JEAN ANOUILH 1944
Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is an adaptation of Sophocles’ tragic play of the same title. Written in 1942, when Nazi forces occupied France, the story revolves around the conflict between the idealist Antigone and her rigid uncle, Creon, over the proper burial of Antigone’s brother, Polynices. The play was also interpreted to represent the struggle of the French Resistance movement against the forces of the Vichy government during the height of Nazi occupation.
Antigone is one in a series of Anouilh’s plays based on Greek mythology. Disillusioned and shocked by the events of World War II, he also wrote Eurydice (1942) and Médée (first performed in 1937; published 1946), which were also adapted versions of the original Greek classics. These plays explored the role of destiny in people’s lives.
Often considered his masterpiece, Antigone cemented Anouilh’s reputation as a dramatist. The play was an instant success when it was first staged in Paris in 1944.
Born in a small town near Bordeaux, France, in 1910, Jean Anouilh was raised in a middle-class family. As a young man, his family moved to Paris, where Jean attended secondary school and law school. He abandoned law, however, for a brief career in advertising. In 1931 he worked as a secretary to the actor, director, and producer Louis Jouvet. This experience inspired him to begin writing his own plays.
Anouilh served briefly in World War II; by the end of the war, however, he returned to Paris, disillusioned and distraught over the Nazi occupation of France. His work during this period, such as his well-known work, Antigone, was a thinly-veiled attack against all French people that collaborated with the Germans.
His work is divided roughly into two categories: his early, dark plays that explore hypocrisy and evil; and the later lighthearted work that incorporates elements of humor or fantasy.
Anouilh’s work has not enjoyed wide popularity in the United States. Critics often disparage his plays as overly verbose and too intellectual; however, in his native France, he has been called “the most distinguished playwright in France, the most literate, the most interesting, the most controversial.” He died of a heart attack in 1987.
At the play opens, the chorus offers brief introductions to the play’s main characters: the beautiful Ismene; her sister Antigone; Antigone’s lover and cousin Haemon; and Ismene’s uncle and Haemon’s father, Creon.
The chorus also chronicles the fight between Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polynices—a momentous battle that occurred before the play’s opening—over control of the region of Thebes. After the brothers killed each other, Creon assumed control of the throne. To restore order, he has ordered a grand funeral for one brother, Eteocles. Considered a treasonous rebel for challenging his brother’s rule, Polynices is left to rot as a warning to other rebels.
Antigone and Her Nurse
The nurse discovers Antigone sneaking back into the house at four in the morning. When confronted, Antigone merely reveals that she has had a rendezvous. Ismene enters and debates with Antigone the wisdom of going against Creon’s edict to bury Polynices. Out of fear, Ismene sides with convention and tries to convince her idealistic, determined sister to give up her quest to bury their brother properly. The penalty of violating Creon’s edict will be death.
Ismene does not realize that Antigone has just returned from burying Polynices’ corpse—the deed is already done. They are interrupted by the arrival of Haemon.
Antigone and Haemon
Antigone apologizes to Haemon for a recent spat, then tells him that she will “never, never be able to marry” him. Shocked, Haemon exits.
Ismene enters and reminds her sister that Polynices “was a bad brother” who “was like an enemy in the house.” She insists that this is Creon’s affair and not theirs; in this way Ismene frames the central conflict from one between allegiance to the state versus allegiance to family, and it shifts Antigone’s motivation from a sense of duty to a sense of self-fulfillment. Antigone announces to Ismene that her warnings are too late: she has already buried Polynices. Antigone exits, and Ismene follows.
Arrest of Antigone
Creon is informed by one of his guards that Polynices’ corpse has been ritually buried against his orders. No one saw who did it—the only evidence is a child’s shovel that was left behind. Realizing the damage this act of defiance will do to his authority, Creon orders his guards to exhume the corpse and to keep the secret on pain of death.
The chorus explains the concept of tragedy.
Arrest of Antigone
After reburying her brother in broad daylight, Antigone is caught and dragged before Creon. The guards fail to recognize her because they are too busy figuring out ways to avoid blame and gain reward. Their buffoonery offers comic relief to offset the tragedy of Antigone’s situation.
Antigone and Creon
Creon is shocked to learn that Antigone was the one who disobeyed him. He tries to convince her to renounce her actions, reminding her of the hollow-ness of religious ritual and the fact that is within her self-interest to go along with him. Antigone rebuffs him and announces that she is ready to die for her transgressions.
Creon urges her to marry Haemon and enjoy her life, for “Life is nothing more than the happiness you get out of it.” When she fails to respond to his entreaties, he becomes morose. When Ismene joins them, Antigone taunts Creon. Creon decides not to execute her outright, but to confine her to a cave for the rest of her life.
Creon explains to the Chorus that “death was her purpose,” that “Polynices was a mere pretext.” When Haemon enters, Creon pleads with him to forget Antigone, explaining that he has tried everything and failed to “condemn her to life.” Haemon begs his father to stop the guards from dragging her away, but Creon explains that the mob will not be stopped.
Antigone dictates a letter to Haemon. She is taken away. A messenger appears to tell of Antigone’s death: it seems that as she was being closed in the cave, a man’s moan was heard. In a panic, Creon tears the rocks away with his own fingers, only to find Antigone hung by the cord of her robe and Haemon hanging onto her dead body. Creon begs Haemon to rise, but his son strikes at him, then stabs himself.
In mourning for his niece and his son, Creon is informed by the Chorus that his wife Eurydice has just killed herself. Now alone, Creon anticipates his next task, a cabinet meeting at five o’clock. He and the page exit. The Chorus describes a “great melancholy wave of peace” that descends over Thebes, with the exception of the guards, who simply go on playing cards.
Antigone, the protagonist, is driven by her fate, compelled even before the play begins, to act out her part till the end. Thus she is really two characters: an actress playing a role, and Antigone, the character she plays. This duality, however, disappears as the events of the play proceed, and it is with the thin and unbeautiful girl that the audience identifies. Antigone is a child-woman, too young, too thin for adulthood, yet too hard-headed to be treated as a child. She repeatedly proclaims that she is far too young for an early death, and the other characters
frequently remark on her youth or her thinness, a characteristic of an undeveloped woman. Her childlike qualities also appear in her clumsy attempt at rivaling her sister Ismene’s beauty and sophistication by wearing makeup and a dress, and in her use of a child’s toy shovel to bury her brother. Antigone stands for the idealism of youth, which cannot survive in a corrupt world. Survival in such a world demands compromising one’s values. She is a woman in the sense of her firm stand against the world, and in her integrity. Like her father Oedipus, she pursues truth to the end, no matter the consequence. She carries her integrity to the point of breaking off her engagement to Hamon, to save him from pain. Unfortunately, she cannot save him from pain, since he refuses to return to the world of the living as she dictates. Antigone is such a purist that she refuses her sister’s assistance in burying their brother, because Ismene expresses a desire to abide by the law. When Ismene later tries to join her in condemnation, having committed no crime at all, Antigone refuses to accept her companionship. Antigone is too much of an idealist to function in the world. Her foil is Creon, a paragon of such compromise. They debate over what Antigone should do with her life-Creon prescribes getting fatter and producing children with Hamon, which Antigone disdains-in the pivotal scene of the play. In fact, Antigone’s role is
- A recording of Jean Anouilh reading Antigone was produced by La Voix de I’Auteur. There is also a tape of a 1965 Cleveland Touring Company production of the play.
so central to this play that every other character’s moral fiber has to be considered in relation to hers, the standard or ideal. Ultimately, she stands for personal integrity as opposed to the expediency of personal compromise, such as those Creon makes in his efforts to maintain the state. Against Creon’s compromises, Antigone emphatically states that it is her role to “say no and to die.” In her idealistic sacrifice Antigone became a heroic figure in occupied France, providing inspiration to the resistance movement as it fought against the German occupiers.
The Choir includes the Prologue, who initially introduces the characters as players in a play, thus deflating the illusion of theater because the ending is revealed from the first. The Chorus represents the “character” of the playwright, perhaps Jean Anouilh himself. The Prologue exaplins that Antigone is forced to play her role “till the end.” This statement suggests that the characters, just as real persons, cannot escape themselves, even within the made up world of the theater, the world of fantasy and assumed identities. The Chorus appears in the beginning and end of the play, creating a framework that draws attention to the theatricality of the play. Also, in the middle of the play, the Chorus presents a digression on tragedy, another jolt to those who may succumb to the illusion of reality. In their digression the Chorus defines tragedy as “tranquil,” since the end is known and inevitable. Its presence and tone add a sardonic twist to the play’s events. When Creon deliberates over what to do with Antigone, and nearly convinces himself that she really wants to die, the Choir calls Creon a fool and reminds him that his niece is only a child. In this role, the choir acts like the traditional Greek chorus, as a group of moraling elders.
Tired and careworn with the heavy affairs of state, Creon issues an edict against burying Polynices merely as a way of cementing his authority and restoring public order after the war. He hopes by this edict to discourage dissenters from rallying around the warrior, while giving a proper burial to the brother challenging his authority. He does not dream of encountering dissent from Antigone, essentially a family member and fellow ruler, so when he discovers her guilt, he tries to talk her out of repeating “ce geste absurde” of the ritual burial. Her stubborn piety (to her brother instead of to the state) exasperates him. For himself, Creon has chosen the path of saying “yes” to duty, “yes” to the world, “yes” to being king, and thus “yes” to compromise. He can see no other way to rule. In his attempt to convince Antigone not to persist with her burials, he discredits Polynices’ character, stripping away her last vestige of faith in fellow humans. In return, she forces him to face his own lost hope, reminding him of the idealistic boy he had once been, before he began his lifetime of compromise. At the end of the play, Creon must continue, now without the illusion of doing good, now he merely does.
The guard and his two cohorts, the other guards, fail in their vigilance over the dead body of Polynices, and while their attention wanders, Antigone dusts ritual dirt onto her brother’s body, completing a ritual burial in defiance of Creon’s law. Creon warns the guards that they will be killed if another oversight occurs. Therefore, when the guard catches Antigone and brings her to Creon, he cares nothing for her, but rather feels relieved at having redeemed himself. He and the other guards look no further than their own skins. The arresting guard is thirty-nine, with two children—an average family man. He has seventeen years of service and wants nothing to stand in the way of his promotion, due in June. Thus, it takes some convincing from Antigone to bribe him (with a ring) to write a final letter to Hamon, which he botches so badly that Antigone realizes the futility of any final words. At the end of the play, the guards simply go on playing cards, immune to the tragedy around them, because their eyes are focused only on their own dim lives.
Hamon, son of Creon, loves Antigone, though he had dallied with Ismene before asking Antigone to marry him. Yet, it is Antigone he loves, most truly. He is so loyal and trusting that he at first keeps his promise not to speak after her announcement that they will never marry. When he fails to avert his father from fulfilling the law to punish his fiancee, he chooses to be buried with her in her cave, and when he finds she has hung herself, he plunges his sword into his own chest and dies.
Ismene is Antigone’s very feminine and beautiful sister, the woman with whom Hamon danced a whole evening the night before he suddenly and unexpectedly proposed to Antigone. Ismene is cautious, a rule-follower who counsels Antigone to leave their brother unburied and to leave to men the job of dying for one’s ideas. In this, Ismene disgusts her sister. When Ismene finally wants to join with Antigone and begs to be punished alongside her for the burial of their brother, Antigone scornfully refuses her company.
The Messenger’s role is revealed at the beginning of the play by the Prologue. He will announce the death of Hamon, and the gravity of his message preoccupies him as he awaits the start of the play. At the end, the Messenger tells a chilling tale of Hamon’s agonized death, and then departs.
Antigone affectionately calls this simple woman her old, “wrinkled apple.” The Nurse loves and remains loyal to Antigone throughout her ordeals, demonstrating Antigone’s humanity and her place in a traditional family. The Nurse adds comic relief from an otherwise rather dismal play. She concerns herself with Antigone’s rest and meals, completely unaware of and unable to understand the intricacies and import of Antigone’s defiance. The Nurse serves to emphasize the sacrifices that must be made for the sake of honor.
The Page is a young assistant to Creon, someone who accepts Creon as king and never questions his decisions, and who mindlessly keeps track of the king’s duties. The Page stays with Creon after the deaths of all of his immediate family. Even though he has ostensibly witnessed all of the events of the play, at the end he tells Creon that he wants to grow up. The Page represents the bureaucratic machine, ever performing the minor duties that keep the regime running, no matter how corrupt, inept, or misguided.
Anouilh was not the only French dramatist to revive classical myths during the early twentieth century. Jean Cocteau and Jean Giraudoux (whose influence Anouilh acknowledged) both adapted Greek drama, especially that of Sophocles, to the modern French stage. They created a heightened atmosphere of theatricality, thus leading a departure from dramatic realism that until then had been the only mode of the theater.
For example, Anouilh’s Antigone has the intellectual abilities to challenge Creon on a philosophical level. Creon attempts to save his young niece from self-destruction by revealing that her brother Polynices does not deserve her dedication. By painting a dark picture of one whom she had admired, he only succeeds in strengthening her resolve to leave the world behind. Thus, Anouilh shifts the focus away from Sophocles’ contest for loyalty between state and religion to question faith in anything.
The actual myth of Antigone is well known; one must look to the places where Anouilh has refitted and embellished the myth to discover the unique nature of his message.
Antigone was first produced in Paris in 1944, when northern France was under the yoke of Nazism while a puppet Vichy government ruled southern France. Anouilh used the Greek myth as an allegory to level criticism at the growing legion of collaborators. Like these traitors, Creon rationalizes that to keep control, he must stand ready to “shoot into the mob” the first time anyone defies his authority.
Throughout the play Antigone is called “little,” and she herself admits that she is “a little young for what I have to go through”—an obvious allegory for the brave members of the French Resistance, who sought, against impossible odds, to undermine the Nazis through small, everyday acts of sabotage and defiance. Anouilh used Sophocles’ myth to bypass the censors and provide inspiration for the French Resistance and its supporters.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- How do the characters of Ismene, Creon, and the Page serve as foils for Antigone?
- How do the changes that Anouilh has made to the basic plot of Sophocles’s Antigone affect its meaning and impact? Write an essay detailing the changes and why you think he made them. Which version is more appealing to you and why?
- Identify lines or events in the play that correspond to events in France between 1940–1944, the period when the play was written and produced.
- Do you agree with the Chorus’s assessment of tragedy as “tranquil”? Is this a tragedy without hope? Support your answer with evidence from the play.
Antigone is comprised of a series of disappointments. Every character is touched by a moment of overwhelming disillusionment: Antigone is crushed to learn the truth about her brothers; Haemon is devastated to realize that true love will not win out after all; Creon recognizes the compromises and personal sacrifices he made to take power, including exiling his own niece.
Through the words of one of his characters, Anouilh explains his theory of theater: “Naturalness and truth in the theater, my dear, are the most unnatural thing in the world. Don’t think that it suffices to find the precise tone of real life. . . . Life is very pretty, but it has no form. The object of art is precisely to give it one, and through all possible artifices to create something that is truer than truth.”
In this way Anouilh rejected dramatic naturalism, which seeks to present a realistic representation of life through sparse staging, lighting, costuming, and props. This style of drama is embodied by the work of Henrik Ibsen.
While the characters may speak and act realistically in Anouilh’s play, the story is more concerned with their ideas. In an attempt to scrutinize the modern psyche, playwrights rejected realism and concentrated on the themes of the play—staging was meant to underscore those themes. Constant reminders of the theater’s artificiality—such as the nurse anachronistically bringing the modern breakfast of coffee, toast, and jam to Antigone—are meant to disturb the viewer and contribute to themes of disillusionment, disenchantment, and hypocrisy as they are echoed in the set.
Allusions to the theatricality of the story occur regularly, as when Creon hisses to Antigone, “You have cast me for the villain in this little play of yours, and yourself for the heroine.” These references to play-acting demystify the theater. However, the subtle references to Antigone’s youthful innocence suggest a nostalgia for a more romantic, bygone era.
For ancient Greek audiences, the chorus provided necessary background information on the story, interpreted the events of the play, sang philosophical odes, and judged the characters’ actions. The Greek chorus evolved from a band of men who sang at religious festivals; this band gradually took on more dramatic function as the theater evolved.
Sophocles was an innovator with this dramatic technique. He increased the number of its members (from twelve to fifteen) and had them voice their opinions on the characters’ virtues. Anouilh also provides new uses for the chorus by letting them introduce the characters of the play. In addition, he allows the chorus to meditate on the nature of tragedy.
France during the Occupation
In 1940, France was demoralized by its quick defeat at the hand of Hitler’s panzer division, surrender to Germany, and German occupation. While
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- Ancient Greece: In the ancient Greece of legendary Thebes, the king has absolute power. Rulers are in constant danger from assassination attempts and coups.
1940s: France is invaded by Nazi Germany; a puppet government is set up to rule over the French people. A Resistance movement forms to undermine the Nazis and their collaborators.
Today: France is a stable democracy.
- Ancient Greece: Women hold inferior positions in society, remaining in separate quarters in the household. They are expected to follow their father’s or husband’s rules, and to be spoken of as little as possible. By the latter half of the fifth century, around the time that Sophocles wrote Antigone, women are enjoying a period of emancipation and can exercise greater autonomy.
1940s: Women enter the workplace in great numbers because of the need for labor and the demands of World War II. Although ninety percent of the military and the Resistance fighters are men, women support the war effort and the fight for French freedom through their work.
Today: Great strides have been made in the struggle for gender equality in business; in many countries, women’s roles are still very limited.
Germany ruled the northern half of France, a puppet French government controlled the southern region from Vichy.
Anouilh had served a short term in the French military, then returned to Paris. From there he supported and participated in the French Resistance movement, which consisted of about 200,000 people who manned an underground army. They sabotaged German operations in France and performed espionage in the service of the Allies. First Great Britain and then the United States, under General Eisenhower, supplied and directed them. Underground Resistance forces also assisted in rescuing downed Allied pilots and secretly helped Jews to escape the Nazis.
When the Germans instituted forced labor conscription, the Resistance movement swelled. Rebels resorted to guerrilla tactics to hinder the German forces. Whether or not the actions of the French Resistance significantly deterred the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), its very existence provided a much-needed morale boost for the entire French nation.
In this milieu, Antigone proved an invaluable source of communication. Howard Barnes of the New York Tribune wrote that “Men of good will, muted to the verge of silence, discovered that a modernization of a Greek tragedy afforded them elliptical communication with their comrades. Sophocles became an honorary member of the French resistance movement. His stern account of a young girl defying a persuasive tyrant must have needled the Wehrmacht no end in its colloquial translation, but the Germans could do nothing about it.”
Modern French Theatre
Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, European dramatists sought to depict in objective and precise detail the individual in society. Known as realism (depicting life objectively) and naturalism (focusing on the human at the mercy of his social or natural environment), these movements found expression in Henrik Ibsen’s work, which were social dramas about everyday people and problems.
In the 1890s, the theater of anti-realism came into being as an outgrowth of and reaction to realism and naturalism. The new movement reached fruition in 1913 in a manifesto by Jacques Copeau entitled “Un essai de renovation dramatique . . . .” which outlined his concept of absolute simplicity and the necessity for an absence of artifice. Instead, the plays emphasized and explored psychological themes.
Taking this legacy a step further, Jean Cocteau, Jean Giraudoux, Armand Salacrou, Paul Claudel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Jean Anouilh dabbled in dramatic surrealism, where theatrical devices deliberately confute dramatic realism and draw attention to the theater’s means of staging a play. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, they experimented with self-reflexive devices and carried forth the theatricalism movement, in drama as well as in the new medium of film, evolving their philosophy to the brink of the theater of the absurd of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet.
Although Anouilh’s Antigone enjoyed initial success, it has not endured through the years as well as Sophocles’ version. First produced in Paris in 1944, the play ran for more than five hundred performances to popular and critical acclaim. The political climate of Paris during those years made for a receptive audience.
That successful initial run of Antigone established Anouilh’s reputation in France. According to Leonard Pronko, it “served as a rallying point for the disheartened French, who could see their own struggle reflected in the conflict between the uncompromising attitude of Antigone and the expediency of Creon. They identified Antigone with the spirit of Freedom, and Creon with the Vichy government.”
Two years later, the play ran on Broadway, but the performance was not well accepted; it closed after only forty-four performances. Critics considered it too intellectual and lacking in emotion.
Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune damned the play with the faint praise, calling it a “reasonably workable play.”
Lewis Nichols of the Times complained of “unrationalized talk by characters who are not quite living beings,” while Howard Barnes of the Herald Tribune called it “remote and dramatically inarticulate,” although he could see how it succeeded in Vichy France.
Likewise, Louis Kronenberger of the newspaper PM maintained that “as an inspirational figure for an occupied Paris she [Antigone] had her value; as a human being she is quite unreal.” The pessimism and the wordiness of the play did not appeal to Americans at that time.
Subsequent productions of the play have proved no more successful. Critics agree that much of the play’s appeal is found in its allegorical significance to the French people. As such, although Anouilh is a respected playwright worldwide, his most enthusiastic audiences continue to be French. It is in his native country that the play endures and still is celebrated as a relevant work for the contemporary theater.
Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay, she explores the device of storytelling in Antigone as it is used as a medium for communicating social roles.
Storytelling is a device of narrative drama used to move the plot along, announcing action that takes place offstage, skipping over time, and revealing intrigues. Anouilh makes efficient use of storytelling from the very start, when his chorus-narrator relates the story of Oedipus and his sons, whose deaths brought Creon to the throne. In this case storytelling informs the audience, allowing the action of the play to jump in at the moment of Antigone’s act of defiance against Creon’s law.
