something else
besides lament and moan?
Even from the ramparts we can hear your cries.
Enough laments and mournful visions.
You, what do you fear? Why are you on your knees?
And you, what are you doing with those branches?
And you, why are you weeping and whimpering?
Your husband is on the walls.
I’ve seen him. I spoke to him.
Do you want to steal his courage with your lamentations?
Do you want him to surrender, inert, to the adversary?

CHORUS 3: I cast myself down only to place
my hopes in the gods…

ETEOCLES: Pray only for our men.
Trust in the force of their fists.

CHORUS 5: May the gods never wish to abandon us.

ETEOCLES: The gods abandon conquered cities.

CHORUS 2: What are those lights? Oh misfortune!
The relentless enemy soldiers
run through the city with blazing torches.

ETEOCLES: Don’t ruin us, woman. Stop with the dark
omens. He who commands asks to be obeyed.
Don’t forget it. And obedience to a single
head engenders the outcome that saves us.

CHORUS 5: The power of the gods is greater.
It can raise the helpless
from their troubles, dispel at once
the fog of pain in their eyes.

ETECOLES: Pray, if that’s how you want it. May the Gods
listen to you. But don’t stop helping
our fighters with your hands.
Master your terror. Remain composed.

CHORUS 3:

(Striking herself with the olive branch)

Oh, uncertain winds, oh. Death
threatens me, it wants to sniff my flesh.
Gods, accept my vows.
Where will this army drag me?

ETEOCLES: They will not drag us off. We will remain.
This is not the moment to doubt, to worry
about yourself. They advance
united, and we
destroy ourselves here inside.

CHORUS 5: They will surround the city of Thebes!
We will die of hunger and thirst.

ETEOCLES: I am here to coordinate our actions.

CHORUS 1: The horses are already neighing,
their crests are shaking! They move
like thousands of arms of death.

ETEOCLES: Act as if you can’t hear them,
act as if you can’t see them, woman!

CHORUS 5: The gates screech, they give way.

ETEOCLES: Quiet! Keep your prophecies to yourself. That’s an order.

CHORUS 2: Gods of Thebes, don’t give up the city!

ETEOCLES: Fear in silence. Fight for her.

CHORUS 3: Deliver me from slavery!

ETECOLES: You enslave yourself, and us all!

CHORUS 4: Gods, shield me from my enemies!

ETEOCLES: Are you still begging? I ordered you to be quiet!

CHORUS 4: I am out of breath. Terror ties my tongue.

(The women, tearing at their clothes, breathless, on their knees, sprawled on the floor, end up surrounding him. His hands grasp theirs. Eteocles spreads his arms the length of his body)

ETEOCLES: Listen. I beg you.

CHORUS:

(Uniting)

Say it quickly.

ETEOCLES: I ask you for silence.

CHORUS: We will fall silent.

ETEOCLES: I ask you not to fear.

CHORUS: We will not be afraid.

ETEOCLES: I ask you to join with us.

CHORUS: Our fate will be the fate of all.

ETEOCLES:                          

(He releases their hands)

Here, finally, a word that pleases me.
For it I will forgive you all the other words.
Rid of your fear of the enemy, listen
now to my vows.
If we are victorious
and the city is saved, I swear
that we will honor the fighters,
the dead,
those who knew to fight for us all,
renouncing for a moment their private happiness.
We will hang in our houses, along the walls,
on the seven gates of the city,
the vestments of the invaders
that will bear the glorious signs
of our weapons. The city will be
full of the trophies of victory.
For myself, I ask for nothing. If I die, remember me
as I am now, besieged by my brother
and our enemies. Let this moment
fix my image in your memories,
shining like the pure instant of my life.
If I come back, if my sword and my fist
grant me my return to these places
that I already begin to long for, I will govern
quietly, with caution and greater justice.
Women, sing now a jubilant hymn
Of martial daring. Then, help
the fighters carry their weaponry.
I leave to select six courageous champions
to defend the seven gates of the city.
I will be the seventh.

(The Chorus divides. Two women sing a hymn of combat, their voices cheerful and boisterous. The others return to lamenting. Little by little, pulled in by their enthusiasm, they join the hymn.)

CHORUS 3: I try to obey you, and yet
the anxiety does not leave my breast.

CHORUS 4: It casts a strange light on the future.

CHORUS 5: I am shaken by the curse of your brother.

CHORUS 3: Which pierced body will fall to the ground?

CHORUS 4: I am followed by the furious dog of nightmare.

CHORUS 1, 2:

(Singing)

God of war,
powerful fist
grant the Thebans
your overflowing bravery.
Sustain the city,
And over the body
extend your protecting shield.

CHORUS 3, 4, 5: What crime did we commit? What freedom will we lose?

CHORUS 1, 2: Beat the shields!
Blow the trumpets!
The war rings out.
March onwards!

CHORUS 3, 4, 5: We won’t surrender the city to savage pride.

CHORUS 1, 2, 4: My heart races,
my blood burns.
Oh what I would give
to join the battle!

CHORUS 3, 5: Night comes and the key of destiny will break.

CHORUS 1, 2, 4: Our arrows
fly,
the spears glisten
beneath the sun of war.  (repeat)

CHORUS 3, 5: What crime did we commit? What freedom will we lose?

CHORUS 1, 2, 3, 4: New flowers
we’ll have
on their return.
And those that don’t come back
will, in silence,
ready
the new spring.

CHORUS 5: It’s the light of the torches. The champions enter!

(The six champions enter. The ceremony of arms takes place, which, as in the case of Eteocles, should do without the physical presence of weaponry. When the champions enter, the women sing the first verse of the war song again. The women carry out the arming ceremony throughout this entire scene.)

POLYPHONTES: Greetings, women. We are happy
to find you here. We are happy
to hear you singing in the city.
All men will abandon
their peace-time duties. No one
will sleep in his house tonight.
Faced with the danger of ceasing
to see, of losing the taste
of bread, the morning, the bodies’
desires, our greatest tools
are now the spear
and the shield.
Hyperbius, we’ll have a great battle,
a battle that will halt
death at the gates of Thebes.
When the spies return, we’ll leave.

CHORUS 5: Hyperbius is among us.
Son of Enopo, we have seen your
school. It is beautiful and simple.
How long did it take you to build?

HYPERBIUS: Much longer than this night,
in which I could lose it.
Slow is the work, but
destruction has quick feet.

MEGAREUS: Quick is our defense, quick the
arrow’s strike over the enemy,
Hyperbius. We’ll have a great
battle. Tomorrow we’ll open
your school again.

HYPERBIUS: So it shall be.
Our sons
will not there learn
the mournful hymns
of the vanquished.

MEGAREUS: Women, from my labor in the fields,
I have another example.
While you adjust my armor, listen:
the orange tree accepts its humble obscurity
for many days, it works below ground,
waits for its fruit,
and erupts triumphant one morning,
in a triumph of yellow.
Without worrying, it waits for its time.
And it can, nevertheless, be lost
in an instant, extinguish
its yellow glow and die.
Polynices’ men,
with worried hands, cut
the wait’s measured rhythm,
impatient lovers of disaster.
Our time is another time.
We’ll set it with new laws.
Tonight opens with that noble quest.

HYPERBIUS: I tell you it is beautiful, this moment,
because it is sad and beautiful.
We’ll build the school, we’ll plant
the orange tree for a second time
by defending them tonight.

LASTHENES: Woman, here, adjust the breastplates. You do      
well by singing. Listen: with death nearby
I am more alive than before. Aren’t you amazed?
The blood boils in my temples, almost
to the point of vertigo. I see the same things as always,
the amphora in the house, the olive’s greenery,
and all of it’s the same, and yet distinct.

CHORUS 4: Young Lasthenes, let’s listen to Hyperbius and Megareus.
There is a space between life and death
in which things shimmer, and then we
know their worth. In it, we learn to live
in an instant, in an afternoon,
but after it will have been no mistake.
Is your heart heavy? Are you all right?
Then leave me, youth, a keepsake.

POLYPHONTES: He could not give you a lock of his beard like me.
Take it, woman. Don’t torment yourself. I’ll return.                          

CHORUS 4: I pray to the gods for you, Thebans.

POLYPHONTES: Soon we’ll eat a lamb in your house.

