Critical Context

The ambiguity of the message, which often lends depth to modern literature, created a peculiar ambiguity in Antigone’s critical reception. The play was produced in Paris during the last year of the Nazi occupation of France. The first series of performances of the drama, starring the playwright’s wife, Monelle Valento, was Anouilh’s greatest success. The play ran for 645 consecutive performances, even though the theater was often without electricity and Antigone confronted Creon in a narrow patch of light from a skylight. Perhaps the darkness seemed appropriate to both the bleak theme of the play and the equally depressing reality of the world outside. The analogy between Creon and the collaborationist French government which helped maintain Nazi control seemed apparent to many playgoers, as well as a certain sympathy between Antigone and French Resistance fighters.

Yet, even then, some observers protested that the play seemed more supportive of Creon than of the foolishly idealistic heroine, who, in the final analysis, seems to be acting more for herself than for her brother or anyone else. The preceding year, the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre had produced Les Mouches (pr., pb. 1943; The Flies, 1946), based on the Orestes myth; it did not enjoy the popularity of Antigone, but it had a more lasting impact on the intelligentsia. Interest in Antigone waned after World War II, but an effective PBS television production during the American protest against the Vietnam War revived interest in the play among American intellectuals. It again seemed both universal and topical, not only because of conscientious objectors but also because of the emerging evidence of corruption in high places. America, like Antigone, had passed beyond the naive dream of the benign government that never compromises its ideals.