He also uses storytelling as prophecy and warning, inspiration, and persuading. In these cases, storytelling serves to remind the characters—and the audience—of social roles and the social consequences of ways of enacting those roles. This has been the function of storytelling since its age-old inception, a purpose that predates literature, but that lives on in stories told today, orally around the office coffee machine, or written in the newspapers, in the work of Nobel prize-winning authors, and in every form of human drama.
For Anouilh, however, stories may assign roles, but they fail to reassure that these roles matter. His play about Antigone demonstrates the ruinous delusion of storytelling.
Although storytelling in Antigone begins with a simple aim to inform, it quickly takes on more
complex purposes and becomes a tool for persuasion. For example, Ismene relates to Antigone how it will feel to be hounded by the mob after they get caught burying their brother, with “a thousand arms” seizing their arms and “a thousand breaths” breathing in their faces.
Ismene’s vivid story resembles the mood of the story Antigone tells when trying to convince the nurse to care for her dog in her absence, painting a pathetic picture of the dog moaning and pining for her missing owner. These “horror” stories are designed to alarm and convince their listeners. They exaggerate the future as a way of avoiding it. However, because the Nurse does not fully comprehend why Antigone tells her the story, the full potential of the warning is lost.
Antigone informs her loved ones—the Nurse and Haemon—that she will leave them, without telling them why. Instead, she relates wistful stories of a future that she herself will destroy. To Haemon she describes the child they might have had, the mother she might have been; she uses the past subjunctive, as though this choice had already passed them by, even though their marriage is set for the future. Her narrative of the traditional family, loving mother with her child, presents a story that will never come to fruition.
When she tells Haemon her story, she does not arrange a surrogate as she did for her dog, but simply destroys the vision forever by immediately announcing she can never marry him. Thus her story can only haunt him as her true intentions are revealed.
The family narrative usually serves as a model for human behavior, assigning roles and behavior patterns to parents and children, so that they can conform their actions to society’s structure and expectations. Ismene accepts this, and so she understands Creon’s desire to set a good example for his people; she accepts the ban against Polynices as a necessary measure to keep peace in Thebes.
For her part, Antigone objects to Ismene’s type of “understanding,” which entails accepting Creon’s narrative as truth. The sisters disagree over which stories to follow. Antigone, as Ismene chides her, wants her “own stubborn way in everything.” Ismene prefers to accept her fate and leave heroics to men, because “It’s all very well for men to believe in ideas and die for them. But you are a girl!”
The female narrative only requires a woman to be beautiful, to marry, and to bear children. Creon tells Antigone “You’re going to marry Haemon;
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The classic film Casablanca (1942), starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, also concerns making personal sacrifices on behalf of the French Resistance.
- Anouilh’s L’Alouette (The Lark, 1953) focuses on the life of Joan of Arc.
- Mark Twain wrote a novel about Joan of Arc (1896) after spending twelve years researching her life and times.
- Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1946) explores the predicament of a faithless man who commits a senseless murder and contemplates the absurdity of modern existence.
and I want you to fatten up a bit so that you can give him a sturdy boy.” Creon never questioned that Antigone would follow the prescribed life story or script for a woman—in fact, he gave Antigone her first doll, a toy given to young girls to act out and envision their futures.
In a way, Antigone opposes these expectations even more than she opposes the desecration of her brother’s corpse. Creon resents her rebelliousness. “What sort of game are you playing?” he demands. As a ruler who has had to roll up his sleeves and attend to the ship of state, which was “loaded to the water line with crime, ignorance, poverty,” Creon objects to anyone deviating from their predetermined roles.
As the leader of Thebes, he tells her, “You shout an order, and if one man refuses to obey, you shoot straight into the mob.” He advocates complete obedience, and “no matter how many may fall by the wayside, there are always those few left that go on bringing their young into the world, traveling the same road with the same obstinate will, unchanged from those who went before.” His perspective appalls Antigone and the audience.
Creon is also a victim of his stories. Besides the rigid expectations and roles he has imposed on himself and his city, he sometimes imagines false stories and then acts on them in error. Creon assumes that a child has buried Polynices, and his imagination takes over as it fills in the gaps of a story that is wrong from the start.
Creon sees “a baby-faced killer,” a “martyr,” corrupted by his enemies, “leaders of the mob, stinking of garlic.” His fantasy blinds him to his real enemy and exacerbates his paranoia, leading him to overreact when he does find the culprit.
Yet when Creon finds the real culprit—Antigone—she turns out to be intractable and dismissive. He complains to her that “You have cast me for the villain in this little play of yours, and yourself the heroine.” He admits that he will have to play his part “through to the end” as well as she, because he of all the characters understands the governing power of stories.
A thirst for story infects every major character in Antigone. Stories constitute life scripts, life plans, and to follow a plan gives one reassurance and a sense of purpose in life. Creon clings to his script of city-savior, a story that envisions him as martyr to his lost ideals and to the survival of the city.
Occupation with one’s script leaves little time to worry about deep questions; one has to “sweat and roll up your sleeves and plunge both hands into life up to the elbows.” Creon’s way is to ignore his mind and give his body over to life. He wants a story to quiet his mind so that his body may work.
Antigone’s way is to question the purpose of that body: she wants it to have an honorable role, informed by the mind. Her act of burying Poly nice’s body disrupts Creon’s complacency, and he finds it necessary to silence her—to shut her up away from the public in a remote cave.
For Antigone thirst for story equates to faith; when Creon strips away her false perceptions of Polynices’s honor, she mourns the loss of her faith. “Would it have been better to let you die a victim to that obscene story?” Creon asks. “It might have been. I had my faith,” she answers, despondent.
Creon accuses her of having her father’s desire for glory in death. Oedipus could not control his passions, which prompt him to sleep with his mother and kill his father. It was the story that destroyed him, rather than the acts themselves, which were committed without thought and would have gone unheeded had the story not come to light.
His own story both punished and fascinated Oedipus. Creon relates that he “drank in the dark story that the gods had destined him first to live and then to hear.” Somehow the narrative grasp of his shameful story, at least for the moment of the telling, overrode the horror of killing his own father and dishonoring his mother.
Stories can wind their subjects into a web from which they cannot escape. Once Antigone’s story of reprisal against the king gets out, the story holds her in its clutches and no other stories can help her. Haemon and the chorus suggest alternative stories to tell the angry mob, such as telling them that Antigone is mad, or that the law is changed, but the king cannot make an exception of his niece without losing his authority. The story is bigger than his office.
“The story is all over Thebes,” he says. The story sways the mob, who will see that the story gets enacted till the end—they must have closure. Not to close the story would open the door for chaos: without a script, there is no structure. Even though the chorus proclaims that “We shall carry the scar of her death for centuries,” the story must unroll to its conclusion.
Antigone’s problem is that for her—unlike Creon and the mob—story does not satisfy. Once stripped of the illusion that her brother’s honor existed and that she could honor it, she lost her hope in stories. Then she only wanted death—the end to all stories.
Creon finds her lack of faith abhorrent. “Death was her purpose, whether she knew it or not,” Creon proclaims. “Polynices was a mere pretext. When she found she had to give up that pretext, she found another one—that life and happiness were tawdry things and not worth possessing. She was bent upon only one thing: to reject life and to
“A THIRST FOR STORY INFECTS EVERY MAJOR CHARACTER IN ANTIGONE. STORIES CONSTITUTE LIFE SCRIPTS, LIFE PLANS, AND TO FOLLOW A PLAN GIVES ONE REASSURANCE AND A SENSE OF PURPOSE IN LIFE.”
die.” Creon, though he tries, can offer nothing to appease her.
The play exposes the meaninglessness, the paucity of stories. The guards have remained apathetic, not caring for a moment whether Antigone succeeded in her mission or avoided her death, for “none of this matters to them.” “They go on playing cards,” a game that simply repeats, in endless variations, a series of meaningless steps, just as their lives repeat, in endless minor variations, the lives of all citizens.
Antigone asserts that neither the lives nor the stories of kings and heroines, nor of the guards who protect them hold any meaning. Anouilh is a dramatist whose story exposes the malignancy of story, because hope is a “whore” that offers delusion for consolation.
Stripping away illusion, then, is an act of heroism, exposing that we are all, as Creon finally realizes when Haemon kills himself, “wounded to death,” and that stories can only obstruct this truth. All that remains is “a fellow-feeling” among the characters, a sense of camaraderie that we are not, at least, alone, and that the heroism of an Antigone is still possible.
Source: Carole Hamilton for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
In this essay, Calin examines the differences in point of view between Antigone and her enemy Creon.
“Le Charme D’Antigone, dans la piece d’Anouilh, c’est le charme de’enfance . . . . On ne comprendrait rien a cette fille maigre et brulante, si I’on ne convenait d’abord qu’elle est une petite fille.” This statement is to be found in one of the most recent studies on Jean Anouilh. Pol Vandromme is not the first to have pointed out how Anouilh emphasizes the protagonist’s childlike purity and idealism, qualities absent from the world of adult society. Anouilh invented the role of the Nurse (la nourrice); her appearance in the first scene introduces us to the fact that Antigone has only recently crossed the threshold of adulthood. They speak together of the pranks the young girl played as a child, her fear of the bogey-man and of creatures in the night, her helplessness in the presence of others; the nurse gives orders and tries to direct Antigone’s life. Creon too reminds her how only a little while ago he would have punished her with “. . . du pain sec et une pair de gifles”. For him, as for Nurse, she is la petite Antigone; he reminds her that her first doll was a present from him “il n’y pas si longtemps.” In Sophocles’ Antigone we do not know with what instrument Polynices is buried; Anouilh tells us that his heroine uses a child’s toy shovel (“une petite pelle d’enfant toute vieille”), Polynice’s shovel with which she and her brother used to build sand castles on the beach when they were children. And when Antigone commits suicide, hanging herself by the cord of her robe, the messenger says that these strands “lui faisaient comme un collier d’enfant.” In life and in death Antigone remains true to the intransigent vision of youth; she commits the decisive act of rebellion and pays for it as a child.
As a child, Antigone exudes spontaneity and naturalness, and feels close to nature; around her the author constructs a pattern of animal imagery. La petite Antigone is assimilated to benevolent small animals. She had loved all the little creatures and wished to possess them all: “Qui pleurait deja toute petite, en pensant qu’ily avait tant de petites betes, . . . et qu’on ne pouvait pas tous les prendre?” Nurse calls her mon pigeon, ma petite colombe, ma mesange, ma tourterelle. Antigone begs the older woman to take care of her pet dog, to let her into the house and speak to her as one would a person. After her first attempt to bury Polynice is discovered, Creon asks the guards if they are not mistaken, if in fact instead of a person seeking to bury the corpse it was only “une bete en grattant?” The guards are not mistaken, as we well know, but Creon has unconsciously discovered a sort of metaphorical truth, for, once Antigone has lost her shovel, she is obliged to crawl on all fours and scrape the earth with her nails, like a small animal. Creon then is quite correct in picturing Antigone as a little bird, a sparrow, or as a small trapped animal (“un petit gibier pris”).
As a child, the princess played pranks on Ismene by covering her with dirt and tying her to a tree. At the age of nineteen she still loves to walk in her garden and in the fields alone at night, far from men’s eyes. She runs barefoot in the dewy grass, the wind blowing in her hair; when tired, she drops to the earth to rest and bathes in a cool stream. She chooses the tactical moment to bury Polynice (covering his body with earth): just before the break of day, when she will be hidden by darkness and predawn mists. The young girl finds joy in three of the four traditional universal elements or categories (as reinterpreted by Bachelard): water, air, and earth; her most lyrical outbursts are reserved for the exaltation of Nature. Her hair in the wind, her feet in water, and earth on her dress, Antigone flies like a bird, spiritualized, free from the gross material cares of society. She participates in the eternal feminine embodied by Earth and Water. She is vitally alive, participating in the splendor of the universe, even and especially when the Others are asleep, i.e., dead to the world: “Qui se levait la premiere, le matin, rien que pour sentir l’air froid sur sa peau nue? Qui se couchait la derniere seulement quand elle n’en pouvait plus de fatigue, pour vivre encoure un pen de la nuit?”.
Her enemy Creon looks upon the universe with different eyes. Only once does he evoke Nature with the intensity usual to Antigone: his great speech on the ship of state. Instead of Antigone’s refreshing stream and dew, we find mountains of waves sinking the ship; instead of her gentle, stimulating wind, we find a tempest which snaps the masts. Drinking water, so readily available to the young girl, in Creon’s world has been seized by the officers for their own selfish ends. There is no earth on which man can rest. Creon ridicules his niece’s thirst for pride, assimilating what he considers to be spiritual hybris to her freely admitted natural desires: “Quel breuvage, hein, les mots qui vous condamnent? Et comme on les boit goulument quand on s’appelle Oedipe, ou Antigone,” and she retorts that she will force him to drink her words, whether he will or no. Nurse, who in spite of her love for Antigone, remains a member of Creon’s adult world, wishes the girl to wash her feet and cleanse away the dirt before going to bed, and objects to her mistress’s dog entering the palace for similar reasons. Nor do the guards on sentry duty relish the chill, darkness, and mist of the night or the sun and wind of the day. For these people Nature is hostile to man, a negative force destroying all that society holds dear, or an obtrusive quality outside their routine, which can give rise to acts of folly.
In opposition to these blind, anarchical forces, Creon relies upon the every-day world of men in society. The Prologue introduces him as one who “joue au jeu difficile de conduire les hommes.” He sees the kingship not as an adventure or game but as a trade, a job to do, a piece of work. To do the job, he takes off his jacket, rolls up his shirt-sleeves, stands with hands in pockets and feet firmly planted on the ground. He says: “il faut suer et retrousser ses manches, empoigner la vie a pleines mains et s’en mettre jusqu’aux coudes”.
Creon believes in a calm, ordered, restful world. Long ago he loved music, richly bound books, and whiling away his time in antique shops. He still pictures happiness in terms of a good book, a child at your feet, a tool in your hand, a bench in front of the house. Hemon, too, speaking of his childhood in Creon’s home, evokes the memory of books, bread, a lamp in the evening, and the odeur defendue of his father’s study. Like Nurse and the soldiers, Creon abhors filth: he despises the stench of Polynice’s rotting corpse brought by the sea-wind and would willingly close his window and shut it out. Yet for all his disgust with some aspects of nature, or perhaps because of it, it is Creon, not Antigone, who evokes in concrete imagery the physical reality of death. Uncle, niece, and a guard all allude to the punishment prepared for Antigone, execution by immuring, as they say, in a trou. But it is Creon and his men who evoke Polynice’s corpse in terms of rotten meat putrifying and decomposing in the sun, its vile odor penetrating every nook and cranny. As the guard says, “c’etait comme un coup de massue. J’avais beau ecarquiller les yeux, ca tremblait comme de la gelatine, je voyais plus.” Creon views life and death with equal lucidity; he cuts through the haze of sentimental idealism surrounding sacrifice, religion, and personal freedom. He paints death in frightening tones specifically in order to frighten Antigone and dissuade her from an act which will result in her destruction. Yet the images of death (rot and decomposition) and those of domestic tranquillity (bench, book, warm bread) have one thing in common: they are figures of softness and repose, of harmony and security, which form a striking contrast to the imagination—pattern of expansion and energy—the power of the will—we find inherent in Antigone.
“NATURE IS OFTEN CRUEL, AND IN ANY CASE THE THEBAN PRINCESS IS A HUMAN BEING CONDEMNED TO LIVE AND DIE AMONG HER OWN KIND. CREON TOO FINDS HIS IDEAL WORLD OF THE HEARTH DEGRADED AND HE HIMSELF CORRUPTED BY THE PEOPLE HE LOWERS HIMSELF TO SAVE.”
The two protagonists of Anouilh’s drama do not exist in a vacuum. They relate to the other characters and participate in a scene of direct confrontation. Each protagonist undermines the other’s position, parodies and satirizes the other’s point of view. Thus Anouilh points out the weaknesses as well as the strength in Antigone and Creon, the ambiguities inherent in their psychology and respective world-views.
Practicality and Degradation: Creon would have us think of him as the captain of a vessel, struggling alone, defending his crew against the onslaught of a hostile storm. As such, he is an idealist, as heroic as Antigone. Creon also prides himself on having a command of practical affairs in the real world. Thus he explains the motives governing his decision to insult Polynice’s corpse, the aspects of Realpolitik which compelled his decision: he wishes to make his niece aware of the sordid reality behind the facade of political life, the inner workings of the theater or palace: “Car c’est cela que je veux que tu saches, les coulisses de ce drame ou tu brules de jouer un role, la cuisine.” But Antigone applies Creon’s metaphor concretely and extends it by accusing him of being a cook in his kitchen: “Tu l’as bien dit tout a l’heure, Creon, la cuisine. Vous avez des tetes de cuisiniers! . . . Tu m’ordonnes, cuisinier? . . . Allons vite, cuisinier!” There is a fundamental contradiction between the image of the captain defending his crew against a tempest and the cook in his kitchen, the sordid reality of the palace or theater. Antigone recognizes that Creon is lowering himself to the level of the masses for whom both he and she have such utter contempt (“Vous avez des tetes de cuisiners . . .”). Thus is he assimilated to those around him who share his views and help implement them. The self-proclaimed captain of the ship of state has no illusions about the pathetic brutes whom he wishes to protect. And in this respect Antigone shares his point of view (a fact more than a trifle embarrassing to those left-wing intellectuals who invoke her as spokesman for their own attitudes on class struggle, engagement, the Resistance, etc.). She hates the guards who smell of garlic and red wine, can’t stomach being touched by their dirty hands; they are the cooks who surround Creon. She begs him to keep her away from the masses whose faces and voices she wishes to avoid. She prefers never to tell Hemon of her suffering, lest the others know of it too: “II vaut mieux que jamais personne ne sache. C’est comme s’ils devaient me voir nue et me toucher quand je serai morte.” These are the people of whom Ismene speaks to frighten her sister and persuade her to obey Creon: the thousands and thousands of people in the city, with their thousand arms and thousand faces, who will spit in her face and destroy her with their odor and laughter; and the guards with their stupid faces, thick hands, and ox-like stare, who will conduct her to torture and death. The mob and the palace guards are indistinguishable; both follow Creon blindly. It is appropriate for Antigone, child of nature and enemy of society, to fear the people; Creon’s contempt is less justifiable in terms of his character and the philosophical position he defends.
Nature and Animals: Antigone, for all we have said above, fears certain aspects of nature—insects in the night—and compares her bourgeois enemies to the dogs who caress whatever and whoever lies on their path. Creon, too, speaks of the hostile crowd howling about the palace. Antigone is called not only a turtledove and a sparrow but also a rat caught in a trap, a little hyena scratching at her brother’s grave. She does not want the scraps people toss to good dogs; she recognizes that although animals enjoy the company of their kind, she is a human being and must die alone: “Des betes se serraient l’une contre 1’autre pour se faire chaud. Je suis toute seule.” When Creon, in an unaccustomed turn of phrase, invokes the laws of nature to convince his niece to accept society’s laws and live (“Les betes, elles au moins, sont bonnes et simples et dures”), she treats him and his image with contempt: “Quel reve, hein? pour un roi: des betes!” Antigone assimilates to nature yet cannot be a part of it; she partakes of mankind yet is repelled by all that men are and have created.
Light and Darkness: One might imagine that a child of nature relishes the light of day in all its glory. But no, Antigone prefers the grey of night and compares the reds, yellows, and greens of dawn to a cheap, man-made postal card. At night she succeeds in burying her brother undetected; at high noon she is perceived and captured. And she will be executed in the full light of the sun. Is not the sun (which also causes Polynice’s corpse to stink) an eternal masculine principle of justice, Creon’s ally, an emanation of him? Yet is not the sun also the source of life?
Beauty and Ugliness: Our protagonist, a child of nature, is herself physically unattractive. Anouilh spares no pains to tell us she is swarthy (noiraude), thin, pale, flat-chested, and badly groomed (mal peignee). Comparing herself to Ismene, Antigone admits her sister’s superiority (“Je suis noire et maigre, Ismene est rose et doree comme un fruit”), is even proud of Ismene’s beauty. Yet she recoils from ugliness in others: the mob, her guard, Creon. Antigone attacks Creon by assimilating the presumed ugliness of his deeds to his physical appearance: his wrinkles and fat belly: “La vie t’a seulement ajoute tous ces petits plis sur le visage et cette graisse autour de toi.” She may be homely in the flesh, Antigone admits, but Creon’s men are morally repulsive, even the most handsome, they all have something ugly at the corner of their eyes and mouths. Men who are afraid are ugly, she say. And for all her homeliness, it is Antigone whom young men stare at on the street, whose hand Hemon seeks in marriage. Something emanates from her. She is beautiful, not like the others, but differently: “Pas belle comme nous, mais autrement”, says Ismene.
Society and Solitude: Antigone stands alone against the world. She was sitting by herself in a corner when Hemon asked her to marry him; as the play begins she sits apart from the others, thinking. She buries her brother alone, spurning Ismene’s help. Yet she does cherish individual human beings, Hemon for example, and wishes Nurse to love her dog like a human, the way she herself does. She seeks a rapport with her guard, her last visage d’homme. In the end Antigone will have achieved a greater communion with mankind than Creon is capable of. The king has the power to snuff out her life, but Hemon her beloved and Creon’s wife die with her. Hemon is also alone and can receive no consolation from Creon’s world. The king, on the other hand, has lost his son, his wife, and his niece; his only remaining friend, the page-boy (like Antigone, a child), does not understand him. Deprived of his dead loved ones, this apostle of man’s commitment to society and life is condemned to live in solitude among men who do not comprehend.