CHORUS 2: With red wine and laurels.

CHORUS 3: And we’ll sing until the night.

MELANIPPUS: Lasthenes will carry his cithara and Megareus his flute.
Their voices will be sweet on their return.

MEGAREUS: Perfume your hair, women, and wear
for that day a rose and a branch of myrrh.

CHORUS 5: You will see the apple orchard again,
and the water between the branches and the shade.

LASTHENES: Keep this broach for that moment.
I hope to see it on you when you serve the lamb.

CHORUS 4: I’ll weave a white cloth and make myself a dress.
Your broach will shine on my shoulder.

MELANIPPUS: Have faith, woman. The shield is not so heavy.
The leather belt is firm.
Sometimes, one escapes the arrow’s strike
behind it, and returns to breath in the scent of his home.

CHORUS 1: Who is this that passes
by the third gate
and again enters the city?
Who is it? Where was he born?

HYPERBIUS: It’s Melanippus who comes back victorious
to his land of Thebes.

MELANIPPUS: And embraces his friend Hyperbius,
of generous blood, who fought
without fear of death.

(They embrace)

CHORUS: Thebans, the men that built
this city, hauled the stones
of its walls, one by one, patient,
with blistered hands and burnt
shoulders, who plowed the land and sowed
day and night, singing or silent,
who died the cloth and tempered the metal,
who hardened the leather of these shields,
who melted the bronze and baked the bread:
now they leave their work in your hands!

(The Chorus divides)

FIRST CHORUS: The spies arrive, Thebans, and seem
to bring some news of the adversary.
They come in a hurry, running to approach us.

SECOND CHORUS: And here is Eteocles in person.
In his hurry, his feet
hardly touch the ground.

(The spies and Eteocles enter. Off-stage, human voices reproduce the sounds of the invading army. They begin with a rumble and end in howls, creating a tragic atmosphere, of dire foreboding. When the spies enter, the women scatter, apprehensive. Eteocles and the Six Champions group together.)

THE SPIES: We have seen everything. We know the arrangements,
which gate luck assigned to each.

(The Chorus acts out the gestures of the dice game. They shake their hands, rub them together, seem to throw the dice on the floor, clacking their tongues.)

THE SPIES:                           

(One of the spies speaks, while the other acts out the images with his body)

To Tydeus goes the first gate, where
he shouts threats, yelling
at his men not to fear combat
and death.
He is dressed in black.
Black are his clothes, his weapons,
the crest of his mounted steed.
His metal adornments rattle
with terrifying noise. He carries
on his shield this arrogant emblem:
a night sky, all
bright with stars,
and the moon in the middle,
like a celestial eye.
That night threatens us,
it wants to put out our eyes
and the radiance of the day.
There he is, dark, haughty,
impatiently calling for battle,
a fiery horse that has heard the clarion.
Who will oppose him?
Who will be capable of facing him?

ETEOCLES: Forward, Melanippus! Take care of that madman.
Do you fear the might of his arms?

MELANIPPUS: Crests don’t bite, nor do loud adornments.
Arrogant emblems don’t cause wounds.

ETEOCLES: As for that night you have described to us,
as for those black clothes he wears,
they could perhaps be the prophecy of his own destiny.
If over his eyes the night of death should fall,
those things will have been the best of signs.
Good, Melanippus! Let the night cover him, since he asks for it.

CHORUS: Brave son of Thebes, may your spear not tremble.

MELANIPPUS: It will not tremble.

CHORUS: The god of war will cast the dice of victory.

ETEOCLES: But you shall raise your fist against defeat.
Forget her and it will not matter that she seeks you.

CHORUS: Brave son of Thebes, may your spear not tremble.

MELANIPPUS: It will not tremble.

THE SPIES:

(Now it is the other spy who speaks)

At the second gate
Hippomedon of Mycenae,
of gigantic stature,
thirsty for power, comes
against us screaming.
In his skilled
landowner’s hands
I saw the enormous disc
of his shield spin, casting
glints of fire, and I felt
myself shaking. I would not do
well to deny it. Only
Hippomedon’s howls of war,
frenziedly calling for battle,
managed to pull my eyes
from that hypnotic image.
I hear his voice, I wish I could
describe his shouts, the
shredding sound of his throat.
I shout like him, I scream,
I threaten, threaten to strip
Thebes of its lands
and enslave its men
to my lust for possession.
The land before me,
mine at last, as far as
my powerful sight reaches.
I dream of it, touch it,
bend down to kiss it, I burn,
yearn to rest my back
against its sweet hardness, twist,
roll around, beat my brow,
eat it by the fistful, knowing
that it’s mine, mine alone,
and then cross it in my speedy chariot
while all take off
their hats and greet me
and call me, “Sir, sir,”
with voices tremulous and submissive.
Noble Eteocles, keep us
from this horror that tries to
enter by the second gate.[1]

ETEOCLES: I choose Hyperbius to stand against this schemer!

CHORUS: You know men. No one
like Hyperbius, steady and unhurried,
to vanquish greed.
Rightly you appoint him.

ETEOCLES: And nothing to fault in his conduct, his courage,
in the force and sturdiness of his weaponry.

HYPERBIUS: Let’s go, Melanippus! Our gates are close.

ETEOCLES: He already wants to test his fortune.
Excellent Hyperbius! You have the gift
of building schools and you know how to defend them.

(They exit)

SPY 1:                                     

(Grabbing a torch from someone)

“City, cursed by the hatred of brothers,
I will make you ashes. Only fire will purify you.
You will burn whole in a great fire, and then
we can enter without staining ourselves with this sin.
See in my shield a man armed with a flaming
torch, naked, implacable. Read what it says
in golden letters: I will set fire to Thebes.”

ETEOCLES:

(Suddenly he shakes, startled)[2]          

Who is it? Don’t fear! Say his name.        

SPY 1: Capaneus.

ETEOCLES: Ah!

(He lifts his fist to his brow and turns his back.)

Describe him.

SPY 2: He is a tall, pale, beardless fighter.
His eyes radiate with an inhuman brightness.
Nothing ties him to the world: not family, not friends.
He is sick with suspicion. He distrusts.
He distrusts everything. He only loves purity.

CHORUS: Deplorable enemy! He fights for other reasons.
He does not seek vengeance, plunder, virgins.
He will burn a city for a single fault.
We do not like this denier of life.

ETEOCLES:

(Turns around)

But Capaneus is mistaken. Purity does not rein
by steel. If he devastates the city, he will be
impure, and more guilty than my brother Polynices.
He’ll add one crime to another. He’ll pass through
a city that’s smoking, then extinguished, then cold,
without finding purity. His hand will be black
and his chariot covered in ash. Oh vain thought!
He’ll know that this flaming torch corrupted his plan.
And perhaps it’s the hatred of my brother Polynices that stains
the gates, blinds, taints the water, casts a veil
over the radiant sun? Destroys the love of your son,
annihilates the strength of your body, scars your face?
It’s his fault, Capaneus. Only his. To hatred
you lend your strength. You are his accomplice. You will not be spared.

THE SPIES: But who will stop him without wavering?

ETEOCLES: Polyphontes!

(Polyphontes comes forward. Eteocles resumes his tone of sarcasm.)

Remember his emblem? Dress then
this naked man with the clothes
of his master! His own defeated flesh
will crush the torch. Go forth without fear.

(He puts out the torch with his foot.)

POLYPHONTES:

(While leaving)

Woman, see that you prepare the lamb.

CHORUS: Perish he who divides men
into the pure and the impure! And proud of
his purity spills blood, invades
the city and launches persecution.

THE SPIES:

(They share the text and physical enactment)

“No one will cast me from this tower,”
wrote Eteoclus in his device, where
with resolve a soldier climbs
a ladder resting on Thebes’ walls.
Eteoclus endlessly shouts his
arrogant emblem’s warning:
“No one will cast me from this tower.”
The veins of his neck swell
and his enraged face contracts.
The wind ripples his hair,
loose, with no helmet, thick, aggressive.
He whips the mares of his chariot,
calls them, rebukes them, making them
writhe tortured beneath the yoke.
The reigns are whistling with a grating noise,
the impatient beasts are panting.

