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Antigone | Study Guide

Jean Anouilh

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Antigone | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What is Creon's notion of the meaning of life in Part 7 of Antigone?

Creon, who represents pragmatism in the political and personal realms, says in Part 7 (One Last Appeal), "Life is nothing more than the happiness that you get out of it," after explaining to Antigone she has the wrong idea about life. He urges her not to let other people tell her what life means because those people just want to use her passion to advance their own causes. Instead Creon says—in what sounds like a hint about marrying Haemon—"Life is a child playing around your feet." Echoing his self-concept as a tradesman, he also says life is "a tool you hold firmly in your grip." Creon's view of life seems designed to discourage political action or self-sacrifice, but it also seems heartfelt.

What is Antigone's feeling about happiness in Part 7 of Antigone?

Antigone, representing life without compromises, despises Creon's idea of happiness. The moments of joy that mean happiness to him would be too costly for her. In one of the play's most famous speeches, she asks in Part 7 (One Last Appeal), "To whom must I sell myself? Whom do you want me to leave dying?" She compares Creon's defense of "humdrum happiness" to a dog guarding a bone. Antigone will not be satisfied with this mediocre kind of happiness; she says she wants "everything of life ... now! ... total, complete: otherwise, I reject it!" Her demands of life sound unrealistic, a sense confirmed when she declares she wants to die unless she knows that, every day, "everything will be as beautiful as when I was a little girl." Antigone is idealistic, but she is not naive; she realizes that if she rejects Creon's happiness she will indeed die.

How does Jean Anouilh create suspense in the plot of Antigone?

Many of Anouilh's audiences come to the play knowing the myth of Antigone. Even if they don't, the Chorus reveals the fates of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice in the Prologue. Still Anouilh builds into the plot a fair amount of surprise and suspense by continually building tension between characters. For example, in Part 1 (Early Morning) Ismene tries to convince Antigone to obey Creon, leading the audience to the expectation that Antigone will either comply with her sister or reject her demand. Instead in a surprise twist—and a variation from Sophocles's plot—Antigone reveals it's too late: she has already buried her brother. Later even when the Chorus tells us the spring is wound tight and tragedy is inevitable, Anouilh manages to ratchet the tension even higher. The central argument between Antigone and Creon in Part 6 (The Daughter of Oedipus) and Part 7 (One Last Appeal) tugs the audience's sympathies back and forth and leads to a belief, for a brief moment, that Antigone has caved in to Creon's demands. Finally in Part 9 (In Her Prison Cell), Jonas's presence adds an almost comic element to what the audience expects to be a solemn scene, leading the audience to wonder whether the play will actually end as expected.

How does existential thought influence Jean Anouilh's Antigone?

Existentialism, the philosophical movement popular in France particularly around World War II, states that existence precedes essence. In other words, the individual has no predetermined essential self, but only the self that is defined by the choices he or she makes throughout his life. To live an "authentic" existence, one must (1) accept the unknowability of the universe, (2) take responsibility for the freedom that acceptance entails, and (3) be scrupulously honest with oneself. Those who believe the universe has no meaning but act as if it does live "inauthentic" existences. Anouilh's Antigone certainly reflects some influence of existentialism. The universe in which Anouilh's characters operate seems unknowable, and many of the characters lead inauthentic existences. Creon, representing expediency at the expense of fulfillment, is foremost among these; he arbitrarily props up Eteocles as a hero to pacify the city, though Etecoles was as much a traitor as Polynices; he lays down the law but would be willing to make an exception for Antigone if her rebellion could be kept secret. If Creon's existence is inauthentic, Antigone's may be too. She condemns his political expediency in Part 7 (One Last Appeal), but in embracing the role of the martyr, she too submits to false idols—whether gods or family honor. When she finally stops claiming these reasons for burying her brother, she takes steps toward authenticity. But Anouilh's project is not to create an existentialist allegory, and Antigone is not an existential hero. Her rejection of life runs counter to the existentialist's determination to engage in the world. Furthermore, she feels her death is fated, suggesting a belief in some mythical destiny, a feeling that doesn't leave her until she has been sentenced. Only when she is face to face with death in Part 9 (In Her Prison Cell) does she have serious doubts about the meaningfulness of her actions.

In Antigone's 1946 U.S. production, the translator added "a reign of terror has begun" to the end of the Prologue; why would Anouilh object to this change?

In Anouilh's original French text, the Chorus finishes the Prologue by explaining Creon's prohibition against burying Polynices. He does not say anything about "a reign of terror," an allusion to a bloody phase of the French Revolution. The phrase is now often applied to any brutally authoritarian regime; in the aftermath of World War II, the Nazis and their French henchman, the Vichyites, would have sprung to mind. In Anouilh's original French production, audience members did see Creon as a symbol of the Vichy leader Marshal Pétain, but many were sympathetic to his role. Rather than condemning collaboration outright, Anouilh's original text created a nuanced portrait of the struggle between collaboration and resistance—a nuance that Lewis Gallantiére's original translation erased with phrases such as "reign of terror" as well as other changes. In later editions of the translation, his changes were retracted.