Anachronisms: Scholars have pointed out that Anouilh’s conscious introduction of anachronisms into this as well as other plays creates an aura of universality, making the play valid for our century, creates distance between the characters and their public, establishing a tone of irony, and serves to upset the audience, to give it a sense of broken illusion and manipulated convention. Still another function of anachronism is to create ambiguities, to help undermine the protagonists’ points of view and our self-identification with them as “people.” Creon tells the story of Polynice’s civil war in terms of a twentieth-century youth rebelling against his father, a hoodlum, a jeune voyou who frequents low dives and drives fast cars. His description of the funeral rites Antigone seeks for her brother is viewed from the same perspective: “Tu as vu ces pauvres tetes d’employes fatigues ecourtant les gestes, avalant les mots, baclant ce mort pour en prendre un autre avant le repas de midi?” Creon humiliates his niece and lowers her in the public’s esteem by dissipating whatever idealism and purity may adhere to the ancient myth (grandeur of distance, the hallowed tradition of Greek literature), by assimilating her myth to the sordid scandals, so common and mundane, of the public press in our own century. Yet the sword of anachronism cuts both ways. When Creon’s guards employ a military slang of the 1940s and their pre-occupations are centered on the bistro and whorehouse, we are made to sympathize with Antigone’s rebellion. The world is coarse and vulgar; Creon does degrade himself by consorting with such people. The very pettiness of everyday life justifies to some extent Antigone’s rebellion. Her fondest souvenir is a paper flower Polynice had brought back from one of his evenings on the town. For the modern reader and for Creon, it is only a pitiful anachronism, equally inappropriate in the world of Sophoclean tragedy and in a situation requiring carefully thought-out political decisionmaking: a cheap bit of fluff which could move only a schoolgirl, an artificial imitation of nature at best. Yet her flower is still less ugly and ignoble than the rotting corpse, drunken guards, and stench of the kitchen that made up Creon’s world.
From Anouilh’s use of imagery we learn that Antigone and Creon are not two perfect, admirable, triumphant embodiments of opposing philosophies of life. True, Antigone incarnates the virtues of wild nature, Creon those of domestic society. But Antigone is made only too aware of the fact that she can never be a little furry creature in the woods. Nature is often cruel, and in any case the Theban princess is a human being condemned to live and die among her own kind. Creon too finds his ideal world of the hearth degraded and he himself corrupted by the people he lowers himself to save. Antigone and Creon are heroic and vulnerable, majestic and inconsistent, eloquent and irrational—at the same time. We cannot accept the notion, dear to some critics, that Anouilh is on Antigone’s side, that she embodies his own socio-political views. Instead, Anouilh’s great innovation in treating the Antigone myth is to ennoble the character of Creon, to make him co-equal with Antigone. In the French play we have two protagonists, both worthy of admiration, both suffering from weakness. Anouilh presents both points of view and allows us to choose between them; rather, he presents the human condition in all its sordidness and poetry, the poetry of two gifted people each at grips with the other, with his own self, with society, and with the natural world. We are shown the human predicament, and we behold it with wonder.
Source: William Calin, “Patterns of Imagery in Anouilh’s Antigone” in French Review, Vol. 41, 1967, pp. 76–83.
In the following essay, Nazareth discusses the Truth in tragedy and compares Anouilh’s Antigone to Sophocles’s Antigone.
“When Jean Anouilh turns historian we can take it that truth will be revealed in the light of the emotions—lightly, wittily revealed, in brilliant flashes. But truth is no less true because it comes as a jest in a jewelled sentence.” (Caryl Brahmns, in a review of Beckett’s Plays and Players, August, 1961.)
“With Anouilh now firmly entrenched as purveyor of fancy goods to the entertainment hunters, it is hard to credit that, not so long ago, he was classed as a rebel . . . [Anouilh was] never a major writer, or even a serious thinker . . . Antigone will not stand up to scrutiny; [its] factitious and sentimental skating round subjects, in which the real issue is always carefully avoided, is revealed . . . . Anouilh has not only cut history down to size, but larded it with humour of the cheapest kind.” (Tom Milne, in a review of Beckett in Encore, October, 1961.)
“. . . ANOUILH’S CREON CONTRASTS WITH SOPHOCLES’S CREON IN ONE PARTICULAR ASPECT, TO CREATE A POSITIVE BY WHICH WE ARE TO JUDGE HIM. ANOUILH’S CREON DOES NOT BELIEVE IN ‘ALL THAT FLUMMERY ABOUT RELIGIOUS BURIAL.’ BUT SOPHOCLES’S CREON DOES. THIS MAKES US REALIZE HOW MUCH ANOUILH’S CREON HAS LOST SPIRITUALLY. HE HAS NO IDEALS. THERE IS NO GREATNESS IN HIS SOUL . . . .”
When there is such controversy about a contemporary dramatist, it is fruitful to make a detailed examination of at least one of his plays, in Mr Lewis Galantiere’s translations. “Antigone will not stand up to scrutiny”: Let us therefore scrutinize Antigone.
Some critics say that Antigone is a tragedy. For instance, T. R. Henn begins his analysis of Antigone by saying “A critic has said, I think with justice, that M. Anouilh ‘alone among modern playwrights is able to wear the tragic mask with ease.’” Note, too, Raymond Williams’s analysis of Antigone.
However, if we accept the play as a tragedy, we find that we are unable to explain several parts of Anouilh’s play. For instance, towards the end of the play, when Antigone is about to be sealed up in a cave, she talks to the guard. The guard then starts talking about himself and the things that concern him:
If you’re a guard, everyone knows you’re something special; they know you’re an old N.C.O. Take pay for instance. When you’re a guard you get your pay, and on top of that you get six months’ extra pay, to make sure you don’t lose anything by not being a sergeant any more . . .
And so on. Antigone is not interested, of course, and interrupts him with, “Listen . . . I’m going to die soon.” But he is not interested in her fate and continues talking about himself. Surely, when the guard talks so much about himself, the tragic mood of the play is destroyed.
Even more striking is Anouilh’s use of the chorus. Anouilh’s chorus is one man, who leans casually on the proscenium arch while talking directly to the audience. The play opens with the words,
Well, here we are. These people are about to act out for you the story of Antigone.
He points to Antigone and says,
That little creature sitting by herself, staring straight ahead, seeing nothing, is Antigone. She is thinking. She is thinking that the instant I finish telling you who’s who and what’s what in this play, she will burst forth as the tense, sallow, wilful girl whose family would never take her seriously and who is about to rise up alone against Creon, her uncle, the king.
But that is not all. The chorus (in the French version it is the Prologue) goes on to say
Another thing that she is thinking is this: she is going to die. Antigone is young. She would much rather live than die. But there is no help for it. When your name is Antigone, there is only one part you can play; and she will have to play hers to the end.
This, surely, is an untragic way to begin a tragedy! The chorus insists on explaining to the audience the fact that they are watching a play—and explaining at such length that the tragic mood is destroyed.
Later, after Creon discovers that his law has been defied and Polynices has been buried, the chorus says,
The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy . . . Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless.
In fact, the chorus goes on to make a long speech on what tragedy is.
Many critics take the speeches of the chorus at their face value. Henn quotes part of the chorus’s definition at the beginning of Chapter VI of The Harvest of Tragedy and accepts it as a genuine definition. Raymond Williams says:
The convention, both of commentary on the various characters in turn, and of establishment of the play and the characters as action and parts which begin “now that the curtain has risen,” is very impressive. By the end of Prologue’s speech the audience has been firmly introduced to the conventional nature of the play, and also to each of the characters . . . It is very simple, and completely convincing. It gains an immediate dramatic concentration, and the conditions of intensity; it also provides the major resource which the naturalistic drama has lacked, that of commentary. (The italics are mine.)
We notice that Williams takes the speeches at their face value and thinks they are convincing. The fallacy of Williams’s comments is obvious when we ask ourselves the obvious question: does naturalistic drama need commentary? What about Chekhov’s drama?
Other critics also take these speeches at their face value, but conclude that they are not convincing. The play, these critics say, is pseudo-tragedy, it is sentimental and pretentious. The chorus is defining tragedy so that the audience will be deceived into thinking it is experiencing a great tragedy. Further, Anouilh does not have the courage of his convictions. He wants to write a tragedy, but he is afraid that the audience will accuse him of sentimentality; and so he also laughs with the audience at the play. In other words, he does not take the play seriously; he is intellectually dishonest. This is symptomatic of the vulgarity and lack of culture of the masses. Conditioned by mass-produced television, films, pop songs and advertising, the masses can only accept pseudo-tragedy. They have to be told that they are experiencing a great tragedy, because they are incapable of experiencing true tragedy.
But we must stop to ask ourselves this question: does Anouilh want us to take the speeches of the chorus at their face value? If he were doing so, would he overplay his hand, or, if he were attempting aesthetic sleight-of-hand, would he insist that the audience watch the hand he was going to deceive them with? Would he let the chorus say, “In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquility”? Isn’t it the natural tendency for the audience to react against tragedy because of speeches like this?
If we take the speeches at their face value, we shall be misunderstanding the play. J. L. Styan’s comment in his analysis of Colombe is relevant and illuminating. He says,
Because of the play-within-the-play, we are doubly the skeptical audience we were: we simply do not respond sentimentally to the sentiment with which the words are spoken. To believe that the author intended us to would contradict the total meaning of this play, not to mention others.
The speeches of the chorus are a sardonic comment on what tragedy (i.e. a tragic play) is. Anouilh is telling us through the chorus what is wrong with tragedy. Tragedy is clean, restful and flawless; therefore it is not true to life. It ignores certain issues in life which, according to Anouilh, it should not. Therefore his play cannot be interpreted as a tragedy in the same sense in which we usually understand the term “tragedy.” The fact that the chorus is anti-tragic and tells us what is wrong with tragedy is an indication that Anouilh’s Antigone is “played against” a tragedy. To be specific, Anouilh’s Antigone is “played against” Sophocles’ s Antigone.
The framework of both plays is the same. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, decides to defy the edict of her uncle King Creon and to bury the body of her brother Polynices. She asks her sister Ismene for help, but Ismene refuses to help her. So Antigone buries Polynices herself. She is brought before Creon, who decides to have her killed—even though she is engaged to his son Haemon. After Antigone’s death, Haemon commits suicide. When his mother, Eurydice, hears about his death, she also commits suicide.
However, what lies within this framework is different in the two plays. The differences are apparent very early in the plays. When Sophocles’s Ismene refuses to bury Polynices, she says:
We must remember that we are women, and women are not meant to fight with men. Our rulers are stronger than ourselves, and we must obey them in this, and in things more bitter still . . . And so I shall obey those in power, since I am forced to do so, and can only ask the dead to pardon me, since there is no wisdom in going too far.
We feel that Ismene is perhaps weak, but that is all we feel. Now let us look at what Anouilh’s Ismene says:
He [Creon] is stronger than we are. He is the king. And the whole city is with him . . . His mob will come running, howling at us as it runs. A thousand arms will seize our arms. A thousand breaths will breathe into our faces. Like one pair of single eyes, a thousand eyes will stare at us. We’ll be driven in a timbrel through their hatred, through the smell of them and their cruel, roaring laughter. We’ll be dragged to the scaffold for torture, surrounded by guards with their idiot faces all bloated, their animal hands clean—washed for the sacrifice, their beefy eyes squinting as they stare at us. And we’ll know that no shrieking and no begging will make them understand that we want to live, for they are like slaves who do exactly as they’ve been told, without caring about right and wrong. And we shall suffer, we shall feel pain rising in us until it becomes so unbearable that we know it must stop. But it won’t stop; it will go on rising and rising, like a screaming voice. Oh, I can’t, I can’t, Antigone.
The difference between these two speeches is striking. Anouilh’s Ismene says the same thing as Sophocles’s Ismene, but takes it a stage further. In the second case (Anouilh’s), we are presented with a powerful, shocking and realistic picture of the horrible fate that Ismene thinks awaits her and Antigone if they break Creon’s law. It is a horrifying picture. Ismene is only human, and we realize most forcefully why Anouilh’s Ismene refuses to bury Polynices, as we did not in the case of Sophocles’s Ismene.
Creon has passed the edict that Polynices is not to be buried; anybody who defies this edict does so on pain of death. Sophocles’s Creon has done this because he thinks it is for the good of the state. After Antigone has defied the edict and buried Polynices, there is a brief exchange between her and Creon. She says that she could not bring herself through fear of one man and one man’s pride to disobey the laws of the gods. Creon’s pride is hurt because he is unsure of himself. He decides to kill Antigone because “she will be the man, not I, if she wins this victory and goes unpunished.” He refuses to listen to the advice of his son, saying finally, “I am the state.” He even refuses to listen to Teiresias and accuses him of corruption; Teiresias, with whose help he has ruled the state. Too late does he realize his blindness. After the deaths of Antigone, Haemon and Eurydice, he says
Ah me! the guilt is mine, I know it. I blame no other.
When Anouilh’s Antigone is brought before Creon, she insists that Creon kill her. But Anouilh’s Creon wants to save Antigone. He does not believe in “all that flummery about religious burial.” He asks Antigone,
Do you really believe that a so-called shade of your brother is condemned to wander forever homeless if a little earth is not flung on his corpse to the accompaniment of some priestly abracadabra?
Until Kitto’s interpretation of Sophocles’s Antigone in Form and Meaning in Drama (1956), it was believed that Sophocles’s Antigone had to bury her brother because the soul of a dead person was condemned to wander forever homeless if the body was left unburied. Anouilh’s Antigone was written long before Kitto published his interpretation. It does not matter to Creon which body is buried and which is unburied; in fact, he does not even know whether the body is that of Polynices or Eteocles. Antigone cannot understand him; he then reveals his position clearly. He had to agree to be the ruler of the state, or the state would have collapsed. Sophocles’s Creon says:
My friends, the gods have brought our ship of state safely to port after wild tossing on the stormy seas.
Anouilh’s Creon also talks of the state as a ship; but he carries the image much further:
There had to be one man who said yes. Somebody had to agree to captain the ship. She had sprung a hundred leaks; she was loaded to the water-line with crime, ignorance, poverty. The ship was swinging with the wind. The crew refused to work and were looting the cargo. The officers were building a raft, ready to slip overboard and desert the ship. The mast was splitting, the wind was howling, the sails were beginning to rip. Every man-jack on board was about to drown—and only because the only thing they thought of was their own skins and their cheap little day to day traffic. Was this a time, do you think, for playing with words like yes and no?
Once more we see in stark terms why Anouilh’s Creon had to do what he did. We realize clearly the real, factual difficulties in the path of the ruler of the state, which we did not in the case of Sophocles’s Creon. Further, Anouilh’s Antigone had last seen Polynices when she was twelve years old, and therefore she did not really know him. Creon tells her that both Eteocles and Polynices were “rotten.” Both men tried to assassinate their father. Had Antigone considered all this when she decided to bury Polynices?
Anouilh has raised far more factual issues than Sophocles by just taking everything a stage further, and by including “irrelevancies.” Everything that Anouilh says could have really happened, but Sophocles does not even touch upon many of these issues.
At this stage I should like to quote extensively from Aldous Huxley’s essay Tragedy and the Whole Truth (1932), because it is vital to our understanding of Anouilh’s play. I do not agree with Huxley’s ideas and comments in this essay; I am quoting from it extensively because I suggest that the kind of aesthetic and critical consciousness Huxley reveals in this essay is like Anouilh’s creative consciousness, and it will therefore help us understand Anouilh’s approach in Antigone (The fact that Huxley has long been accepted as a serious writer in France is an indication that his creative consciousness is congenial to the French.)
Huxley distinguishes between two forms of literary art, Tragedy and Wholly-Truthful Literature, and says that the two are incompatible. He gives an example from the Odyssey. Six of the best and bravest of Odysseus’s companions are lifted out of the ship by Scylla. The survivors could only look on while Scylla “at the mouth of her cave devoured them, still screaming, still stretching out their hands [at Odysseus] in the fearful struggle.” Odysseus adds that it was the most fearful and lamentable sight he had ever seen in all his “explorings of the passes of the sea.”
Later, the danger passed, Odysseus and his men went ashore for the night, and, on the Sicilian beach, prepared their supper—prepared it, says Homer, “expertly.” The Twelfth Book of the Odyssey concludes with these words: “When they had satisfied their thirst and hunger, they thought of their dear companions and wept, and in the midst of their tears sleep came gently upon them!”
Homer’s . . . is the whole Truth. Consider how almost any other of the great poets would have concluded the story of Scylla’s attack on the passing ship. Six men, remember, have been taken and devoured before the eyes of their friends. In any other poem but the Odyssey, what would the survivors have done? They would, of course, have wept, even as Homer made them weep. But would they previously have cooked their supper, and cooked it, what’s more, in a masterly fashion? Would they previously have drunk and eaten to satiety? And after weeping, or actually while weeping would they have dropped quietly off to sleep? No, they most certainly would not have done any of these things. They would simply have wept, lamenting their own misfortune and the horrible fate of their companions, and the canto would have ended tragically on their tears.
Homer, however, preferred to tell the Whole Truth. He knew that even the most cruelly bereaved must eat; that hunger is stronger than sorrow and that its satisfaction takes precedence even of tears. He knew that experts continue to act expertly and to find satisfaction in their accomplishment, even when friends have just been eaten, even when the accomplishment is only cooking the supper. He knew that, when the belly is full (and only when the belly is full), men can afford to grieve, and that sorrow after supper is almost a luxury. And finally he knew that, even as hunger takes precedence of grief, so fatigue, supervening, cuts short its career and drowns it in a sleep all the sweeter for bringing forgetfulness of bereavement. In a word, Homer refused to treat the theme tragically. He preferred to tell the Whole Truth.
Huxley goes on to say,
To make a tragedy the artist must isolate a single element out of the totality of human experience and use that exclusively as his material. Tragedy is something separated from the Whole Truth, distilled from it, so to speak, as an essence is distilled from the living flower. Tragedy is chemically pure. Hence its power to act quickly and intensely on our feelings.
Compare this to Anouilh’s
The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy . . . Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless.
Wholly-Truthful art overflows the limits of tragedy and shows us, if only by hints and implications, what happened before the tragic story began, what will happen after it is over, what is happening simultaneously elsewhere (and “elsewhere” includes all those parts of the minds and bodies of the protagonists not immediately engaged in the tragic struggle). Tragedy is an arbitrarily isolated eddy on the surface of a vast river that flows majestically, irressitibly, around, beneath, and to either side of it. Wholly-Truthful art contrives to imply the existence of the entire river as well as the eddy. It is quite different from tragedy, even though it may contain, among other constituents, all the elements from which tragedy is made.
Writers who create Wholly-Truthful art shirk almost nothing. Among other things are the irrelevancies which, in actual life, always temper the situations and characters “that writers of tragedy insist on keeping chemically pure.” These irrelevancies would destroy Tragedy.
Consequently, Wholly-Truthful art produces in us an effect quite different from that produced by tragedy. Our mood when we have read a Wholly-Truthful book is never one of heroic exultation; it is one of resignation, one of acceptance . . . But I believe that its effects are more lasting. The exultations that follow the reading or hearing of a tragedy are in the nature of temporary inebriations. Our being cannot long hold the pattern imposed by tragedy.
Compare all this to the chorus’s sardonic and ironic comments:
It [tragedy] has nothing to do with melodrama . . . Death in a melodrama is really horrible because it is never inevitable. The dear old father might so easily have been saved; the honest young man might so easily have brought in the police five minutes earlier.
In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquility . . . Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn’t any hope. You’re trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is shout. Don’t mistake me: I said “shout”: I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That is vulgar; it’s practical.
The two accounts are remarkably similar, especially if one substitutes “Wholly-Truthful art” for “melodrama.”
Huxley gives another example. He says,
Shakespeare’s ironies and cynicisms serve to deepen his tragic world, but not to widen it. If they had widened it, as the Homeric irrelevancies widened out the universe of the Odyssey—why, then, the world of Shakespearean tragedy would automatically have ceased to exist. For example, a scene showing the bereaved Macduff eating his supper, growing melancholy, over the whisky, with thoughts of his murdered wife and children, and then, with lashes still wet, dropping off to sleep, would be true enough to life; but it would not be true to tragic art. The introduction of such a scene would change the whole quality of the play; treated in this Odyssean style, Macbeth would cease to be a tragedy.
We certainly cannot agree with what Huxley says about our reaction to tragedy. But, as I said earlier, it is his kind of consciousness in this essay that is important, because it is similar to Anouilh’s creative consciousness. His distinction between “Tragedy” and “the Whole Truth” as art forms is therefore particularly useful to us. He suggests that there is in some writers a consciousness of simple, everyday, commonplace things, which seem on the surface to be irrelevant, but which do, in fact, temper a particular situation. This consciousness leads these writers to create “Wholly-Truthful Art” and not “Tragedy”; this distinction, from the critics’ point of view, is only one of art forms, because the creative consciousness involved is different. Lionel Trilling tells us in The Modern Element in Modern Literature, “It is a commonplace of modern literary thought that the tragic mode is not available even to the gravest and noblest of our writers.” I suggest that this is due to the twentieth-century consciousness of “realism” (note also Eric Bentley). A consciousness of “realism” means a consciousness of the “irrelevant” things that are really relevant. Hence one cay say that the dominant mode of writing in the twentieth century is “Wholly-Truthful Art” (or “realism”).
It is important at this stage to distinguish between “realism” in drama, as the form of a play, and realism as the effect (or content) of a play. Anouilh’s Antigone is realistic in effect, but not in form.