ETEOCLES: I’ve already sent Megareus! He will decorate his house
with the soldier, and the ladder, and the tower.
His hands do not flaunt pompous displays,
but he will not retreat before the clamor of some mares.
His spear will pierce the chest of Eteoclus, (He acts out the gesture)
and the mares will scatter.

CHORUS: Those mares writhing in the same spot,
tortured, useless, foretell the torment
that Eteoclus has imagined for us.
All of Thebes yoked to a wheel that never
stops, stripped and sterile, hearing,
without respite, the echoing tongues of hate.

SPY 1: Your fears pierce my chest to the quick.
There is Amphiaraus, posted in front of the fifth gate,
standing in his chariot, handsome and solitary.

SPY 2: He says nothing. He offers no threats or boasts.

SPY 1: He is silent. His gaze is wise and melancholy.

ETEOCLES: What is this man doing alongside the others?

SPY 1: He fights for nothing and no one.
He expects nothing. Only the intoxication of the struggle.
Prophet of his own end, he knows
that he will fertilize this soil with his remains.

SPY 2: But he cannot avoid it. He lives delivering himself to death.

SPY 1: He seeks it, he beseeches it, he yearns for the sound of its step.

SPY 2: On his well-forged shield, there shines
no emblem, nor sign, nor inscription.
He advances with his shield empty.

SPY 1: Choose for this man a valiant
and skilled adversary. Fearful is he who knows his own destiny.

ETEOCLES: I do not admire this man. He is strange to me.
He is too concerned with himself. It is not just
to commit suicide through the death of others.
He looks for his own end
but needs to pass through the bodies of others,
leave them motionless, to find himself.
This is too costly and bloody a mirror.
We’ll place him before the shining shield
of Lasthenes: he can watch himself in his death throws.

(Lasthenes exits)

CHORUS: See you soon, young Lasthenes.
Your eye is keen, your hand quick.
Here we’ll await your return,
and the trophies of victory.

SPY 2:                                                 

(He grabs a spear and raises it with open arms. He circles. He shrieks.)

I love this shaft of wood, this point of iron.
It’s my fist, my country, my eye, my father.
It thrums, it flashes, it ravages the air,
venerated metal, cold and piercing.

(The chorus splits in two)

FIRST CHORUS: The moans of the dying ring out.
There are men in the atriums of the houses,
rotting, rotting. A head
hangs from a window, the eyes bulging.

SECOND CHORUS: Dragged by the hair, dresses
torn by cruel and urgent hands,
we’ll be raped against the wall, beneath
the olive groves, in the back of a kitchen,
in front of our terrified children.

SPY 2: You will not take pity, deaf
to laments, to supplications,
to the gush of spilled blood.

FIRST CHORUS: Oh wail of the newborns,
expiring on their mother’s breast.

SPY 2: Pierce, cut, tear, cold flame.
You know no other feeling or pleasure.

SECOND CHORUS: To whom are you taking me? Whose slave will I be?
Black veils cover my shorn head.
Farewell for the last time, places I loved.

SPY 2: For you there is nothing but the tremble
in the air, the whistle of the flight
that seeks the neck, the chest, the back
and opens the gate to death.
I spin with you, I revive, I urge you far
from delicacy and tenderness.
Human pain, I do not recognize you!

FIRST CHORUS: We will be forced
to sing of enemy feats.

SECOND CHORUS: We will be forced
to work the land of others.

FIRST CHORUS: We will be forced
to learn to forget and stay silent.

SPY 2: Mouths wrenched off at my feat,
wet lashes, final rattles, I adore you!
I don’t know who they were or what they were named.
But the ship of death does not ask,
it carries you tongue-less and nameless.
My sharpened edge cuts the ties.

FIRST CHORUS: Lift your foot, smile, bow, salute.
Dance in the triumphant enemy’s feast.

SECOND CHORUS: Lift your foot, smile, bow, salute.
Intone cheerful songs of obedience.

SPY 2:

(He strikes the spear against a shield)

I, Parthenopeus, swear to raze the city!

ETEOCLES: Don’t let this murderer enter, Actor!
Listen to the description of his shield
and annihilate this vermin. The air
will be clearer with his silence.

SPY 1: A wide and golden shield defends
his whole body. In the center,
with glittering nails, it bears
a bloodthirsty bird of prey
with open claws.

ETEOCLES: With your arrows, make Parthenopeus hear
the painful shrieks of the monster
that covers him. Let the bird turn
against its master and bite him!

ACTOR: Heart, my heart, if you are confounded by the labyrinth
of weapons, of shouts, the blow of arrows,
rise up and resist. Offer the adversary a firm
chest. Do not be too joyed by success if you vanquish.
Return humble. One is worth only this instant
when he decides, a little dazed, to die for others.

CHORUS: You have already seen, Actor, the evils of a conquered
city. Go out and fight. If your hand gives us back
peace, we’ll work. Spring will be reborn
after this night. The earth is unbreakable and
enduring. We’ll have its gifts tomorrow. Go out and fight.
Return with the calm light of heroes.

(Actor gives the women a ribbon to remember him by. He exits. The spies and the chorus remain. The noise of the war suddenly stops.)

ETEOCLES: What’s happening? Why do they fall silent?

THE SPIES: We must leave. Don’t you hear?

ETEOCLES: They’ve stopped. You cannot hear the chariots.

THE SPIRES: We’ll go searching for news.

ETEOCLES: One moment! Someone is missing.

SPY 2: Is it necessary to say it?

SPY 1: Must we also name and describe him?

ETEOCLES: That’s it.

THE SPIES: You already know, Eteocles.

ETEOCLES: Do you pity me?

THE SPIES: No. But we fear destiny.

ETEOCLES: You want to spare me from suffering!

THE SPIES: No. You’re the same as the rest.

ETEOCLES: That’s it. That’s as it should be. Say it then!

SPY 1: Your own brother is at the seventh gate!

ETEOCLES: Finally fate strikes me in the eyes!
In vain I wanted to stay unaware. I believed for a moment
that the war’s action would delay its arrival.
But it’s here. It comes with the rolling of the chariots,
propelled by arrows, arriving at the hand of my brother.
What fault did you find in me, what inner evil
so that you will not let me be, so that you will not forget me
and finally you have your way, merciless?
My race, maddened, without rest, here I am!
But this is no moment to moan. I have no right.
Finish. Say what you know. This silence
is auspicious for them, sadly auspicious.
Then you’ll go in search of news.

THE SPIES: Your brother pronounces no imprecations,
no curse, threat, or oath
that does not touch and name you.
His voice is frenzied. He invokes
the gods of his fathers and urges on
his men, to hasten
death among us.
His shield, of fine craftsmanship,
recently forged, has sculpted
this double symbol:
a woman leads a warrior
dressed in golden armor, and signs:
“I am Lawful Right.[3] I will return to Polynices
his homeland, and the inheritance of his father.”
The tale is complete. Now it is up
to you to designate your brother’s adversary.
You rule the city.

CHORUS: Such silence! Such horrible silence!
We were prepared for war
and suddenly this silence like a blank
and deserted space. Forebodings
sprout and leap into it and fight each other.
What will happen? Someone is approaching!

POLYNICES:

(He appears in the back, alone, unarmed.)

It’s Polynices!

CHORUS:

(Passing the name from one to another)

Polynices! Polynices! Polynices!

POLYNICES: I offer you a truce, Eteocles.
I’ve come to speak to you.

ETEOCLES:

(After a silence)

Enter. What do you want?

POLYNICES: What a strange question! I have halted
my army at the gates of the city
and you ask me what I want?

ETEOCLES: To the misery of Thebes we have heard
the thundering of your army. We see,
these women and I, the shining of your
well-forged weaponry and the arrogant inscription
of your shield. You have turned yourself over
to other people, Polynices,
and with them you come to your native land.
You are a stranger, and that’s why I ask you
what you want. I don’t recognize your voice,
I’ve forgotten the light of your eyes.

POLYNICES: The trembling in your voice says otherwise.
But it doesn’t matter. I know you must pretend
in front of these women. In that you are
a good leader. You use the mask
that others expect and at the right moment.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s enough for me that you see
the splendor of my weaponry.

