Antigone | Study Guide

Jean Anouilh

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Antigone | Context


Pirandello and Metatheater

French theater in the early part of the 20th century was technically sophisticated but artistically conventional. As Anouilh was coming of age, however, new ideas were starting to have an impact on French theater. The Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) had a particularly profound impact on Anouilh and his mentors. Pirandello developed the idea of metatheater, which explores ideas about identity and suggests people are always playing roles.

Pirandello's plays—particularly his most famous work, Six Characters in Search of an Author—use a metatheater technique in which characters suddenly break free from the "actors" playing them. This technique forces the characters to ask themselves, "Can any of us be certain of our own identity when others hold radically different perspectives on our actions, on who we are?" Pirandello's technique and influence is clear in Anouilh's Antigone, when Antigone admits she doesn't know why she is dying. She voices metatheatrical uncertainty about her role in the drama.

Sophocles's Antigone

Anouilh's Antigone is based on Sophocles's tragedy by the same name. Sophocles was one of the foremost dramatists of Athens' Golden Age in the 5th century BCE. Among his most famous surviving works is the Oedipus Cycle, which recounts the myth of Oedipus, the Greek king of Thebes. The first play, Oedipus Rex, dramatizes the tragic tale of Oedipus who blinds himself when he learns he unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus at Colonus takes place during the king's exile, where, cared for by his daughters, Ismene and Antigone, he refuses Creon's plea to return to a Thebes racked by civil war.

Oedipus at Colonus ends with the hero's death. Antigone—the third play in the cycle's chronology—begins in the aftermath of Thebes' civil war. Sophocles's Antigone decides to bury her brother, the rebel Polynices, despite Creon's solemn prohibition. In refusing to allow Polynices's burial or to spare Antigone's life, Creon believes he is doing his civic duty. His actions, however, defy the gods' will and common decency. When his son and wife commit suicide following Antigone's death, Creon is a broken man. He also becomes fully aware that his stubbornness caused the tragedy.

Since the revival of classical drama after the Middle Ages, many European dramatists have retold the story of Antigone. From Renaissance writers who saw her as a Joan of Arc figure, through the French Revolution to the Napoleonic era, dramatists have used the character of Antigone as a symbol of religious or political martyrdom.

Antigone was also a particularly popular subject of drama in the 20th century, when artists used Greek mythology in general to comment on the dehumanizing effects of war and industrialization. As critic and poet T.S. Eliot observed, Greek mythology was "a way of controlling, or ordering, or giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." Twentieth-century writers used the plays of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles as mirrors for contemporary society. When Anouilh's Antigone was well into its second year running in 1945, two other dramatizations of the myth were also being performed in Paris.

While Anouilh's play closely follows the plot of Sophocles's Antigone, he makes several important changes. For example, he eliminates the role of the blind seer Tiresias (Creon's strongest critic in Sophocles's original) and introduces the character of the nurse, highlighting Antigone's youth (which scholars of both the Greek and French plays place at around age 15). Most importantly, his attitude toward the play's central figures, Creon and Antigone, is far more ambivalent than Sophocles's. In the classical play Sophocles makes it clear that Creon's stubbornness causes Haemon's and Eurydice's deaths. Anouilh's drama provides no such certainty; instead the audience is left to decide who is the more tragic figure.

Antigone in World War II and Beyond

In Nazi-occupied Paris, adaptations of classical Greek drama flourished in part because they provided comforting familiarity in an uncertain world. In 1940 when Marshal Phillipe Pétain, the leader of the French military, surrendered to the Nazis, France was divided into two zones. The South, or Vichy France, was nominally free but closely aligned with Germany; the North, including Paris, was occupied by the German army. From the relative safety of London, General Charles de Gaulle worked to rally an army of resistance to the occupation.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Paris lived in fear of the brutal German occupation administration and their collaborators, the Vichyites. Under the direction of this administration, Vichyite censors kept their eyes on theatrical scripts, down to the props and costumes. How did Antigone, with its rebellious heroine, bypass the censors? The answer lies in the ambiguity of Anouilh's text. While resistance sympathizers saw Antigone as a hero, the Nazi regime and its collaborators saw Creon as a firm but fair authoritarian leader.

Yet when Antigone hit Broadway in 1946, it was received across the board as a pro-resistance drama. In fact, one American critic said, "one wonders why [the Germans] permitted it at all." His question was answered in the play's program notes, in which the translator, Lewis Galantière, explained how he had changed parts of Anouilh's text to make it feel more overtly pro-resistance. On learning about Galantière's changes, the same critic said he would have preferred the translator "give us the argument precisely as it was given in the French version."

Anouilh objected angrily to Galantière's changes, but the translator insisted they were necessary: "I must say," he wrote to Anouilh, "it would be impossible to play your text in the States without the press crying Fascism." Although these changes were retracted in later editions of Galantière's translation, some critics think American critics' early interpretation cemented Antigone's reputation as a tribute to the rebellious spirit. To this day Antigone is still read as a play about resistance to tyranny.

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