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Antigone | Study Guide

Jean Anouilh

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Antigone | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the absence of Tiresias, the blind prophet in Sophocles's original, affect Anouilh's Antigone?

In Sophocles's version of Antigone, the prophet Tiresias accuses Creon of poisoning Thebes with his policies and warns the king the gods are angry with him for leaving Polynices unburied. He adds that if he allows Antigone to die, he will lose his son Haemon. Sophocles's prophet makes it crystal clear to the audience that Creon is wrong and his pride will lead to catastrophe. Because Tiresias does not appear in Anouilh's version, it's up to the audience to decide whether Creon is wrong to pursue the death penalty or whether in fact, the king, who represents pragmatism, might have a point: Antigone's sacrifice might be necessary to preserve peace.

In Antigone how and why does Anouilh emphasize his heroine's youth?

Anouilh uses several techniques to highlight Antigone's youth. In Part 1 (Early Morning) the nurse, a character absent in Sophocles's play, calls her "my little flibbertijibbet" and "my poor baby" and portrays her charge as a wayward tomboy. Antigone herself shows a childlike preoccupation with her dog, Puff. Her rebellious behavior contrasts with that of her sister Ismene, a "coquette" who is ready to fit into the role of an adult woman. In burying her brother Polynices, Antigone used a child's tool, a toy spade, and she treasures a paper flower he gave her when she was even younger. All of these details paint a portrait of a girl experiencing the impulsiveness and extreme emotions of adolescence. Anouilh emphasizes Antigone's youth with a purpose: only the young can so convincingly symbolize purity and idealism. The impulsiveness that once led her to ruin her dress in the dirt and stuff money in a beggar's pocket is what makes other characters plea for her to behave. In Part 7 (One Last Appeal), Antigone shows she is aware others see her as immature when she tells Creon, "I will not be satisfied with the little bit of cake you offer me if I promise to be a good little girl." She is not prepared to set aside the child's moral clarity, and her refusal to compromise dooms her.

In Anouilh's Antigone how do the child's spade and the act of burying Polynices symbolize Antigone's idealism?

When the play begins, Antigone has not seen her older brother in years. He is frozen in her mind as the dashing older brother, "his eyes were shining ... so handsome in his evening clothes." This is the brother Antigone wants to honor with a burial. To do so, she uses a spade for digging sand castles, a gift from her adored Polynices. But this tool is unsuitable for the task, and the real Polynices is unworthy of her devotion; as Creon points out in Part 7 (One Last Appeal), he was a "blackguard" who tried to assassinate his own father. Both the act of burying Polynices and the child's tool she uses to do it thus symbolize an idealism that cannot very well stand up to reality.

Why in Part 7 (One Last Appeal) in Antigone does Antigone continue her insistence on burying her brother?

Even when Creon punctures the idealism that drives Antigone's rebellious act of burial by revealing the truth about her brother in Part 7 (One Last Appeal), Antigone will not renounce her act; she continues to cling to the idealism that she symbolizes and that drives her. The act of burying him with her child's spade becomes not an act of loyalty but a quixotic (absurdly idealistic) refusal to reject her own idealism. As critics have noted, Antigone understands she must reject compromise and all that is less than perfection. She no longer really cares about leaving her brother's body rotting in the sun. Instead, devastated by the realization that it is a foul business, she uses the defiant act of burying him as a pretext to "spit on your idea of life" and bring about her own death.

How do Antigone's reasons for burying her brother differ in Sophocles's and Anouilh's versions of Antigone?

In Sophocles's play Antigone professes rock-solid motivations for burying her brother: leaving the dead unburied is an affront to the gods, and the laws of the gods are more important than the laws of men. In addition she believes it is her familial duty, and duty to family trumps duty to the state. In Anouilh's play Antigone also gives various reasons for burying Polynices. First she says she owes it to him, because "those who are not buried wander eternally and find no rest." She wants to allow Polynices to enter the "house of the dead in which my father and my mother are waiting to welcome him." This rationale combines religious belief and family duty. Creon quickly determines that Antigone does not really believe "all that flummery about religious burial," so the religious rationale crumbles. Then in Part 7 (One Last Appeal), Antigone appeals to moral authority: "I don't have to do things I think are wrong," she says, contrasting herself with Creon, who, even though he symbolizes pragmatism, admits he didn't want to leave Polynices unburied but did it anyway. But when Creon reveals the truth about Polynices—that he was a degenerate gambler who plotted against his own father—Antigone's self-righteousness wavers. She agrees to drop her rebellion and marry Haemon, seemingly conceding that she does not owe her brother anything. When she changes course, threatening to stoke rebellion, her arguments have nothing to do with Polynices and everything to do with what she symbolizes: refusal to accept a life of "humdrum happiness."

How does Anouilh's conception of tragedy, revealed in Antigone, compare to Sophocles's?