In what ways is Creon or Antigone the tragic hero of Antigone?

Tragedy as defined by Aristotle has a religious purpose: to reveal cosmic truths about gods and humans. He described a hero of high social status, marked by a flaw (hamartia) that causes a reversal of fortune (perepetaia) and leading to catastrophe but also to anagnorisis ("insight"). In Sophocles's version of Antigone, Creon is the character who fits these criteria. In Anouilh's play, Antigone is the tragic hero—not in the fully Aristotelian sense, but in the playwright's unique vision. In some ways Antigone does fit Aristotle's definition. Her flaw, in one sense, is her refusal to compromise; her defiance of Creon sets into motion her downfall. But Anouilh has his own ideas about tragedy. His universe itself is tragic in the sense that it is indifferent. Although there is no divine order, the characters are nevertheless trapped in roles—Anouilh's version of fate. Antigone understands her role is to bury her brother and to die. Some might argue her tragic flaw is her refusal to reject her role. When she faces death in her cell in Part 9 (In Her Prison Cell), she realizes her death is meaningless.

What role do the gods play in Jean Anouilh's Antigone?

The gods have no part in Anouilh's play. Although the characters are trapped in roles, they are not roles determined by any divine influence. That's not to say the characters don't invoke God from time to time. When in Part 6 (The Daughter of Oedipus) Antigone first explains why she buried Polynices, she gives a spiritual reason: she doesn't want his soul to wander for eternity. Creon exposes this as a pretext: neither he nor Antigone believe in the priests' "abracadabra." Instead of consulting the divine for moral guidance, Creon consults his own conscience. He dedicates himself to "introducing a little order into this absurd kingdom." His reward for dedication is loneliness; it's the only wisdom he can pass on to his son: "The world is bare, Haemon, and you are alone." Because he has not been true to himself, Creon is similar to the hero of existential philosophers such Camus, who carry on in the face of an absurd universe by owning their fate and their decisions in spite of it.

In Part 1 why does Antigone tell her sister Ismene, "Sometimes it is better not to think too much"?

Antigone believes that by thinking about the consequences of burying Polynices, Ismene has talked herself out of doing what her instincts tell her to do: bury her brother. Antigone, representing purity of intention, operates on intuition, impulsively doing what feels right, which means any action that aligns with her childhood vision of the world. In that world she would play in the water and the dirt, eat voraciously, and weep "because there were too many grasses in the meadow ... to know and touch them all." On the other hand thinking requires facing the ugly facts of the world head on. Antigone is already willing to die but has not contemplated all the consequences of burying Polynices. When her sister warns her in Part 1 (Early Morning) that she will be harassed by a Creon's "mob," Antigone seems to have a moment of doubt. But she stands by her decision to bury (or rebury) her brother, leading to a confrontation with Creon in Part 7 (One Last Appeal). Their argument further reinforces the idea that she acts on intuition; Creon's logic strips away her facile reasons for burying her brother. Finally, in a flash that seems intuitive she simply says no to everything, including life itself.

Why is Antigone often read as an anti-fascist allegory of the French Resistance?

When Antigone opened in February of 1944, France was still under Germany's control. The Nazis led a brutal occupation in the north. In the south the Vichy puppet government led by Marshal Pétain had near-dictatorial control. From the relative safety of London, General de Gaulle worked to rally the Free French, an army of resistance to the occupation. French audiences saw Creon as a symbol of Pétain, who believed German control was a price worth paying for the preservation of French lives, and of Pierre Laval, Pétain's enthusiastically pro-Nazi prime minister. The Germans and Vichyites brutally punished those suspected of involvement in the resistance, just as Creon punishes Antigone. In spite of the danger, many citizens did sympathize with the resistance and considered its fighters incredibly heroic. Antigone's struggle resonated strongly with these sympathizers. Among her most memorable lines is her declaration to Creon in Part 6 (The Daughter of Oedipus), "I am here to say 'no' to you, and die." Resistance sympathizers saw Antigone's defiance as a rallying cry. When the war ended later that same year, the view of Anouilh's play as an allegory for the resistance became even more widespread. Anouilh, however, denied even knowing about the underground movement.

Why did some audiences view Antigone as sympathetic to the collabos, French citizens who collaborated with the enemy in World War II France?

Many members of the audience who first saw Antigone in February of 1944 saw the play as sympathetic to collaboration with the Nazis. After all, German censors gave the play their stamp of approval because they believed it symbolized all who make sacrifices for the sake of their country. Creon was widely seen as representing Marshal Pétain, the leader of Vichy France, admired by collaborators for coming out of retirement to avert disaster. Pro-collaboration audience members saw Antigone's defiance as an invitation for chaos and Creon's sentence as just. After the war most audiences embraced Antigone as nostalgically pro-resistance. However, critics on the left—many of whom saw the play as pro-resistance during the war—now saw it as pro-collaboration propaganda. At this time French society was turning itself inside out in an effort to purge the collaborationist element. Left-wing critics denounced Anouilh and other writers who requested clemency for a collaborationist journalist. These critics revised their interpretation of Anouilh's wartime plays through a pro-collaboration lens.

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