My Last Visit with John Bennet

If a writer was having trouble with structure, John Bennet would recommend telling the story chronologically. It’s not original, but it works. So here goes. I went to Saugerties, New York, to visit John and his wife, Dana, three times earlier this year. The first was in April. John had learned that a student from Bard College was staging a production of Sophocles’ “Antigone” at Opus 40, a sculpture park on the site of an abandoned quarry. We were old friends and New Yorker colleagues, and he knew of my interest in all things Greek. “Come visit us for this in late April/early May,” he wrote.

Our friend Nancy Holyoke flew in from Wisconsin, also hoping to catch the Saugerties “Antigone,” and we drove up from New York City to the Catskills together. I can never believe that John commuted this distance daily, by bus—a good two and a half hours each way. His and Dana’s house had a hot tub on a second-floor balcony. Dana took care of a huge garden and went bushwhacking with friends in the mountains. John had an A.T.V. and used to ride down their long, bumpy driveway, dismount, and walk up Platte Clove Road—a good hike, uphill all the way—and then call Dana for a ride home.

John had not been feeling well for a while. He’d had knee-replacement surgery a few years ago, and then the pandemic hit, and he wasn’t getting a lot of exercise. As it happened, the play did not go forward that April weekend, but it was a beautiful time of year to be in the Catskills—fresh green unfurling at the tips of trees, magnolias blooming, rock faces seeping with snowmelt. We decided to check out Opus 40 anyway. It is a sculpture on a monumental scale, an earthwork in an old bluestone quarry created over the course of nearly forty years by Harvey Fite, who taught sculpture at Bard College from 1934 to 1969. Paths paved with stones from the quarry swirl in snail shapes up to platforms, terraces, and pedestals. At the center stands a monolith, like a natural obelisk. Fite did most of the work himself, using traditional quarrymen’s tools to lift and cut and fit the stones, the same type of stone that was shipped downriver for the sidewalks of New York. The stones are not cemented in place and feel a bit wobbly underfoot—not easy going for a person who is also a bit wobbly.

Later, at home, John held forth from his recliner, which he’d gotten after his knee surgery and which had a sort of ejector button that lifted him to a vertical position. He kept the TV remote on one arm of the chair and his pencil sharpener next to the other. He talked about his childhood in Texas, about his father, who became a drunk, and about getting invited to his uncle’s place in Connecticut as a boy. That was his first glimpse of a literary life—a home with magazines on the coffee table and a boat tied up to a dock outside the door. It could not have been easy to return to Texas, but that trip planted a seed.

“Antigone” was rescheduled for the weekend of May 14th, and I asked if I could come back. John wrote, “Weather says a few light scattered showers and poss a T storm or two on Sat. Said don’t change outdoor plans but be aware. So Zeus may call.” Wouldn’t that be stupendous, to have the heavens crack open at the climax of the play! He sent along a link to a podcast about “Antigone” hosted by Melvyn Bragg on the BBC program “In Our Time,” and chased down adaptations of the play to watch online and reviews of several recent productions. He’d written a paper on “Antigone” in college, which he was still proud of; in it, he’d used the term “power structure,” and his teacher was impressed.

The show was to begin at five-thirty in order to be over before dark. The setting was evocative: birdsong and scudding clouds at twilight, with the mountains for a backdrop. It reminded me of the Propylaea, the ceremonial entrance to the Acropolis in Athens. On our earlier visit, we had wondered where the stage would be and where the audience would sit, but now it was obvious: the spectators would occupy the part of the sculpture around the obelisk, reserving room for the actors (and a videographer) on the platforms and along the paths. John had been hoping to avoid hobbling up the shifting stones, and I would later feel compelled to remind him that this whole thing had been his idea. Dana brought along a lawn chair, and he sat on that while she and I took hard seats on a low stone wall, dangling our legs over the edge. We watched the ancient audience wind their way up the path with their picnics. There was no proper backstage, and student actors in robes and sandals mingled with the public. I noticed an older man in a rough tunic with a remote look in his eye, and took him for Creon.

The play had been translated into English by Francis Karagodins, a classics major at Bard, who comes from a Latvian background; the production at Opus 40 was his senior project. The show opened with the muffled sound of French horns from around the rocks. Antigone, played by a young woman with dark curly hair, entered and enjoined her sister Ismene to help her bury their brother Polyneices, killed in a war against Thebes. From the outset, Antigone is doomed. King Creon, her uncle, has forbidden anyone to bury Polyneices, on pain of death. Sophocles had no trouble with structure.

Creon came on, wearing blue and looking like a combination of high priest, business executive, and space alien. A guard entered, delivering sentiments that go back at least as far as Sophocles but have become widely diffused as “Don’t kill the messenger.” Antigone was arrested and sentenced to a horrible death: she was to be immured, walled in, which, when you’re sitting in a quarry, sounds like a particularly chilling fate.

The biggest shock in the play—at least for someone who, unlike John Bennet, does not study beforehand—was the entrance of Tiresias, the man in the rough tunic. While the other performers all seemed afraid of stumbling on the paving stones (Fite actually died of a fall in his own quarry), Tiresias alone, blind and urgent, had a motive to place each foot squarely on the earth. The bodies piled up. Offstage, Antigone hanged herself; Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s betrothed, killed himself; and Creon learned that his grief-stricken wife, Eurydice, had also done herself in. Soon, Antigone was peeking around a stone, waiting for her curtain call, and a huge collective feeling of relief rose, maybe for the human spirit, maybe for the miraculous completion of a young man’s senior project. (The rain held off, but the only other scheduled performance, the next day, was cancelled on account of Zeus.)

One puzzling thing that we discussed on the way back to the car was the treatment of the choral odes, which were sung not in English or ancient Greek but in an unidentified tongue (there was no program) and an unfamiliar musical idiom. It was beautiful and sonorous, like something heard in church, but we had no idea what it meant. (The music turned out to be Georgian folk song.) “Look what we missed,” John said the next morning, browsing in “The Greek Plays,” a collection edited by Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm, which I had brought him as a gift. He meant the first ode, sung by the chorus of Theban elders, one of the most beautiful passages in literature. I know it in the translation of Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, which was adapted by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson for the musical “The Gospel at Colonus,” in which it is sung by a gospel quartet.

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