Let us return to a comparison of the two plays (Anouilh’s and Sophocles’s). Antigone has buried her brother, knowing that her punishment will be death. Anouilh’s Antigone, however, seems at first guilty of the fourth temptation of Archbishop Thomas in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Accepting the fact that she will be killed, she seems to look forward with relish to her death. She seems to enjoy the idea of being executed. Creon does not want to kill her—but she insists. She had an ideal when she buried Polynices. But Creon tries to destroy her ideal by telling her, among other things, that both her brothers had been evil. For a moment, Antigone seems destroyed. Up to this point, our sympathy lies with Creon. But then Antigone decides that she will die for the ideal she had. In the eyes of Creon, her sacrifice is completely unjustified. Creon accepts life for what it is, and decides to “make the best of a bad job.” But Antigone refuses to compromise with life—she chooses instead to die. We may compare Antigone’s action here to the advice Zooey gives Franny in J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (Heinemann, 1962)—she acts from a purity of motive. It does not matter that the facts do not fit her ideal; she refuses to let the ideal be destroyed. She says, in a very powerful speech,
I spit on your idea of happiness! I spit on your idea of life—that life must go on, come what may. You are like the dogs that lick everything they smell. You with your promise of a humdrum happiness—provided a person doesn’t ask too much of life. I want everything of life, I do; and I want it now! I want it total, complete, otherwise I reject it! I will not be moderate. I will not be satisfied with the little bit of cake you offer me if I promise to be a good little girl. I want to be sure of everything this very day; sure that everything will be as beautiful as when I was a little girl. If not, I want to die!
In this speech, our sympathy lies wholly with Antigone.
It is clear, then, that Anouilh’s play explores problems that have not been raised explicitly in Sophocles’s play. One should not therefore conclude that Anouilh’s play is independent of Sophocles’s, and that we ought not to identify the two. Huxley tells us:
In recent times literature has become more and more acutely conscious of the whole Truth—of the great oceans of irrelevant things, events and thoughts stretching endlessly away in every direction from whatever island point (a character, a story) the author may choose to contemplate.
The “island point” in Anouilh’s Antigone is Sophocles’s Antigone. Anouilh’s Antigone follows Sophocles’s Antigone up to a stage—and then explores certain problems which are realistic, “true-to-life,” and which are not improbable in Sophocles’s play. But when we see Sophocles’s Antigone these questions do not strike us. What were the personal problems facing Ismene in her decision not to help Antigone? What would really happen if she did help Antigone? Further, when Antigone decides to bury Polynices, does she consider first whether or not he has been good? Does she think of the problems Creon has to deal with as a ruler? What if Creon had refused to be king; would anyone else have agreed to be king? What would happen to the state if Creon did not face up to his responsibilities as king? Again, when Antigone buries Polynices, is there any personal ideal she wants to live up to? Is Creon’s reaction after the three deaths merely a temporary emotional reaction; will he change his mind in his calmer moments and say that he was not really to blame? By using Sophocles’s play as a frame of reference, Anouilh solves a major problem the artist of to-day is said to face. This is lack of “contact” between audience and artist, lack of common values. As Stephen Spender tells us,
The thing written establishes communication between writer and reader . . . The message has to be conveyed at several levels. These might be compared to the wires of a cable . . . One wire is the background of objects experienced in life and having established associations which are common to writer and reader.
By assuming knowledge of a myth or a play that the audience knows, the dramatist creates the common “background of objects.” Further, Henn tells us that the twentieth-century revival of interest in Greek myth or fable is partly due to the psychological recognition of the archetypes. The fables thus acquire a new validity in themselves, and can be re-clothed effectively on what is basically the same skeleton. But this is only a partial explanation.
If such a re-clothing takes place, with a partial re-articulation of the bones, a new field is opened for the exercise of wit, the perception of metaphysical similarities or discordances, and endless over-and-under-tones of irony. Out of such parallelisms, close or remote, the dramatist can invite his audience to find “meaning” which is usually a synthesis of factors which are, to a great extent, set in opposition or paradox . . . He can provide a critical edge, at various planes, by explicit comparisons between the two ages; the past whose bones he has discovered, the present whose breath is upon them.
One should mention at this stage that Anouilh’s Creon contrasts with Sophocles’s Creon in one particular aspect, to create a positive by which we are to judge him. Anouilh’s Creon does not believe in “all that flummery about religious burial.” But Sophocles’s Creon does. This makes us realize how much Anouilh’s Creon has lost spiritually. He has no ideals. There is no greatness in his soul; his soul is filled with commonness, as of dust.
Another commonplace of modern literary criticism is that the modern audience is complacent. (Obviously, this must be qualified; there is greater critical activity now than ever before.) Anouilh deals with this problem in the same way as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot do in their poetry. He constantly changes the focus in his play, thereby upsetting the mood of the audience and preventing it from getting complacent. He jerks the audience back to awareness. At the same time, this change of focus is used, as in the case of Pound and Mr. Eliot, to make the play all-embracing of various complexities. In Aldous Huxley’s The Genius and the Goddess, John Rivers says,
The trouble with fiction is that it makes too much sense . . . Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither. In the raw, existence is always one damned thing after another, and each of the damned things is simultaneously Thurber and Michelangelo, simultaneously Mickey Spillane and Thomas a Kempis.
By a constant change of focus, by selecting a contraposition from which we are to view his object, Anouilh can include “simultaneously Thurber and Michelangelo, simultaneously Mickey Spillane and Thomas a Kempis.”
I suggest that Anouilh is one of the pioneers of what has been called the Theatre of the Absurd. The dramatists of this theatre regard their audience as complacent, apathetic, asleep. With taunts and shock effects, by breaking the continuity of a traditional form of drama, the dramatists hope to jerk the audiences into awareness, consciousness, understanding. Anouilh’s Antigone has been misunderstood because of the preconceptions some critics have had about drama. For instance, note Montgomery Belgion’s criticism of Shaw:
Realism may be all right, and a stage convention may be all right. But these characters are neither one nor the other. They are pseudo-realistic.
Again, note C. E. Vaughan on Ibsen:
How far is the scheme of Ibsen’s drama, the design as apart from the execution of it, compatible with the highest ends at which tragedy can aim? Are not his details overloaded, his themes depressing, his characters too persistently lacking in the nobler, the more heroic qualities without which our sympathies remain cold?
The criticism often brought against Jonson and Wilde is that their characters are two-dimensional or are counters, and people are not like that. By such conceptions, Anouilh’s play must seem false and irresponsible. His method of changing the focus and breaking the continuity is looked upon as irresponsible clowning. (It is interesting to note that this criticism is also levelled against Byron.)
But, as Styan points out, drama is the historic creation of a sequence of suggestions which create impressions in the minds of the audience. The sequence of impressions operates to create in the minds of the audience the total effect of the play. (To “minds,” we must also add—in the case of most plays—“hearts and souls.”) We are not to judge a play by the methods the dramatists use; we are to judge it by its total effect. (Of course, we are to see how the impressions are created, and whether or not they link together to form the total effect of the play.) We are to see how genuine the total effect is. If in its total effect the play presents a distorted view of life, or it distorts psychology, or it offers facile solutions, or it muddies fundamental issues, we reject the play. Yeats tells us that Richard II “is typical, not because he ever existed, but because he made us know something in our minds we had never known of had he never been imagined.”
Let us see how Anouilh creates his impressions in Antigone. His method is essentially fivefold. First of all, he reacts against the fact—“fact” to Anouilh but not to us—that Tragedy does not present the whole Truth. Through his chorus, he passes sardonic comments on the smooth way tragedy works in order to destroy the idea that tragedy is true-to-life and that his play is a tragedy. Secondly, he brings in several “irrelevancies” which make his play realistic, but untragic. Several examples of this have been quoted earlier in this essay. Another example is when Antigone wants to write a letter to Haemon just before her death. The guard at first refuses. But, by bribing him, she gets him to agree to copy out a letter she will dictate. We then have the following scene:
Antigone Write now. “my darling . . .”
Guard (writes as he mutters) The boy friend, eh?
Antigone “My darling. I wanted to die, and perhaps you will not love me any more . . . .”
Guard (mutters as he writes) “. . . will not love me any more.”
Antigone “Creon was right. It is terrible to die.”
Guard (repeats as he writes): “. . . terrible to die.”
Antigone “And I don’t even know what I am dying for. I am afraid . . .”
Guard (looks at her) Wait a minute! How fast do you think I can write?
This method of “echo” or repetition can be used by different dramatists in different ways. It can be used to make a scene more tragic. It can be used to fill the audience with a chilling sense of foreboding, as Webster uses it in The Duchess of Malfi. Anouilh, by means of a disinterested guard, uses it to destroy the tragic mood that would have existed if this play were a tragedy—though it does not destroy the pathos of Antigone’s plight.
Thirdly, Anouilh presents Antigone in modest, human terms. For example, Antigone’s answer to Ismene’s “Don’t make fun of me” is
I’m not, Ismene, truly. This particular morning, seeing how beautiful you are makes everything easier for me. Wasn’t I a miserable little beast when we were small? I used to fling mud at you, and put worms down your neck. I remember tying you to a tree and cutting off your hair. Your beautiful hair! How easy it must be never to be unreasonable with all that smooth silken hair so beautifully round your head.
Notice, too, Anouilh’s use of the nurse. Not knowing that Antigone has been out to bury Polynices, the nurse concludes that she has been out to meet a lover:
And we’ll hear what he [Creon] has to say when he finds out that you go wandering alone o’nights. Not to mention Haemon. For the girl’s engaged! Going to be married! Going to be married, and she hops out of bed at four in the morning to meet somebody else in a field. Do you know what I ought to do to you? Take you over my knee the way I used to when you were little.
The scenes that remind us of Antigone’s childhood not only “humanize” Antigone, they also contract the happy innocence of Antigone’s youth with the world she now has to face.
Fourthly, as I mentioned earlier, the play raises problems untouched by Sophocles. This is done partly by a discussion between Antigone and Creon. At this stage, Antigone becomes a play of ideas. Bentley tells us that the play of ideas is a modern evolution of drama. Of course, “play of ideas” is a vague term. In one sense, Bentley says, there are ideas in all words and therefore in all drama. Tragedy has always suggested ideas concerning the significance of human life—but in most tragedies, “the characters fight, the ideas lie still and unmolested. In a drama of ideas, on the other hand, the ideas are questioned, and it is by questioning—and it could only be by the questioning—that the ideas becom[e] dramatic.” The discussion between Antigone and Creon is moving because it is not a “detached” discussion of abstract concepts.
Finally, we must not forget the “modern language and dress.” For instance, the scene between Antigone and the guard, mentioned earlier, when the guard is talking about his pay: “they know you’re an old N.C.O. Take pay for instance.” Much earlier, the chorus tells us,
There was a ball one night. Ismene wore a new evening frock. She was radiant. Haemon danced every dance with her.
We come now to an important point—Anouilh’s negativeness. Anouilh’s Antigone is not negative, to my mind, because of its historical context. Geoffrey Brereton tells us about Antigone “First produced during the German occupation, it has an obvious topical message.” “An obvious topical message” is perhaps putting it too crudely; but we can see how the clash between Antigone and Creon could be an intensely true-to-life experience when it was first produced. The setting of the play was really the situation in France. But we find Anouilh offers the same “positive” in other plays; and, in a different context, we cannot accept this positive. Earlier, I compared Anouilh and Salinger. A comparison between them also shows us the difference between their positives. The norm offered in Zooey is, to put it a little bluntly, that one should act out of a purity of motive, even if various elements in life are “impure.” But this is important—one should live with this purity. Anouilh, on the other hand, suggests in other plays that because life is impure, one should reject it; the longer one lives, the more soiled one becomes. (Of course, this does not apply to comedies like Ring Round the Moon.) We find finally that we have to condemn Anouilh for the very negativeness which he accuses Samuel Becket of.
To return to Antigone—Anouilh’s Antigone is to my mind, a good play. Although it is not the same type of play as Sophocles’s Antigone, there can be little doubt that Sophocles’s play is a much greater play than Anouilh’s. Anouilh explores many problems that Sophocles leaves untouched; but Sophocles leaves them untouched because they are irrelevant to his tragic conception and his tragic theme. The theme and one form of Sophocles’s Antigone are different from that of Anouilh’s. As Kitto tells us, Greek plays are “constructive.” The simplicity of the form of Sophocles’s play is for the sake of concentration.
Since Anouilh uses Sophocles’s play as a frame of reference, it follows that his play would not exist if Sophocles’s play did not exist. Therefore, in a sense, Anouilh’s Antigone is not a finished work of art. Further, while Antigone is a good play, it seems pernicious that its form should be adopted for other plays. Let us see why. It jerks the audience back to consciousness by breaking the continuity of a conventional form. Styan tells us,
No dramatist can work outside a channel of convention, since only this permits continuity of attention. Even when it is his object to break this continuity, he must begin by moving along one of these channels. It must be an already flowing train of feeling he interrupts if after the break he is to secure that exciting renewal of attention.
The stress is on the fact that the dramatist must interrupt an already flowing train of feeling. How long can the interruptions continue before the train of feeling, in a sense, ceases to flow? A few plays of this sort jerk the audience back to consciousness. But many plays like this can unsettle the audience so much that the audience may not be able to accept a convention of drama anymore. Then what will such plays feed on? How long can dramatists continue breaking the continuity before all continuity in drama is broken?
Thus Anouilh’s Antigone is a paradox: it is a good play which ultimately undermines the whole dramatic idiom.
Source: Peter Nazareth, “Anouilh’s Antigone: An Interpretation,” in English Studies in Africa, 1963, Vol. 6, pp. 51–69.
In this review of a 1956 revival of Anouilh’s play, Clurman examines the political nature of Antigone while offering a mixed appraisal of the work.
I never read a French review of Anouilh’s Antigone but report has it that when it was done in Paris during the Occupation it was considered a covert piece of propaganda urging defiance of the Nazi government. Yet the Nazi authorities permitted its production. It seems to have meant different things to different people.
In the hush of its present revival by a new theatre organization—Mazda Productions—I believe I discern how this case of mistaken identity could occur. Anouilh’s Antigone defies Creon not because her moral sense has been outraged, but because, having been informed that her brother was a despicable thug by the very reasonable politician Anouilh has made Creon, she sees that life isn’t worth living at all. All is corruption: life dulls, coarsens, depraves men’s initial goodness, and those who go on living become mere “cooks,” compromisers content to come to terms with the shabby routine of ordinary existence. And the police shall inherit the earth. It is better to die pure.
This is a perverse romanticism—typical of much French writing since 1937, the key to Anouilh’s ideology, whether he writes in the pink vein of Thieves’ Ball or in the black one of Eurydice. The Lark is a quasi-ironic illustration of the exceptional (saintly) person who redeems the mess that most Frenchmen make.
On a higher level (in Camus’ work let us say) the thought may be summed up as follows: life is nonsense, let us revolt against its absurdity and then make some sense of it. It is a desperate manner of thinking and though beguiling theatre patterns may be made of it in the acidly sentimental way of which Anouilh has taken full advantage, I distrust it. Its appeal is to a basic weakness in us. Anouilh’s Antigone is an anti-heroic heroine; in a word, an hysteric.
I think it an error for the ambitious organization on 57th Street to have chosen Antigone as its first bill, but I am glad have the organization, and look forward to seeing it produce better work in more suitable plays.
Source: Harold Clurman. Review of Antigone in the Nation, Vol. 182, no. 16, April 21, 1956, pp. 347–48.
In the following excerpt, Heiney examines a number of Anouilh’s plays, assessing the playwright’s facility with the tragedy genre.
Jean Anouilh (b. 1910) is often considered the leading French dramatist of the postwar generation, even though his reputation is only a dozen or so years old. It was under the peculiar conditions of the Occupation that his drama first attracted widespread public attention; Antigone (1942) was interpreted, as it was probably intended, as a thinly-veiled allegory of France under the Vichy regime. In America, where his work has been available since 1945, he is still relatively little known. Antigone is occasionally played in this country; Ring Around the Moon. Christopher Fry’s adaptation of l’Invitation au cháteau, has attracted some attention, and an adaptation of Eurydice has been presented to Broadway audiences under the title A Legend of Lovers. But the leitmotif of Anouilh’s work is not widely understood; he is typically treated as a theatrical prestidigitateur with the expected “French” charm but with little content. This is the sort of misconception with respect to French drama that Anglo-Saxon critics have nourished even since the heyday of the Vieux Colombier. Anouilh is a psychological dramatist, although not in the modern pseudo-scientific sense; he is also the chief contemporary exponent of tragedy in the drama. Most of his tragedies are based on classic themes; they are simultaneously a modern expression of the Aristotelean tragic principle and a sensitive approach to the portrayal of psychological processes.
To Anouilh humanity is made up of two kinds of people: the anonymous mass of normal and rational nonentities who accept the banality of daily existence, and the heroes. The first group is motivated chiefly by a desire for happiness, not the ecstasy of the saint but the petit bonheur of the unambitious. This is the race which populates the earth and performs the daily drudgery which is the price of human existence; which “eats its sausage, makes its babies, pushes its tools, counts its sous, year in and year out, in spite of epidemics and wars, right up to life’s end; living people, everyday people, people you don’t imagine dead.”
The second group rejects this banality. Where the ordinary man realizes the imperfection of the human lot but nevertheless grasps at the petty happiness that is offered him, the hero has the courage to say “no.” It is this second race which supplies the world with saints, martyrs, Caesars, artists, assassins, prophets, and above all with tragic heroes; for the man who refuses to say “yes” to life thereby condemns himself to a tragic end. These are “those you imagine stretched out, pale, a red hole in the forehead, a moment triumphant with a guard of honor, or between two gendarmes . . . .” It is not that the hero deliberately chooses this path; he is condemmed to it by the nature of his personality. He can no more escape tragedy than the ordinary man can escape banality. The ordinary man and the hero belong to different species, and they are condemned to perpetual misunderstanding, suspicion, and enmity; human existence is an eternal struggle between heroism and happiness. Out of this antithesis Anouilh fashions his dramatic conflict. It is significant that he includes all his Greek plays in the two collections he entitles “pieces noires”; to him classic mythology is indissolubly linked with tragedy and death . . . .
Antigone (1942) treats the same basic theme, but utilizes a different technique. Like most other modern Antigone plays, it is based on Sophocles; the period and decor remain that of classic Greece. But there is an anachronistic, modern element which serves to give the action an aura of timelessness. The drama is played in modern dress; Creon wears evening clothes, and the palace guards wear battle-jackets and carry automatic rifles. Such incidental anachronisms aside, the plot roughly follows Sophocles. To Antigone the burial of Polynices is less a religious ritual than a symbolic act she must perform in order to retain her own integrity. Creon, an intelligent and reasonable Machiavellian, tries to convince her that her project is both destructive and meaningless; one by one he refutes her reasons for wanting to throw her handful of dirt over the corpse of her brother. He forces her to admit that Polynices was almost a stranger to her in her childhood; he proves incontrovertibly that Polynices was a ne’er-do-well and profligate who wasted his money on debauchery and treated his father Oedipus without respect. To clinch his argument he confesses he is by no means sure the corpse rotting on the outskirts of the city is Polynices at all. Moreover he, Creon, has no particular opinions about the virtues of the two brothers, and is not impressed by the superstition that unburied souls are condemned to wander eternally in the nether regions. He believes in any case in letting sleeping dogs lie. He is merely trying conscientiously and doggedly (as was, it might be remarked, Marshal Petain) to rule Thebes to the best of his ability, and he wants to keep philosophical considerations out of the technical process of government. “Thebes has a right now to a prince without a history,” he remarks. “Me, I’m just Creon, thank God. I’ve got both feet on the ground, my hands in my pockets, and since I am king I am determined, less ambition than your father, to employ myself simply to make the world order a little less absurd, if possible. There’s nothing adventurous about it, it’s an everyday job, and not always fun, like all jobs. But since I’ve been put here to do it, I’ll do it. And if tomorrow some mangy messenger should come out of the mountains to announce that he isn’t quite sure of my pedigree, I would simply beg him to turn around and go back where he came from. I wouldn’t have any desire to go and peer at your aunt in the face or to set myself comparing dates. Kings have other things to worry about than their personal tragedies, my dear girl.”
Antigone replies that for Creon this position is eminently rational and just; it is, in fact, the only position he can logically maintain. He has said “yes” to life, and in doing so he has brought upon himself a whole chain of consequences which force him to act as he does. As for herself—“I haven’t said yes. What do you think that is to me, your politics, your necessity, your miserable stories? I can still say no to everything I don’t like, and I’m the only judge. And you, with your crown and your guards and your panoply, you can only put me to death, because you have said yes.” Her choice made, Antigone goes to her death and drags Hemon after her because she refuses to tell a useful lie as the price of happiness. As Creon tells Hemon toward the end of the play, Antigone was born to die; even though she herself did not realize it, Polynices was only a pretext . . . .
The essence of tragedy as it was understood by the ancients was that a noble hero came to his downfall through an inherent fault in his character; usually this flaw consisted of an excessive fervor or self-confidence. When the classic tragedy demonstrates that hybris brings its inevitable nemesis, it is merely reiterating that the Dionysian personality
“IT IS NOT THAT THE HERO DELIBERATELY CHOOSES [HIS] PATH; HE IS CONDEMMED TO IT BY THE NATURE OF HIS PERSONALITY. HE CAN NO MORE ESCAPE TRAGEDY THAN THE ORDINARY MAN CAN ESCAPE BANALITY. THE ORDINARY MAN AND THE HERO BELONG TO DIFFERENT SPECIES . . . .”
carries within itself the seeds of its own catastrophe. This is precisely the nature of the catastrophe which arrives to the heroes of Jean Anouilh: fanatic idealists who will accept no compromise, they come to destruction because they are born into a world in which compromise is the price of existence. Most of the other tragic heroes of modern drama are not tragic in this sense; they are destroyed only because they could not achieve their ends. Anouilh passes beyond this modern pseudo-tragedy to arrive at the essence of the tragic situation, and his technique proves itself in the unmistakable emotion katharsis the spectator feels at his plays.
