Storytelling as a Medium For Communicating Social Roles

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1823

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Storytelling is a device of narrative drama used to move the plot along, announcing action that takes place offstage, skipping over time, and revealing intrigues. Anouilh makes efficient use of storytelling from the very start, when his chorus-narrator relates the story of Oedipus and his sons, whose deaths brought Creon to the throne. In this case storytelling informs the audience, allowing the action of the play to jump in at the moment of Antigone’s act of defiance against Creon’s law.

He also uses storytelling as prophecy and warning, inspiration, and persuading. In these cases, storytelling serves to remind the characters—and the audience—of social roles and the social consequences of ways of enacting those roles. This has been the function of storytelling since its age-old inception, a purpose that predates literature, but that lives on in stories told today, orally around the office coffee machine, or written in the newspapers, in the work of Nobel prize-winning authors, and in every form of human drama.

For Anouilh, however, stories may assign roles, but they fail to reassure that these roles matter. His play about Antigone demonstrates the ruinous delusion of storytelling.

Although storytelling in Antigone begins with a simple aim to inform, it quickly takes on more complex purposes and becomes a tool for persuasion. For example, Ismene relates to Antigone how it will feel to be hounded by the mob after they get caught burying their brother, with ‘‘a thousand arms’’ seizing their arms and ‘‘a thousand breaths’’ breathing in their faces.

Ismene’s vivid story resembles the mood of the story Antigone tells when trying to convince the nurse to care for her dog in her absence, painting a pathetic picture of the dog moaning and pining for her missing owner. These ‘‘horror’’ stories are designed to alarm and convince their listeners. They exaggerate the future as a way of avoiding it. However, because the Nurse does not fully comprehend why Antigone tells her the story, the full potential of the warning is lost.

Antigone informs her loved ones—the Nurse and Haemon—that she will leave them, without telling them why. Instead, she relates wistful stories of a future that she herself will destroy. To Haemon she describes the child they might have had, the mother she might have been; she uses the past subjunctive, as though this choice had already passed them by, even though their marriage is set for the future. Her narrative of the traditional family, loving mother with her child, presents a story that will never come to fruition.

When she tells Haemon her story, she does not arrange a surrogate as she did for her dog, but simply destroys the vision forever by immediately announcing she can never marry him. Thus her story can only haunt him as her true intentions are revealed.

The family narrative usually serves as a model for human behavior, assigning roles and behavior patterns to parents and children, so that they can conform their actions to society’s structure and expectations. Ismene accepts this, and so she understands Creon’s desire to set a good example for his people; she accepts the ban against Polynices as a necessary measure to keep peace in Thebes.

For her part, Antigone objects to Ismene’s type of ‘‘understanding,’’ which entails accepting Creon’s narrative as truth. The sisters disagree over which stories to follow. Antigone, as Ismene chides her, wants her ‘‘own stubborn way in everything.’’ Ismene prefers to accept her fate and leave heroics to men, because ‘‘It’s all very well for men to believe in ideas and die for them. But you are a girl!’’

The female narrative only requires a woman to be beautiful, to marry, and to bear children. Creon tells Antigone ‘‘You’re going to marry Haemon; and I want you to fatten up a bit so that you can give him a sturdy boy.’’ Creon never questioned that Antigone would follow the prescribed life story or script for a woman—in fact, he gave Antigone her first doll, a toy given to young girls to act out and envision their futures.

In a way, Antigone opposes these expectations even more than she opposes the desecration of her brother’s corpse. Creon resents her rebelliousness. ‘‘What sort of game are you playing?’’ he demands. As a ruler who has had to roll up his sleeves and attend to the ship of state, which was ‘‘loaded to the water line with crime, ignorance, poverty,’’ Creon objects to anyone deviating from their predetermined roles.

As the leader of Thebes, he tells her, ‘‘You shout an order, and if one man refuses to obey, you shoot straight into the mob.’’ He advocates complete obedience, and ‘‘no matter how many may fall by the wayside, there are always those few left that go on bringing their young into the world, traveling the same road with the same obstinate will, unchanged from those who went before.’’ His perspective appalls Antigone and the audience.

Creon is also a victim of his stories. Besides the rigid expectations and roles he has imposed on himself and his city, he sometimes imagines false stories and then acts on them in error. Creon assumes that a child has buried Polynices, and his imagination takes over as it fills in the gaps of a story that is wrong from the start.

Creon sees ‘‘a baby-faced killer,’’ a ‘‘martyr,’’ corrupted by his enemies, ‘‘leaders of the mob, stinking of garlic.’’ His fantasy blinds him to his real enemy and exacerbates his paranoia, leading him to overreact when he does find the culprit.

Yet when Creon finds the real culprit—Antigone— she turns out to be intractable and dismissive. He complains to her that ‘‘You have cast me for the villain in this little play of yours, and yourself the heroine.’’ He admits that he will have to play his part ‘‘through to the end’’ as well as she, because he of all the characters understands the governing power of stories.

A thirst for story infects every major character in Antigone. Stories constitute life scripts, life plans, and to follow a plan gives one reassurance and a sense of purpose in life. Creon clings to his script of city-savior, a story that envisions him as martyr to his lost ideals and to the survival of the city.

Occupation with one’s script leaves little time to worry about deep questions; one has to ‘‘sweat and roll up your sleeves and plunge both hands into life up to the elbows.’’ Creon’s way is to ignore his mind and give his body over to life. He wants a story to quiet his mind so that his body may work.

Antigone’s way is to question the purpose of that body: she wants it to have an honorable role, informed by the mind. Her act of burying Polynice’s body disrupts Creon’s complacency, and he finds it necessary to silence her—to shut her up away from the public in a remote cave.

For Antigone thirst for story equates to faith; when Creon strips away her false perceptions of Polynices’s honor, she mourns the loss of her faith. ‘‘Would it have been better to let you die a victim to that obscene story?’’ Creon asks. ‘‘It might have been. I had my faith,’’ she answers, despondent.

Creon accuses her of having her father’s desire for glory in death. Oedipus could not control his passions, which prompt him to sleep with his mother and kill his father. It was the story that destroyed him, rather than the acts themselves, which were committed without thought and would have gone unheeded had the story not come to light.

His own story both punished and fascinated Oedipus. Creon relates that he ‘‘drank in the dark story that the gods had destined him first to live and then to hear.’’ Somehow the narrative grasp of his shameful story, at least for the moment of the telling, overrode the horror of killing his own father and dishonoring his mother.

Stories can wind their subjects into a web from which they cannot escape. Once Antigone’s story of reprisal against the king gets out, the story holds her in its clutches and no other stories can help her. Haemon and the chorus suggest alternative stories to tell the angry mob, such as telling them that Antigone is mad, or that the law is changed, but the king cannot make an exception of his niece without losing his authority. The story is bigger than his office.

‘‘The story is all over Thebes,’’ he says. The story sways the mob, who will see that the story gets enacted till the end—they must have closure. Not to close the story would open the door for chaos: without a script, there is no structure. Even though the chorus proclaims that ‘‘We shall carry the scar of her death for centuries,’’ the story must unroll to its conclusion.

Antigone’s problem is that for her—unlike Creon and the mob—story does not satisfy. Once stripped of the illusion that her brother’s honor existed and that she could honor it, she lost her hope in stories. Then she only wanted death—the end to all stories.

Creon finds her lack of faith abhorrent. ‘‘Death was her purpose, whether she knew it or not,’’ Creon proclaims. ‘‘Polynices was a mere pretext. When she found she had to give up that pretext, she found another one—that life and happiness were tawdry things and not worth possessing. She was bent upon only one thing: to reject life and to die.’’ Creon, though he tries, can offer nothing to appease her.

