Which prisoner is the hero?

Lantern's "The Island' (2nd review)

5 minute read
U.R. (left) and Frank X: Sophocles, by contrast, had it easy.
U.R. (left) and Frank X: Sophocles, by contrast, had it easy.
On its surface, The Island is a simple play about civil disobedience. Two prisoners of South Africa's Apartheid have been banished to Robben Island, a prison some four miles off the country's coast, for crimes against the state.

Winston (played by the actor U.R.) has been sentenced to life imprisonment for publicly burning his "pass book," which black South Africans were required to carry. John (played by Frank X) is serving a ten-year term for belonging to a banned organization.

In their shared cell, Winston and John build a relationship based on their hatred of the state and their mutual willingness to challenge it. The state inadvertently strengthens their bond through the Sisyphus-like, meaningless hard labor imposed by the harsh and unseen senior guard they call "Hodoshe" (the word is Xhosa for a kind of maggot fly).

Their response will come in a version of Sophocles's Antigone performed before other prisoners, in which Winston will play the protagonist to John's King Creon.

Speaking through Antigone

Not coincidentally, Antigone concerns civil disobedience. Antigone's two brothers, on opposite sides in Thebes' civil war, have killed each other. Creon refuses to grant the rebellious brother the dignity of a burial, but Antigone honors both equally by interring them.

The furious Creon puts Antigone on trial and, following her frank admission of guilt, has her buried alive in an underground cell. (In the original, Antigone hastens the process by killing herself; her lover, Creon's son, follows suit.)

When Winston delivers Antigone's climactic last words, he speaks for himself as well: "Gods of Our Fathers! My Land! My home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honored those things to which honor belongs."

If the play-within-the-play provides the moral peak of The Island, the emotional climax occurs earlier, during the one shred of apparent good luck in the plot, when John learns that his ten-year sentence has been reduced to just three months more.

Countdown to freedom

Winston immediately perceives the isolation that will be his own fate. In an excessive show of excitement that hides his personal grief, he counts down John's remaining time of servitude: months becoming weeks, which soon will number only days until an actual moment of stepping on board the boat for home. Then he creates a tableau of John's return to an ordinary life: embraced by his ecstatic family, swilling a beer when he's thirsty, seeking out a prostitute when he's horny.

Pointedly, Winston will never enjoy such normality, as he realizes when he counts out his own prospects. "One," he says. We sit there, expecting more, but the word falls dying in the silence that follows. "One," he tries again, going nowhere. "One," he howls.

He can't play-act any more. He will pull himself together to get through Antigone, but he understands more deeply now what it means to be given a Sisyphean role that amounts to no more than a living death.

No risks for Sophocles

The difference between Antigone and The Island, of course, is that Sophocles didn't risk anything by writing Antigone. Athens was in its golden age and didn't feel threatened. Audience response to Antigone was so positive that Sophocles was given a respected place on an army council.

Athol Fugard, on the other hand, risked everything by writing The Island. For years before its first performance in 1973, the South African government was devising ever-crueler methods to dehumanize its black citizens.

Actors in Fugard's plays back then generally improvised their performances— because, without a script, the state lacked the evidence it needed to prosecute offenders in court.

Even so, it's difficult to imagine how the playwright and his accomplices— in The Island, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who originated the parts of John and Winston and are credited as the play's co-authors— escaped with their lives.

A better explanation

What relevance, you might ask, does a play extolling civil disobedience hold for a fat and comfortable country like ours— whose governments (federal, state, and local) are too dysfunctional and purposeless to genuinely oppress anyone? None— unless you discern the deeper moral drama in The Island.

When we first see John and Winston rehearsing Antigone, Winston insists that Antigone is innocent. John hammers him with the absurdity of a "not guilty" plea. It would force the state to prove her guilt, John says, and if it succeeded, its laws (especially the charge against Antigone) would seem validated.

But Antigone's defiance transcends legalistic questions of proof— of the mere marshaling of evidence and argument. She buried her brothers because it was the right thing to do. Only her full acceptance of responsibility for her act can preserve the purity of her moral choice.

The real hero

John, it turns out, endorses the state's privilege to control his life. By accepting its pardon, in effect he betrays the cause for which he was imprisoned.

Winston comes to understand this. He's in for life because he burned his passbook— but he shouldn't have had to carry a passbook in the first place. To such a totally arbitrary and unjust law, Winston refuses to yield.

The Island's allusions to the endless exertions of Sisyphus suggest that the world has no meaning; but if Winston's sentence is any less than life, his own existence is meaningless. He's not about to give that up, no matter the comfort he might then have.

So— what does it profit any of us to gain our freedom and comfort at the price of our souls? That's the passionate message that makes The Island surprisingly relevant to our time.♦

To read another review by Alaina Mabaso, click here.
To read a related comment by Jackie Atkins, click here.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

The Island. By Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona; Peter DeLaurier directed. Lantern Theater production through June 10, 2012 at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow St. (215) 829-0395 or www.lanterntheater.org.

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