Anouilh himself distinguishes between true tragedy and catastrophic melodrama in a curious passage he inserts into the middle of Antigone. While Creon muses over the mysterious burial of Polynices, the chorus comes forward and analyses the situation with a remarkable scholarly detachment. “It’s nice, the tragedy. It’s calm, restful. In the melodrama, with those traitors, those desperate villains, that persecuted innocence, those avengers, those Saint Bernards, those glimmers of hope, it’s horrible to die, almost by accident as it were. You might have escaped, the good young man might have arrived in time with the gendarmes. In the tragedy you can relax. In the first place, you’re at home—after all, everyone’s innocent! It isn’t that there is someone who kills and someone who is killed. It’s just a question of arrangement. And then, most of all, the tragedy is calm because you know there’s no hope, no dirty hope; you’re caught, you’re caught after all like a rat, it’s all on your shoulders, and all you can do is cry out—not groan, no, not complain—to bawl at the top of your voice what you have to say.”
Tragedy should speak to us, as it spoke to the Greeks, as a living and contemporary human drama; the action should appear to involve persons like ourselves who are seen in predicaments we can understand. If this feeling of timelessness is not present, if we feel we are viewing a “historical” drama, we cannot believe the tragedy is our tragedy, and the drama degenerates into mere spectacle. Anouilh’s dramas, written in modern vernacular and filled with the objects and figures of our own daily life, achieve a universality in time which would be impossible in a mere sterile imitation of the external apparatus of classicism.
Source: Donald Heiney. “Jean Anouilh: The Revival of Tragedy” in College English, Vol. 16, no. 6, March, 1955, pp.331–35.
Joseph Wood Krutch
Noted drama critic Krutch assesses a 1946 Broadway production of Anouilh’s Antigone, examining the parallels between the story and the German occupation of Paris, France, during the play’s initial run.
Antigone is adapted from the adaptation made by Jean Anouilh, played in Paris during the occupation, and more or less put over on the German censors. Though acted in modern costume, the scene was left in ancient Greece, and little essential change was made in either the action or even the motives. In Sophocles’s original the conflict is already that between the individual and the state, or, more precisely, between the laws decreed by a supreme secular authority and those of God and of nature. To transform it into a fable for the times, little more than a mere modernization of the terminology was necessary. Make Creon a rationalizing fascist dictator who justifies himself by arguing the need for an established order in the turbulent Greek states, make it clear that Antigone’s insistence upon burying her brother springs from her conviction that necessity, the tyrant’s plea, is never superior to the claims of fundamental human decency, and you get a play which the Germans could not and obviously did not fail to recognize as a discussion of the current situation.
Lewis Galantière’s obviously skilful version—it is not called a translation—is acted by Katharine Cornell and Cedric Hardwicke in modern dress upon a stage bare except for its draperies and in one continuous act, which runs for a bit over an hour and a half. Horace Braham, serving as narrator-commentator, is the chorus compressed into one person, the dramaturgical method is Greek, not modern, and, indeed, even the order of the incidents follows fairly closely that of the Sophocles original; so that what one gets is something perhaps even closer to the Greek in form than it is in thought.
On the whole most of the reviewers seem not to have been very greatly pleased, and Antigone got a rather poor press. I find myself agreeing with many of the specific strictures made, but I seem to have been more interested and more moved by the whole than those of my colleagues whose reviews I have read. It is true, I think, that to make the guards neither like Greeks nor like S. S. men but like simple-minded American tough guys is probably a mistake. I agree that though Miss Cornell’s performance is excellent—specially and as usual with her, pictorially excellent—acting honors probably go to Hardwicke, whose portrait of the icily reasonable dictator is a genuinely memorable one. Moreover, even at the risk of seeming pedantic, I might add that the modern playwright actually outdoes the Greek in decorum, since though of course Sophocles permits no deaths upon the stage he does have the body of Haemon brought in, and I wonder, difficult as such things are to manage properly, if some such presentation of the bodies might not have added the final scene which the play as it now stands does need. But all these are relatively minor matters. I found none of the play, except perhaps some of the very earliest scenes, uninteresting, and I found the interview between Creon and Antigone, which takes up perhaps a third to a half of the entire running time, both absorbing and moving. One of the boldest of the author’s modifications of his text, that in which he makes Creon confess that he is using the dead brother merely as a politically useful scapegoat, seems to me very effective, and Antigone’s retort at the climax of the debate is conclusive and tremendous. Creon has launched into a characteristic rhapsody in praise of vitality and the will to live. “Ah,” interrupts Antigone, “if men were only animals, what a king you would be!”
Since the German censors could not have failed to recognize that the play was intended as a commentary upon the current situation one wonders why they permitted it at all. One wonders also if they would have permitted a revival of Shaw’s “St. Joan,” in which the same problem is discussed and in which, though the very presence of Jeanne d’Arc might have been thought intolerable, the claims of the central authority really come off rather better than they do in the American version of Antigone. Obviously the Germans decided that they were willing to risk their case on the effectiveness of Creon’s presentation of it, and a note in the present program helps make it understandable that they should have done so. The play as we now have it is not quite the play that was performed in Paris during the occupation. No Frenchman, Mr. Galantiere assures us, could have come away feeling that Creon’s argument was stronger than Antigone’s, but, so he implies, a German might have felt otherwise, and in the American version Antigone’s case has been somewhat built up, “not by taking anything away from M. Anouilh’s Creon, but by adding something to his Antigone, his chorus, and his Haemon.” Since a part of the interest in this American production is documentary and historical, I am not sure that Mr. Galantiere would not have been wiser to give us the argument precisely as it was given in the French version.
Source: Joseph Wood Krutch. Review of Antigone in the Nation, Vol. 162, no. 9, March 2, 1946, p. 269.
Anouilh, Jean. Jean Anouilh: Five Plays, with an Introduction by Ned Chaillet, Methuen, 1987.
Della Fazia, Alba Marie. Jean Anouilh, Twayne Publishers, 1969, 154 p.
Falb, Lewis W. Jean Anouilh, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977.
Kelly, Kathleen W. Jean Anouilh: An Annotated Bibliography, Scarecrow Press, 1973.
Pronko, Leonard Cabell. The World of Jean Anouilh, University of California Press, 1961.
Chiari, Joseph. The Contemporary French Theatre: The Flight from Naturalism, Gordian Press, 1970, 242 p.
Traces the development of theatricalism in French theater.
Della Fazia, Alba Marie. Jean Anouilh, Twayne Publishers, 1969, 154 p.
A comprehensive study of Anouilh’s life and work, with analysis of the major plays.
Harvey, John Edmond. Anouilh: A Study in Theatrics, Yale University Press, 1964, 191 p.
A study of the theatricalism of Anouilh’s plays, with discussions of his staging and characterization.
Lenski, B. A. Jean Anouilh: Stages in Rebellion, Humanities Press, 1975, 104 p.
Analyzes the theme of rebellion in Anouilh’s works.
McIntyre, H. G. The Theatre of Jean Anouilh, Harrap, 1981, 165 p.
Examines theatrical elements of Anouilh’s plays.
SOPHOCLES c. 442 B.C.
Greek playwright Sophocles wrote the last play in the Theban Trilogy, Antigone, around 442 B.C. The Theban Trilogy consists of Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King), Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone, but the play considered the last of the three was, ironically, written first. Only seven of Sophocles’s one hundred-twenty-three tragedies have survived to the modern era—with the trilogy surviving the ages intact. These three plays are perhaps the most famous of the seven, with Antigone performed most often.
Antigone tells the story of the title character, daughter of Oedipus (the former king of Thebes, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, and who renounced his kingdom upon discovering his actions), and her fight to bury her brother Polyneices against the edict of her uncle, Creon, the new king of Thebes. It is a story that pits the law of the gods—“unwritten law”—against the laws of humankind, family ties against civic duty, and man against woman.
Many playwrights in Ancient Greece used mythological stories to comment on social and political concerns of their time. This is what Sophocles may have intended when he wrote Antigone. Based on the legends of Oedipus, Sophocles may have been trying to send a message to the Athenian general, Pericles, about the dangers of authoritarian rule.
These tragedies were written to be performed at the Great Dionysia (a festival in honor of the god Dionysus, the god of fertility, theater, and wine) in Athens. Attending these plays was considered a civic duty, and even criminals were let out of jail to attend. Antigone won Sophocles first prize at the festival and was an enormous success. It is still performed today, and has been adapted by French playwright Jean Anouilh, who set the play during World War II.
Sophocles lived from c.496 to c.406 B.C., during the Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.), the Greek city-state of which he was a citizen. He was an active citizen, participating in the city’s infant democracy. He was involved in the war against the Samians and during the war became friends with Athens’s popular general, Pericles. He founded the Thiasos of Muses (a society for the advancement of music and literature), and was an ambassador to many foreign countries throughout his lifetime. He was also a priest of the healing god Amynos and kept the sacred snake representing the god Aeschulapius while his temple was being built. He was a very well-rounded citizen, not only leading an active political and religious life but also writing one hundred and twenty-three tragedies, of which only seven remain intact for modern readers.
Sophocles was married to a woman named Nicostrata, with whom he had a son, Iophon; he also had a son (out of wedlock) with Theoris of Sicyon named Ariston. He studied music under Lamprus and tragedy under Aeschylus before writing his own tragedies. His was a wealthy family and powerful in political and religious affairs. Of his seven plays to survive, Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) (c. 430 B.C.), Oedipus at Colonus (c. 404 B.C.), and Antigone (c. 442 B.C.), comprise the “Theban Trilogy,” three plays which deal with King Oedipus’s tragic fall from power and the ruin of his children. Sophocles also wrote Ajax (c. 450 B.C.), Trachiniae (The Women of Trachis) (440 B.C.), and Electra and Philoctetes (both c. 409 B.C.). The titles of ninety other Sophoclean dramas survive, including Triptolemos, which was honored at the dramatic competition the Great Dionysia c. 468 B.C., when Sophocles defeated his onetime mentor Aeschylus.
In Antigone, the title character asserts that the laws of Zeus and “unwritten law” justify her burial of her brother, Polyneices. The popular general Pericles himself addressed the issue of unwritten law. To many scholars the play was Sophocles’s message to Pericles on the dangers of authoritarian rule, and the playwright’s assertion of the general’s need to remain conscious of his duty to the citizens of Athens. It was the duty of playwrights in Athens to address social and political issues, and this play not only addresses authoritarian rule, but also familial duty and the status of women in society. When Antigone stands up to Creon she not only defies the edict, but also the traditional behavior of Greek women of the time.
During the Golden Age of Athens, Sophocles was one of the city’s most prolific and beloved playwrights. Antigone is still performed all over the world, and though it may seem different in theme and structure to modern works, it continues to move audiences just at it did when it was first produced. Many scholars have remarked on Sophocles’s ability to create dramatic, complex, and unique characters and situations, all of which have withstood the passage of time.
Antigone opens shortly before dawn outside of the palace at Thebes, where Antigone meets her sister Ismene. Together they grieve over the losses their family has suffered. First, their father, Oedipus, had unknowingly murdered his own father, ascended the throne, and married his mother. When Oedipus discovered this, he put out his eyes and wandered as an exile from Thebes until his death. Then their brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had killed each other in a battle between Thebes and the city of Argos. Now, because Polyneices fought against Thebes, Creon, the new king of Thebes, has ordered that his corpse remain unburied, thus condemning his spirit to roam the earth for one hundred years.
Grieved, Antigone calls on Ismene to join her in carrying out their duty to their brother in spite of the edict. Antigone appeals to her sister’s familial duty. Ismene, on the other hand, argues that, as women, they should not question the decisions of men—especially an edict from the king. Each fails to persuade the other and the sisters exit as the chorus of elders approaches.
Because Thebes has stood victorious in the battle against Argos, the chorus calls for a celebration. Then, as they begin to wonder why they have been summoned to the palace, Creon, newly crowned as king over the city-state, comes from the palace. He asks the elders to show him the same loyalty they had previously awarded Oedipus. He restates his edict that Polyneices shall not be buried, vowing that no foe of the city shall be his friend. The chorus seems uncertain about administering Creon’s edict and ask that younger men perform the task. One of the young men guarding the body of Polyneices comes forward.
The sentry guard tells Creon that someone has sprinkled dust on the body of Polyneices—an attempt at burial that violates Creon’s decree. An elder suggests that the act is the work of a god. Creon disagrees and warns the old man against such foolish proclamations. It is base, he argues, to defy the state, not the glorious act of a god. The king suspects that money has provoked someone to attempt
- Antigone was adapted for a film directed by Dinos Katsourides. Starring Irene Papas and Manos Katrakis, the production is in Greek with English subtitles, released by Ivy Film, 1962; available through Ingram International Films.
- Antigone was re-adapted for the stage in 1987; available through Films for the Humanities & Sciences.
- Antigone: Rites for the Dead is a dance interpretation of Sophocles’s tragedy. A filmed version was directed by Amy Greenfield, with music by Glen Branca, Paul Lemos, Eliot Sharp, Diamanda Galas, and David Van Tiegham, 1991.
Polyneices’s burial. Creon tells the sentry that he will be held responsible for the crime until the guard finds the actual perpetrator. He sends the sentry back to his post, commanding that he find the lawbreaker.
The chorus praises the wonder that is man and the cunning by which he can capture all of nature, or, conversely, escape nature’s snares, all, that is, except death. Then the guard returns bringing Antigone as his captive. The guard reports that just after they had removed the dust from Polyneices, Antigone was caught trying to bury her brother a second time. When questioned by Creon, Antigone admits to both attempts at burial. Creon condemns her; Antigone asserts that she has done a noble deed by honoring her family and following the “unwritten law.”
Creon suspects that, due to her odd behavior earlier, Ismene may be an accomplice in her sister’s crimes. When she comes forth, the chorus of elders recognizes that Ismene is innocent; her tears are not of guilt but sorrow for her sister. Yet Creon demands her confession, and she gives it. Upon hearing
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the ways in which arguments over such topics as abortion (both pro-choice and anti-abortion movements) or anti-government militia groups such as the Montana Freemen and the Republic of Texas concern conflicts over the rights of individuals and the role the state should play in determining ethical decisions. How much should the state be involved in determining or restricting the rights of the individual? How much should the rights of individuals be asserted over the good of the state and community?
- Research the differences between the concept of the nuclear family, consisting of two parents and their children, and the extended families of other cultures, in which grandparents and other relatives play important roles in the lives of family members.
- In the breakdown of what is perceived to be a traditional American family—particularly families without father figures-many young people living in urban areas find nurture and support by joining gangs. Research the ways, both positive and negative, in which young people find family values by being loyal to a gang. Based on this research, what alternatives to gangs can be suggested for youths seeking some kind of familial relationship?
- Research how organized crime “families” are structured and show the ways in which this structure is in conflict with political structures in America and the world.
- Explore the family unit during the 19th century western expansion of the American frontier. How did the early explorers and settlers organize themselves? What type of family unit was most common, nuclear or extended?
this, Antigone states that she acted alone, absolving her sister of guilt. Ismene pleads for Antigone’s life, reminding the king that not only is his prisoner family (Antigone is Creon’s niece), she is also betrothed to his son, Haemon. Despite this, Creon will not reverse his judgment.
As Antigone and Ismene are led away, Haemon appears. He appeals to his father’s ego, asking that he let Antigone go free to show the people that he is a kind and forgiving ruler. Though Creon briefly considers his son’s advice, when Haemon notes that citizens are concerned for Antigone’s welfare, the king sees that the argument is only made to free Antigone. He rejects his son’s proposal, stating that he will not have his laws questioned by a woman, nor will he accede to the desires of his son. He vows to execute Antigone in Haemon’s presence, but his son leaves, vowing that his father will never see him again. Creon decides to bury Antigone alive with enough food and water so that the city itself is not held to blame for her death.
Antigone is led to a cavern where she will be sealed inside of a tomb. The chorus of elders mourn for her, speaking of comparisons to Persephone, who also died young and without a husband. The chorus also seems to mock Antigone, however.
After Antigone has been led away, Teiresias, a blind seer, is brought before Creon. The prophet warns Creon that he is responsible for a sickness that has descended on Thebes. Polyneices’s unburied body has polluted the city and the gods will hear no more prayers. The body is also polluting the cities close to Thebes, causing ill will toward Creon’s city-state. Creon accuses the old man of trickery, stating that some enemy must have paid the seer to come and upset him. Teiresias accuses Creon of tyranny and selfishness, warning the king that he will lose his son and great grief will befall his house.
After Teiresias exits, Creon becomes fearful. He decides to heed the advice of the elders, allow Polyneices to be buried, and set Antigone free. When he exits the elders pray to Bacchus for the safe-keeping of the city.
A messenger enters and reports that Haemon has taken his own life. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, comes from the palace to receive this information. She learns how Creon and his men first gave Polyneices an honorable burial, and how, when they came to Antigone’s crypt, they found that she had hanged herself. Haemon, in grief, tried to stab his father and, failing this, impaled himself. Eurydice bears this news in silence, returning to the palace.
Creon returns to the palace bearing the body of his son. He is grief-stricken over the results of his own stubbornness. He then learns that Eurydice has also taken her own life. Creon begins to rave, calling himself a rash, foolish man whose life has been overwhelmed by death.
Antigone, the daughter of Jocasta (sister of Creon) and daughter/half-sister of Oedipus (Jocasta’s son/husband, King of Thebes), is a strong-willed young woman who decides to bury her brother Polyneices against the edict of her uncle Creon, the new king. Following what she calls “unwritten law,” Antigone buries her brother and performs the rituals of the dead. Creon, upon discovering her guilt, sentences her to die by being buried alive. When Creon goes to free Antigone from her early grave on the advice of Teiresias, he finds she’s already hung herself, and his son, Haemon, her fiance, commits suicide to join her in death. Antigone is a representative of allegiance to family and tradition. By defying Creon’s edict, she is showing her faith and sense of duty to her family. She personifies the belief that family and human relations should be placed above politics.
Antigone is committed to her ideals. When her sister Ismene refuses to help her bury their brother, she ends their relationship, and, when caught, she refuses to let Ismene share the punishment. When Creon tells her that she dishonors her dead brother Eteocles, she replies that he is dishonoring the gods by refusing to obey the unwritten laws of Zeus. Though she laments her fate, she later faces it defiantly. Antigone also represents contradictions, first defying her role as a woman, which is to remain silent and follow Creon’s edict, and then lamenting that she will never be Haemon’s bride. Yet her complex emotions and strength of conviction makes her unique as a Greek woman and have rendered her a compelling heroine for centuries.
The Chorus is another convention of Greek drama. They, in Antigone, act as older Theban nobles who comment on the actions of the characters in the play and underline moral points. They also fill in the background of the civil war that pitted brothers Eteocles and Polyneices against each other.
One of the choral passages in the play is called the “Ode to Man,” which glorifies humankind’s accomplishments but warns against ignoring the gods. The Chorus, however, supports Creon’s decisions until it becomes evident that his rule has resulted in tragedy. Creon reminds the Chorus that they too signed Antigone’s death warrant by supporting his policies.
Creon is Antigone’s uncle, brother of her mother, Jocasta. He was proclaimed regent (or ruler) after Oedipus’s tragic fall from power. He has raised his sister’s children as his own following her descent into madness. He was to rule Thebes until Eteocles and Polyneices could rule together as adults. After their deaths he was proclaimed king in his own right.
Holding on to power and suppressing rebellion of any kind are Creon’s main objectives when he orders Polyneices to remain unburied. When notified by a sentry that someone has defied his order, he holds the sentry responsible until the culprit is caught. Creon is unbending and will not listen to the advice of his elders (the Chorus) or Teiresias, the prophet. He is an autocrat, an absolute ruler.
Creon’s refusal to obey what Antigone calls the “unwritten laws” regarding honoring the dead leads to his downfall. As the body of Polyneices “pollutes” the altars of Thebes and its neighboring kingdoms, Creon refuses to listen to advice and further angers the gods by sentencing Antigone to be buried alive as punishment for her betrayal of his edict. Even the pleas of his own son Haemon, Antigone’s fiance, go unheard as he disowns his son for being less of a man for defending his love. Teiresias, the respected prophet, is branded a liar by Creon for predicting that this unbending stance will bring death to those he loves. Despite evidence that Teiresias has been right in the past, and is an honest man, Creon refuses to yield. It is only at the urging of the chorus leader that he relents but by then it is too late. Both Antigone and Haemon are dead by suicide, and their deaths are followed closely by the suicide of Creon’s wife Eurydice. Creon’s refusal to listen and to compromise lead to the loss of everything he loves, including power. He becomes a grief-stricken, broken man.
Eurydice is Creon’s wife and Haemon’s mother. She appears late in the play, when she senses something is wrong with her family, and is then informed of the deaths of Antigone and Haemon by a messenger. She takes refuge inside the palace, and, as the messenger tells Creon: “She stabbed herself at the altar, then her eyes went dark . . . then with her dying breath she called down torments on your head—you killed her sons.”
Haemon is the son of Creon and Eurydice and is engaged to be married to Antigone. He tries desperately to persuade his father to see reason by allowing Polyneices’s burial and the release of Antigone, but Creon refuses and accuses his son of being a “slave” to Antigone. Disowned by his father, Haemon breaks into Antigone’s tomb and, upon finding her dead, kills himself in front of his father. Haemon responds to Antigone’s moral courage by sacrificing himself for her; his love and admiration for Antigone are so great that he cannot bear to live without her.