ETEOCLES: I don’t know if my voice was trembling before but now
I tremble with disgust and sacred fury.
You’re the same as always. That’s why
those men accompany you and you raise
those shields. We know you, Polynices.
We know you so well that we’ve started to forget you.
Say what you want. Say what you intend
by this lying truce.

POLYNICES: Your boasting doesn’t surprise me, Eteocles.
You pretend to be sure. You’re the hero
that saves the people with a strong gesture.
This isn’t the first time. There was another night
when you were as sure as you are now.
And yet, here I have an army
that follows me, that calls me their chief
and carries out my orders. You never thought
that your brother would return to his city
in the middle of, surrounded by a powerful host.
Wake up, Eteocles. Your end is beginning.
No one, only a mad man, would feel
sure faced with an army like mine.
I trust in its loyalty and its strength.
You will obtain nothing from a barefoot people
that clutches old spears and rotten shields.
Deliver me the city and I will save you
from the humiliation of a defeat.

ETEOCLES: Now I know what you want. These women
and I know it.

POLYNICES: Don’t mix them into this. They
don’t govern the city.

ETEOCLES: They too are the city.
I trust them and want them as witnesses.
I have nothing to hide, Polynices.
This night finally ends all distinctions.
Your truce teaches us to know ourselves
and affirm our cause.
It’s your army that unites us,
it’s your cruelty that saves us.
We are a barefoot people, we are
a crazy people, but we will not surrender
the city.
Thebes is no longer the same:
our madness
is founding something in the world.

POLYNICES: You won’t destroy my army with words!
I’m offering you a way out. Abandon      
the government and leave in silence.
I will explain your reasons to the people.

ETEOCLES: Enough, Polynices! You can offer nothing
to Thebes that would interest it. We have
listened to the description of your army.
We know why they come and the ambition
that unites them. We will not deliver the city to them!

POLYNICES: Then there will be blood. The fault
is yours!

ETEOCLES: Did I raise your army?

POLYNICES: You are not innocent, Eteocles.
If this army is here, it’s your fault.
If blood is spilled, it’s your fault.

ETEOCLES: Your tongue is quick, you argue smoothly.
You’re a good speaker!

POLYNICES: We had the same teacher. Don’t you remember?

ETEOCLES: I remember that we lived in the same house.
I remember that we ate together,
and together went out to hunt. I remember
that one day, your most skilled javelin
saved me from death.
We held each other, breathless,
while the boar was writhing
on the grass, gushing blood from its belly.
He died in gruesome convulsions.
I was long in loving your fist’s strength.
I would observe it slowly, with caution and fervor.
We returned home and I told everyone.
The light was different that day,
life was more important to me.
What else do I remember?
I remember that you have summoned an enemy army
to destroy this house, to smash
this city, raising
the same fist as that day.

POLYNICES: Clever Eteocles! You know
how to search for sugary reasons.
In that moment I saved my brother,
now I come against my enemy.
My fist is the same
but you are not the same person.
In forgetting, one becomes someone else.
Still, it’s not easy:
one day brings another day
and nothing is immune. You will not
be able to bury your guilt in the ground.
I have returned to remind you of it,
and I also remember. I remember
the pact we made three years ago,
and I remember that you destroyed it.
I swore with you to govern one year
each, to share the command
of the army and the paternal house.
You swore to comply. And you have broken
the oath and your promise.
Alone you govern, alone you decide,
alone you live in the house of my father.
Don’t you remember?

ETEOCLES: And it’s them that you’ve entrusted
to remind me? It’s with the sound
of their weapons, with the screams
of their foreign mouths
that I should remember this?

POLYNICES: They will help me restore lawful right!

ETEOCLES: Capaneus will help you with his flaming torch?
Parthenopeus will help you spilling the blood
of your brothers with his thirsty spear?
Hippomedon will help you stealing their lands?
Murderers are helping you, Polynices. You claim
your right with the bloodied hands
of a mob of schemers.

POLYNICES: Do you believe everyone who opposes you is a murderer?
Do you believe everyone who opposes you is a schemer?
You pillaged my house and profaned an oath!
You hold a power that does not entirely belong to you!
What did you say in Thebes to hide your treason?

ETEOCLES: I rectified the errors of your government.
I divided the bread, I drew close to the poor.
Yes, it’s true, I pillaged our house.
You will find nothing in it. I divided
our goods, divided our inheritance,
down to the last items, the amphoras,
the fabrics, the furs, the wheat, the spoons.
Our house is empty, and still
there was not enough for all.
Yes, it’s true, I profaned an oath.
But I don’t care. I accept this impurity
but not injustice.

POLYNICES: I will not forgive you. You didn’t pillage my house
for yourself, but for others.
My things are in strange and unknown hands.
I despise your order and your justice.
It’s an order built on disorder.
A justice based on an injustice.

ETEOCLES: That’s how it needed to be, Polynices.
I hate all zeal for absolutes. I work
in the world, among men.
If it’s necessary, I know how to dirty my hands.
To be just, it’s necessary to be unjust a moment.

POLYNICES: For you justice is named Eteocles.
Eteocles the homeland and the good.
I oppose this justice, I fight
against this homeland that despoils and forgets me.
The night that you refused, full of arrogance,
to share power with me, destroying
our agreement, you contaminated everything.

ETEOCLES: That night lies behind us.
It will not return. If I was unjust with you,
I have been just with the rest.
I don’t accept your purity, Polynices.
Your right is contaminated
by the men that second you.

POLYNICES: Do you know exile, Eteocles?

ETEOCLES: I know those who deserve exile!

POLYNICES: You hate me!

ETEOCLES: You hate your homeland!

POLYNICES: Against my will
I make war.
The gods are my witnesses!

ETEOCLES: The Thebans are witness to the fury of your army!

POLYNICES: You are godless!

ETEOCLES: But not an enemy of men.

POLYNICES: Are you the enemy of your brother?

ETEOCLES: My brother is enemy to Thebes!

POLYNICES: What have you said in Thebes of my exile?
How did you explain that unjust order?

ETEOCLES: I reminded them of the evils of your government.
I reminded them of the unfulfilled promises, the disillusion
of the final months.
You are incapable of reigning with justice.
You are obsessed with power, but you do not know
how to forge the happiness and grandeur of Thebes.

POLYNICES: Only you know, Eteocles. Only you know.
You decide what is good or evil.
You deliver justice, you measure the value of men.
You alone are free in Thebes!

ETEOCLES: But the people are on the walls.
But the people are ready to fire against your army.
No one is waiting for you. You are alone, Polynices.
There are no Thebans with you.

POLYNICES: You are an obstinate and arrogant man!
You see yourself everywhere. You are the city.
Your mind is Thebes and Thebes is your mind.
Bring, then, the fire, bring on the steal!
Neither of us two will renounce what is his
or share it with the other.

ETEOCLES: Get out of here! Do you see my hand?

POLYNICES: I see that you carry my sword.

ETEOCLES: Now it’s the sword of Thebes.
Get out of here!

POLYNICES: I will not return to exile, Eteocles.
Either I enter the city victorious
or I’ll die fighting at its gates.

ETEOCLES: You’ll die!

POLYNICES: Let the gods and the earth
that raised me be my witnesses!
If any evil befalls you, city,
do not accuse me, but this one.
The fault is his.
Remember the evils of exile:
drifting through strange lands, writing     
and waiting for letters, while faces,
names, columns come undone in memories.
Here is everything that I am, and that I love.
Against my will I make war.
Against my will they exiled me.
Eteocles, I’m repulsed by what you represent:
infallible power and an iron fist.

ETEOCLES: Justice will not take your side!
Your cause requires blood and the spear.
Because of you the workshops are closed,
masons, tailors, potters
deliver themselves to the fury of war
against their will. The cattle drift
through the fields, the harvests are lost, rotten.
Is this, Polynices, restoring lawful right?

(Polynices exits)

Soon we will know what your emblem is worth.
In this I have confidence: the work of all
will not be destroyed by one man alone.
Brother against brother, enemy
against enemy. We cannot now
reach an understanding. Let death decide
at the seventh gate!

CHORUS: Oh you, who are so dear to me, fate
opens the seventh gate searching for you. It asks
for you, says your name, walks to meet you.

