Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890

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Starting in the early 1930’s, thanks mainly to the plays of Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944), the topical rewriting of classical myth and drama became more the rule than the exception on the serious Paris stage, offering edification and entertainment in approximately equal portions. As the Greek writers had shown their inventiveness within rigid constraints of plot, so the French playwrights of the period between World Wars I and II impressed their audiences with thoughtful, often witty variations on the familiar myths that most audience members had studied in school. Jean Anouilh, who came of age as a playwright during the decade of Giraudoux’s prominence, achieved his first major success with Le Voyageur sans bagage (pr., pb. 1937; Traveller Without Luggage, 1959), a dark comedy that, despite its contemporary setting, carries strong references to the Oedipus legend. By the time he addressed himself to Antigone, in the midst of World War II and the Nazi occupation of France, Anouilh had already treated the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice rather successfully on the stage, as he was later to do with that of Jason and Medea. In later years, as French taste moved away from the reworking of classical myth, Anouilh would move in other directions, yet without ever forsaking the characteristic themes of youth and age, and realism and idealism, to be found in Antigone.

Among the more memorable and durable examples of its subgenre, outlasting even the better efforts of Giraudoux, Antigone proved controversial throughout the 1940’s and into the 1950’s because of Anouilh’s ambiguous portrayal of Antigone and Creon. For the initial spectators in 1944, there was little doubt that Antigone represented the indomitable, if weakened, spirit of free France, and Creon the expediency that involved collaboration with the Germans, if need be, in order to keep the country running. It seemed difficult to tell, however, which of the two characters is more sympathetically portrayed. There were those, for example, who saw Antigone’s willful martyrdom as meaningless, outweighed by Creon’s devotion to duty and to the maintenance of order. Such persons argued that Creon was the one with the most to lose, which in a sense he does. Somewhat to his consternation, Anouilh, among the more resolutely theatrical of dramatists, found himself suddenly ranked with such contemporary thinker-playwrights as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, who both, unlike himself, were aligned with the political left. Anouilh, by contrast, preferred to think that his art lifted him above politics, a most difficult position to maintain in France during World War II and after. As if in reaction, Anouilh, for some years after Antigone was first performed, went out of his way to avoid any possible identification with thoughtful or literary theater, thus leaving himself open to a countercharge of playing to the crowds.

Ironically, more than a half century after its initial productions, Antigone has proved to have survived the allegorical interpretations that seemed obvious to audiences during World War II, emerging instead as one of the more eloquent expressions of the generation gap to be found in the body of world theater. More closely related in theme and tone to Anouilh’s earlier and later plays than was once commonly supposed, Antigone derives much of its dramatic strength from the author’s unobtrusive, almost inadvertent lyricism, especially in those scenes in which Antigone evokes, for Ismène, the nursemaid, and Haemon the beauties of the life and world that Antigone is about to forsake. Certain critics have heard in those lines a recollection of Emily’s return from the dead in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (pr., pb. 1938), an intertextual impression underscored by resemblances between Wilder’s Stage Manager and the Chorus in Antigone. In any case, Antigone’s lyrical speeches anticipate, and contrast with, the searing, searching rhetoric of her confrontation with Creon, in which she accuses him of selling out and in which she refuses any part of a world in which Haemon might grow to resemble his father. Of interest also, by way of comic relief tinged with social significance, is Anouilh’s portrayal of Creon’s guards as typical French soldiers with French names, by turns fawning and ferocious, who return to playing cards as soon as their part in the action is over.

During a long and generally distinguished career spanning more than fifty years and nearly as many performed plays, Anouilh consistently rejected traditional classifications, such as comedy and tragedy, for his efforts, preferring such personal, ironic categories as black plays, pink plays, and grating plays, the last designed to set one’s teeth on edge. Like the earlier Traveller Without Luggage, Antigone was labeled as a black play rather than a tragedy; in the absence of any substantial theory or criticism written by Anouilh, certain speeches of the Chorus in Antigone are often—and perhaps correctly—assumed to represent the author’s views on tragedy as too convenient, too comforting to represent real life. The Chorus’s presence, as well as his lightly ironic approach to the action that he narrates, sets the concept of tragedy into a kind of relief, subject to the spectator’s objective scrutiny as the familiar plot proceeds to run its course. Tragedy, suggests Anouilh through the Chorus, is for kings and princesses, while the rest of the world must contend with the more sordid details of reality.

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