The play exposes the meaninglessness, the paucity of stories. The guards have remained apathetic, not caring for a moment whether Antigone succeeded in her mission or avoided her death, for ‘‘none of this matters to them.’’ ‘‘They go on playing cards,’’ a game that simply repeats, in endless variations, a series of meaningless steps, just as their lives repeat, in endless minor variations, the lives of all citizens. Antigone asserts that neither the lives nor the stories of kings and heroines, nor of the guards who protect them hold any meaning. Anouilh is a dramatist whose story exposes the malignancy of story, because hope is a ‘‘whore’’ that offers delusion for consolation.

Stripping away illusion, then, is an act of heroism, exposing that we are all, as Creon finally realizes when Haemon kills himself, ‘‘wounded to death,’’ and that stories can only obstruct this truth. All that remains is ‘‘a fellow-feeling’’ among the characters, a sense of camaraderie that we are not, at least, alone, and that the heroism of an Antigone is still possible.

Source: Carole Hamilton for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

Patterns of Imagery in Anouilh’s Antigone

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3337

‘Le Charme D’Antigone, dans la piece d’Anouilh, c’est le charme de’enfance. . . . On ne comprendrait rien a cette fille maigre et brulante, si l’on ne convenait d’abord qu’elle est une petite fille.’’ This statement is to be found in one of the most recent studies on Jean Anouilh. Pol Vandromme is not the first to have pointed out how Anouilh emphasizes the protagonist’s childlike purity and idealism, qualities absent from the world of adult society. Anouilh invented the role of the Nurse (la nourrice); her appearance in the first scene introduces us to the fact that Antigone has only recently crossed the threshold of adulthood. They speak together of the pranks the young girl played as a child, her fear of the bogey-man and of creatures in the night, her helplessness in the presence of others; the nurse gives orders and tries to direct Antigone’s life. Creon too reminds her how only a little while ago he would have punished her with ‘‘ . . . du pain sec et une pair de gifles’’. For him, as for Nurse, she is la petite Antigone; he reminds her that her first doll was a present from him ‘‘il n’y pas si longtemps.’’ In Sophocles’ Antigone we do not know with what instrument Polynices is buried; Anouilh tells us that his heroine uses a child’s toy shovel (‘‘une petite pelle d’enfant toute vieille’’), Polynice’s shovel with which she and her brother used to build sand castles on the beach when they were children. And when Antigone commits suicide, hanging herself by the cord of her robe, the messenger says that these strands ‘‘lui faisaient comme un collier d’enfant.’’ In life and in death Antigone remains true to the intransigent vision of youth; she commits the decisive act of rebellion and pays for it as a child.

As a child, Antigone exudes spontaneity and naturalness, and feels close to nature; around her the author constructs a pattern of animal imagery. La petite Antigone is assimilated to benevolent small animals. She had loved all the little creatures and wished to possess them all: ‘‘Qui pleurait deja toute petite, en pensant qu’il y avait tant de petites betes, . . . et qu’on ne pouvait pas tous les prendre?’’ Nurse calls her mon pigeon, ma petite colombe, ma mesange, ma tourterelle. Antigone begs the older woman to take care of her pet dog, to let her into the house and speak to her as one would a person. After her first attempt to bury Polynice is discovered, Creon asks the guards if they are not mistaken, if in fact instead of a person seeking to bury the corpse it was only ‘‘une bete en grattant?’’ The guards are not mistaken, as we well know, but Creon has unconsciously discovered a sort of metaphorical truth, for, once Antigone has lost her shovel, she is obliged to crawl on all fours and scrape the earth with her nails, like a small animal. Creon then is quite correct in picturing Antigone as a little bird, a sparrow, or as a small trapped animal (‘‘un petit gibier pris’’).

As a child, the princess played pranks on Ismene by covering her with dirt and tying her to a tree. At the age of nineteen she still loves to walk in her garden and in the fields alone at night, far from men’s eyes. She runs barefoot in the dewy grass, the wind blowing in her hair; when tired, she drops to the earth to rest and bathes in a cool stream. She chooses the tactical moment to bury Polynice (covering his body with earth): just before the break of day, when she will be hidden by darkness and predawn mists. The young girl finds joy in three of the four traditional universal elements or categories (as reinterpreted by Bachelard): water, air, and earth; her most lyrical outbursts are reserved for the exaltation of Nature. Her hair in the wind, her feet in water, and earth on her dress, Antigone flies like a bird, spiritualized, free from the gross material cares of society. She participates in the eternal feminine embodied by Earth and Water. She is vitally alive, participating in the splendor of the universe, even and especially when the Others are asleep, i.e., dead to the world: ‘‘Qui se levait la premiere, le matin, rien que pour sentir l’air froid sur sa peau nue? Qui se couchait la derniere seulement quand elle n’en pouvait plus de fatigue, pour vivre encoure un pen de la nuit?’’.

Her enemy Creon looks upon the universe with different eyes. Only once does he evoke Nature with the intensity usual to Antigone: his great speech on the ship of state. Instead of Antigone’s refreshing stream and dew, we find mountains of waves sinking the ship; instead of her gentle, stimulating wind, we find a tempest which snaps the masts. Drinking water, so readily available to the young girl, in Creon’s world has been seized by the officers for their own selfish ends. There is no earth on which man can rest. Creon ridicules his niece’s thirst for pride, assimilating what he considers to be spiritual hybris to her freely admitted natural desires: ‘‘Quel breuvage, hein, les mots qui vous condamnent? Et comme on les boit goulument quand on s’appelle Oedipe, ou Antigone,’’ and she retorts that she will force him to drink her words, whether he will or no. Nurse, who in spite of her love for Antigone, remains a member of Creon’s adult world, wishes the girl to wash her feet and cleanse away the dirt before going to bed, and objects to her mistress’s dog entering the palace for similar reasons. Nor do the guards on sentry duty relish the chill, darkness, and mist of the night or the sun and wind of the day. For these people Nature is hostile to man, a negative force destroying all that society holds dear, or an obtrusive quality outside their routine, which can give rise to acts of folly.

In opposition to these blind, anarchical forces, Creon relies upon the every-day world of men in society. The Prologue introduces him as one who ‘‘joue au jeu difficile de conduire les hommes.’’ He sees the kingship not as an adventure or game but as a trade, a job to do, a piece of work. To do the job, he takes off his jacket, rolls up his shirt-sleeves, stands with hands in pockets and feet firmly planted on the ground. He says: ‘‘il faut suer et retrousser ses manches, empoigner la vie a pleines mains et s’en mettre jusqu’aux coudes’’.

Creon believes in a calm, ordered, restful world. Long ago he loved music, richly bound books, and whiling away his time in antique shops. He still pictures happiness in terms of a good book, a child at your feet, a tool in your hand, a bench in front of the house. Hemon, too, speaking of his childhood in Creon’s home, evokes the memory of books, bread, a lamp in the evening, and the odeur defendue of his father’s study. Like Nurse and the soldiers, Creon abhors filth: he despises the stench of Polynice’s rotting corpse brought by the sea-wind and would willingly close his window and shut it out. Yet for all his disgust with some aspects of nature, or perhaps because of it, it is Creon, not Antigone, who evokes in concrete imagery the physical reality of death. Uncle, niece, and a guard all allude to the punishment prepared for Antigone, execution by immuring, as they say, in a trou. But it is Creon and his men who evoke Polynice’s corpse in terms of rotten meat putrifying and decomposing in the sun, its vile odor penetrating every nook and cranny. As the guard says, ‘‘c’etait comme un coup de massue. J’avais beau ecarquiller les yeux, ca tremblait comme de la gelatine, je voyais plus.’’ Creon views life and death with equal lucidity; he cuts through the haze of sentimental idealism surrounding sacrifice, religion, and personal freedom. He paints death in frightening tones specifically in order to frighten Antigone and dissuade her from an act which will result in her destruction. Yet the images of death (rot and decomposition) and those of domestic tranquillity (bench, book, warm bread) have one thing in common: they are figures of softness and repose, of harmony and security, which form a striking contrast to the imagination—pattern of expansion and energy—the power of the will—we find inherent in Antigone.

