Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733
King Oedipus dies in exile, leaving the kingdom of Thebes to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who are supposed to take turns as rulers. Instead, the two brothers fight over the prize; civil war ensues, and in the end both of them are dead, each by the other’s hand. Creon, surviving brother of the incestuous queen Jocasta, has assumed the role of king so as to restore order in Thebes, proclaiming a state funeral for his former ally Eteocles while ordering that the body of Polynices be left to rot in the sun as a negative example to his supporters. Antigone, the younger daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, defies Creon’s edict by digging a grave for Polynices, an act of treason punishable by death.
Elaborating on this basic plot of the ancient Greek play by Sophocles Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729), twentieth century playwright Jean Anouilh begins his version with narration by the Chorus (initially known as the Prologue, performed by a single actor in Anouilh’s play). Like the Chorus in Sophocles’ version and other classical dramas, Anouilh’s narrator provides background information and running commentary to complement the action. The play is performed in modern dress (the narrator, for example, wears a dinner jacket) with occasional deliberate anachronisms, such as the mention of nightclubs and sports cars.
Antigone, fully aware of the consequences of her deed, has already buried Polynices and is preparing herself for death, gradually separating herself from Creon’s son Haemon, from her sister Ismène, from the elderly nursemaid who has cared for her since childhood, and even from her dog, to be left in the nursemaid’s care. Creon, upon learning from his guards that Polynices has been buried, at first suspects political subversives but soon is forced to accept the fact of Antigone’s guilt. Ever the pragmatic politician, Creon considers trying to cover up Antigone’s crime, knowing the political troubles that will result from her martyrdom. Creon is prepared to have the guards who know of Antigone’s guilt put to death in order to ensure their silence. Antigone, however, brought face-to-face with her uncle, refuses to participate in a cover-up. She will not remain silent about her actions, insisting on her right to give her kin proper burial, even if the punishment she faces for doing so is death.
During their extended conversation, Creon tries to reason with Antigone, urging her to renounce her crime and assuring her of total indemnity so that she can go on to marry Haemon as planned and, presumably, to lead a happy life. Antigone, however, will have none of Creon’s proffered happiness, preferring to die rather than to take part in her uncle’s political scheme. As in the Sophocles play, religion is the motive of Antigone’s determination, since burial is a prerequisite to the afterlife. In Anouilh’s version, however, the discussion centers on the generation gap between Antigone and her uncle, pitting youthful idealism against experience and pragmatism. Still attempting to change Antigone’s mind, Creon argues that the burial of Eteocles is no more than a matter of politics, of the need to choose one official hero among two scoundrels. Each brother, in fact, had plotted his father’s assassination and had planned to sell Thebes to the highest bidder; what is more, the two bodies were in such condition that it was impossible to tell the brothers’ remains apart.
Creon, for one, does not care which was which, so long as the burial serves his political purpose. In accepting the throne, Creon agrees to accept matters as they are, not as they should be. Antigone, in refusing Creon’s pragmatic offer of compromise, in effect refuses to accept things as they are, insisting rather on how they should be. She forces Creon to proceed with her execution. Although at the last minute she seems to doubt her resolve, she ultimately allows herself to be thrown in a pit, where she hangs herself with her belt. She is soon joined by Haemon, who, keeping Creon at bay with his sword, lies down beside her and stabs himself to death. Haemon’s mother, Creon’s wife Eurydice, dies a similar death upon learning what has happened to her son. Creon is thus left alone to look after his kingdom, attended by the guards and soldiers who had arrested Antigone.