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Antigone | Study Guide

Jean Anouilh

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Antigone | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Jean Anouilh's Antigone, first produced in wartime Paris in February 1944, is often seen as an allegory for the French resistance under German occupation. The play updates Sophocles's Greek tragedy of the same name, adding allusions to automobiles and films. But many of the play's themes remain the same: the struggle against authority, the importance of family, and the effects of excessive pride.

Although Anouilh's play isn't often revived, it remains important because of its historical context and the controversy it ignited. Seen as both a condemnation of the Nazis and an exoneration of them, as a celebration of civil disobedience, and as a validation of governmental authority, the play explores the ambiguity of modern moral decisions.

1. Anouilh's Antigone became a symbol for the French underground in World War II.

Antigone opened in Paris in February 1944—when the city was under German occupation. The audience consisted of both collaborators and resisters of the Nazis, both of whom applauded for some of the same lines. Many audience members interpreted the play as anti-German. They viewed the character of Creon as a Nazi sympathizer and Antigone's refusal to submit to his will as a reflection of what the anti-Nazi underground was doing in France.

2. The Nazis also embraced Anouilh's Antigone.

The Nazis kept a close eye on French drama produced during their occupation to ensure that no anti-Nazi propaganda was shown onstage. However, since Anouilh's Antigone was based on Sophocles's classical Greek play, they considered it safe for the public.

3. Anouilh had to submit a copy of Antigone to the Germans for approval.

Every play produced in France during the German occupation had to pass two censorship groups. The first was the Vichy censor, controlled by the French puppet government that was in sympathy with the Germans. The second was the German Propagandastaffel, which looked over every play before permitting production to go forward. Anouilh's play was approved by both.

4. Antigone was often performed without electricity.

Theatergoing in France during the German occupation was difficult. Most theaters were unheated. The Théâtre de l'Atelier, where Antigone was performed, usually didn't even have electricity; the play's lighting came from a skylight's circle of natural light, around which the performers had to work. In addition the audience frequently had to leave because of bomb alerts that forced viewers to take shelter.

5. Anouilh considered Antigone one of his "black" plays.

Anouilh divided his plays into categories. His lighter plays were his "pink" plays. The "glittering" plays were those with witty dialogue. "Grating" plays were sarcastic but often comic, and the "black" plays, including Antigone, were his grimmest. Critic Harold Clurman claimed, "Anouilh calls some of his plays 'black' others 'pink,' but they all sparkle with the glitter of the theatre's cloak of a thousand colors."

Of his dark or black themes, Anouilh said,

I am surrounded by foulness. The world is foul and it is plain to see. My theater is a fairy tale compared to reality.

6. Anouilh claimed Antigone was not intended to be political.

Immediately after its premiere in Paris, Anouilh's Antigone raised controversy because of its political implications. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted, "Anouilh stirred up a storm of discussion with Antigone being charged on the one hand with being a Nazi, on the other with being an anarchist." However, in his memoirs Anouilh wrote, "My conscience is clear. I knew nothing of the resistance movement during the war."

7. Anouilh was controversially passed over for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In 1962 the Nobel Academy released their shortlist for the literature award. It included Robert Graves, John Steinbeck, Karen Blixen (also known as Isak Dinesen), Lawrence Durrell, and Jean Anouilh. Blixen died, Durrell was put aside for a later year, Graves was considered mostly a poet, and Anouilh was rejected because a French writer had won two years earlier. The public reacted with anger when Steinbeck won; when asked if he felt he deserved the prize, Steinbeck even said no.

8. Marlon Brando had a bit part in the 1946 stage production of Antigone.

In 1946 Katherine Cornell, one of the great American stage actresses, brought Anouilh's Antigone to Broadway. The young Marlon Brando was cast as the messenger—basically a walk-on part with few lines. Brando went on to star in many films, among them The Godfather trilogy.

9. Anouilh's Antigone is pronounced differently than Sophocles's.

In the classical Greek tragedy by Sophocles the name "Antigone" is usually pronounced "ann-TIG-uh-nee." However, in Anouilh's version it is given the French pronunciation: "ahn-tee-GUN." Anouilh's play is set in 1940s France, a modern setting at the time of its original production, and the pronunciation of the heroine's name adds to the difference between it and its classical forebear.

10. Antigone was one of the 430 books in Marilyn Monroe's library.

The 1950s Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe had a library of more than 400 books. She greatly admired intellectuals and even married one—Death of a Salesman playwright Arthur Miller. How many of the 430 books she actually read nobody knows, but one of the titles in her library was Anouilh's Antigone.

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