The two protagonists of Anouilh’s drama do not exist in a vacuum. They relate to the other characters and participate in a scene of direct confrontation. Each protagonist undermines the other’s position, parodies and satirizes the other’s point of view. Thus Anouilh points out the weaknesses as well as the strength in Antigone and Creon, the ambiguities inherent in their psychology and respective world-views.

Practicality and Degradation: Creon would have us think of him as the captain of a vessel, struggling alone, defending his crew against the onslaught of a hostile storm. As such, he is an idealist, as heroic as Antigone. Creon also prides himself on having a command of practical affairs in the real world. Thus he explains the motives governing his decision to insult Polynice’s corpse, the aspects of Realpolitik which compelled his decision: he wishes to make his niece aware of the sordid reality behind the facade of political life, the inner workings of the theater or palace: ‘‘Car c’est cela que je veux que tu saches, les coulisses de ce drame ou tu brules de jouer un role, la cuisine.’’ But Antigone applies Creon’s metaphor concretely and extends it by accusing him of being a cook in his kitchen: ‘‘Tu l’as bien dit tout a l’heure, Creon, la cuisine. Vous avez des tetes de cuisiniers! . . . Tu m’ordonnes, cuisinier? . . . Allons vite, cuisinier!’’ There is a fundamental contradiction between the image of the captain defending his crew against a tempest and the cook in his kitchen, the sordid reality of the palace or theater. Antigone recognizes that Creon is lowering himself to the level of the masses for whom both he and she have such utter contempt (‘‘Vous avez des tetes de cuisiners . . .’’). Thus is he assimilated to those around him who share his views and help implement them. The selfproclaimed captain of the ship of state has no illusions about the pathetic brutes whom he wishes to protect. And in this respect Antigone shares his point of view (a fact more than a trifle embarrassing to those left-wing intellectuals who invoke her as spokesman for their own attitudes on class struggle, engagement, the Resistance, etc.). She hates the guards who smell of garlic and red wine, can’t stomach being touched by their dirty hands; they are the cooks who surround Creon. She begs him to keep her away from the masses whose faces and voices she wishes to avoid. She prefers never to tell Hemon of her suffering, lest the others know of it too: ‘‘Il vaut mieux que jamais personne ne sache. C’est comme s’ils devaient me voir nue et me toucher quand je serai morte.’’ These are the people of whom Ismene speaks to frighten her sister and persuade her to obey Creon: the thousands and thousands of people in the city, with their thousand arms and thousand faces, who will spit in her face and destroy her with their odor and laughter; and the guards with their stupid faces, thick hands, and oxlike stare, who will conduct her to torture and death. The mob and the palace guards are indistinguishable; both follow Creon blindly. It is appropriate for Antigone, child of nature and enemy of society, to fear the people; Creon’s contempt is less justifiable in terms of his character and the philosophical position he defends.

Nature and Animals: Antigone, for all we have said above, fears certain aspects of nature—insects in the night—and compares her bourgeois enemies to the dogs who caress whatever and whoever lies on their path. Creon, too, speaks of the hostile crowd howling about the palace. Antigone is called not only a turtledove and a sparrow but also a rat caught in a trap, a little hyena scratching at her brother’s grave. She does not want the scraps people toss to good dogs; she recognizes that although animals enjoy the company of their kind, she is a human being and must die alone: ‘‘Des betes se serraient l’une contre l’autre pour se faire chaud. Je suis toute seule.’’ When Creon, in an unaccustomed turn of phrase, invokes the laws of nature to convince his niece to accept society’s laws and live (‘‘Les betes, elles au moins, sont bonnes et simples et dures’’), she treats him and his image with contempt: ‘‘Quel reve, hein? pour un roi: des betes!’’ Antigone assimilates to nature yet cannot be a part of it; she partakes of mankind yet is repelled by all that men are and have created.

Light and Darkness: One might imagine that a child of nature relishes the light of day in all its glory. But no, Antigone prefers the grey of night and compares the reds, yellows, and greens of dawn to a cheap, man-made postal card. At night she succeeds in burying her brother undetected; at high noon she is perceived and captured. And she will be executed in the full light of the sun. Is not the sun (which also causes Polynice’s corpse to stink) an eternal masculine principle of justice, Creon’s ally, an emanation of him? Yet is not the sun also the source of life?

Beauty and Ugliness: Our protagonist, a child of nature, is herself physically unattractive. Anouilh spares no pains to tell us she is swarthy (noiraude), thin, pale, flat-chested, and badly groomed (mal peignee). Comparing herself to Ismene, Antigone admits her sister’s superiority (‘‘Je suis noire et maigre, Ismene est rose et doree comme un fruit’’), is even proud of Ismene’s beauty. Yet she recoils from ugliness in others: the mob, her guard, Creon. Antigone attacks Creon by assimilating the presumed ugliness of his deeds to his physical appearance: his wrinkles and fat belly: ‘‘La vie t’a seulement ajoute tous ces petits plis sur le visage et cette graisse autour de toi.’’ She may be homely in the flesh, Antigone admits, but Creon’s men are morally repulsive, even the most handsome, they all have something ugly at the corner of their eyes and mouths. Men who are afraid are ugly, she say. And for all her homeliness, it is Antigone whom young men stare at on the street, whose hand Hemon seeks in marriage. Something emanates from her. She is beautiful, not like the others, but differently: ‘‘Pas belle comme nous, mais autrement’’, says Ismene.

Society and Solitude: Antigone stands alone against the world. She was sitting by herself in a corner when Hemon asked her to marry him; as the play begins she sits apart from the others, thinking. She buries her brother alone, spurning Ismene’s help. Yet she does cherish individual human beings, Hemon for example, and wishes Nurse to love her dog like a human, the way she herself does. She seeks a rapport with her guard, her last visage d’homme. In the end Antigone will have achieved a greater communion with mankind than Creon is capable of. The king has the power to snuff out her life, but Hemon her beloved and Creon’s wife die with her. Hemon is also alone and can receive no consolation from Creon’s world. The king, on the other hand, has lost his son, his wife, and his niece; his only remaining friend, the page-boy (like Antigone, a child), does not understand him. Deprived of his dead loved ones, this apostle of man’s commitment to society and life is condemned to live in solitude among men who do not comprehend.

Anachronisms: Scholars have pointed out that Anouilh’s conscious introduction of anachronisms into this as well as other plays creates an aura of universality, making the play valid for our century, creates distance between the characters and their public, establishing a tone of irony, and serves to upset the audience, to give it a sense of broken illusion and manipulated convention. Still another function of anachronism is to create ambiguities, to help undermine the protagonists’ points of view and our self-identification with them as ‘‘people.’’ Creon tells the story of Polynice’s civil war in terms of a twentieth-century youth rebelling against his father, a hoodlum, a jeune voyou who frequents low dives and drives fast cars. His description of the funeral rites Antigone seeks for her brother is viewed from the same perspective: ‘‘Tu as vu ces pauvres tetes d’employes fatigues ecourtant les gestes, avalant les mots, baclant ce mort pour en prendre un autre avant le repas de midi?’’ Creon humiliates his niece and lowers her in the public’s esteem by dissipating whatever idealism and purity may adhere to the ancient myth (grandeur of distance, the hallowed tradition of Greek literature), by assimilating her myth to the sordid scandals, so common and mundane, of the public press in our own century. Yet the sword of anachronism cuts both ways. When Creon’s guards employ a military slang of the 1940s and their pre-occupations are centered on the bistro and whorehouse, we are made to sympathize with Antigone’s rebellion. The world is coarse and vulgar; Creon does degrade himself by consorting with such people. The very pettiness of everyday life justifies to some extent Antigone’s rebellion. Her fondest souvenir is a paper flower Polynice had brought back from one of his evenings on the town. For the modern reader and for Creon, it is only a pitiful anachronism, equally inappropriate in the world of Sophoclean tragedy and in a situation requiring carefully thought-out political decisionmaking: a cheap bit of fluff which could move only a schoolgirl, an artificial imitation of nature at best. Yet her flower is still less ugly and ignoble than the rotting corpse, drunken guards, and stench of the kitchen that made up Creon’s world.