Antigone’s sister Ismene loves her sister and brothers, but she refuses to help Antigone bury Polyneices. She reminds her sister that according to their role as women, it is not for them to decide what is right or wrong. When Antigone is caught, Ismene is willing to share the punishment, but Antigone denies her sister’s involvement. Ismene is devastated by the loss of her siblings, but because of her belief in her lack of status, she feels powerless to act on their behalf. Ismene acts as a foil for Antigone; while she demonstrates a woman living according to the traditional rules governing the behavior and status of Athenian women, Antigone represents a pioneering woman who governs herself according to a sense of personal empowerment and self-reliance.
The Koryphaios is the chorus leader, who functions as an advisor to Creon. He expresses concern for Antigone, tries to support Haemon, and advises Creon to listen to Teiresias. He does, however, agree with both Creon and Antigone on some points, and support wavers between the two characters throughout the play.
The messenger brings the news of the deaths of Antigone and Haemon to Eurydice and the news of Eurydice’s death to Creon. Greek tragedy demanded that the violence take place offstage; so a messenger served to inform the audience, and the other characters, of the action that has taken place offstage. The messenger in Antigone asserts to Eurydice that “Truth is always best,” sparing her—and any other character to whom he brings news—no details and providing the simple truth. Pointing to the Haemon’s body, and hinting at the death of the queen, the messenger tells Creon: “The grief that lies at hand you’ve brought yourself—the rest, in the house, you’ll see it all too soon.”
The sentry informs Creon at the beginning of the play that someone has buried and performed death rituals for Polyneices; he is held accountable for the crime until he goes back to the scene and catches Antigone in the act. The sentry then proudly brings Antigone to Creon, glad to have cleared himself of any wrongdoing. He claims to be concerned solely with his own welfare, though expresses regret at having implicated such a young woman.
A respected prophet, the blind Teiresias was well known to ancient Greek audiences from the Theban legends. He is led by his boy assistant to Creon’s palace to tell the king that he must reverse his edicts, bury Polyneices, and free Antigone. Using a ritual sacrifice, Teiresias determines that the “state is sick” and its altars “polluted” because Polyneices’s body has been left to be eaten by animals. The live burial of Antigone only adds to the anger of the gods.
Creon accuses the prophet of lying for money, calling him a “prophetic profiteer.” Teiresias counters by predicting the deaths of Haemon and Eurydice. He also predicts that the other nearby kingdoms will attack because of the pollution of their altars. Greek audiences of Sophocles’s time would have readily accepted and believed Teiresias and his predictions. Oracles, fortune telling, and ritual sacrifices and offerings to the gods were part of everyday life in Greece at the time. His predictions serve to heighten the tension in the play and to set up the events for catharsis, the purging of fear and pity brought about by the events in the play.
Antigone was written over two thousand years ago, in a land that is still considered the birthplace of democracy. Sophocles was a part of this democratic movement, but custom, tradition, and the rules of the gods also played an important role in Greek life. This is reflected in the themes present in the play: choices and their consequences; custom and tradition; gods and religion; and betrayal. These issues make Antigone constant in terms of its relevance to audiences of all times, as these issues represent some of the fundamental challenges faced by humankind.
Choices and Consequences
Just as in life, choices in Antigone have their consequences. From the outset, Antigone’s decision to bury Polyneices seals her fate. Her refusal to obey Creon’s edict to leave her brother’s body to be consumed by wild animals leads to her capture and to her death. Similarly, Ismene’s refusal to help Antigone ends her relationship with her sister. When Antigone is caught, Ismene is refused the honor of sharing her fate and instead is forced to live on alone, tortured by a loss of family and the knowledge that she may have made a cowardly choice.
Creon’s unyielding government and his choice to ignore both the advice of Teiresias and the pleas of Haemon result in the loss of both his son and wife—as well as bad relationships with neighboring cities. His refusal to bend to the will of the gods effectively ruins his life. All choices in the play—Antigone’s, Ismene’s, and Creon’s—are made freely, but the consequences are predicted by the prophet Teiresias and, therefore, are considered to be governed by fate. In Greek culture in the fifth century B.C., much emphasis was placed on fate; oracles (prophets) were commonly consulted and prophecies were made. Though the characters make choices of their own free will, the consequences of these choices are viewed as being controlled by fate, that is, determined by the gods.
Sophocles may have wanted to show that choices made for apparently logical reasons—Antigone’s burial of her brother according to “unwritten law,” Creon’s need to keep order after a civil war, and Ismene’s following of the traditional role of women—can have terrible unforeseen consequences. Though all three characters make the choice that seems right to him or her, the results are disastrous. Antigone dies, Creon loses his family and power over the state, and Ismene is doomed to live the rest of her life alone, knowing that she did not try to help her family.
Custom and Tradition
The Ancient Greeks were polytheists, which means that they believed in many gods, and each god represented a specific aspect of life. Zeus, however, was the king of the gods, and he ruled over all. Antigone invokes the name of Zeus several times in the play as she defends her burial of Polyneices. Greek custom and tradition dictated that the women in the immediate family of the deceased should carry out the burial rituals, which meant that Antigone and Ismene were responsible for the burial of both of their brothers. When Creon orders Polyneices left unburied, Antigone felt she was acting according to the “unwritten laws” of Zeus by burying him. To her, all dead should have the honor of burial, no matter what they did in life, and she felt she was justified in fulfilling this custom and obeying the law of Zeus.
Teiresias warns Creon that ignoring Zeus’s “unwritten law” would bring tragedy to his house. By ignoring the prophet, Creon disregards both the gods and the long tradition of prophets and oracles in Greece. This disrespect for custom and tradition, and his arrogance in presuming that he is “absolutely right” leads to his fall from power. Most scholars agree that Sophocles wrote Antigone as a warning against absolute rule and authoritarianism. Greece had just become a democracy after a long period of dictatorial rule, and this play, as well as others of its time, was meant to caution all of Athens against allowing that type of government to regain power.
God and Religion
Creon’s edict that Polyneices should go unburied invites disaster on Thebes. Teiresias tells Creon that “the gods reject our prayers and our sacrifices,” and pleads with Creon to listen, warning the king that the furies—agents of the god of death—are angered and will seek retribution. Teiresias further tells Creon: “You have dishonored a living soul with exile in the tomb,/hurling a member of this world below./You are detaining here, moreover,/a dead body, unsanctified, and so unholy,/a subject of the nethergods.” In other words, Creon has infuriated the gods by imposing his own set of laws instead of following the laws that they have set down for humankind to follow.
The conflict between Creon and Antigone becomes a sort of family versus state conflict that results from the betrayal each group perceives in the actions of the other. When Polyneices married into the royal family of Argos, Creon felt betrayed that one of his own should seek power in another state (and later fight against Thebes in a war), and Creon views Antigone’s burial of her brother as another act of betrayal. Antigone is betrayed both by Ismene’s refusal to help her bury their brother, and by Creon’s actions when he learns what she has done. Finally, Eurydice expresses betrayal by Creon, who failed to save their son Haemon from suicide and failed to take action to prevent the death of their older son in the civil war that began the tragic course of events depicted in the play. In his introduction to his translation of Antigone, Richard Emil Braun asserted: “Betrayal of faith and disregard of family bonds are the themes of Creon’s reign. Permeated with hate, life lacks cohesiveness; the polar opposite of life, the anti-world of Hades, must then contain love.” Creon puts the governing of Thebes before the needs of his family, precisely the opposite of Antigone’s choice to put her duty to her family before her duties to the state; both choices lead to death, which is portrayed as the only solution to the dilemma.
Ancient Greek playwrights in Athens wrote plays for the Great Dionysia festival that was held every Spring. It was a civic duty to attend these plays, as they dealt with moral and social issues important to the community. Sophocles based Antigone on the Theban myths of the legendary rulers of Thebes, using what was, even in his time, an old story to comment on such issues as the absolute rule of kings and the status of women in society.
Antigone is a traditional Greek tragedy. A tragedy is defined as a drama about a noble, courageous hero or heroine of excellent character who because of some tragic character flaw brings ruin upon himself or herself. Tragedy treats its subjects in a dignified and serious manner, using poetic language to help evoke pity and fear and bring about catharsis, a purging of these emotions. In the case of Antigone we have two characters at the center of the conflict—Antigone and Creon—who are both tragic figures. Antigone defies a royal edict to bury her brother and pays with her life, while Creon ignores the gods and loses his wife and son to suicide. Both characters evoke pity, and each meets a tragic end.
Catharsis is the release or purging of emotions of fear and/or pity, brought on by art, usually tragedy. It is an act that brings spiritual renewal. One of the conventions of Greek drama was to have all violence occur offstage and then conveyed verbally to the audience. This occurs in Antigone, as the messenger relates the story of the deaths of Antigone and Haemon to Eurydice. The words of the messenger in Antigone are designed to provoke catharsis in the audience without directly exposing them to the violence of the events. With Antigone, Sophocles hoped to illustrate to audiences the emotional price of his characters’ actions, inspiring in his viewers new perspectives and a sense of caution regarding similar actions.
Another convention in Greek drama is the chorus. Strictly defined, a chorus is a group of actors who comment on and interpret the action taking place on stage. The Greek word choros means “dance,” and sometimes the chorus actually functioned as a character in the play, or portrayed a group of citizens very similar to the audience. In Antigone, Koryphaios, the chorus leader, is a character in the play; the rest of the chorus are Theban elders who alternately express loyalty to Antigone and Creon. The chorus’s indecision underscores the complex nature of the issues in the play.
Many scholars have expressed opinions similar to that of Braun, who argued in his introduction to his translation of Antigone:“Until new evidence appears, one must presume that Sophocles invented many events in the story of his Antigone: (1) the form of Creon’s decree; (2) the quarrels between Antigone and Ismene; (3) the double burial of Polyneices by Antigone and the final creation-burial by Creon; (4) the love of Antigone and Haemon; (5) the entombment of Antigone; (6) Teiresias’s intervention and Creon’s change of mind; and (7) the suicides of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice.” These events are not present in other accounts of the Theban myths, only in Sophocles’s version of the story. The playwright’s use of “dramatic license,” or embellishment, serves to heighten the tension in the story, increase the complexity of the plot, and intensify the catharsis at the end of the play. Scholars disagree on the exact reasons for these additions, but most agree that the changes make the story more intense and immediate. Since few plays from Antigone’s era have survived, it can only be speculated that these events were fabricated and added to the story; however, no other known accounts of the Theban myths include this information.
Fifth Century Greece and Its Influence
The fifth century B.C. in Greece was a time of great advancement in philosophy, art, and government. Great writers such as Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Sophocles wrote plays, philosophy, and political tracts that would influence the world for thousands of years to come. Democracy was being established, and the “Hippocratic Oath,” written by Hippocrates the Great in 429 B.C., was being taken by the first doctors; this oath is the same oath taken by contemporary doctors. The Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.) was in full swing during Sophocles’s lifetime, and it was during this period in history that many ideals of the modern Western world first appeared.
Bronze Age of Greece
Antigone takes place in Bronze Age Thebes, sometime during the 1200s B.C. Sophocles uses the legends of the family of Oedipus (Antigone’s father) in order to explore social and political issues of his time. Attending the theater was a civic and religious duty in Sophocles’s time. By setting his play in a time period 800 years before his own, he could explore social and political issues without offending those currently in power. He uses the authoritarian rule of Creon and the strong-willed Antigone to warn against the dangers of dictatorship and to highlight the status of women in Greek society.
Civil and Moral Unrest
In 429 B.C. a great plague killed almost two-thirds of the population of Athens, causing civil and moral unrest and testing the bounds of democracy. Warfare was also common at this time in Greek society, as the city-states of Greece competed with each other for trade, commerce, and artistic superiority. This unrest is reflected in the events portrayed in Antigone, beginning with the civil war that pits Antigone’s brothers against each other and ending with the deaths of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice.
Democracy and Government
Sophocles was not only a respected writer, but also a member of the government in Athens. Democracy was practiced differently in Ancient Greece than it is in the modern United States. Full citizenship, which included the right to vote, was only given to free men; women and slaves were not considered full citizens and so lacked the same rights as men. They were forced to follow a different code of conduct. Despite such inequities and restrictions, the foundations laid in the fifth century B.C. provided a framework for the founders of the United States—and other world democracies-when they sought to establish a free democratic government.
Playwrights and Drama
The writers of the fifth century B.C. established the traditions of both tragedy and comedy. The first three plays at the Great Dionysia festival were tragedies, followed by the satyr play, which poked fun at the characters and situations of the earlier tragedies; “satyr” served as the forerunner to the modern dramatic convention of satire, which uses humor to criticize or mock. The satyr plays were then followed by a comedy by another playwright, as the competition for comedic plays was separate from the competition for tragedies.
There were strict rules for tragedy in the Great Dionysia, and the plays were viewed as valued cultural commodities. To qualify—let alone win—dramatic works had to subscribe to a strict format that had been used for many years. To preserve this cultural jewel, a great deal of importance was placed on the passing of knowledge; it was as much a role of the playwright to teach as it was to compose. Aeschylus, a great writer of tragedy, was one of the teachers entrusted to teach younger writers the methodology of tragedy. Sophocles was one of his students (who would later defeat his instructor at the Great Dionysia), and he, in turn, also shared his knowledge with younger writers. Modern plays are evaluated according to the standards set forth by plays written in Ancient Greece, and contemporary playwrights look to writers such as Sophocles and Aeschylus for instruction and inspiration.
Athens in the fifth century B.C. saw the rise of a revolutionary group of teachers and philosophers called the Sophists. This group broke with tradition and focused more on the study of the actions of humankind than on the standard legends of gods and goddesses. Sophocles was one of these individual teachers, who, although differing in their views as well as their standards, agreed that the main subject of their teaching should be human actions. These middle-class teachers instructed the sons of the wealthy about politics and the practice of democracy with the full support of Pericles and other leaders.
In the fifth century B.C., Athens was one of the great city-states of Greece. Antigone takes place in Thebes during the Bronze Age (1200s B.C.), 800 years before the birth of Sophocles. The story Sophocles tells is based on the oral history, or genealogy, of the ancient rulers of Thebes. By removing the action of his play to the mythic past and using heroic characters, Sophocles was able to touch on the profound and significant issues of his day from a safe distance. Athens in Sophocles’s time was one of the world’s first experiments in democracy. Antigone represents the conflict between traditional government, which advocated following the laws of the state and the absolute rule of its leader, and democracy, according to which citizens obeyed a set of laws that they themselves had helped to institute. One school of critical thought argues that the figure of Creon, who abuses his power, may have been a veiled warning to Pericles and the Athenian people about the dangers of dictatorship. In the play, Creon stubbornly insists that Antigone suffer an awful fate for her actions. His refusal to listen to any line of reasoning served to remind the Athenian audience of the terrors that tyranny could bring. Other critics, however, insist that Creon behaves as he does precisely because of the democratic ideal. As Arlene W. Saxonhouse noted in her Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought: “Creon, the political leader, categorizes and simplifies; one female equals another. . . . In a perverse way, Creon’s refusal to distinguish, to particularize, to see differences, may make him more the democrat than the tyrant.” This difference of opinion serves to underscore how complex the play is. Whether one perceives Creon as tyrant or democrat, he meets a tragic end. Sophocles respects the gods, but tends to explore human characters rather than supernatural ones. Scholar Jacqueline de Romilly stated in an essay in her A Short History of Greek Literature: “The relation between men and gods . . . is a major theme in Sophocles. But it is nothing like the relation between men and gods as described by Aeschylus. In the first place, the gods are more distant. In the surviving plays, they almost never appear onstage. . . . Likewise, their influence on human emotions is less immediate; and the principles by which they act are harder to discern.” Unlike previous writers who used the gods as characters in their plays, Sophocles tends to focus on the human characters’ actions and choices. When the gods do make their presence known in Sophocles, it is usually through oracles. It is Teiresias who makes the gods’ wishes known in Antigone; through the prophet’s examination of a ritual sacrifice, the god’s displeasure with Creon is revealed. Creon’s unwillingness
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1200s B.C.: The states in Greece are run by dictators who are members of the royal family. Power is transferred from father to son, and never to daughters. The citizens have no say in affairs of state.
400s B.C.: Democracy is taking hold in Greece. Athens, for example, is run by ten generals elected by the free male population. The citizens have a say in what actions their government takes.
Today: Democracies flourish on all continents of the world. The most famous of these democracies, the United States, was founded on the Athenian experiments with democracy in the 400s B.C. Following the end of the Cold War (a state of nonmilitary aggression between democratic and Communist countries), many more countries are in the process of establishing democratic governments.
- 1200s B.C.: Greek society was “polytheistic,” meaning that the Greeks worshipped many gods. Zeus was the king of the gods, with many other gods such as Hades, the god of death, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who gathered with Zeus on Mount Olympus (the heavens). The Greeks believed that one must make offerings to the gods to appease them and that ritual sacrifice could influence the gods’ feelings and actions regarding certain issues (such as harvests or wars).
400s B.C.: Greek society was still polytheistic but as long as the city’s gods were not neglected, worship was open to any god. Worship of the gods was still important but it became more of a civic and social duty. In art, emphasis was less on the actions of the gods and more on human actions.
Today: Most Western societies are monotheistic, meaning that they worship only one god. Religion has become marginalized in many societies and ritual sacrifices and offerings have become taboo in most Christian sects. There is a resurgence in interest in earth-based and pagan (non-Christian) religions, but the Greek gods have disappeared into myths and legends, only resurrected in films, books, and television shows.
- 1200s B.C.: Bronze was used to fashion weapons of war and household tools. The coming of the Bronze Age meant a great leap forward in civilization by allowing people to invent new tools and weapons to make their lives easier and more productive.
400s B.C.: The Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.) saw the rise of great tragedies and comedies in the theater, finely crafted sculptures, and advancements in democratic ideals. This age was crucial to the development of democratic ideals and the foundations of modern drama as we know them today.
Today: The advancements in science and technology made in the latter part of the twentieth century, such as space flight, the personal computer, and alternative sources of power, will almost certainly have a very real effect on generations of humans to come.
- 1200s B.C.: Doctors in the modern sense did not exist in Bronze Age Greece. Oracles and prophets would try to interpret the gods’ will and action would be taken accordingly.
400s B.C.: Hippocrates the Great wrote the Hippocratic Oath in 429 B.C. The oath sets out ethical standards for the medical profession and includes the passage: “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but I will never use it to injure or wrong them.”
Today: The Hippocratic Oath is still taken by doctors upon graduation from medical school, but in recent years its forbiddance of abortion has been left out by some schools.
to accept what Teiresias tells him leads to his downfall. De Romilly further remarked that Sophocles “respects the gods; and in his plays only the arrogant who are about to be struck down dare to doubt the veracity of oracles. Instead of revolt or doubt we find an overwhelming sense of the distance between gods and men. Among men, everything passes, everything changes. . . . The sphere of the gods, by contrast, is the sphere of the absolute, which nothing disturbs.” Creon is struck down because he refuses to acknowledge the “unwritten law” of the gods which is absolute and binding: that the dead should be respected and that those who defend this law are morally right. His further refusal to acknowledge his mistake when Teiresias gives him advice seals his fate and moves the gods to revenge.
Sophocles’s characters are complex in terms of their emotions yet simplistic in terms of their moral code of conduct. De Romilly maintained that Sophocles’s “characters have different mentalities because each embodies a different moral ideal, to which he or she adheres. Each knows the basis for his actions and defends his principles, making them his cause; each stands in contrast to those among whom he lives as on philosophy of life stands in contrast to others.” Similarly, Richard C. Beacham, in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, declared: “Antigone is in one sense a play of conflicting moral principles in which both sides can marshal strong arguments in their support. Creon insists on the necessity of civil order and the primacy of the rule of law; Antigone claims allegiance to a higher law, that of religious and familial duty, which must, she insists, outweigh the demands of the state. Tragedy is inherent . . . in the irreconcilable conflict between two moral imperatives each of which may be thought of as ‘right.’” In other words, both characters make strong arguments but neither is able to compromise. The intensity of the tragedy in the play comes from the fact that both characters can be perceived as behaving in an appropriate manner according to the laws each is following. The audience is able to appreciate both points of view, and because both Creon and Antigone are destroyed, the play’s emotional power over the audience is increased.
Antigone won first place in the Great Dionysia festival in Athens when it was first produced c. 442 B.C. The play has been celebrated since that first performance and praised by such writers as: John Keats, William Butler Yeats, George Eliot, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean Cocteau. Noted literary scholar George Steiner, in his Antigones, explained: “Between 1790 and 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, [and] scholars that Sophocles’ Antigone was not only the finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.” The play is also extremely popular during times of war—most recently World War II—because of its clash between individual conscience and governmental law. French playwright Jean Anouilh adapted Antigone in 1946, and put the characters in a modern setting. According to Colin Radford in his essay in The International Dictionary of Theatre, “Anouilh has been much criticized for degrading the legend, for cheapening the significance of his subject, for turning the heroine into a stubborn willful adolescent.” Though Anouilh was faulted for his interpretation of the ancient tragedy, his play is considered a masterful work of drama by many critics.
Allbaugh holds a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition. His essay discusses the issue of family versus community that pervades Sophocles’s play.
Literary criticism of a dramatic work can help readers in several ways. It can clarify difficult passages in the play itself. It can assist readers in identifying assumptions that they bring to their viewing or reading of a play. And it can point out important issues raised in the play that warrant more thought and/or discussion. When the play in question is Sophocles’s Antigone, criticism can be especially helpful concerning the preconceived notions a reader may have concerning the work. The play is an ancient tragedy and, as such, contemporary readers often have difficulty relating to the story and characters. A first time reader of Antigone may have assumptions regarding ancient classics that conflict with their own values and beliefs, assumptions that can color their reading of the play.