ETEOCLES: If this could be stopped! But it’s not possible now.
Everything has gone too far. It has gone where
I wanted it to go. I will not flee from fate
finding me; my hand looks to shake its own.

CHORUS: You are greeting yourself, Eteocles. Your hand
in the air finds your other hand.
You will be, like him, a victim of pride!
Pride reigns in a dark room,
with a mirror where you contemplate yourself forever.
Put aside this mirror. Remember
that there are other men in the world.

ETEOCLES: The wind blows with fury this night.
Countless, merciless stars, silent
spectators to the sacred fury of justice,
I do not greet you. I reject your complicity
or your absence. I turn towards you, women;
your human eyes, passionate, mortal,
can approve or reject this spectacle –
a brother marching against his brother—
but you can never be indifferent.
I am already beyond the company of things, and among men.
For them is my act, for them the end.

CHORUS: The roar of the battle distorts your senses.
Do not shed the blood of your brother!
Keep your clean hands, your reason and your restraint.

ETEOCLES: Why keep flattering destiny so as to delay it?
Now I know it’s not cruel, or merciless, or violent.
It carries in its arms the part of me that was missing:
what Thebes demands, my father, myself.
Perhaps you demand it without knowing it.
All that I have been, since childhood,
was preparing for this instant. The circle
will close. The sphere becomes whole.

CHORUS: Oh Eteocles, you who are so dear to me, we must
attend a farewell that we cannot understand.
You have upheld the city, organized the defense,
inspiring our fighters and ourselves,
without caring for yourself or your blood ties,
pointing to the just, to what must be done, and its time.
The Thebans are on the walls and they wait for you.
But they don’t wait for you to face your brother.
Why seek out Polynices, why mix your blood
with his blood, staining the city and your mission?

ETEOCLES: I now know, women, that it is not my brother
that is important. I do not march against him
– I will not see the shadow of his emerging beard,
the proud arch of his lips that
reminds me of my father—but rather against myself:
against that part of Eteocles named Polynices.
I am calm and cool. I do not feel love or hate.
My eyes are dry and without tears.
It would be sweet to sleep
and stroll without fear;
govern the city quietly;
cheer ourselves with music and statues,
with harvests and country festivals;
but the Thebans are on the walls
and I have no right to save myself
for a better time.
This is the better time!
The defense of the city unites us
in a greater, common good.
I will not save my life.
My life happens tonight and is fulfilled.
Polynices awakens us with a harsh light:
installing justice is a rough and sad
act, it occasions cruelty and violence.
But it is necessary. This is the final
clarity that I have reached on this final night.
Remember this: it is necessary.
In your fragile hands I leave
this certainty.
Peace will come after, placating fury.
Remember this: it is necessary.
Somehow we will stop injustice
in the world: with a punch, with a kick,
with a scream.
Farewell, women!

(He exits)

CHORUS:                              

(With alternating voices)

What is this feeling?
It has a name. Say it!
What is it that floods
my arteries, the beat
of my heart, squeezes
the throat and feet,
and thunders in the back
as though boring a hole?
It has a name. Say it!
In vain I call on reason,
I hide its presence in vain.
It has a name. Say it!
Terror! Terror! Terror!
You open all the gates,
you enter and leave through my pores,
you keep us awake
and suddenly put us to sleep.
Terror! Terror! Terror!
It twists in all the possibilities,
contradicts itself, calls,
hears us and forgets us.
It shows its teeth, touches
its hand to its hat,
lifts the axe, throws
the spear, the torments
begin in our minds.
Terror! Terror! Terror!
I close my eyes so as
not to see you, and it is you
that closes them and throbs
beneath the clenched lids.
Imagined tortures happen there,
a ruined city, brothers
in a tower slitting each other’s throats.
Terror! Terror! Terror!
Go away. Go away. Let go
of my voice. I am not
one who shouts, moans, bites,
but you, animal of my mind,
that bars sleep
by setting my hair on end.
Out! Out! Out!
You jump on my chest,
kick, leave me breathless,
slave and free all at once.

(The chorus splits)

FIRST CHORUS: Tonight destruction lets its voice
be heard. It shrieks misfortune,
it foretells an irreversible verdict.
Pitiful will struggling in the shadows!

SECOND CHORUS: They are in a game that has already been played,
dice that have long been rolling
on a table in another house with another owner.
Pitiful will struggling in the shadows!

CHORUS: The arena ready, spears raised,
reins tense, gazes fixed on the other,
destruction blows in their chests,
ruins, eyes blinded
by a single feeling, by a single idea,
by a mirror where their restless faces appear.
Brothers that gouge with their own nails
and charge against themselves, deranged.

(The chorus splits)

FIRST CHORUS: Who will triumph? Who will lose?

SECOND CHORUS: What pierced body will fall to the ground?

CHORUS:

(With alternating voices)

Iron, try your luck tonight!
Blaze, blind arbiter of our future.
Either Eteocles enters or Polynices enters.
Choose, iron, we hang from your thread.
You disregard our desire and our cause:
you gleam only to the fire of the torches.
Iron, try your luck tonight!
Point to who will occupy the silent earth
when your brilliance is put out in his flesh.
Nothing matters to you: you only vibrate to the air.
You are energy, steel, fist, chance.
Who do you condemn, who do you absolve?
From whom does death want his blood
to breath, scattered and condemned?
Blood curdled and black, the blood
of fratricide, who will wash away your marks
and dress his body?
Who will offer in his name
a sacrifice of expiation?
After this misery, sisters,
what other will come?
What will misfortune leave over Thebes?
Open and show your dark breast!
By giving us evidence, teach us to resist.

(The rumble of the siege begins again)

Friends, the war again, now
and always the war.
The spears are raised, the chariots are running,
death is unfolding its pavilion.
What long expiation!
But where is the fault? What is it?
We wanted nothing other than to live,
to inhabit the earth and divide its bread,
and we engender hatred and vengeance,
resentful eyes, lips of rancor,
emblems and shields and echoing arrows.
How the night falls over us!
Voracious hands let the shade loose.
Dark waves release their fingers,
rancor coughs up its black spit.
Night with its hands lays siege to the city.
Shadowy hands search for us, hands
after loot, after power, dreaming
of reigning over men.
Oh madness, when will your stinging end.

(They grab the weapons and start the dance. There is no music other than the ongoing sound of war, and from time to time, the clashing of the weapons, which they make with their mouths.)

What husband did we lose, what brother, what friend?
Which of our sons will return?
Upright in every dwelling, with impatient
lips, with rabid pain,
we wait. We are struck by the faces
that left, the glint of teeth,
the quick steps, the door that closes
on farewells and makes backs vanish.
And suddenly that door opens
and gives us back ash and armor.
We would trade it all for death.
Oh madness, when will your stinging end.

CHORUS 1: Friends, I know war.

CHORUS 2: Friends, I know war.

CHORUS 3: When the ships returned
from the war in Troy,

CHORUS 4: from the war in Africa,

CHORUS 1: from the war in Asia,

CHORUS 2: I left my house very early
to greet my son.

CHORUS 5: I arrived at the sea.

CHORUS 3: There was the fleet, their sails
furled, oars
motionless in the water.

CHORUS 1: I heard laughter, lament, orders,
and great coffers of gold passed by.[4]

CHORUS 4: I was at the port for hours,
feverish with the sea air.

CHORUS 5: It was already night when all
the ships stood empty,
and my son had not come down.

CHORUS 1: And my son had not come down.

CHORUS 2: The son that it took me so much
time to raise.

CHORUS 4: Like a little tree in the countryside,
like a lamb

CHORUS 3: Like all that’s worth something in life,     

CHORUS 5: He bloomed slowly                           

CHORUS 1: And still died                                
from a single blow.

CHORUS 4: I looked for him everywhere,
calling for him, calling for him.

CHORUS 3: I returned on foot from the sea.

CHORUS 5: I was running, calling for him, calling for him.

CHORUS 2: Oh, I felt guilty, friends.

CHORUS 1: I let him leave.

CHORUS 4: I let him leave.

CHORUS 3: And now,
if suddenly he came back from the dead,

CHORUS 5: I would not have
the courage to look him in the face.

CHORUS 1: Friends, I know war.