From Anouilh’s use of imagery we learn that Antigone and Creon are not two perfect, admirable, triumphant embodiments of opposing philosophies of life. True, Antigone incarnates the virtues of wild nature, Creon those of domestic society. But Antigone is made only too aware of the fact that she can never be a little furry creature in the woods. Nature is often cruel, and in any case the Theban princess is a human being condemned to live and die among her own kind. Creon too finds his ideal world of the hearth degraded and he himself corrupted by the people he lowers himself to save. Antigone and Creon are heroic and vulnerable, majestic and inconsistent, eloquent and irrational—at the same time. We cannot accept the notion, dear to some critics, that Anouilh is on Antigone’s side, that she embodies his own socio-political views. Instead, Anouilh’s great innovation in treating the Antigone myth is to ennoble the character of Creon, to make him co-equal with Antigone. In the French play we have two protagonists, both worthy of admiration, both suffering from weakness. Anouilh presents both points of view and allows us to choose between them; rather, he presents the human condition in all its sordidness and poetry, the poetry of two gifted people each at grips with the other, with his own self, with society, and with the natural world. We are shown the human predicament, and we behold it with wonder.

Source: William Calin, ‘‘Patterns of Imagery in Anouilh’s Antigone,’’ in French Review, Vol. 41, 1967, pp. 76–83.

Anouilh’s Antigone: An Interpretation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6871

‘‘When Jean Anouilh turns historian we can take it
that truth will be revealed in the light of the emotions—
lightly, wittily revealed, in brilliant flashes.
But truth is no less true because it comes as a jest in a
jewelled sentence.’’ (Caryl Brahmns, in a review of
Beckett’s Plays and Players, August, 1961.)

‘‘With Anouilh now firmly entrenched as purveyor
of fancy goods to the entertainment hunters, it
is hard to credit that, not so long ago, he was classed
as a rebel . . . [Anouilh was] never a major writer, or
even a serious thinker . . . Antigone will not stand up
to scrutiny; [its] factitious and sentimental skating
round subjects, in which the real issue is always
carefully avoided, is revealed. . . . Anouilh has not
only cut history down to size, but larded it with
humour of the cheapest kind.’’ (Tom Milne, in a
review of Beckett in Encore, October, 1961.)

When there is such controversy about a contemporary
dramatist, it is fruitful to make a detailed
examination of at least one of his plays, in Mr Lewis
Galantiere’s translations. ‘‘Antigone will not stand
up to scrutiny’’: Let us therefore scrutinize Antigone.

Some critics say that Antigone is a tragedy. For
instance, T. R. Henn begins his analysis of Antigone
by saying ‘‘A critic has said, I think with justice,
that M. Anouilh ‘alone among modern playwrights
is able to wear the tragic mask with ease.’’’ Note,
too, Raymond Williams’s analysis of Antigone.

However, if we accept the play as a tragedy, we
find that we are unable to explain several parts of
Anouilh’s play. For instance, towards the end of the
play, when Antigone is about to be sealed up in a
cave, she talks to the guard. The guard then starts
talking about himself and the things that concern him:

If you’re a guard, everyone knows you’re something
special; they know you’re an old N.C.O. Take pay for
instance. When you’re a guard you get your pay, and
on top of that you get six months’ extra pay, to make
sure you don’t lose anything by not being a sergeant
any more . . .

And so on. Antigone is not interested, of course,
and interrupts him with, ‘‘Listen . . . I’m going to
die soon.’’ But he is not interested in her fate and
continues talking about himself. Surely, when the
guard talks so much about himself, the tragic mood
of the play is destroyed.

Even more striking is Anouilh’s use of the
chorus. Anouilh’s chorus is one man, who leans
casually on the proscenium arch while talking directly
to the audience. The play opens with the words,

Well, here we are. These people are about to act out
for you the story of Antigone.

He points to Antigone and says,

That little creature sitting by herself, staring straight
ahead, seeing nothing, is Antigone. She is thinking.
She is thinking that the instant I finish telling you
who’s who and what’s what in this play, she will burst
forth as the tense, sallow, wilful girl whose family
would never take her seriously and who is about to
rise up alone against Creon, her uncle, the king.

But that is not all. The chorus (in the French
version it is the Prologue) goes on to say

Another thing that she is thinking is this: she is going
to die. Antigone is young. She would much rather live
than die. But there is no help for it. When your name is
Antigone, there is only one part you can play; and she
will have to play hers to the end.

This, surely, is an untragic way to begin a
tragedy! The chorus insists on explaining to the
audience the fact that they are watching a play
and explaining at such length that the tragic mood is

Later, after Creon discovers that his law has
been defied and Polynices has been buried, the
chorus says,

The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself.
That is what is so convenient in tragedy . . . Tragedy is
clean, it is restful, it is flawless.

In fact, the chorus goes on to make a long
speech on what tragedy is.

Many critics take the speeches of the chorus at
their face value. Henn quotes part of the chorus’s
definition at the beginning of Chapter VI of The
Harvest of Tragedy
and accepts it as a genuine
definition. Raymond Williams says:

The convention, both of commentary on the various
characters in turn, and of establishment of the play
and the characters as action and parts which begin
‘‘now that the curtain has risen,’’ is very impressive.
By the end of Prologue’s speech the audience has
been firmly introduced to the conventional nature of
the play
, and also to each of the characters . . . It is
very simple, and completely convincing. It gains an
immediate dramatic concentration, and the conditions
of intensity; it also provides the major resource which
the naturalistic drama has lacked, that of commentary.
(The italics are mine.)

We notice that Williams takes the speeches at
their face value and thinks they are convincing. The
fallacy of Williams’s comments is obvious when
we ask ourselves the obvious question: does naturalistic
drama need commentary? What about
Chekhov’s drama?

Other critics also take these speeches at their
face value, but conclude that they are not convincing.
The play, these critics say, is pseudo-tragedy, it
is sentimental and pretentious. The chorus is defining
tragedy so that the audience will be deceived
into thinking it is experiencing a great tragedy.
Further, Anouilh does not have the courage of his
convictions. He wants to write a tragedy, but he is
afraid that the audience will accuse him of sentimentality;
and so he also laughs with the audience at
the play. In other words, he does not take the play
seriously; he is intellectually dishonest. This is
symptomatic of the vulgarity and lack of culture of
the masses. Conditioned by mass-produced television,
films, pop songs and advertising, the masses
can only accept pseudo-tragedy. They have to
be told that they are experiencing a great tragedy,
because they are incapable of experiencing
true tragedy.

But we must stop to ask ourselves this question:
does Anouilh want us to take the speeches of the
chorus at their face value? If he were doing so,
would he overplay his hand, or, if he were attempting
aesthetic sleight-of-hand, would he insist that
the audience watch the hand he was going to deceive
them with? Would he let the chorus say, ‘‘In a
tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny
is known. That makes for tranquility’’? Isn’t it the
natural tendency for the audience to react against
tragedy because of speeches like this?

If we take the speeches at their face value, we
shall be misunderstanding the play. J. L. Styan’s
comment in his analysis of Colombe is relevant and
illuminating. He says,

Because of the play-within-the-play, we are doubly
the skeptical audience we were: we simply do not
respond sentimentally to the sentiment with which the
words are spoken. To believe that the author intended
us to would contradict the total meaning of this play,
not to mention others.

The speeches of the chorus are a sardonic
comment on what tragedy (i.e. a tragic play) is.
Anouilh is telling us through the chorus what is
wrong with tragedy. Tragedy is clean, restful and
flawless; therefore it is not true to life. It ignores
certain issues in life which, according to Anouilh, it
should not. Therefore his play cannot be interpreted
as a tragedy in the same sense in which we usually
understand the term ‘‘tragedy.’’ The fact that the
chorus is anti-tragic and tells us what is wrong with
tragedy is an indication that Anouilh’s Antigone is
‘‘played against’’ a tragedy. To be specific, Anouilh’s
Antigone is ‘‘played against’’ Sophocles’s Antigone.

