Antigone – Jean Anouilh
Jean Anouilh (1910-1987) was, in the 50s and 60s, the most popular playwright in Europe. But the arrival on the scene of dramatists like Beckett and Ionesco dimmed his appeal. He quit drama for a while coming back strongly to write and direct plays. Antigone was written as a scathing critique of the collaborationist Vichy government in France. The Nazis promptly censured the play. It was finally staged some months after the liberation of Paris.
Relevance of the Title
There could be no better title for the play. The play is all about Antigone. The dramatic tension comes from her confrontation with Creon and the denouement is her death.
The Inevitability of Tragedy
The Greeks knew of the outcome of the plays that were to be staged, in advance. The way these tragedies would play out constituted ‘suspense’ for them. Tragedy was like a well oiled machine; nothing could stop it once the action was set in motion. The smallest incident could work as a catalyst.
Antigone is willful, withdrawn and sallow. She is everything that Ismene is not. She scares the audience with her determination. They know that she is marked for tragedy; yet how it will come about is what they watch. Antigone resents the beauty and charm that is bestowed on Ismene by which she is able to attract young men to her. Antigone on the other hand has to use wiles to attract Haemon. But she gets Haemon’s devotion. He would rather die than live without her. Antigone is determined to bury her brother. It does not matter to her that it is treason to do so.
Ismene is Antigone’s foil. She is beautiful and docile and ready to follow the law. She understands why Antigone wants to give her brother a burial. But she is not ready to die for that. At least not at the beginning. Later she wishes to join Antigone in death. She now has no one to live for.
Creon is the king of Thebes. He becomes the king by default. He was only interested in art but now that he is king, he wants to do the right thing politically. When Antigone raises the banner of revolt against him, he wants to forgive her and hide her crime. But when she insists on burying Polynices, her brother in daylight, he has to act. Creon knows that tragedy is waiting in the wings but as a just man, he can only hope that just acts will delay pain and suffering.
In this play, as the title suggests, Antigone is the prime mover of events. The chorus recounts the events that lead up to this play. Oedipus and his mother/wife Eurydice have two daughters Antigone and Ismene and two sons, Eteocles and Polynices. Oedipus, on his death had ordained that his two sons would reign for one year by turn. But when it is time for Polynices to rule, Eteocles refuses to step down. Polynices takes the help of some princes from neighboring city states and wages war on Thebes. Though he is defeated in war, Eteocles and Polynices duel and kill each other. Their uncle Creon becomes king. As Eteocles died defending his kingdom against a foreign invasion, he is buried with honor while Polynices, as the citizen guilt of sedition, is left to rot, unburied.
Antigone cannot bear this; both men were her brothers. She has to act. Tragedy demands it. She surreptitiously tries to bury Polynices. She is noticed and reported. Creon does not want trouble especially as his son Haemon is engaged to be married to Antigone. Creon pleads with Antigone to forget about her brothers as both were bad men. But Antigone remarks that the mark of tragedy is on her. It is like a disease that will infect the whole family. Haemon pleads with his father to pardon Antigone for he cannot live without her. But Creon does not relent; he cannot.
Antigone is to be killed by immuring. But before that could be done, she hangs herself. On hearing the news, Haemon kills himself. Euridice whose life has been one long horror story, kills herself. That leaves just Creon and Ismene.
The Greeks believed that life was like a long thread that is spun, reeled and cut by the Fates. All that Euridice does in the play is knit. She has no control over the action. When her time comes, she has to die. Then the tragedy will be complete.
- I didn’t say yes. I can say no to anything I say vile, and I don’t have to count the cost. But because you said yes, all that you can do, for all your crown and your trappings, and your guards—all that your can do is to have me killed.
Antigone is free to act as she wills. Creon does not have that luxury. Having accepted the throne, he power is circumscribed. He does not want to have her executed. He wants Haemon to marry Antigone and produce an heir for Thebes, but as king, he has to punish Antigone. Antigone mocks Creon’s powerlessness.
- My nails are broken, my fingers are bleeding, my arms are covered with the welts left by the paws of your guards—but I am a queen!
Anouilh’s Antigone lacks a good reason for doing what she does unlike Sophocles’ Antigone who does it for moral and filial reasons. She desires to bury the body knowing it runs counter to the decree of the king. Antigone tries to bury Polynices using her bare hands. Her fingers are raw and bleeding and her arms bear the mark of rough handling by the guards. But she does not care. She has the stature of one who can do as she pleases – a queen.
- if Haemon reaches the point where he stops growing pale with fear when I grow pale, stops thinking that I must have been killed in an accident when I am five minutes late, stops feeling that he is alone on earth when I laugh and he doesn’t know why—if he too has to learn to say yes to everything—why, no, then, no! I do not love Haemon!
Antigone refuses to value anything that is not perfect. The love that she cherishes from Haemon also has to be perfect – such love that is difficult to find on earth. She closes all avenues of escape for herself.