CHORUS: Spear against spear.        
Shield against shield.
The wind of war rises.
What will happen outside?
Who wins?
Who loses?
Soon the spies will arrive.
Polyphontes against Capaneus.
Lasthenes against Amphiaraus.
Bloodied crests.
Dead horses.
Arrows that fly and blind.
Actor, Parthenopeus.
Names, bodies that collapse.
What will happen outside?
Who will win?
I look for you, Hippomedon, I find you.
Melanippus, Melanippus, defeat Tydeus.
No one will cast me from this tower.
Forward, sisters, forward.
Don’t retreat, Eteoclus: death is yours.
Let the dance favor victory.
Smashed heads.
Away, away with destruction.
Our happiness comes with victory.
Forward!
The spies are entering!

(The dance ends abruptly. The noise of war has faded.)

SPY 1: Thebans, good cheer:
the city is saved!
The vows were fulfilled.

SPY 2: Those threats
of arrogant men
crashed to earth.
Thebes now grows calm.

SPY 1: The towers standing,
the ramparts intact,
the gates strong!

SPY 2: We knew how to place men
capable of defending them.

SPY 1: Soon they will enter, women.
Victory gives them back.
Recite their names.

CHORUS: Lasthenes and Melanippus.

SPY 1: Actor and Polyphontes.

SPY 2: Hyperbius and Megareus.

CHORUS: Names of our blood!

SPIES: Names of Thebes!

CHORUS: Names of our sons!
We speak of six gates.
We speak of six men.
What about the seventh?

SPY 2: At six gates
we were the victors.

CHORUS: What are you saying?
What do you mean?

SPY 1: Destruction
at the seventh gate
reserved victory for itself.

CHORUS: What calamity
sweeps over the city?

SPY 2: The city is saved.

CHORUS: But the brothers…
What! Who?
You frighten me!

SPY 1: Recover
your spirits and listen.

CHORUS: Oh misery!
I guess at this evil.
Which of the two
has died?[5]

SPY 1: They shed their blood
one against the other.

CHORUS: Eteocles, Polynices,
they came to this!
Say it all
even though
it is cruel to hear.

SPY 1: They wounded
one other
dying
at each other’s hand.

CHORUS: With brotherly hands
they tore out life.
For both
the same destiny            
was waiting.

SPY 2: Dressed in their armor,
they were resplendent and serene.

SPY 1: “Gods of my father,” exclaimed Polynices,
“grant me the death of my brother.
I want his blood on my victorious sword-hand.
Let him pay for his ambition and my exile.”

SPY 2: “Let my victorious spear
sink into the breast of Polynices
and kill him for attacking his country
and for not understanding justice.”

SPY 1: And they charged at each other full-speed
sending off lightning bolts as they joined in battle,
their lips full of foam.

SPY 2: Sparks leapt from their spears.

SPY 1: Their shields moved quickly,
blocking the blow of the metal blades.

SPY 2: Agile, they stole flesh from death.

SPY 1: Suddenly Eteocles tripped
and offered his adversary a clear target:
Polynices sunk the spear into his leg.

SPY 2: And Eteocles, clenching his teeth with pain,
tried to strike his brother in the shoulder
but the spear broke and left him unarmed.

SPY 1: He retreats, and throwing a stone splits
Polynice’s spear down the center.

SPY 2: And he rips the spear
from his leg without a sound.

SPY 1: Now the fight is even.

SPY 2: So they bring out their swords.

SPY 1: Their bodies come closer.

SPY 2: The shields clash.

SPY 1: And suddenly Polynices falls to the ground,
gushing blood: Eteocles’ sword
is in his stomach nailed up to the ribs.

SPY 2: “With my own sword you kill me.
That and your hand close the world for me.”

SPY 1: Eteocles approaches. He pants. He drags
his leg. He leans over his brother
to take away his arms.

SPY 2: But with a trembling hand, touched
by death, Polynices grabs
his sword and lodges it
in his brother’s liver.

SPY 1: They both fall, they roll together.

SPY 2: Eteocles, a horrible rattle
twisting in his chest, lifts his hand
and bids farewell to his men.

SPY 1: He cannot speak.
He gushes blood and spits.

SPY 2: “Who are you now, Eteocles?[6]
I no longer recognize you.
I cannot hate or love you.
Where are you? Close my eyes.”

SPY 1: And both closed each other’s eyes.

CHORUS: And now should we rejoice,
and now should we celebrate
with jubilant voices
the salvation of the city?
Or will we mourn these unfortunates
who could not understand each other?
What separates them? What army, foreign
and dark, splits our homeland
and the paternal house in two?
Who pushes aside memories,
transforms faces,
and separates them forever?
We wanted our work to
unite us with equal ties,
and Polynices cut them with
blood and steel!

SPIES: Things to be celebrated
with joy and with grief!
The city saved: the body
of its defender dissolves
in the earth. The work
completed, death enters.

(They exit)

CHORUS: Would it not have been better to stop and think?
Would it not have been better to return victorious
and govern peacefully, with caution and greater justice?
Should I perhaps lament Polynice’s fate?
Remember the evils of exile?
Will death purify his crime against Thebes?
Oh stubborn, stubborn, stubborn.
I break into funeral chants for you both.
No one will reproach our tenderness
before he who perishes in error.
Later, Polynices, we will fulfill our duty.
You are no longer our enemy; you are a man who is dead.

(The bodies of Eteocles and Polynices enter)

CHORUS:

(With alternating voices)

Now they are here. Now it’s not a matter of words.
Reality strikes like a flaming sword.
Twin misfortune, twin solitude.
Oh, what a strange night: mixing
misery with joy,
arrogance with justice,
leaving us with gratitude and pity.

(The chorus shows with their bodies and voices, without bland stylizations, the movement of the funeral boat, the oars striking the water, etc.)

Friends, the wind of lamentations is rising.
Their heads knock to the rhythm [7]
of the beating oars
so that the favorable sound spreads,
and the ship with black sails,
with its two pilgrims,
enters the kingdom of death.

(The chorus divides.)

FIRST CHORUS: Your voices did not persuade me
or break my tribulations.
Who will lead us now?
What will become of your work?

SECOND CHORUS: No one has dressed you, Polynices,
or washed your body.
No one wants to dress
an enemy.

FIRST CHORUS: How is it that on your behalf,
through your work, the homeland was
to be delivered to foreign ambition! No one
will sing such a lovely feat.

SECOND CHORUS: You have your weapons on, Eteocles,
and it’s good that it’s that way.
Thebes is ready to bury you
with honor and sorrow,
and it’s good that it’s that way.

FIRST CHORUS: The air is calm now,
quiet, without noise, without harm.
Your generous blood
makes the air more pure.

SECOND CHORUS: The towers of the city
draw closer
and innocent they shine.

FIRST CHORUS: Hate vanishes
in this motionless body,
dies in this mute mouth.
It leaves us free, without inheritance.

SECOND CHORUS: Both received their share.
The share that destiny and their will
had reserved for them,
and a bottomless richness
beneath their bodies:
the earth.

FIRST CHORUS: Soon will come the spring,
the rain, moving the earth
with tenderness,
and new leaves will show themselves
over the blood, friends.
The sacrifice completed,
open the doors.

(The Champions and the Spies enter. The funeral procession is organized. The Champions and the Spies place themselves next to the body of Eteocles. Alone, to one side, lies the body of Polynices.)

CHORUS: With you the sun rises, Thebans.
We are sad and joyous to see one another
again. But we will not be ashamed
tomorrow to embrace each other and eat the lamb.

POLYPHONTES:

(He approaches the body of Eteocles)

We will not disturb you with laments and tears.
Farewell, Eteocles. We cannot blame you:
your work is within us. We shall continue
this justice that does not regret or stumble.
For you, a new order will reign, while you sleep.
For that, tomorrow we can eat the lamb.

(They lift the body of Eteocles. Funeral chants ring. The procession slowly leaves.)

POLYPHONTES:

(To some women)

You there, bury him.
We will have for him the pity
that he did not have for Thebes.

(While they cover the body of Polynices, the sun rises.)

Appendix I: The UNEAC Declaration

The following is a translation of the UNEAC preface to the 1968 publication of Seven Against Thebes. It has been shortened, removing the extended discussion of Heberto Padilla’s Fuera del juego.