The framework of both plays is the same.
Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, decides to defy
the edict of her uncle King Creon and to bury the
body of her brother Polynices. She asks her sister
Ismene for help, but Ismene refuses to help her. So
Antigone buries Polynices herself. She is brought
before Creon, who decides to have her killed—even
though she is engaged to his son Haemon. After
Antigone’s death, Haemon commits suicide. When
his mother, Eurydice, hears about his death, she also
commits suicide.

However, what lies within this framework is
different in the two plays. The differences are
apparent very early in the plays. When Sophocles’s
Ismene refuses to bury Polynices, she says:

We must remember that we are women, and women
are not meant to fight with men. Our rulers are
stronger than ourselves, and we must obey them in
this, and in things more bitter still . . . And so I shall
obey those in power, since I am forced to do so, and
can only ask the dead to pardon me, since there is no
wisdom in going too far.

We feel that Ismene is perhaps weak, but that is
all we feel. Now let us look at what Anouilh’s
Ismene says:

He [Creon] is stronger than we are. He is the king.
And the whole city is with him . . . His mob will come
running, howling at us as it runs. A thousand arms will
seize our arms. A thousand breaths will breathe into
our faces. Like one pair of single eyes, a thousand
eyes will stare at us. We’ll be driven in a timbrel
through their hatred, through the smell of them and
their cruel, roaring laughter. We’ll be dragged to the
scaffold for torture, surrounded by guards with their
idiot faces all bloated, their animal hands clean—
washed for the sacrifice, their beefy eyes squinting as
they stare at us. And we’ll know that no shrieking and
no begging will make them understand that we want
to live, for they are like slaves who do exactly as
they’ve been told, without caring about right and
wrong. And we shall suffer, we shall feel pain rising in
us until it becomes so unbearable that we know it must
stop. But it won’t stop; it will go on rising and rising,
like a screaming voice. Oh, I can’t, I can’t, Antigone.

The difference between these two speeches is
striking. Anouilh’s Ismene says the same thing as
Sophocles’s Ismene, but takes it a stage further. In
the second case (Anouilh’s), we are presented with
a powerful, shocking and realistic picture of the
horrible fate that Ismene thinks awaits her and
Antigone if they break Creon’s law. It is a horrifying
picture. Ismene is only human, and we realize
most forcefully why Anouilh’s Ismene refuses to
bury Polynices, as we did not in the case of Sophocles’s

Creon has passed the edict that Polynices is not
to be buried; anybody who defies this edict does so
on pain of death. Sophocles’s Creon has done this
because he thinks it is for the good of the state. After
Antigone has defied the edict and buried Polynices,
there is a brief exchange between her and Creon.
She says that she could not bring herself through
fear of one man and one man’s pride to disobey the
laws of the gods. Creon’s pride is hurt because he is
unsure of himself. He decides to kill Antigone
because ‘‘she will be the man, not I, if she wins this
victory and goes unpunished.’’ He refuses to listen
to the advice of his son, saying finally, ‘‘I am the
state.’’ He even refuses to listen to Teiresias and
accuses him of corruption; Teiresias, with whose
help he has ruled the state. Too late does he realize
his blindness. After the deaths of Antigone, Haemon
and Eurydice, he says

Ah me! the guilt is mine, I know it. I blame no other.

When Anouilh’s Antigone is brought before
Creon, she insists that Creon kill her. But Anouilh’s
Creon wants to save Antigone. He does not believe
in ‘‘all that flummery about religious burial.’’ He
asks Antigone,

Do you really believe that a so-called shade of your
brother is condemned to wander forever homeless if a
little earth is not flung on his corpse to the accompaniment
of some priestly abracadabra?

Until Kitto’s interpretation of Sophocles’s Antigone
in Form and Meaning in Drama (1956), it
was believed that Sophocles’s Antigone had to bury
her brother because the soul of a dead person was
condemned to wander forever homeless if the body
was left unburied. Anouilh’s Antigone was written
long before Kitto published his interpretation. It
does not matter to Creon which body is buried and
which is unburied; in fact, he does not even know
whether the body is that of Polynices or Eteocles.
Antigone cannot understand him; he then reveals
his position clearly. He had to agree to be the ruler
of the state, or the state would have collapsed.
Sophocles’s Creon says:

My friends, the gods have brought our ship of state
safely to port after wild tossing on the stormy seas.

Anouilh’s Creon also talks of the state as a ship;
but he carries the image much further:

There had to be one man who said yes. Somebody had
to agree to captain the ship. She had sprung a hundred
leaks; she was loaded to the water-line with crime,
ignorance, poverty. The ship was swinging with the
wind. The crew refused to work and were looting the
cargo. The officers were building a raft, ready to slip
overboard and desert the ship. The mast was splitting,
the wind was howling, the sails were beginning to rip.
Every man-jack on board was about to drown—and
only because the only thing they thought of was their
own skins and their cheap little day to day traffic. Was
this a time, do you think, for playing with words like
yes and no?

Once more we see in stark terms why Anouilh’s
Creon had to do what he did. We realize clearly the
real, factual difficulties in the path of the ruler of the
state, which we did not in the case of Sophocles’s
Creon. Further, Anouilh’s Antigone had last seen
Polynices when she was twelve years old, and
therefore she did not really know him. Creon tells
her that both Eteocles and Polynices were ‘‘rotten.’’
Both men tried to assassinate their father. Had
Antigone considered all this when she decided to
bury Polynices?

Anouilh has raised far more factual issues than
Sophocles by just taking everything a stage further,
and by including ‘‘irrelevancies.’’ Everything that
Anouilh says could have really happened, but Sophocles
does not even touch upon many of these issues.

At this stage I should like to quote extensively
from Aldous Huxley’s essay Tragedy and the Whole
(1932), because it is vital to our understanding
of Anouilh’s play. I do not agree with Huxley’s
ideas and comments in this essay; I am quoting from
it extensively because I suggest that the kind of
aesthetic and critical consciousness Huxley reveals
in this essay is like Anouilh’s creative consciousness,
and it will therefore help us understand
Anouilh’s approach in Antigone (The fact that Huxley
has long been accepted as a serious writer in
France is an indication that his creative consciousness
is congenial to the French.)

Huxley distinguishes between two forms of
literary art, Tragedy and Wholly-Truthful Literature,
and says that the two are incompatible. He
gives an example from the Odyssey. Six of the best
and bravest of Odysseus’s companions are lifted out
of the ship by Scylla. The survivors could only look
on while Scylla ‘‘at the mouth of her cave devoured
them, still screaming, still stretching out their hands
[at Odysseus] in the fearful struggle.’’ Odysseus
adds that it was the most fearful and lamentable
sight he had ever seen in all his ‘‘explorings of the
passes of the sea.’’

Later, the danger passed, Odysseus and his men went
ashore for the night, and, on the Sicilian beach,
prepared their supper—prepared it, says Homer, ‘‘expertly.’’
The Twelfth Book of the Odyssey concludes
with these words: ‘‘When they had satisfied their
thirst and hunger, they thought of their dear companions
and wept, and in the midst of their tears sleep
came gently upon them!’’

Homer’s . . . is the whole Truth. Consider how almost
any other of the great poets would have concluded the
story of Scylla’s attack on the passing ship. Six men,
remember, have been taken and devoured before the
eyes of their friends. In any other poem but the
Odyssey, what would the survivors have done? They
would, of course, have wept, even as Homer made
them weep. But would they previously have cooked
their supper, and cooked it, what’s more, in a masterly
fashion? Would they previously have drunk and eaten
to satiety? And after weeping, or actually while weeping
would they have dropped quietly off to sleep? No,
they most certainly would not have done any of these
things. They would simply have wept, lamenting their
own misfortune and the horrible fate of their companions,
and the canto would have ended tragically on
their tears.

