Antigone: Essay Q&A

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1. What was Anouilh’s artistic idea of the theater?

In his two dozen or so plays, Anouilh exhibits a great range of dramatic genre, from tragedy to farce. He got his experience and inspiration from many sources and was able to utilize all of them for the different moods of his plays, which he named “black”(pessimistic) “pink”(light) “brilliant”(high society life), “jarring”(cynical), and “costumed” or historical pieces. He began to write plays in the style of Edmond Rostand when he was an adolescent. Rostand was a romantic playwright (Cyrano de Bergerac) of the turn of the nineteenth century. The young author was also influenced by the Theatre Libre or Free Theater (founded in 1887) for its realistic portrayal of life, and the Theatre du Boulevard for popular entertainment. His work in an advertising agency taught him to write slogans, which he felt was good preparation for writing theatrical cues. He also had behind him his experience as a gag writer for film comedy. His first play, “L’Hermine” (1931), one of his “black” plays, was a brutal piece about a murderer.

When he entered the theatrical world as secretary to director Louis Jouvet at the Comedie des Champs-Elysees in Paris in his early twenties, he fell into another school of art—Theatre de L’Art, which sought to produce “pure theater” or experimental theater. Jouvet, for instance, used simple stage sets and the poetry reminiscent of classical drama to stimulate the imagination of the audience, instead of resorting to the elaborate stage sets of realistic plays or melodrama. The dramatists of this school (Paul Claudel, Andre Obey, Jean Cocteau, and Jean Giraudoux) looked to myths, legends, and fantasy for their material. Under this influence, he began writing his “pink” or rosy plays, such as “The Thieves’ Carnival” (1938), a fantasy-comedy.

Much of Anouilh’s work reinterprets classic themes for a modern age. From Moliere he learned to see the humor in human misery. Comedy and tragedy are thus mixed in his plays. Anouilh acknowledged the Italian playwright, Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), as an important creator of modern drama, with his theme of reality vs. illusion, a theme Anouilh frequently uses. He also uses Pirandello’s technique of “the theater within the theater” (a play about putting on a play), as a metaphor for the illusions we create and then live out. Both Pirandello and Anouilh use techniques of commedia dell’ arte, an Italian improvised comedy with masked and costumed character types. Anouilh’s use of spare stage sets and fantastic elements place the action more within the mind than in a physical location. His plays are analyses of psychological processes.

The despair from the Nazi occupation of France led to his production of Antigone, a combination of a black and historical piece that became popular for its coded anti-Nazi message. After the war, Anouilh wrote his “brilliant” dramas about the moral degradation of post-war society. Anouilh was like other French playwrights of the time in writing against the values of the status quo. He presents the irony of the idealist who cannot survive in a corrupt world.

2. How did Anouilh use the play Antigone as a comment on Nazi-occupied France?

Nazi Germany defeated France during World War II and occupied Northern France from July 1940 to August 1944.  Germany set up a puppet government in Southern France at Vichy under the direction of Marshal Petain, a Nazi collaborator. The French police and the Vichy government sent French Jews to concentration camps. The French Resistance, on the other hand, consisted of groups of armed citizens who published underground newspapers, established escape routes, and helped the Allied Armies invade and retake France. General Charles de Gaulle challenged the authority of Petain with his Free French Forces. De Gaulle claimed to be the proper representative of the ongoing French government. When the Allies invaded and liberated France in 1944, De Gaulle set up the Provisional Government of the French Republic in Paris that was recognized by the Allies as the legitimate government. The Vichy government moved to Germany and fell with the Germans.

The play Antigone was written in 1942 and performed in Paris on February 4, 1944. It was extremely popular, because the audience perceived parallels with Creon as the Vichy government and Antigone as the French Resistance. The Germans did not object to the play because there were no overt statements. Creon is pragmatic and his arguments proceed from the idea of compromise, as Petain compromised with the Germans. Antigone voices arguments for freedom. She sees Creon’s government as taking away the individual conscience of the citizens of Thebes, while Creon tries to convince her that he is keeping the country from chaos, an argument like the Vichy government used to legitimize itself. Antigone alone is willing to resist Creon’s tyranny. She is like the French Underground, defying the decree and burying her brother secretly. The guards are like the French police who turned on their own citizens and backed the Germans. The Chorus says the Guards, for instance, are “quite prepared to arrest anybody at all” (p. 12).

3. How does Anouilh’s version of Antigone differ from Sophocles’s version?

Although Anouilh adheres basically to the same plot and characters, he retells the story for the twentieth century with a different emphasis. Antigone still wrestles with fate, but fate for Anouilh does not have the same meaning as for Sophocles. Antigone and Creon now live in a world without religion and meaning. The fate they face is not a personal fate, but the human condition. Creon is one of the ordinary people who does what is expected of him. He feels righteous because he believes he does a duty to the state. He upholds the status quo without thinking about the consequences. He has agreed to be a bureaucratic tool and crushes anyone who won’t conform. Antigone is equally “fated” by her choice. She cannot conform; she is aware of her own ability to judge things for herself. She will not give up her sovereignty to the state, so she must die.

