Anyone wondering how violence became a dominant theme in movies and television has only to look back in time for possible explanations -- as far back as the fifth century B.C.

Or wander over to the George Mason University Theatre, which is showing the Greek tragedy "Antigone," the third part of Sophocles' trilogy on the House of Thebes.

The play has plenty of violence. But unlike many of its modern counterparts, this tragedy has a moral, humor that is really funny, and lines worth remembering. In some cases, the acting is forgettable.

The royalty at Thebes is not what you would call an ordinary family. The king, Oedipus Rex, was a nice boy who unknowingly married his mother Jocasta, a tragedy that forced Oepidus into self-exile and death and prompted Jocasta to commit suicide.

His two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, agree to share the throne their father left them, each taking a year at a time as ruler. The plan worked beautifully -- the first year. When it came time to switch, Eteocles wouldn't budge and Polynices came to get him with an army.

The brothers fight, deal each other fatal blows and then (as only the Greeks can) reaffirm their bond of brotherhood. The only remaining family members are Antigone and Ismene, sisters of the dead combatants and daughters of Oedipus' rather unusual marriage to his mother.

Creon, Oedipus' uncle/brother-in-law, takes over as ruler of Thebes. He buries Eteocles but leaves Polynices' body to rot -- a particularly nasty edict in fifth century Greece, where it was believed that happiness in the next life was contingent on certain burial rituals.

Antigone is determined to bury her brother, thereby ensuring her own death. She is principled. She is obedient to higher laws than those of man. She is a fanatic.

Her sister tries to talk her out of the deed ("a hopeless task should never be attempted") but Antigone will not be dissuaded. ("I owe the dead a larger allegiance than I owe the living.")

Thereafter, all the play's characters try to talk Creon out of ordering Antigone's death. But the old man, full of pride, "reasons" his way out of every argument.

Those arguments are wonderful to 20th-century ears. Ismene tries a plea of insanity ("suffering confuses her mind"). Creon's son, betrothed to Antigone, tries simple policies ("The people murmur against you"). Creon clings to his machismo ("If this goes unpunished, I am no man -- she is!") and his age ("Should one as old as I take commands from one as young as you?").

The only argument that works on the old curmudgeon is a prophecy of doom, a "save Antigone or you're ruined" cry from the local blind prophet-for-profit, Tiresias.

Of course it comes too late. Creon rushes off to the cave where Antigone is being kept, and finds her dead by hanging. Creon's son is there too, cursing his father and stabbing himself to death.

This news reverberates back to the palace, where Creon's wife reacts by cursing Creon and killing herself. Creon returns to a body-strewn stage and announces his intention to kill himself in simple justice to all these dead people.

They don't call it tragedy for nothing.

All that's left is the omnipresent Chorus to put the moral on our plate:

"There is no happiness where there is no wisdom;

"No wisdom but in submission to the gods.

"Big words are always punished,

"And proud men in old age learn to be wise."

The Chorus, originally the focus of all Greek theater, plays a more complementary role in Sophocles' plays. Part narrators, part moralizers, part pure entertainment, the three Chorus members form a subplot that underscores the play's deeper meanings for the audience.

GMU guest director Sarah Buxton played choreographer with this group. With a kind of "Martha Graham School of Greek Chorus," she has the three swaying and pounding and swaggering on stage in ways that are great fun to watch. The Chorus (Laura Morris, Caroline Chryst and Josephe Dooley) is terrific.

Other aspects of the play aren't so terrific. The set, designed by Mark Bachman, has a disturbing way of looking like a giant Goodyear tire tread. And some of the acting is college hokey.

Antigone (Sara Gregg) is okay, full of a deep-voiced agony entirely appropriate to the play. There's also a nice comedy bit by Polynices' guard, played by Kevin Hagood.

As for Creon (Joseph E. Cunningham) and Ismene (Sherry A. Beall), well, they have nifty costumes -- nicely distracting from their self-conscious acting.

But who cares? Even badly acted Sophocles is better than beautiful banalities, and the GMU production, on the whole, is fairly good.

Sophocles' "Antigone," produced by George Mason University Theatre, 8 p.m. today through Saturday, admissions $1.50 to $3. Call 691-7950 for more information.