Homer, however, preferred to tell the Whole Truth.
He knew that even the most cruelly bereaved must eat;
that hunger is stronger than sorrow and that its satisfaction
takes precedence even of tears. He knew that
experts continue to act expertly and to find satisfaction
in their accomplishment, even when friends have
just been eaten, even when the accomplishment is
only cooking the supper. He knew that, when the belly
is full (and only when the belly is full), men can afford
to grieve, and that sorrow after supper is almost a
luxury. And finally he knew that, even as hunger takes
precedence of grief, so fatigue, supervening, cuts
short its career and drowns it in a sleep all the sweeter
for bringing forgetfulness of bereavement. In a word,
Homer refused to treat the theme tragically. He preferred
to tell the Whole Truth.

Huxley goes on to say,

To make a tragedy the artist must isolate a single
element out of the totality of human experience and
use that exclusively as his material. Tragedy is something
separated from the Whole Truth, distilled from
it, so to speak, as an essence is distilled from the living
flower. Tragedy is chemically pure. Hence its power
to act quickly and intensely on our feelings.

Compare this to Anouilh’s

The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself.
That is what is so convenient in tragedy . . . Tragedy is
clean, it is restful, it is flawless.

Huxley says,

Wholly-Truthful art overflows the limits of tragedy
and shows us, if only by hints and implications, what
happened before the tragic story began, what will
happen after it is over, what is happening simultaneously
elsewhere (and ‘‘elsewhere’’ includes all those
parts of the minds and bodies of the protagonists not
immediately engaged in the tragic struggle). Tragedy
is an arbitrarily isolated eddy on the surface of a vast
river that flows majestically, irressitibly, around, beneath,
and to either side of it. Wholly-Truthful art
contrives to imply the existence of the entire river as
well as the eddy. It is quite different from tragedy,
even though it may contain, among other constituents,
all the elements from which tragedy is made.

Writers who create Wholly-Truthful art shirk
almost nothing. Among other things are the
irrelevancies which, in actual life, always temper
the situations and characters ‘‘that writers of tragedy
insist on keeping chemically pure.’’ These
irrelevancies would destroy Tragedy.

Consequently, Wholly-Truthful art produces in us an
effect quite different from that produced by tragedy.
Our mood when we have read a Wholly-Truthful
book is never one of heroic exultation; it is one of
resignation, one of acceptance. . . But I believe that its
effects are more lasting. The exultations that follow
the reading or hearing of a tragedy are in the nature of
temporary inebriations. Our being cannot long hold
the pattern imposed by tragedy.

Compare all this to the chorus’s sardonic and
ironic comments:

It [tragedy] has nothing to do with melodrama. . .
Death in a melodrama is really horrible because it is
never inevitable. The dear old father might so easily
have been saved; the honest young man might so
easily have brought in the police five minutes earlier.

In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s
destiny is known. That makes for tranquility . . .
Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that
foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn’t any
hope. You’re trapped. The whole sky has fallen on
you, and all you can do about it is shout. Don’t
mistake me: I said ‘‘shout’’: I did not say groan,
whimper, complain. That is vulgar; it’s practical.

The two accounts are remarkably similar, especially
if one substitutes ‘‘Wholly-Truthful art’’ for

Huxley gives another example. He says,

Shakespeare’s ironies and cynicisms serve to deepen
his tragic world, but not to widen it. If they had
widened it, as the Homeric irrelevancies widened out
the universe of the Odyssey—why, then, the world of
Shakespearean tragedy would automatically have
ceased to exist. For example, a scene showing the
bereaved Macduff eating his supper, growing melancholy,
over the whisky, with thoughts of his murdered
wife and children, and then, with lashes still wet,
dropping off to sleep, would be true enough to life; but
it would not be true to tragic art. The introduction of
such a scene would change the whole quality of the
play; treated in this Odyssean style, Macbeth would
cease to be a tragedy.

We certainly cannot agree with what Huxley
says about our reaction to tragedy. But, as I said
earlier, it is his kind of consciousness in this essay
that is important, because it is similar to Anouilh’s
creative consciousness. His distinction between
‘‘Tragedy’’ and ‘‘the Whole Truth’’ as art forms is
therefore particularly useful to us. He suggests that
there is in some writers a consciousness of simple,
everyday, commonplace things, which seem on the
surface to be irrelevant, but which do, in fact,
temper a particular situation. This consciousness
leads these writers to create ‘‘Wholly-Truthful Art’’
and not ‘‘Tragedy’’; this distinction, from the critics’
point of view, is only one of art forms, because
the creative consciousness involved is different.
Lionel Trilling tells us in The Modern Element in
Modern Literature
, ‘‘It is a commonplace of modern
literary thought that the tragic mode is not
available even to the gravest and noblest of our
writers.’’ I suggest that this is due to the twentiethcentury
consciousness of ‘‘realism’’ (note also Eric
Bentley). A consciousness of ‘‘realism’’ means a
consciousness of the ‘‘irrelevant’’ things that are
really relevant. Hence one cay say that the dominant
mode of writing in the twentieth century is ‘‘Wholly-
Truthful Art’’ (or ‘‘realism’’).

It is important at this stage to distinguish between
‘‘realism’’ in drama, as the form of a play,
and realism as the effect (or content) of a play.
Anouilh’s Antigone is realistic in effect, but
not in form.

Let us return to a comparison of the two plays
(Anouilh’s and Sophocles’s). Antigone has buried
her brother, knowing that her punishment will be
death. Anouilh’s Antigone, however, seems at first
guilty of the fourth temptation of Archbishop Thomas
in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
Accepting the fact that she will be killed, she seems
to look forward with relish to her death. She seems
to enjoy the idea of being executed. Creon does not
want to kill her—but she insists. She had an ideal
when she buried Polynices. But Creon tries to
destroy her ideal by telling her, among other things,
that both her brothers had been evil. For a moment,
Antigone seems destroyed. Up to this point, our
sympathy lies with Creon. But then Antigone decides
that she will die for the ideal she had. In the
eyes of Creon, her sacrifice is completely unjusti-
fied. Creon accepts life for what it is, and decides to
‘‘make the best of a bad job.’’ But Antigone refuses
to compromise with life—she chooses instead to
die. We may compare Antigone’s action here to the
advice Zooey gives Franny in J. D. Salinger’s
Franny and Zooey (Heinemann, 1962)—she acts
from a purity of motive. It does not matter that the
facts do not fit her ideal; she refuses to let the ideal
be destroyed. She says, in a very powerful speech,

I spit on your idea of happiness! I spit on your idea of
life—that life must go on, come what may. You are
like the dogs that lick everything they smell. You with
your promise of a humdrum happiness—provided a
person doesn’t ask too much of life. I want everything
of life, I do; and I want it now! I want it total,
complete, otherwise I reject it! I will not be moderate.
I will not be satisfied with the little bit of cake you
offer me if I promise to be a good little girl. I want to
be sure of everything this very day; sure that everything
will be as beautiful as when I was a little girl. If
not, I want to die!

In this speech, our sympathy lies wholly with

It is clear, then, that Anouilh’s play explores
problems that have not been raised explicitly in
Sophocles’s play. One should not therefore conclude
that Anouilh’s play is independent of Sophocles’s,
and that we ought not to identify the two.
Huxley tells us:

In recent times literature has become more and more
acutely conscious of the whole Truth—of the great
oceans of irrelevant things, events and thoughts stretching
endlessly away in every direction from whatever
island point (a character, a story) the author may
choose to contemplate.