This is true concerning a number of issues in the play. For example, is Antigone a noble, heroic victim or a fanatical, willfully stubborn character who causes the deaths of two other innocent people? Wallace Grey noted in Homer to Joyce that Antigone
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’s play written c. 430 B.C., years after Antigone, concerns the downfall of Oedipus, Antigone’s father. As king of Thebes, Oedipus must remove the plague from the city of Thebes by solving the murder of Laius, who was king before Oedipus. In doing so he discovers that he has murdered his own father, married his own mother, and himself brought the plague on the city.
- French playwright Jean Anouilh’s Antigone presents a modern version of Sophocles’s play, one in which the chorus is represented by a single commentator. The play was applauded by both French resistance fighters and German Nazis during World War II.
- Alcestis, Euripides’s play first produced in 438 B.C. presents a contrast to Antigone in terms of both substance and style. When considered next to Sophocles and his apparent devotion to religious ideas and to the gods, Euripides seems to be a realist. In this play, Alcestis, wife of Admetus, agrees to die for him and for his family. This action serves as a contrast to Antigone’s claim that she would not die for a husband or for children.
- Kurt Vonnegut’s 1976 novel Slapstick presents a futuristic view of a longing for relationship and for kinship, and one character’s political program to make sure that every American citizen has an extended family.
- The Godfather, Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel about an organized crime syndicate, describes a family structure that is set in opposition to mainstream American political and ethical life and is organized around ideas of kinship and blood ties.
is “the first heroine of Western drama.” At the same time, he also called Antigone’s stubbornness a “wrong,” which, when combined with the wrong of Creon, does not make a right. In Grey’s words, Antigone is a “lone individual, isolated from the gods and from other people . . . the representative Sophoclean hero or heroine.” Another issue, in addition to the character of Antigone, concerns the dramatic conflict between Antigone and Creon. Critics themselves have been divided about how to understand it. Some read this conflict as one in which the rights of the individual are set in opposition to the rule of the state.
As Terence Des Pres suggests in the book Praises and Dispraises, reading the central conflict of Antigone as individual vs. the state does underscore the political elements of the drama. It sees Antigone’s determination to bury her brother as a private affair of the heart. This deeply individual concern, as Des Pres reads it, is set against Creon’s motivations, which are political. Noting that critics do not “ignore its political spirit,” Des Pres cites twentieth century retellings of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, Bertolt Brecht, and Athol Fugard as works that focus on this issue.
Yet reading the conflict as individual vs. the state has caused confusion over a key passage just before Antigone is led away to be buried alive. In this scene she makes a statement which many critics have felt is a contradiction to her character (if it is to be perceived as Des Pres describes it). It makes her appear less noble than she is in the opening scene and raises questions about her motives for burying her brother. In this difficult passage, Antigone claims that she would not make the same sacrifice for a husband or children that she is making for her brother and her father. “Never,” she cries, “had I been a mother of children or if a husband had been moldering in death, would I have taken this task upon me in the city’s despite.” This passage has bothered readers since the seventeenth century, causing many to speculate that Antigone’s motives are greater than mere familial loyalty. It has been considered a late addition to the play, though Aristotle,
a contemporary of Sophocles’s, attests to its genuineness.
In contrast to the view of the conflict as individual vs. the state, Robin Fox presented an argument which would appear to resolve the contradiction raised by Antigone’s statement above. Fox wrote in Anthropology and Literature, that the conflict in Antigone is one in which Antigone’s duties are not to individuality, selfhood, or to private affairs of the heart, but to her father’s family, and to kinship rites of burial. It is this duty which is in conflict with the state edict. It is her duty to her father’s family to which she is appealing in the questionable statement above, a blood tie which would be more important to her than her ties to a husband. In this persuasive argument, Fox accounts for an issue deeply important to citizens of ancient Athens, one in which the demands of kinship conflict with democratic rule of the city-state in the fifth century B.C.
Similar arguments about kinship and blood ties have been made to account for Antigone’s statement by Sheila Murnaghan (in the American Journal of Philology) and Charles Segal. Segal noted in Greek Tragedy that the conflict in this play is between “fundamentally different concepts of life,” between “Antigone’s fierce personal loyalties” and Creon’s “politicization of burial.” He writes that it is “through blood alone [that] Antigone makes the basis of her . . . loyalty,” or “friendship.” In contrast, the basis for Creon’s friendships is found through obedience to the state (as he stated to the elders in Scene II, no foe of Thebes is a friend of his). Like Fox, Segal argued that Antigone’s real concern with burying her brother demonstrates a valuing of kinship and blood ties, not individuality.
These ancient values of kinship and state would have been captured for Sophocles’s first audiences in the Greek words oikos, meaning house, and polis, a word for city. The concept indicated in oikos concerns everyone related by blood and servanthood to a father’s house. Connected to this is the issue that one must care for one’s own blood ties, and an important part of that duty, especially for women, includes burial rites. At the same time that these allegiances to family are important and can be seen in the play, so is Creon’s appeal to the welfare of the city-state. After all, the city itself has just come through a war in which one of its own—Antigone’s brother Polyneices—has led the enemy. The need for obedience to a ruler’s edict, to restore order and right governing, is understandable. These oppositions of these two powerful duties are the engine for the play’s compelling and complex dramatic conflict.
The central opposition in the play between Antigone and Creon, and, respectively, between a duty to one’s house and a duty to the city-state, is directly echoed in many images in the play. Examples include the image Creon uses of a ship to represent the state, which he believes must sail well for citizens to find the value of friendships. “If any makes a friend of more account than his fatherland, that man has no place in my regard . . . nor would I ever deem the country’s foe a friend to myself . . . our country is a ship that bears us safe, and that only while she prospers in our voyage can we make true friends.” Creon is shown here connecting the idea of friendship, of having “parcel of [another’s] thoughts,” as the chorus puts it, with the good of the state. In a revealing statement when he interrogates Antigone and Ismene, he vows never to allow Antigone, though she is his blood relative, to worship at the shrine of Zeus in his house. This shows him placing loyalty to the state over loyalty to blood members of his house.
That Antigone’s concern is with her father’s house and not with some individual, private concern is exemplified in her challenge to Ismene to fulfill her duties as a noble daughter of noble lineage. Underscoring her sense of kinship, Antigone refers to Ismene in the first scene as “dear sister,” as kin, when she appeals to her for help in burying their brother. After Ismene opposes this decision, Antigone calls her a foe. Similarly, after she has been condemned, Antigone states that she hopes by her actions to be welcomed to a home among the dead members of her family. In addition to these statements, a sympathetic image of the home is made in connection with Antigone by the guard who brings her captive to Creon. The guard claims first to have heard her cry bitterly like a bird, “as when within the empty nest it sees the bed stripped of its nestings.” Interestingly, he also calls her a friend, suggesting that he would, if Creon were not enforcing his will as state, act more sympathetically toward her. Though Antigone is increasingly isolated, she is not asserting individuality but the importance of performing her duties to her father’s house.
Many persuasive appeals are made in Antigone on the basis of kinship or the state. The deeply dramatic scenes of argument in the play make strong cases for both kinship and to patriotic allegiance. They form the basis on which one will find friends. Ismene’s appeal to Creon for mercy to Antigone is made on the grounds of his son’s love and betrothal to her. Creon has already rejected her as blood kin, and he also rejects this appeal, saying
“MANY PERSUASIVE APPEALS ARE MADE IN ANTIGONE ON THE BASIS OF KINSHIP OR THE STATE”
that he will not have an evil wife for his son. She is evil, at least in Creon’s eyes, because she has violated an edict of the state. Haemon, after appealing to his father on the basis of the good of the state to spare Antigone, finally rejects his own father, leaving him to “such friends as can endure you.”
On the basis of Creon’s intractable adherence to his edict, the sisters’ relationship is strained, kindred connections between Creon and Antigone and Ismene are rejected, and, finally, Creon’s estrangement from his son. Sophocles’s position in Antigone is complex and situated within these deeply conflicted scenes, which show a group of elders, presented as the chorus of the play, who are unable to act or offer counsel until well after the dramatic action has moved toward tragedy. They are caught in Creon’s tyrannical rule, swayed between the opposing arguments of the principle characters in the drama, unable to decide finally how they should act. The dramatic movement toward discord, in which the concept of oikos seems rejected in favor of the polis, is shown as deeply wrong when Teiresias announces that the city itself has been polluted by Creon’s own edict. Finally, this word reveals that both house and state have been ruined by tyranny. The end result is the downfall of Creon’s own house.
As Fox suggested, citizens of early democracy in Athens encountered conflict over the issues of kinship and state rule. These issues raised in Antigone are issues with which modern audiences may have trouble identifying. We value the rights of the individual far more than the rights of families. Except in certain areas of the Mediterranean, blood ties are often considered weak social bonds. In the late twentieth century, we rarely use the word “kin,” unless we are referring to those we consider our “kindred spirits.”
Yet Antigone’s loyalty to her dead brother, her care for him, is inspiring. In Sophocles’s play, the functioning of the state oversteps into areas of the demands that kinship makes, and this boundary jumping raises significant questions. How far shall the state go in determining the laws that previously concerned the family? Conversely, how far shall one’s family take precedence over the laws of the state and the people? These questions are not easily answered—even in modern society—and demonstrate why Sophocles’s play remains topical and important. While not providing a universal outcome of such a situation, Antigone offers one possible—and tragic—result of the personal and the political converging and conflicting. In this sense, the play has significant relevance to modern society and offers both an entertaining drama and valuable lesson to the contemporary reader of the play.
Source: Thomas Allbaugh, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following excerpt from an article that originally appeared in The Leader on March 29, 1856, Eliot interprets Antigone as the conflict between “the strength of man’s intellect, or moral sense, or affection” and “the rules which society has sanctioned.”
Eliot was an English novelist, essayist, poet, editor, short story writer, and translator. She is regarded as one of the greatest English novelists of the nineteenth century, and is best known for her novels The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-72).
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Source: George Eliot, “The Antigone and Its Moral” (1856), in her Essays of George Eliot, edited by Thomas Pinney, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963, pp. 261-65.
Walter H. Johns
In the following excerpt, Johns outlines Sophocles ‘s distinctive use of violence and strong emotion in Antigone.
The stern violence of the actors in the drama is to be seen throughout: Antigone knows that if she gives-Polyneices burial, she will be stoned to death. When Creon warns the members of the Chorus not to aid those who disobey his commands, the leader intimates that death would be the punishment and Creon agrees. When Antigone is revealed as the culprit, Creon regards her action as direct defiance of his commands . . . charges her with that tragic fault. . . .
When Haemon comes to plead with his father, the Chorus announce his approach with a comment on his mood of bitterness and grief. Their final word contains a foreboding note on the tragic excess of this grief. In the scene which follows, Sophocles gives one of many striking examples of his irony in the speech in which Creon bids his son reject Antigone and send her off “to find a marriage in Hades.” This foreshadows Haemon’s own doom, later described by the messenger, in which he is said to have “found his marriage in the halls of Hades,” i.e. with the dead Antigone. The dramatist, as usual, draws a moral from his doom—that the greatest evil which can befall mankind is . . . (want of judgment) —a Delphic utterance which as so often in Sophocles, can be applied in two ways, to Creon as well as to Haemon.
In the long dialogue with his father, Haemon gives a veiled warning that Antigone’s death may involve someone else. But Creon’s [want of judgement], another tragic flaw in his nature, makes him miss the hint. The most specific threat of all, however, is found in Haemon’s parting words—the last line he speaks in the whole play:
“IT IS A VERY SUPERFICIAL CRITICISM WHICH INTERPRETS THE CHARACTER OF CREON AS THAT OF A HYPOCRITICAL TYRANT, AND REGARDS ANTIGONE AS A BLAMELESS VICTIM”
. . . thou shalt in no wise gaze upon this face of mine again, seeing it in thine eyes.
As he departs the Chorus say:
My lord, the young man has gone, swift in his wrath: the spirit of one so young, when it is pained, is fierce. . . .
As the drama moves on to its conclusion the promises and reports of violence continue. Teiresias foretells the death of Creon’s son. The messenger reports the death of Haemon by his own hand and once more brings in a reference to Haemon’s wrath at his father for the death of his beloved Antigone.
We now come to the passage containing the disputed phrase. The messenger describes the scene in vivid detail. Creon had sent his followers to explore the cell and they had found Antigone hanging by the neck and Haemon embracing her dead body “bewailing the loss of his bride who is with the dead, and his father’s deeds and his own ill-fated love.” Then Haemon hears his father’s voice and realizes that the cause of all his grief is close at hand. The effect on the young man is described by Sophocles in brief and vivid phrases. He is mad with rage; in fact his eyes are described as those of a wild beast. In a fit of blazing anger he momentarily blinds his father by spitting in his face, then tries to kill him. But his own furious anger and his father’s hurried flight foil his attempt and, instead of pursuing his father, he carries out his prime intention of suicide, turning his sword against himself and dying with his arms about the body of Antigone. Thus Sophocles has Haemon fulfil the vow he had made that his father’s eyes should never gaze on him again alive, and at the same time express his supreme contempt and hatred for his sire in a manner more familiar among Mediterranean races than among those of north-western Europe. The poet’s
“SOPHOCLES WAS NEVER ONE TO LEAVE LOOSE ENDS IN HIS DRAMAS”
phrase expressing his utter silence here strengthens the action instead of, as Bayfield suggests, serving as an anticlimax. And so to Haemon we must ascribe an act of fury and scorn, to Sophocles a carefully chosen expression which links two crucial episodes in the play: Haemon’s last words as he leaves his father (and the stage) and his last acts before his own suicide.
To many this explanation may seem fanciful in the extreme if not wholly offensive, but two major points must be borne in mind. The first is that Sophocles was the most careful of the ancient dramatists to knit his plots into a close fabric of lines in which tragic irony occurs again and again, and lines spoken early in a play are recalled in later scenes to form the climax of the drama. The significant lines are seldom idly spoken. So it is here. Haemon’s parting vow to his father prompts his own vicious action in the last moment of his life. Sophocles was never one to leave loose ends in his dramas.
The other point to be borne in mind is one which seems to have escaped Professor Johnson’s notice. He says:“For him to spit in his father’s face would. . . simply arouse disgust in the spectators.” [The Classical Journal 41 (1945-46) 371-374]. But it must not be overlooked that this did not take place on the stage; it was simply reported by the messenger. It was placed in its context to add to the pity and horror of the final meeting between father and son just before the latter’s death. It is an act of violence like the attempt of Haemon on his father’s life and his own suicide or the subsequent suicide of Eurydice. Such things Sophocles carefully bars from his stage.
Again Johnson speaks of Sophocles as “an artist and as a dramatist whose effects are regularly brought about by subtle and delicate touches.” But he did not hesitate to show on the stage the dead bodies of Haemon and Eurydice in the Antigone, the slaughtered animals in the Ajax, the dead body of Clytemnestra in the Electra, and Oedipus with blood dripping from his ravished eyes in the Oedipus Tyrannus. Surely these are no subtle and delicate touches. The violence which he presents off stage and depicts only in the description of a messenger is too familiar to demand recounting here. Haemon’s action is in perfect harmony with many similar instances elsewhere. . . .
Source: Walter H. Johns, “Dramatic Effect in Sophocles’ Antigone,” The Classical Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, November, 1947, pp. 99-100.
Des Pres, Terence. “Creon’s Decree” in Praises and Dispraises, Viking (New York), 1988, pp. 3-16.
Des Pres discusses Antigone’s isolation in the play in terms that are political. He alludes to recent retellings of the story by Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht.
Fox, Robin. “The Virgin and the Godfather: Kinship versus the State in Greek Tragedy and After” in Anthropology and Literature, edited by Paul Benson, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1993, pp. 107-50.
Fox presents an argument based on anthropology that Antigone’s conflict has to do with kinship ties, not with contemporary notions of individuality.
Grey, Wallace. “Antigone” in Homer to Joyce, Macmillan (New York), 1985, pp. 59-67.
In this short article, Grey challenges traditional readings of Antigone, in particular those which stress the conflicts of individual vs. the state, religion vs. the state, natural law vs. the state, and man vs. woman.
Murnaghan, Sheila. “Sophocles, Antigone 904-920 and the Institution of Marriage” in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 107, no. 2, pp. 192-207.
Murnaghan discusses the controversial passage in which Antigone claims that what she does for her father’s house she would not do for a husband’s. Murnaghan suggests that Antigone’s claim has to do with her blood ties to her father’s house rather than exemplifying an act of self.
Segal, Charles. “Antigone: Death and Love, Hades and Dionysus” in Greek Tragedy, edited by Erich Segal, Harper & Row, 1983, pp. 167-76.
Segal provides a reading of the mythic allusions to Persephone which the chorus uses in reference to Antigone’s death at a young age. The critic also presents a reading of the play which shows the heroine confronting a politicization of burial.
Beacham, Richard C. “Antigone by Sophocles,” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 21-3.
Braun, Richard Emil, translator. Introduction to Antigone, by Sophocles, Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 5, 12.
de Romilly, Jacqueline. “Drama in the Second Half of the Fifth Century: Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes,” in her A Short History of Greek Literature, translated by Lillian Doherty, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 66-89.
Radford, Colin. “Antigone by Jean Anouilh,” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 23-4.
Saxonhouse, Arlene W. Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Steiner, George. Antigones, Oxford University Press, 1984.
THE LITERARY WORK
A play set in thirteenth-century b.c. Thebes; first performed in 442 b.c. in Athens.
Antigone disobeys the laws of her ruler. Creon, in favor of the unwritten laws that she feels more properly govern society. She is condemned to a chilling fate.
Sophocles (496-406 b.c.) came from a wealthy family in Athens and took an active role in that city-state’s political life. He wrote 123 plays, but only seven of them have survived to the present. Antigone was a huge success for him at the dramatic festivals held in Athens. Ancient texts reveal that he was elected a general in the Athenian military because of the popularity of this work.
Legends of the Bronze Age
The story of Antigone is drawn from Greek mythology, a great body of oral tales that inspired later Greek painting, sculpture, poetry, and theater. Scholars have used ancient Greek writings that record these oral tales, as well as inscriptions found by modern archaeologists, to determine the genealogy, or family tree, of the legendary rulers of Thebes, the Greek city in which Antigone takes place.
According to legend, Thebes first came to prominence and power around 1380 b.c. under the rule of a man named Cadmus, who was said to have moved there from Phoenicia (present-day Syria). The people and events that Sophocles portrays in his play were thought to have occurred in the 1200s b.c., some eight hundred years before Sophocles lived. This earlier period of time is often referred to as the “Bronze Age” because the metal was commonly used by people of the era to fashion their weapons and household tools.
Ancient myths, contemporary conflicts
The Theban “cycle” of myths (about the legendary rulers of Thebes) is one of three that were central to Greek mythology; the other two are the Trojan War cycle and the stories of Jason and the Argonauts. The events in these myths are imagined to have taken place in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries b.c., although this need not imply the historical existence of these heroes at this time. Even the fifth century b.c. historian Thucy-dides, a contemporary of Sophocles, realized that it was unwise to regard tales from the past as being true:
In investigating past history... it must be admitted that one cannot rely on every detail which has come down to us by way of tradition. People are inclined to accept all stories of ancient times in an uncritical way….
[P]oets... exaggerate the importance of their themes,... the prose chroniclers... are less interested in telling the truth than in catching the attention of their public and [their] authorities cannot be checked and [their] subject matter, owing to the passage of time, is mostly lost in the unreliable streams of mythology.
In practice, Athenian playwrights often used the traditional stories to make points about their own era, and they often used mythological conflicts to portray contemporary ones to an audience. Removing the action to the mythic past, and using heroic characters, a playwright was able to touch on the profound and significant issues of his day from a safe distance. In the Antigone, Sophocles focuses on the possible conflicts between one’s religion and one’s politics. His drama pits the laws of the gods against the laws of the state as reflected in one girl’s decision to, contrary to city law, perform religious burial rites for her brother, a traitor. The Antigone may also be commenting on the conflict in fifth-century Athens between the ancient aristocracy (which supported worship of family gods, ostentatious burial and oral tradition) and the newborn democracy (which supported respect for city gods, modest burials, and written laws).
By the time Sophocles wrote his play, the tragic dynasty of Oedipus, King of Thebes, had already been the subject of many poems and plays. The most famous of these were four plays by Aeschylus, another playwright of the same era who was regarded as the first great writer of Athenian tragedy. Athenian audiences thus knew the tale of Oedipus intimately.
The story of Oedipus was used by Sophocles to set the scene for the events depicted in Antigone. King Oedipus discovered that he had by accident killed his father and married his mother. Horrified to discover the manner of his father’s death and the identity of his wife, Oedipus blinded himself and went into exile. One source has Oedipus commending his children into the care of his mother’s brother Creon; another of Sophocles’ plays has Antigone faithfully accompanying Oedipus into exile, as his attendant. Oedipus later died, as did his wife and mother Jocasta, who hanged herself. Creon, who had subsequently assumed the throne of Thebes as regent until Oedipus’s two sons should grow up, is now king in his own right.
These two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, had been cursed by their father because they had twice insulted him. The curse included a prophecy that the boys would grow up to kill each other. Upon reaching adulthood, Eteocles and Polynices fought over their inheritance; they had agreed to alternate the kingship, but, once in power, Eteocles refused to give up the throne. Polynices left Thebes in anger and married into the royal family of Argos. In Argos he assembled an army and attacked the city of his birth. The seven gates of Thebes were assailed by seven heroes, one of whom was Polynices himself. All seven heroes died during the siege. Polynices died at the hands of his brother, who was mortally wounded during the struggle as well. Oedipus’s prophecy was thus fulfilled.