Both dramatists assert the role fate plays in their characters' lives. In Sophocles, however, fate is determined by the gods, who represent the ultimate moral authority. In Anouilh's play, fate is determined by the roles characters take on or have imposed on them by society. Because she represents idealism, Anouilh's Antigone rebels against the role society has imposed on her as a royal princess—to comply, marry, be happy. Yet the Chorus tells us in the Prologue that she feels compelled to fulfill a different role, one that will require self-sacrifice. Unlike Antigone, Creon (ever the pragmatist) accepts the role society imposes on him: to be the ruler of Thebes. Neither Antigone's role nor Creon's is ordained by the gods, who are never mentioned in the play. But the fact that their two roles appear not to be constrained by the gods does not make them any less constricting. In Greek tragedy, the hero experiences a moment when the truth is revealed and ignorance is swept away. In Sophocles's Antigone, Creon is the one who experiences this moment, when he realizes his pride, wounded over Antigone's defiance, has led to catastrophe. In Anouilh's adaptation, Antigone is the one who experiences this awakening, not once but twice: first in Part 7 (One Last Appeal) when she realizes she can't live in a world of compromises, and later in Part 9 (In Her Prison Cell) when she realizes her death is meaningless. Anouilh leaves it up to the audience to decide which "truth" is the real one, suggesting that the lack of any certainty within an absurd universe is the real tragedy.

In what ways is Creon sympathetic or unsympathetic to Antigone's point of view throughout Antigone?

Creon does seem sympathetic to Antigone's idealistic view of the world: although he represents compromise, he arrives at this sympathetic viewpoint through the struggle of their long argument in Part 6 (The Daughter of Oedipus). At one point exasperated with her stubbornness, he says, "Won't you try to understand me! I'm trying hard enough to understand you!" Later after disabusing Antigone of her ideals about her brother in Part 7 (One Last Appeal), he says, "I understand you; and ... at your age I should have done the same thing." He goes on to describe his past as an idealistic youth like Antigone: "His mind, too, was filled with thoughts of self-sacrifice." His sympathy is of no use to Antigone, however, because it does not go so far as to allow her to actually bury her brother. Furthermore, by the time he claims to understand her, burying Polynices is beyond the point. She despises Creon because he compromises, something she will never do, because she represents purity.

In what ways does Anouilh modernize the setting of Antigone?

Though Anouilh's Antigone, like Sophocles's, is set in the ancient city of Thebes, Anouilh's staging notes call for a neutral set giving no clues to the time or place. Still many details suggest the modern era: the audience learns Polynices smoked cigarettes and drove a car; Creon used to enjoy browsing in antique shops; in Part 10 (Late Afternoon) Eurydice lay down to die in a room with "embroidered doilies" and "pictures framed in plush." The political situation in Thebes also mirrors the situation in France when Antigone was first staged, when Fascists held dictatorial power over the country. Mixing a classical myth with notes of modernity makes the play feel both timeless and contemporary.

How does the character of Creon in Anouilh's Antigone differ from Sophocles's?

Both Sophocles's Creon and Anouilh's want to keep order in Thebes, and both claim to be devoted to human laws. Learning of Antigone's rebellion, Sophocles's Creon doesn't hesitate to bring the full force of the law to bear; he immediately sentences his niece to death. The modern Creon also values the law: "I am master under the law. Not above the law," he tells Haemon. In practice however, he's willing to compromise on the law if order can be maintained by other means, and indeed he is a symbol of this type of compromise. He is willing to spare Antigone if he can keep her rebellion under wraps. He is also sentimental: he cares about his son's happiness and knows it depends on marrying Antigone. Finally he takes great pains to try to understand where Antigone is coming from and to dissuade her from defiance. None of these qualities are part of the makeup of Sophocles's Creon. In fact his inflexible demand for obedience to the law (which, of course, means obedience to him: he's the king) is his tragic flaw. The fate that befalls Sophocles's Creon also befalls the modern one: he loses his wife and son. But Anouilh's Creon does not experience anagnorisis, or enlightenment, as the classical Creon does. He doesn't seem to have learned anything he didn't already know. The audience is left with the feeling that if he had it to do over, he wouldn't change his mind.

What is the significance of the last sight audiences see onstage in Part 10 of Antigone?

After the revelation that Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice are all dead in Part 10 (Late Afternoon), the Chorus comes out for one last word. As he intones about the dead and those left behind, the three guards then enter and begin playing cards, just as they were in the Prologue where they waited "to act out for you the story of Antigone." They are untouched by the tragedy the audience has just witnessed—"It's no skin off their noses," says the Chorus. Like the actors who play the guards, the guards themselves are simply playing roles. They exist on a different plane from the likes of Antigone and Creon and represent the mediocre masses who don't know a heroic domain exists beyond boring daily life. The banality of their card game amid the tragedy that has just taken place suggests that the deaths of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice have indeed been meaningless.

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