The ‘‘island point’’ in Anouilh’s Antigone is
Sophocles’s Antigone. Anouilh’s Antigone follows
Sophocles’s Antigone up to a stage—and then explores
certain problems which are realistic, ‘‘trueto-
life,’’ and which are not improbable in Sophocles’s
play. But when we see Sophocles’s Antigone
these questions do not strike us. What were the
personal problems facing Ismene in her decision not
to help Antigone? What would really happen if she
did help Antigone? Further, when Antigone decides
to bury Polynices, does she consider first whether or
not he has been good? Does she think of the
problems Creon has to deal with as a ruler? What if
Creon had refused to be king; would anyone else
have agreed to be king? What would happen to the
state if Creon did not face up to his responsibilities
as king? Again, when Antigone buries Polynices, is
there any personal ideal she wants to live up to? Is
Creon’s reaction after the three deaths merely a
temporary emotional reaction; will he change his
mind in his calmer moments and say that he was not
really to blame? By using Sophocles’s play as a
frame of reference, Anouilh solves a major problem
the artist of to-day is said to face. This is lack of
‘‘contact’’ between audience and artist, lack of
common values. As Stephen Spender tells us,

The thing written establishes communication between
writer and reader . . . The message has to be conveyed
at several levels. These might be compared to the
wires of a cable . . . One wire is the background of
objects experienced in life and having established
associations which are common to writer and reader.

By assuming knowledge of a myth or a play
that the audience knows, the dramatist creates the
common ‘‘background of objects.’’ Further, Henn
tells us that the twentieth-century revival of interest
in Greek myth or fable is partly due to the psychological
recognition of the archetypes. The fables
thus acquire a new validity in themselves, and can
be re-clothed effectively on what is basically the
same skeleton. But this is only a partial explanation.

If such a re-clothing takes place, with a partial rearticulation
of the bones, a new field is opened for the
exercise of wit, the perception of metaphysical similarities
or discordances, and endless over-and-undertones
of irony. Out of such parallelisms, close or
remote, the dramatist can invite his audience to find
‘‘meaning’’ which is usually a synthesis of factors
which are, to a great extent, set in opposition or
paradox . . . He can provide a critical edge, at various
planes, by explicit comparisons between the two ages;
the past whose bones he has discovered, the present
whose breath is upon them.

One should mention at this stage that Anouilh’s
Creon contrasts with Sophocles’s Creon in one
particular aspect, to create a positive by which we
are to judge him. Anouilh’s Creon does not believe
in ‘‘all that flummery about religious burial.’’ But
Sophocles’s Creon does. This makes us realize how
much Anouilh’s Creon has lost spiritually. He has
no ideals. There is no greatness in his soul; his soul
is filled with commonness, as of dust.

Another commonplace of modern literary criticism
is that the modern audience is complacent.
(Obviously, this must be qualified; there is greater
critical activity now than ever before.) Anouilh
deals with this problem in the same way as Ezra
Pound and T. S. Eliot do in their poetry. He constantly
changes the focus in his play, thereby upsetting
the mood of the audience and preventing it from
getting complacent. He jerks the audience back to
awareness. At the same time, this change of focus is
used, as in the case of Pound and Mr. Eliot, to make
the play all-embracing of various complexities. In
Aldous Huxley’s The Genius and the Goddess, John
Rivers says,

The trouble with fiction is that it makes too much
sense. . . Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts
possess neither. In the raw, existence is always one
damned thing after another, and each of the damned
things is simultaneously Thurber and Michelangelo,
simultaneously Mickey Spillane and Thomas à Kempis.

By a constant change of focus, by selecting a
contraposition from which we are to view his object,
Anouilh can include ‘‘simultaneously Thurber
and Michelangelo, simultaneously Mickey Spillane
and Thomas a Kempis.’’

I suggest that Anouilh is one of the pioneers of
what has been called the Theatre of the Absurd. The
dramatists of this theatre regard their audience as
complacent, apathetic, asleep. With taunts and shock
effects, by breaking the continuity of a traditional
form of drama, the dramatists hope to jerk the
audiences into awareness, consciousness, understanding.
Anouilh’s Antigone has been misunderstood
because of the preconceptions some critics
have had about drama. For instance, note Montgomery
Belgion’s criticism of Shaw:

Realism may be all right, and a stage convention may
be all right. But these characters are neither one nor
the other. They are pseudo-realistic.

Again, note C. E. Vaughan on Ibsen:

How far is the scheme of Ibsen’s drama, the design as
apart from the execution of it, compatible with the
highest ends at which tragedy can aim? Are not his
details overloaded, his themes depressing, his characters
too persistently lacking in the nobler, the more
heroic qualities without which our sympathies remain

The criticism often brought against Jonson and
Wilde is that their characters are two-dimensional
or are counters, and people are not like that. By such
conceptions, Anouilh’s play must seem false and
irresponsible. His method of changing the focus and
breaking the continuity is looked upon as irresponsible
clowning. (It is interesting to note that this
criticism is also levelled against Byron.)

But, as Styan points out, drama is the historic
creation of a sequence of suggestions which create
impressions in the minds of the audience. The
sequence of impressions operates to create in the
minds of the audience the total effect of the play. (To
‘‘minds,’’ we must also add—in the case of most
plays—‘‘hearts and souls.’’) We are not to judge a
play by the methods the dramatists use; we are to
judge it by its total effect. (Of course, we are to see
how the impressions are created, and whether or not
they link together to form the total effect of the
play.) We are to see how genuine the total effect is.
If in its total effect the play presents a distorted view
of life, or it distorts psychology, or it offers facile
solutions, or it muddies fundamental issues, we
reject the play. Yeats tells us that Richard II ‘‘is
typical, not because he ever existed, but because he
made us know something in our minds we had never
known of had he never been imagined.’’

Let us see how Anouilh creates his impressions
in Antigone. His method is essentially fivefold. First
of all, he reacts against the fact—‘‘fact’’ to Anouilh
but not to us—that Tragedy does not present the
whole Truth. Through his chorus, he passes sardonic
comments on the smooth way tragedy works in
order to destroy the idea that tragedy is true-to-life
and that his play is a tragedy. Secondly, he brings in
several ‘‘irrelevancies’’ which make his play realistic,
but untragic. Several examples of this have been
quoted earlier in this essay. Another example is
when Antigone wants to write a letter to Haemon
just before her death. The guard at first refuses. But,
by bribing him, she gets him to agree to copy out a
letter she will dictate. We then have the following

Antigone Write now. ‘‘my darling . . .’’

Guard (writes as he mutters) The boy friend, eh?

Antigone ‘‘My darling. I wanted to die, and perhaps
you will not love me any more. . .’’

Guard (mutters as he writes) ‘‘. . . will not love me
any more.’’

Antigone ‘‘Creon was right. It is terrible to die.’’

Guard (repeats as he writes): ‘‘. . . terrible to die.’’

Antigone ‘‘And I don’t even know what I am dying
for. I am afraid. . .’’

Guard (looks at her) Wait a minute! How fast do you
think I can write?

This method of ‘‘echo’’ or repetition can be
used by different dramatists in different ways. It can
be used to make a scene more tragic. It can be used
to fill the audience with a chilling sense of foreboding,
as Webster uses it in The Duchess of Malfi.
Anouilh, by means of a disinterested guard, uses it
to destroy the tragic mood that would have existed if
this play were a tragedy—though it does not destroy
the pathos of Antigone’s plight.

Thirdly, Anouilh presents Antigone in modest,
human terms. For example, Antigone’s answer to
Ismene’s ‘‘Don’t make fun of me’’ is

I’m not, Ismene, truly. This particular morning, seeing
how beautiful you are makes everything easier for
me. Wasn’t I a miserable little beast when we were
small? I used to fling mud at you, and put worms
down your neck. I remember tying you to a tree and
cutting off your hair. Your beautiful hair! How easy it
must be never to be unreasonable with all that smooth
silken hair so beautifully round your head.