Sophocles’s play begins with Antigone and Ismene, who were sisters of the recently deceased Polynices and Eteocles. Antigone, obviously distressed, reveals to Ismene the latest news: because Polynices has been fighting against the city of his birth, King Creon has now forbidden anyone to touch the corpse or give it a decent burial. Antigone and Ismene argue about whether or not they should bury Polynices’ body. Ismene refuses to help in the illegal act, but Antigone secretly performs a ritual burial, dusting the corpse with a light sprinkle of earth. Antigone’s defiance of the king’s wishes causes her to be arrested by Creon’s guards and brought before him. Antigone admits and staunchly defends her crime. When she is taken away, Creon’s son Haemon, who is engaged to Antigone, calmly attempts to convince Creon to yield his wrath. But Creon is unbending, and Haemon leaves in a rage. Creon then sentences Antigone to be entombed in a cave with barely enough food to live on, a punishment to which she surrenders with bravery and dignity. Shortly thereafter, the prophet Teiresias arrives to warn Creon that Polynices must be buried. Creon again refuses to listen to advice. A messenger arrives with the news that Antigone has hanged herself and that Haemon, upon discovering her, killed himself also.
Religion and civic pride
Creon’s anger at Antigone’s disobedience may seem totally unreasonable to modern readers. But her excuse for breaking his law might have seemed equally unreasonable to an ancient Athenian audience: Antigone claims that a law higher than Creon’s—the law of Zeus—has directed her to act as she has. But the ancient Greeks did not live according to a single code of ethical behavior. No single god or organized church or particular way of living was singled out as the best. Religion was viewed more as a matter of civic identity and pride. Each city-state had its own special gods that it worshipped. Citizens were free to worship other gods if they so chose as long as they did not neglect the city’s gods,
who were expected to watch over the city’s interests.
Worship practices included making public sacrifices or gifts to the city’s gods and participating in ceremonies with other city-dwellers. Every community cared for its own local rituals in much the same way that it cared for its public affairs. In fact, religious activity was a significant aspect of political life in Greek society. The reverse was also true—civic duty and pride became a sort of religious obligation. This association between civic duty and religious practice was so strong in Athens in the years immediately after Antigone was first performed that worship of the goddess Athena had turned more or less into worship of the city itself.
This situation in fifth-century Athens is clearly reflected in the Antigone, despite the play’s much earlier Theban setting. Here, Polynices’s betrayal of his city and Antigone’s rejection of the civic law that forbids her from burying her traitorous brother has serious, almost religious, implications. Although Sophocles does not mention any particular god of Thebes in the play, Antigone refers to Zeus as the source of the law by which she acts. Sophocles may have included this reference to suggest that she has perhaps abandoned her local god in favor of a more universal deacts.
Antigone claims that “unwritten and unfailing rules” led her to bury Polyn-ices. Sophocles thus alludes to an issue that was a subject of much debate in fifth-century b.c. Greek society. How much power did such “unwritten” laws have when they came into conflict with civic laws?
Creon: Did you know that an edict had forbidden this action?
Antigone: I knew it, inevitably. It was no secret.
Creon: And still you dared to transgress these laws?
Antigone: Yes, for it was not Zeus who proclaimed that edict to me, nor did that Right who dwells with the gods below lay down such laws for mankind; and I did not suppose that your decrees had such power that you, a mortal, could outrun the gods’ unwritten and unfailing rules.
(Sophocles, Antigone, 446-57)
Pericles, the great Athenian general who dominated the social and political scene at the time the play was written, addressed the issue of unwritten laws, also known as laws of conscience. As one scholar notes, he seemed to suggest “that they are concerned with various matters outside the reach of ordinary laws. At least he claims that the Athenians respect them” (Bowra, p. 161).
These “various matters” are not clearly articulated. Even the Greek historian Thucydides, who recorded the general’s words, provides no additional information on specific unwritten laws. Nonetheless, Pericles held that “we [Athenians] give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break” (Pericles in Thucydides, 2.37). Pericles here recognizes the power of unwritten laws but does not specify what they are or whether or not they are supposed to take precedence over civic laws
Yet Sophocles insists in Antigone that such unwritten laws are more important in regulating human actions than any formal legal code worked out by men. Perhaps this commentary is a reaction to events taking place in Athens at the time Sophocles lived. Athenians were so proud of their city and its political and artistic achievements that a form of city-worship arose. “In an age when Athens was almost taking the place other gods as an object of worship, the poet protested that the priorities were wrong and that if there is a conflict between divine and human law, there is no doubt which claims first obedience” (Bowra, p. 163). Sorting out which laws are human and which are divine could be difficult, however. The law of Zeus that Antigone claims has guided her action may actually be the law other own conscience, as there were no universally applicable or “unfailing” laws attributable to Zeus or any other Greek deity.
Creon vs. Antigone
The conflict between Antigone and the king of Thebes exists on many different levels. Antigone is the daughter (and half-sister) of King Oedipus, to whose throne Creon has ascended. Her family history puts her in an uncertain social position in the court of the new king, who may be hostile to the relatives of his predecessor.
Furthermore, Antigone’s decision to bury her brother is not only a violation of Creon’s decree, but also an expression of disregard for the social constraints placed on young women of the era. Throughout ancient Greek history, women had no say in political affairs whatsoever. They could not vote or hold public office. They were rarely seen outside the home, except at such major events as festivals, marriages, and funerals. Antigone’s sister Ismene reminds her of this subordinate status when she says, “We must remember, first, that we were born women, who should not strive with men” (Antigone, 46-47). Creon’s thoughts regarding his battle of wills with Antigone are shaped in large part by her gender. When his son Haemon urges him to reconsider his terrible anger, the king responds, “While I am alive, no woman shall rule over me” (Antigone, 525). He seems to feel that his rule is threatened by the decision of one woman to act on her own authority. In his depiction of the tension between the willful Antigone and her uncle Creon, Sophocles suggests that the king’s actions stem partly from the prevailing philosophy about the appropriate status of women.
Sophocles took the characters for Antigone from a well-developed body of Greek stories about the tragic family of Oedipus. He must have been especially aware of the work of his fellow playwright Aeschylus, who had already written about the Theban dynasty in his play Seven against Thebes. In writing Antigone, Sophocles created a separate tragedy that centered on one of the lesser characters in Aeschylus’s play. Sophocles used the familiar characters of the royal family of Thebes but changed their actions to suit his own dramatic purposes. Antigone’s defiance of Creon, for instance, is a plot element that other writers do not mention in relating the story of King Oedipus and his family.
Pericles, Creon, and Athenian democracy
According to some critics, the character of Creon was modeled at least in part on the great Athenian general Pericles, who dominated the Athenian political scene during much of Sophocles’ public life. Sophocles was one of Pericles’ fellow military leaders and possibly his friend. If the portrait of Creon as a power-hungry, autocratic, and harsh leader does resemble Pericles, however, the extent of that friendship is perhaps in question. In 442 b.c., when Antigone was first performed, Pericles’ career was at its highest point. One school of thought argues that the figure of Creon, who abuses his power, may have been intended as a veiled warning to Pericles and
ANTIGONE HONORS THE DEAD A SECOND TIME
Guard: When we arrived there... we wiped away all the dust that covered the corpse, stripped the damp body well, and sat on top of a hill to windward, taking care that the smell from the body should not reach us.... After a long time... the girl was seen; and she uttered a piercing cry, the shrill note of a bird, as it cries when it sees, in its empty nest, the bed bereft of nestlings. So she, when she saw the corpse bare, broke out in lamentation, and called down curses on those who had carried out the deed. And at once she brought thirsty dust in her hands, and lifting up a fine bronze ewer she paid her respects to the corpse with a threefold libation.
the Athenian people about the dangers of dictatorship. In the play, Creon stubbornly insists that Antigone suffer an awful fate for her actions. His refusal to listen to any line of reasoning served to remind the Athenian audience of the terrors that tyranny could bring.
Democracy was a relatively new social development in Sophocles’ Athens. It had been born in the late sixth century b.c., after a long period of dictatorship. Concerned that dictatorship might return, the populace set up strong laws designed to protect against just such a possibility. Athenian males who were not slaves could vote on the city’s political and economic business. A system was devised wherein the city was managed primarily by ten generals. Each of these ten generals came from one of the ten tribes into which democratic reformers had divided the Athenian people. To prevent power plays based on family or regional biases, each tribe included members from all over the state.
As one of the ten generals of Athens, Pericles was subject to regular elecforal approval and thus could not establish a dictatorship through legislative means. Pericles did not need to establish a formal dictatorship, however; he was immensely popular and was, in essence, “the uncrowned king of Athens” (Wilcoxon, p. 207).
Other critics insist that Creon behaves as he does precisely because of the democratic ideal. He does not take into account his family ties to Antigone and Polynices when making his judgments. Instead, he treats them as though they are common citizens who have acted against the best interests of the city. In fact, when Ismene asks Creon to pardon Antigone because she is such a wonderful match for his son Haemon, the king retorts, “There are arable fields of others” (Antigone, 569), clearly reflecting Creon’s view that Antigone is just another woman. As one scholar notes, “Creon, the political leader, categorizes and simplifies; one female equals another…. In a perverse way, Creon’s refusal to distinguish, to particularize, to see differences, may make him more the democrat than the tyrant” (Saxonhouse, p. 74).
Funerals in Greece were largely the responsibility of women during Sophocles’s time. They washed and dressed the body, adorned it with flowers, and then covered it up. Only close relatives participated in this ritual. After a death, the “prepared” corpse was laid out for two days in the home and then taken away for burial before the dawn of the third day. The funeral procession—led by men and followed by lamenting women—wound slowly outside the city gates to a cemetery, where the body would be laid to rest.
The Greeks practiced cremation as well as burial. If the former practice was chosen, the body was either burned in its grave or burned on a separate pyre, after which the ashes were buried. The dead person was typically buried with a variety of offerings, including poftery, stone vases, and
personal possessions. By some accounts, traitors and people who robbed temples were not entitled to be buried within Athenian territory, but the historical record is far from consistent on this. Thus, as Andrew Brown points out in his translation of Antigone, “whether [Creon] is justified in forbidding burial to Polynices is not clear. It was evidently normal practice, at Athens and elsewhere, to forbid burial on their native soil to men convicted of treason.... In such cases, however, the body would be cast outside the borders, rather than left in a place where it could cause pollution to the city” (Brown in Sophocles, p. 6). Left out in the sun for wild dogs to pick at, Polynices’s rofting body has just this effect. Creon’s refusal to let anyone touch the corpse thus seems poorly reasoned in this respect.
Fifth-century b.c. Athens saw the rise of a revolutionary group of teachers and philosophers. Called the sophists, they turned their attention away from the gods and goddesses toward the study of mankind. The opening of Antigone features the famous “Ode to Man,” which echoes the ideas of this philosophical movement:
Wonders are many, and none more wonderful
than man.... Subtle beyond hope is his power
of skilled invention, and with it he comes now
to evil, now to good. Respecting the
laws of the land and the right of oaths sworn by the gods,
he is a man of a lofty city; cityless is he who
recklessly devotes himself to evil.
The sophists were individual teachers who differed in their views as well as their standards but agreed that the main subject of their teaching should be human actions. A particular area of study and emphasis was mankind’s political views. Teachers of middle-class origin, the sophists educated the young sons of the wealthy about the practice of democracy. Pericles was closely acquainted with certain of the notable sophists in Athens and supported their influence on the city’s intellectual life.
Antigone, of course, features not only the “Ode to Man” but also several dramatic events that point out a number of the faults of mankind. The Greek word deina, which is sometimes translated as “wonderful,” can also mean “terrible.” Some readers contend that Sophocles seems to make use of this double meaning in his work, arguing that his use of the word signifies a veiled criticism of a world view focused too intently on man.
The Athenian theater
Sophocles’s plays were written to be performed in public at the great Theater of Dionysus. Located in the heart of Athens, the theater sat with other important city buildings on the slope of the rocky hill of the Acropolis. Plays were usually staged during the festival of Dionysus, the god of growth and wine, which took place at planting time in March. Crowds of 15,000 people regularly attended the performances, and even criminals were released from prison in order to see the plays. Attendance at these dramas was perceived to be a civic duty, in part because the plays often addressed important social and political issues.
The dramatic part of the festival’s program was presented as a competition between playwrights, each of whom put on four plays in the
THE CHORUS ADVISES CREON
Creon: To yield is terrible, but it is a terrible project to stand firm and so bring down the blows of ruin upon my spirit Chorus: Wise counsel is needed….
Creon: What should I do, then? Tell me and I will obey.
Chorus: Go and release the girl from the underground chamber, and furnish the unburied body with a tomb.
Creon: Is this really your advice? You think i should yield?
Chorus: Yes lord, and with all speed.
space of one day. The first three were tragedies, often related to each other. The last play was a “satyr” play that poked fun at the serious subjects and characters of the three earlier plays. The satyr play was followed by a comedy by another playwright, which was part of a separate competition for writers of comedy. “For five days the playwrights showed their productions... and the audience made their preferences clear [by booing or cheering]... The plays were then judged by ten judges, each one selected from one of the ten tribes of Athens. These ten then cast their votes into an urn and five of the votes were drawn out at random. From these five votes the result was announced” (Taylor, p. xxiii). This complex process may have been designed to discourage cheating, an illustration of how seriously the dramatic competitions were taken.
The Greek word chows (chorus) means “dance.” An important part of fifth-century b.c. drama, the chorus was a group of singers and actors who either commented on what was occurring in the main part of the drama or actually functioned as a character in the play. The chorus served as a link between the audience and the actors, often portraying a group of citizens not unlike the audience themselves. In Antigone, the chorus is a group of Theban elders who keep shifting their loyalty back and forth from Creon to Antigone; their indecision further confirms the complex nature of the issues under discussion.
In Greek drama, the chorus was assembled before the people involved even knew what play would be performed: “The making of plays started not with the playwright but with the Chorus. Five rich men were selected by the city authorities and each was required to select, train and produce a chorus for one of the five days [of dramatic competition]” (Taylor, p. xxi). The members of the chorus were young amateur male actors who had to be costumed, fed, and trained for their role. After the choruses were chosen, civic authorities chose the playwrights who would produce plays and matched each of them with one of the choruses and with professional actors. Choruses were thus matched with playwrights in fairly arbitrary fashion.
When Sophocles’s Antigone was first unveiled, the tough Athenian audience awarded it first place in the dramatic competition. But perhaps more interesting than the ancient Greek reaction to Antigone is the amazing “modern” history of the play. The drama has been praised over the years by a wide range of writers, including John Keats, William Butler Yeats, George Eliot, Frederich Nietszche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean Cocteau. “Between c. 1790 and c. 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, [and] scholars that Sophocles’s Antigone was not only the finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit” (Steiner, p. 1). Antigone’s depiction of the clash between individual conscience and governmental law has caused it to be an especially noteworthy play in times of war as well. It was immensely popular during the French Revolution and immediately after World War II, for example. The play has also been cited as an early attempt to explore the issue of equal rights between men and women.
Bowra, C. M. Peridean Athens. New York: Dial Press, 1971.
Hammond, N. G. L. The Classical Age of Greece. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.
Saxonhouse, Arlene W. Fear of Diversity: The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Scodel, Ruth. Sophocles. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.
Sophocles. Antigone. Translated by Andrew Brown. Warminster: Aris & Philips, 1987.
Steiner, George. Antigones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Taylor, Don, trans. Sophocles: The Theban Plays. London: Methuen, 1986.
Wilcoxon, George Dent. Athens Ascendant. Ames: University of Iowa Press, 1979.
Sophocles' Antigone, Seneca the Younger's Phoenissae, Hyginus's Fabulae
Daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, King and Queen of Thebes
In Greek mythology , Antigone (pronounced an-TIG-uh-nee) was the daughter of Oedipus (pronounced ED-uh-puhs), king of Thebes (pronounced THEEBZ), and his wife Jocasta (pronounced joh-KAS-tuh). A faithful daughter and sister, Antigone was caught between quarreling family members and was punished for her loyalty.
The story of Antigone is immortalized in the play Antigone by Greek playwright Sophocles (pronounced SOF-uh-kleez). It tells the tragic story of this young woman. In an earlier play by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus had unknowingly murdered his father and married his mother, Jocasta. When they discovered what they had done, Jocasta hung herself and Oedipus blinded himself. His sons, Eteocles (pronounced i-TEE-uh-kleez) and Polynices (pronounced pol-uh-NYE-seez), drove Oedipus from Thebes and took over the kingdom.
Antigone and her sister Ismene (pronounced is-MEE-nee) accompanied their blind father on his wanderings around Greece. Meanwhile, Eteocles broke his promise to share power with Polynices and drove him from the kingdom as well. Polynices led an army against Thebes to regain the throne.
Their uncle, Creon (pronounced KREE-ahn), supported Eteocles in the conflict with his brother. An oracle (or person through which the gods communicated with humans) told Creon that whoever gave shelter to Oedipus would win the battle for Thebes. Creon therefore asked Oedipus, who had taken refuge in the city of Colonus, to return. When Oedipus refused, Creon sent soldiers to seize Antigone and Ismene to force their father to come back. Theseus (pronounced THEE-see-uhs), king of Athens, rescued Antigone and Ismene, but soon afterward Oedipus died and his daughters returned to Thebes.
Polynices attacked Thebes and in the battle that followed, the two brothers met in combat and killed each other. Creon became king. He gave Eteocles a hero's burial but refused to let anyone bury Polynices, whom he considered a traitor. Antigone, mindful of her duty to her brother, secretly crept out at night to bury Polynices. She was caught by Creon's soldiers and condemned to death for her disobedience. To avoid direct responsibility for her death, Creon ordered that Antigone be sealed alive in a cave with food and water. Creon's son Haemon (pronounced HEE-muhn), who was engaged to Antigone, pleaded unsuccessfully for her life.
A seer, or person who can see the future, then came to see Creon. He warned that the king had angered the gods by sealing up Antigone and refusing burial to Polynices. Creon immediately ordered that Polynices be buried and went to the cave to release Antigone. On opening the cave, however, he found that Antigone had hung herself. Haemon was overcome with grief. He tried to kill his father and then stabbed himself to death. When Creon's wife, Eurydice (pronounced yoo-RID-uh-see), learned of her son's suicide, she took her own life.
The Greek playwright Euripides (pronounced yoo-RIP-i-deez) tells a version of the story with a happier ending. In his play, Creon instructed Haemon to carry out Antigone's sentence. Haemon pretended to seal Antigone away as ordered but actually took her to the countryside. The couple stayed in hiding for many years, raising a son. After the son grew up, he went to Thebes to take part in an athletic event. There he stripped off his clothes to run in a race and revealed a birthmark that was found only on members of Antigone's family. Creon recognized the mark and sentenced Haemon and Antigone to death for disobeying his orders. The god Dionysus (pronounced deye-uh-NEYE-suhs), or, in some versions, the hero Heracles (known as Hercules to the Romans), pleaded with Creon to spare their lives. Creon agreed and the lovers were formally married.
Sophocles used the story of Antigone to comment on the conflict between the laws of the state and the laws of the gods. Creon's decree against burying Polynices is shown to be unjust and against the gods' wishes. Antigone's decision to perform her religious duty to her brother wins the sympathy of the audience.
Antigone in Context
The burial of the dead was an important practice in ancient Greece. Greeks believed that only by following proper burial procedure would the dead reach the afterlife. Burials were supposed to take place on the third day after death and were to be performed by a family member of the deceased. The preparation of the dead body was usually done by women, while the burial was done by men.
In the story of Antigone, Creon would normally be expected to bury his nephew Polynices. However, because Polynices is considered a traitor by Creon, the king forbids his burial. As Polynices's sister, Antigone feels a duty to perform the burial rite. When Creon punishes her for fulfilling her religious duty, he commits a double sin in Greek society: he first ignored his own duty to bury Polynices, and then he punishes someone else for trying to fulfill it. Although Greek rulers had tremendous power, they were not so powerful that they could ignore religious duty to serve their own political agendas without suffering consequences. The Greeks believed that violations of religious duty would result in destruction by angry gods, and so they believed that religious law was more important than political law.
Key Themes and Symbols
The name “Antigone” can be translated as “opposing family” or “against ancestors.” This reflects Antigone's defiance against her uncle Creon, who has become both head of the family and the leader of Thebes.
Antigone could also be considered opposite in character to her ancestors. Unlike other members of her family, Antigone remains dedicated and loyal to her true family despite their quarrels with each other. She remains with her father after he is banished from Thebes by his sons. She also tries to secure a proper burial for her brother Polynices even though he is considered a traitor for his actions.
Antigone in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Sophocles and Euripides were the first of many writers to create works of art based on the story of Antigone. Among those who wrote plays about her were the European playwrights Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, and Bertolt Brecht. Italian translations of the Greek plays were the basis for an opera by Christoph Gluck in 1756, called Antigono. More recendy, German composer Carl Orff wrote a “tragic play with music” about Antigone in 1949.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Antigone breaks a law of the state in order to care for her dead brother Polynices in the way she believes she must. Because we know of Antigone's devotion to her family, as well as the unfairness of the king's law regarding Polynices, it is easy to side with Antigone. In your opinion, should family traditions and beliefs be followed even when they result in breaking the law? Why or why not?
Antigone (ăntĬg´ənē), in Greek mythology, daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, she and her sister Ismene follow their father into exile at Colonus. When her brothers Eteocles and Polynices killed each other in the war of the Seven against Thebes, Creon, King of Thebes, forbade the burial of the rebel Polynices. Antigone defied him and performed the funeral service. She hanged herself in the cave where Creon ordered her buried alive. In addition to Sophocles' Antigone, plays and operas that rework her legend have been written by Anouilh, Brecht, Cocteau, Honegger, and Orff.