Antigone: Prologue, Book 1
Text: Sophocles, Antigone. trans. Lewis Galantiere. Methuen’s Modern Classics, 1951, 1975.
Like Sophocles’ version of Antigone, this play is not divided into acts and scenes; it is a continuous action from beginning to end. The following sections represent the shifts in the action as it develops.
1. Summary of Prologue
The stage setting is described in the stage direction as minimal: a gray cloth backdrop in a semicircle with a couple of arches to suggest a Greek palace perhaps, though it is not clear from the setting when or where the action takes place. A semicircular stair has actors seated on it. Antigone sits on the top step with her arms around her knees staring into space, the Chorus and Eurydice near her. The Nurse sits on the second step, and guards on the third, playing cards. Creon sits at the table with his page. Ismene and Haemon are standing by the left arch, and the Messenger by the right arch.
The Chorus narrates the background of the story and also gives an overview of the play’s action. He tells us that the thin, dark girl is Antigone who is waiting for him to finish speaking so she can burst into her character as a “tense, sallow, willful girl whose family would never take her seriously” (p. 9). She is planning to oppose her uncle Creon, the king, but she thinks she is too young to die. She feels set apart from the others who are not doomed to die.
The Chorus points to Haemon, her cousin and the king’s son. He is a happy fun-loving young man laughing with Antigone’s beautiful sister, Ismene. Ismene is more beautiful than Antigone, but Haemon loves Antigone and is engaged to marry her, though the Chorus points out that he won’t. The Chorus introduces the king, Creon, at the table. He was the advisor to King Oedipus, his brother-in-law, and then advisor to the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices. They are dead, and he is king now.
The woman winding wool for Queen Eurydice is the Nurse to the two daughters of Oedipus, Ismene and Antigone. Eurydice will knit all during the play until it is time to kill herself. The Messenger is by himself and sad because he knows he will have to bring her the news of Haemon’s death. The guards continue to play cards.
The Chorus tells the historical background as the lights dim. After the death of Oedipus, the two sons were supposed to share the rule of Thebes. After the first year, Eteocles, the elder was supposed to step down for Polynices. He didn’t. There was a civil war in which the two brothers killed each other, and then, Creon, their uncle, had to take over. Creon issued an edict that the elder brother was to be given a state funeral while the younger brother was to be left unburied, food for the dogs. Any person trying to bury Polynices would be put to death. The characters have left the stage, and the Chorus leaves last as the play begins.
Commentary on the Prologue
Anouilh adapted many of Shakespeare’s plays for the French stage, and a prologue is a familiar device in Shakespeare; for instance, in Romeo and Juliet or Henry V. An actor called Chorus comes on stage and gives a synopsis of the entire action before the play starts, sometimes referring to the fact that this is a play: “can this [theater] cockpit hold/ The vasty fields of France?” Sophocles does not start with a prologue in his version of Antigone. He begins in medias res, in the middle of things, because his audience knew the story. The prologue here not only fills in the audience with details they might not know about the story, but about the characters. Anouilh does several innovative things in this prologue. He reinterprets the characters as modern types and tells us their thoughts. Greek drama was interested in the action, but modern drama is more interested in the psychological motivation of characters.
The Chorus sets us up for the modern interpretation of these characters by adding details, such as Antigone’s aloofness from the others, her childlike yet wise nature, her personal attraction despite the fact that she is not the prettiest daughter. We know ahead of time she is going to die and that she doesn’t want to. We know Haemon her fiancé will die, and that the Queen will die. Greek tragedy, and this tragedy, does not depend on suspense. We also know that Creon used to be interested in art but dutifully gave all that up to be an administrator. He is tired but does his job. His wife is virtuous but of no help to him. He is burdened by his position.
We also get a glimpse of the life of the guards, and this is important to Anouilh’s interpretation of human character. The guards are afraid of their wives. They have kids to support. They are the type of all policemen “quite prepared to arrest anybody at all” (p. 12).
Another innovation is the way Anouilh highlights that this is a play and that the characters know they are waiting to go on stage with their story. Fate and the play script are equally predetermined: “When your name is Antigone, there is only one part you can play; and she will have to play hers through to the end” the Chorus tells us (p. 9). It will become clearer why Anouilh takes away the illusion of life and makes us realize we are in a theater. He will show us that Creon and Antigone have each chosen their roles and are constrained by them. There are times when people know they have chosen a part and other times when they become absorbed in playing it out. This is a modern twist on the idea of Fate.
The fact that the stage set is so minimal allows the audience to see it could be happening at any time or place. It is a story of Greece, yet it is played with the actors in modern dress, and there are anachronistic touches throughout, such as the breakfast with coffee and rolls.
References are sometimes made to the tragic family history of the House of Oedipus. The details about Oedipus, father of Antigone, are told in another play of Sophocles: Oedipus the King. As the baby son of King Laius and Queen Iocasta of Thebes, Oedipus was ordered killed because a prophecy proclaimed that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Instead, he was saved by a herdsman and given to the king and queen of Corinth, who raise Oedipus as their own. When Oedipus hears the prophecy on reaching manhood, he flees from his home to escape such a terrible fate. He does not know he was adopted, and on the road he meets and kills his real father, Laius, in a duel. After solving the riddle of the Sphynx, the monster who holds the town of Thebes in terror, Oedipus is viewed as a savior and given the vacant kingship and marries Iocasta the queen of the deceased Laius, not realizing she is his real mother. He has four children with Iocasta, including Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone and Ismene. Later there is a plague in Thebes and the oracle says the city is unclean because Laius’s murderer has not been punished. In searching for the murderer of Laius, Oedipus finds out he himself is the murderer, and that Laius was his father, and Iocasta is his mother. Iocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself. The kingdom is ruled by Creon until the sons of Oedipus come of age. After their death, Creon assumes the rule in his own right.