The UNEAC Declaration

On October 28th of this year, there was a joint meeting between the executive committee of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) and the foreign and national jury members it selected for the literary competition that, as in previous years, it had hosted. The purpose of said meeting was to jointly examine the prizes awarded to two works: in poetry, one titled Fuera del juego [Out of the Game]by Heberto Padilla, and in theatre, Seven Against Thebes by Antón Arrufat. From the perspective of the Union’s executive committee, both contained controversial points of a political nature that had not been taken into consideration in delivering this judgment. After a very wide-ranging debate that lasted several hours, in which every attendee spoke with complete autonomy, the following resolutions were unanimously adopted:

  1. To publish the prize-winning works by Heberto Padilla in poetry and Antón Arrufat in theatre.
  2. The executive committee would insert a note in both books expressing its disagreement with them on the grounds that they are ideologically opposed to our Revolution.
  3. The votes of the jury members regarding the disputed works would be included, as well as a statement of the discrepancies maintained by some of said jury members with the executive committee of UNEAC.

In compliance, then, with the above, the executive committee of UNEAC would by this means make known its utter disagreement with the prizes awarded to the works of poetry and theatre that, along with their authors, were mentioned at the beginning of this text. The leadership of UNEAC does not renounce the right or the duty to oversee the maintenance of the principles informing our Revolution, one of which is without doubt its defense, both from its declared and open enemies, and from those—and they are the most dangerous—that use more subtle and duplicitous means to take action.

The Fourth Literary Competition of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union took place at a moment when certain phenomena typical of the ideological struggle, present in every profound social revolution, reached a singular intensity within our country. Currents of ideas, positions, and attitudes, whose roots are still nourished by the society abolished by the Revolution, developed and grew, subtly adapting to the changes and variations imposed by a revolutionary process without accommodations or compromises.

The Cuban Revolution’s respect for the freedom of expression, shown by the facts, cannot be called into doubt. And the Writers and Artists Union, considering that these phenomena would progressively disappear, erased by economic and social developments that would be reflected in the superstructure, authorized the publication within its catalogue of literary texts whose ideology, on the surface or underlying, at times departed widely from or opposed the ends of our revolution.

This tolerance, which aimed to unite all literary and artistic creators, seems to have been interpreted as a sign of weakness, encouraging the intensification of a struggle whose ultimate objective could be none other than an effort to undermine the indestructible ideological resolve of the revolutionaries.

In the last months we have published various books that, to a greater or lesser degree and by diverse routes, pursued this same goal. It was clear that the decision to respect the freedom of expression, up to the very point at which it starts to be freedom for counterrevolutionary expression, was being interpreted as an emerging climate of boundless liberalism, always the result of the abandonment of principles. And this interpretation is unacceptable, as no one is unaware that the Cuban Revolution’s deepest and most beautiful attribute is precisely its respect and unwavering loyalty to the principles that are the profound root of its life.

As we said, in two of the six competing literary genres, Poetry and Theatre, the Union’s leadership found that the prizes had fallen upon works constructed on an ideological basis openly opposed to the thought of the Revolution.

***

The Cuban Revolution does not propose to eliminate critique, nor does it demand praise songs or apologetic hymns. It does not purport that intellectuals should be a supporting chorus with no standards. The accomplishments of the Revolution are its best defense before history, but the intellectual that situates himself critically toward society should know that, morally, he also has an obligation to contribute to building the revolution.

In approaching contemporary society analytically, one needs to consider that the problems of our epoch are not abstract: they have names, and they are concretely located. One must specify what one opposes, and in the name of what one fights. Colonialism is not the same as struggles for national liberation; imperialism is not the same as countries that are economically subjugated; Cuba is not the same as the United States; fascism is not the same as communism, nor is the dictatorship of the proletariat at all similar to Latin American military dictatorships.

***

As for the work of Antón Arrufat, Seven Against Thebes, one need not be an extremely suspicious reader to establish more or less subtle approximations between the fictitious reality staged by the play and the no less fictitious reality that imperialist propaganda disseminates to the world, proclaiming that it represents the reality of revolutionary Cuba. It is by this means that the “besieged city” of this version of Aeschylus can be identified with the “captive island” spoken of by John F. Kennedy. All the elements that Yankee imperialism wished were Cuban realities are in this play, from the people terrified by an approaching invader (the mercenaries of the Bay of Pigs were convinced that they would find this mass terror paving the way for them), up to the anguish concerning war that the city’s inhabitants (the Chorus) describe as the greatest of all possible horrors, implicitly making us think that it would be best to avoid the horror of a fratricidal struggle, of a war between brothers. Here also there is a fictitious reality: those who abandon their homeland and take shelter in the house of the enemy, to conspire against her and prepare to attack her, cease being brothers and become traitors. Against the turbulent backdrop of a terrified people, Eteocles and Polynices engage in dialogue with the same level of fraternal dignity.

Now then, who do these books benefit? Do they benefit our revolution, slandered in this way, wounded by such means of betrayal?

Obviously not. Our revolutionary conviction allows us to assert that such poetry and such theatre benefit our enemies, and their authors are the artists that they need to feed their Trojan horse till the time when imperialism decides to put into practice its policy of direct military aggression against Cuba. The commentary that this situation is eliciting in certain quarters of the Yankee and Western European press is proof of this, as is the defense, sometimes open and sometimes implied, that such press has started to generate. This is “in the game,” not outside of it, as we already know, but it is useful to repeat it; we must not forget it.

Ultimately this comes down to an ideological battle, a political confrontation in the middle of a revolution in progress, which no one can stop. Not only creators already known for their craft but also young talents emerging on our island will take their part in it, as, doubtlessly, will those who work in other fields of production and whose judgment is essential within an integrated society.

To sum up: the leadership of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union rejects the ideological content of the prize-winning book of poems and work of theatre.

It is possible that this measure could indicate to our enemies, declared or hidden, and to our confused friends, a sign of increased rigidity. On the contrary, we understand it to be entirely healthy for the Revolution, because openly declaring the ideological struggle indicates that Revolution is being deepened and strengthened.

Executive Committee of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union

Havana, November 15, 1968

“Year of the Heroic Guerilla”

The Theatre Jury’s Statement

The Theatre Jury for the Competition of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union, composed of Ricardo Salvat (Spain), Adolfo Gutkin (Argentina), Juan Larco (Peru), Raquel Revuelta and José Triana (Cuba), having met at UNEAC’s headquarters on this date, has decided to award the prize to the play The Seven Against Thebes, subtitled “A Role of the Dice,” with the following votes: three in favor and two against, which the members of the jury will justify in the attached pages; and to unanimously award a mention to the play KRAK!

We also recommend, by a majority of votes, that the following plays be staged by theatre groups:

The Little Curtain

Sleep My Child, Sleep My Love, Sleep Little Pieces of My Heart

The Delegates Arrive at Dawn

The Bird Paints

These works are not listed according to any hierarchy or sense of priority.

Signing in accordance with this statement are:

Adolfo Gutkin

Ricardo Salvat

Juan Lorco

José Traina

Raquel Revuelta

Dissenting Votes of Jury Members Revuelta and Larco

We, the members of the jury signing this declaration, have believed it necessary to place on record that our disagreement with the prize-winning play is of a political-ideological nature.

We are in favor of a critical, anti-dogmatic theatre, free of conservative prejudices. But we cannot for that reason give our vote to a play that maintains, in our view, ambiguous positions regarding the fundamental problems facing the Cuban Revolution.

Raquel Revuelta

Juan Larco

Appendix II: Leopoldo Ávila’s “Antón Goes to War”

Following the controversy over the UNEAC prizes, five articles appeared in the military magazine Verde Olivo, or Olive Green, under the pseudonym Leopoldo Ávila. These articles called for a new, more rigidly politicized program for intellectual activity, and two specifically targeted Heberto Padilla and Antón Arrufat. Ávila has never been conclusively identified, but Ambrosio Fornet speculates that he may have been Luis Pavón Tamayo, who was the Minister of Culture from 1971 to 1976, a period often referred to as the “quinquenio gris,” or “gray five years.”

Ávila, Leopoldo. “Antón Goes to War.” Verde Olivo. November 17, 1968. 16-18.