In Sophocles, the house of Oedipus was fated or marked by the gods. The family members all died violent deaths and could not escape their special destiny. It was a house also fated by character, including people like Oedipus and Antigone, noble in their ideals but extreme in their willful behavior. For the Greeks, moderation was an important virtue that allowed humans to live harmoniously with the gods and other people. The tragic hero/heroine was a person who went beyond ordinary behavior or thinking and was punished for it. They defied the decrees of the gods and fate. Sophocles’s Antigone, however rebellious, is admired for sacrificing herself to perform the burial rites for her brother, claiming that the state cannot override the religious law. In Anouilh’s version, religion is thrown out as a concern when Creon gets Antigone to admit that ritual is meaningless. The tragic conflict instead boils down to the individual (Antigone) standing up for her right to make her own decision vs. conforming to the demands of the state (Creon). Anouilh sees this dilemma as the human condition. Individuality is not tolerated by a state that is always controlling and reducing everything to a lowest common denominator. Anouilh thus makes the story even more tragic because there is no glory or meaning in Antigone’s death.

In Sophocles, there is both the Chorus and the seer Teiresias to explain why the tragedy happens. They proclaim that Creon has violated the law of the gods, and thus, he brings consequences into the human world. Antigone stands for the religious law; the people love her for standing up for it. She insists on pointing out Creon’s mistake and dies a heroine for defying his decree. Anouilh does not include the character of Teiresias, a seer who is a mouthpiece of the gods. In Anouilh, it is life itself that is tragic because people like Creon outnumber people like Antigone. The person who is sensitive, moral, and thinks for herself cannot live in a world of amoral Creons. The tragedy is thus the limitation of life itself. There are no gods to contend with, only the mindless social order.

4. Is there any influence of existential philosophy on Anouilh’s plays?

The philosophy of existentialism, particularly of French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), is similar in mood to the thought of Anouilh’s plays. It was a popular philosophy in the 1940s and 1950s because of the trauma of World War II, and many artists used these ideas in their works. Existentialism speaks of the indifference of the universe to human concerns. Life has no inherent meaning except the meaning the individual constructs for him or herself. Life is not rational and appears absurd or arbitrary. This can produce anxiety, but it also means humans are free to act as they will. The actions one engages in may not produce an effect in the universe, but it is important to follow one’s own conscience and act “authentically,” or in good faith. It is a philosophy that does not make reference to God or to divine intervention. Humans find themselves alone in the universe and must act as gods themselves.

Anouilh’s Antigone, unlike Greek versions of the story, makes no appeal to the gods. Creon debunks religious practice as hypocrisy and gets Antigone to agree that the priests’ mumbo-jumbo over the dead body probably does nothing, so why does she care about the burial? Antigone cannot appeal to anyone, human or divine, for help. There is no one to advise, nor would she listen, for she realizes she is doing things for herself, from her own conscience. She argues with both Ismene and Creon about the sin of betraying one’s own self. They are living “inauthentic” lives, doing what others expect of them, rather than exercising their own will and responsibility. Creon admits he has deviated from who he is, and Ismene admits she has let society make up her mind for her.

The Chorus tells us that Antigone’s heroic action did not change society. Yet the audience admires her for being true to herself and resisting tyranny. She demonstrates there are choices other than being one of the herd. The idea of fate is thus changed for Anouilh from a destiny chosen for a human by the gods to a consequence of following out one’s own will. Both Antigone and Creon choose and must accept what comes of it. Yet, in another sense, they play out a script that is felt to be absurd or somewhat arbitrary. Creon and Antigone agree on the absurdity of it. Creon says he will bring order “into this absurd kingdom” (p. 43). Antigone says she doesn’t know what she is dying for. It doesn’t make sense why things have to be this way, but they will play their parts to the end.

5. Is there a catharsis in this play?

Classic tragedy includes the concept of the “tragic flaw” of the character, responsible for drawing his or her fate down from the gods. Usually, the hero gets punished for pride, for setting his will against the gods. He commits some fatal error, such as Creon’s decree that no one may bury Polynices. In Sophocles’s version of the story, Creon sets his worldly power against the religious law, and therefore, is justly struck down. The audience learns from the mistakes of the character.

Greek tragedy was thus based on the concept of catharsis, the purification of the individual watching the story, and the purification of society within the story itself. Though someone dies or is sacrificed, knowledge is gained, and there is a release of tension, a resolution. For instance, Creon learns from his actions that he cannot override the religious custom of the people. Balance is restored at the end, through Antigone’s courageous act. This balance or resolution is experienced by both characters and audience.

Modern tragedy does not stress the fault of anyone but more often misfortune or chance. Modern tragedy similarly often has no resolution or catharsis; it points out the powerlessness of anyone to set things right. The hero is tragic by running into the forces of history. The gods are not there to help, and humans are not wise enough to fix things. The real tragedy for Anouilh is that someone like Antigone, willing to die for principle, is committing an act that means something to her but to no one else. She uses her will to stand up for what she feels is decent and right, but she does not win. Creon kills her and goes to his meeting as usual, and the guards continue to play cards. In Sophocles’s version, Antigone was a heroine after her death, but in Anouilh’s version, the mob goes after Antigone, as Ismene predicted it would. Anouilh reveals a world that runs on mediocrity and doesn’t want to know any better. There is no redemption possible.

Catharsis, however, also carries the meaning of peacefulness, like the peace after the storm. This sense is expanded upon by the Chorus in his explanation of tragedy as “restful” (p. 34), because there is no doubt about the outcome. There is also a restful silence for the tragic character as Antigone explains about her father Oedipus. “When all hope was gone. . . . Then he was at peace” (p. 59). This is as close as Anouilh’s Antigone comes to the notion of a catharsis.

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