For some time now, Antón Arrufat has been known in literary circles for his nonsense, his shifting character, and finally a series of big and small things of a different nature that are beside the point. What matters is that he is also and above all known as the author of more than one of those “strange” poems that, if analyzed well, are not strange at all: they are simply and plainly hostile to the revolutionary process.

Antón is one of the most versatile members of the Lunes group. He started to make his name in the magazine Ciclón, where alongside some serious articles (such as Portuondo’s essay on Villena) one always found that tempestuous attitude that Feo and Piñera (the flashy editors), alongside Cabrera, gave and give to many of their subjects. Later he was in the United States, returning to Cuba in 1959 to join the aforementioned group. As they had paper and a publisher, Antón flooded the pages of the magazine and his little books were edited with stubborn frequency. Even though his poetry did not reach the level of great poetry, nor his theatre that of great theatre, nor his short stories that of great prose, Antón had friends. And that was sufficient.

The problem is that now Antón has gone to war.

But there are antecedents that are worth remembering. From Lunes he moved to the magazine Casa. There he published his people widely. He topped it all off by publishing the poem “Envío” by José Triana, which concerned sexual inversion described in the crudest detail. Antón left the magazine, dedicating himself to advising theatre groups and other literary activities. Three years later, he sent a play to the Union contest. On the jury, the vote of José Triana, alongside that of two foreigners (one of whom, at least, was completely ignorant of the Cuban situation and Antón’s situation), awarded it the prize, against the worthy dissenting votes of Raquel Revuelta and Juan Larcos on ideological grounds.

The Seven Against Thebes is Antón Arrufat’s declaration of war. If until now he was known for his ambiguous little poems, now he wants to be as clear as water. The result, logically, is murky enough.

The subject matter of an ancient Greek tragedy is this time the means of delivering a counter-revolutionary argument. This is the story of two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices. Eteocles governs the City (Thebes) and defends it against the aggression of Polynices, who, backed by a foreign army, lays siege to it. Eteocles promises the people villas and castles if they triumph, and even to “govern with greater justice.” The chorus, meanwhile, doubtfully proclaims:

“What crime did we commit? What freedom will we lose?” or other obviously devious, allusive, and hesitant things. The spies describe the invading army as thirsty for power and land-owning. There is a fleeting third character, Capaneus, who is not tied to anything in the world, neither family nor friends. He distrusts everyone. He only loves purity. He wants to burn the City and the chorus does not like him for being a “denier of life.” Here one must pause in Antón’s war. The chorus comments:

“Perish he who divides men
into the pure and the impure! And proud of
his purity spills blood, invades
the city and launches persecution.”

The City, under siege by the enemy, stops, meager and bereft, hearing the ceaseless echoing of the languages of hate. Polynices comes to demand the return of his homeland and his father’s inheritance. The meeting between the two brothers is the most poisonous part of the play. Eteocles reproaches Polynices for coming with foreign troops. Polynices responds that Eteocles is a hypocrite that knows how to pretend in front of the people. Polynices offers a truce, tries to persuade Eteocles that he will achieve nothing with a barefoot people grasping old weapons. “We are a barefoot people, we are a crazy people, but we will not surrender the city,” argues Eteocles.

But Polynices—who comes with the enemy army—has been unjustly exiled. And Eteocles is guilty of governing the paternal house alone. If he reproaches Polynices for coming with enemy weapons, the invader’s reasons are to “restore lawful right.” Polynices says to Eteocles that he believes everyone who opposes him is a murderer. It was Eteocles who divided the bread and drew close to the poor, but “he did not pillage the house for himself, but for others, his order is built on disorder, his justice on injustice.”

Do we need to go on with this “Greek” fable?

If we must go on, allow us to rush a little. Here is Polynice’s lament over exile:

“Remember the evils of exile:
drifting through strange lands, writing     
and waiting for letters, while faces,
names, columns come undone in memories.
Here is everything that I am, and that I love.
Against my will I make war.”

If we must go on, we’ll say that the chorus underlines the arrogance of Eteocles who refuses to surrender the city to the brother who comes with enemy troops. And it recommends not spilling the brother’s blood, and when Eteocles dies (both brothers die), the Chorus cannot understand the death of the defender of the City. After all, Eteocles and Polynices, hero and traitor, are for Antón one and the same.

“Terror, terror!” cry the women. “We wanted nothing other than to live, to inhabit the earth and [to divide its] the bread, and we engender hatred and vengeance.” “We would trade everything for death,” etc.

Enough. Or more? The chorus comments, “Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn.” “Would it not have been better to stop and think?” And Antón includes, in addition to a strange and somber army that divides the paternal house in two… Eteocles could have “governed peacefully, with caution and greater justice.”

Here, we see, is Antón in all-out war. One need not be very imaginative to realize what he means—what he is saying—in this dramatic work. But if there are doubts, the daring Antón, the skittish Antón, the fanciful Antón clears them up with an opening note, taken from Alfonso Reyes, in which he responds to someone who reproaches him for the subject matter of one of his plays, “Iphigenia,” being foreign. “Name Iphigenia Juana González, and you would already be satisfied,” proposed Reyes. Which is to say that Antón helps one understand his fable in all of its vile, wretched content.

What is this man thinking? That we are going to celebrate his joke? That we are going to stage his play: let Piñera or Rodríguez Feo come out to shower him with praise? No, our own war is a real one, it is not a game. It is not a struggle between brothers that has been spurred on by arrogant and ambitious people; it is a struggle against imperialism with no possible truce, and he who comes to take the City is not going to find weepers who say “stubborn, stubborn, stubborn” nor that ask what freedom we will lose. But rather a people that knows how to defend, at any cost, the freedom that it has, and that will win.

This devious fabulist, up till now, never dared so much. His most audacious act was that publication of “Envío,” of which we spoke at the beginning. But now he speaks and clears things up. If in some other moment he has tried to publish other counter-revolutionary things, someone always—with good intentions, to see if Antón would change—gave him friendly advice. And Antón held onto his little poem. But now of his own account and at his own risk he goes to war with armour and all. To war against the Revolution. And so no. No little groups that take this work abroad with the Revolution’s money or flights to European capitals. Here we do not celebrate insolence, even when it comes from such an insignificant man. Here we do not applaud infamy, because the Revolution was made against infamy. Here we do not raise pedestals to lies because, because [sic] the Revolution was made with truth. And besides, do not hold the people in such disdain, do not believe that the people will not understand your crude and pseudo-aristocratic attacks. The people understand them and reject them. His insolence will not go unnoticed while he laughs at the people from behind the curtain. This will not happen again.

Stay quiet, take your pills, calm down. But please, at this point, do not come with your shameless attacks. This is no time for messing around.


[1] The 2007 version tends to either reattribute lines where the spies express fear to the chorus or delete them.

[2] The 2007 version clarifies Eteocles’ reaction here: Thinking it is his brother, he shakes, startled.

[3] In 1968, this reads “Soy el Derecho,” whereas in 2007, Arrufat adds “Soy la Ley y el Derecho,” or “I am Law and Right.”

[4] In the 2007 version, two lines are added here. Chorus 3: None were for us. Chorus 4: None stopped at our door.

[5] The 2007 version reworks this part of the scene. The Chorus continues: Say it quickly,/even though/it is cruel to hear. Spy 1 responds: Recover/your spirits and listen. The following 16 lines are removed, beginning again with “Dressed in their armor.” The largest change between editions, this one serves to generate dramatic tension by withholding the information that both brothers had died.

[6]The 2007 version clarifies the brothers’ final moments. Spy 2: “Who are you now, Eteocles?/Where are you? Brother, close my eyes.” Spy 1: After a silence, Eteocles’ fingers/closed Polynices’ eyes. Spy 2: Then, before dying, Polynices lowered/Eteocles’ eyelids. Spy 1: And so, one to the other,/ they closed each other’s eyes.

[7] These six lines are changed in the 2007 version. They read: The boats move, the oars are moving./What do their eyes see now/what laurels, waters, nameless birds?/Turn around, Eteocles. See this hand wave farewell./Friends, the winds of goodbyes are rising./The boat detaches from our shore./May the favourable sound spread,/may the black sails swell/may the pilgrims enter the kingdom of death.

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