Notice, too, Anouilh’s use of the nurse. Not
knowing that Antigone has been out to bury
Polynices, the nurse concludes that she has been out
to meet a lover:

And we’ll hear what he [Creon] has to say when he
finds out that you go wandering alone o’nights. Not to
mention Haemon. For the girl’s engaged! Going to be
married! Going to be married, and she hops out of bed
at four in the morning to meet somebody else in a
field. Do you know what I ought to do to you? Take
you over my knee the way I used to when you
were little.

The scenes that remind us of Antigone’s childhood
not only ‘‘humanize’’ Antigone, they also
contract the happy innocence of Antigone’s youth
with the world she now has to face.

Fourthly, as I mentioned earlier, the play raises
problems untouched by Sophocles. This is done
partly by a discussion between Antigone and Creon.
At this stage, Antigone becomes a play of ideas.
Bentley tells us that the play of ideas is a modern
evolution of drama. Of course, ‘‘play of ideas’’ is a
vague term. In one sense, Bentley says, there are
ideas in all words and therefore in all drama. Tragedy
has always suggested ideas concerning the significance
of human life—but in most tragedies,
‘‘the characters fight, the ideas lie still and unmolested.
In a drama of ideas, on the other hand, the
ideas are questioned, and it is by questioning—and
it could only be by the questioning—that the ideas
becom[e] dramatic.’’ The discussion between Antigone
and Creon is moving because it is not a
‘‘detached’’ discussion of abstract concepts.

Finally, we must not forget the ‘‘modern language
and dress.’’ For instance, the scene between
Antigone and the guard, mentioned earlier, when
the guard is talking about his pay: ‘‘they know
you’re an old N.C.O. Take pay for instance.’’ Much
earlier, the chorus tells us,

There was a ball one night. Ismene wore a new
evening frock. She was radiant. Haemon danced every
dance with her.

We come now to an important point—Anouilh’s
negativeness. Anouilh’s Antigone is not negative, to
my mind, because of its historical context. Geoffrey
Brereton tells us about Antigone ‘‘First produced
during the German occupation, it has an obvious
topical message.’’ ‘‘An obvious topical message’’
is perhaps putting it too crudely; but we can see how
the clash between Antigone and Creon could be an
intensely true-to-life experience when it was first
produced. The setting of the play was really the
situation in France. But we find Anouilh offers the
same ‘‘positive’’ in other plays; and, in a different
context, we cannot accept this positive. Earlier, I
compared Anouilh and Salinger. A comparison
between them also shows us the difference between
their positives. The norm offered in Zooey is, to put
it a little bluntly, that one should act out of a purity
of motive, even if various elements in life are
‘‘impure.’’ But this is important—one should live
with this purity. Anouilh, on the other hand, suggests
in other plays that because life is impure, one
should reject it; the longer one lives, the more
soiled one becomes. (Of course, this does not apply
to comedies like Ring Round the Moon.) We
find finally that we have to condemn Anouilh for
the very negativeness which he accuses Samuel
Becket of.

To return to Antigone—Anouilh’s Antigone is
to my mind, a good play. Although it is not the same
type of play as Sophocles’s Antigone, there can be
little doubt that Sophocles’s play is a much greater
play than Anouilh’s. Anouilh explores many problems
that Sophocles leaves untouched; but Sophocles
leaves them untouched because they are irrelevant
to his tragic conception and his tragic theme.
The theme and one form of Sophocles’s Antigone
are different from that of Anouilh’s. As Kitto tells
us, Greek plays are ‘‘constructive.’’ The simplicity
of the form of Sophocles’s play is for the sake of

Since Anouilh uses Sophocles’s play as a frame
of reference, it follows that his play would not exist
if Sophocles’s play did not exist. Therefore, in a
sense, Anouilh’s Antigone is not a finished work of
art. Further, while Antigone is a good play, it seems
pernicious that its form should be adopted for other
plays. Let us see why. It jerks the audience back to
consciousness by breaking the continuity of a conventional
form. Styan tells us,

No dramatist can work outside a channel of convention,
since only this permits continuity of attention.
Even when it is his object to break this continuity, he
must begin by moving along one of these channels. It
must be an already flowing train of feeling he interrupts
if after the break he is to secure that exciting
renewal of attention.

The stress is on the fact that the dramatist must
interrupt an already flowing train of feeling. How
long can the interruptions continue before the train
of feeling, in a sense, ceases to flow? A few plays of
this sort jerk the audience back to consciousness.
But many plays like this can unsettle the audience so
much that the audience may not be able to accept a
convention of drama anymore. Then what will such
plays feed on? How long can dramatists continue
breaking the continuity before all continuity in
drama is broken?

Thus Anouilh’s Antigone is a paradox: it is a
good play which ultimately undermines the whole
dramatic idiom.

Source: Peter Nazareth, ‘‘Anouilh’s Antigone: An Interpretation,’’
in English Studies in Africa, 1963, Vol. 6, pp. 51–69.

Critical Review of Anouilh's Work

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I never read a French review of Anouilh’s Antigone
but report has it that when it was done in Paris
during the Occupation it was considered a covert
piece of propaganda urging defiance of the Nazi
government. Yet the Nazi authorities permitted its
production. It seems to have meant different things
to different people.

In the hush of its present revival by a new
theatre organization—Mazda Productions—I believe
I discern how this case of mistaken identity
could occur. Anouilh’s Antigone defies Creon not
because her moral sense has been outraged, but
because, having been informed that her brother was
a despicable thug by the very reasonable politician
Anouilh has made Creon, she sees that life isn’t
worth living at all. All is corruption: life dulls,
coarsens, depraves men’s initial goodness, and those
who go on living become mere ‘‘cooks,’’ compromisers
content to come to terms with the shabby
routine of ordinary existence. And the police shall
inherit the earth. It is better to die pure.

This is a perverse romanticism—typical of much
French writing since 1937, the key to Anouilh’s
ideology, whether he writes in the pink vein of
Thieves’ Ball or in the black one of Eurydice. The
is a quasi-ironic illustration of the exceptional
(saintly) person who redeems the mess that most
Frenchmen make.

On a higher level (in Camus’ work let us say)
the thought may be summed up as follows: life is
nonsense, let us revolt against its absurdity and then
make some sense of it. It is a desperate manner of
thinking and though beguiling theatre patterns may
be made of it in the acidly sentimental way of which
Anouilh has taken full advantage, I distrust it. Its
appeal is to a basic weakness in us. Anouilh’s
Antigone is an anti-heroic heroine; in a word, an

I think it an error for the ambitious organization
on 57th Street to have chosen Antigone as its first
bill, but I am glad have the organization, and look
forward to seeing it produce better work in more
suitable plays.

Source: Harold Clurman. Review of Antigone in the Nation,
Vol. 182, no. 16, April 21, 1956, pp. 347–48.

Jean Anouilh: The Revival of Tragedy

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Jean Anouilh (b. 1910) is often considered the
leading French dramatist of the postwar generation,
even though his reputation is only a dozen or so
years old. It was under the peculiar conditions of the
Occupation that his drama first attracted widespread
public attention; Antigone (1942) was interpreted,
as it was probably intended, as a thinly-veiled
allegory of France under the Vichy regime. In
America, where his work has been available since
1945, he is still relatively little known. Antigone is
occasionally played in this country; Ring Around
the Moon
. Christopher Fry’s adaptation of l’Invitation
au château
, has attracted some attention, and an
adaptation of Eurydice has been presented to Broadway
audiences under the title A Legend of Lovers.
But the leitmotif of Anouilh’s work is not widely
understood; he is typically treated as a theatrical
prestidigitateur with the expected ‘‘French’’ charm
but with little content. This is the sort of misconception
with respect to French drama that Anglo-Saxon
critics have nourished even since the heyday of the
Vieux Colombier. Anouilh is a psychological dramatist,
although not in the modern pseudo-scientific
sense; he is also the chief contemporary exponent of
tragedy in the drama. Most of his tragedies are
based on classic themes; they are simultaneously a
modern expression of the Aristotelean tragic principle
and a sensitive approach to the portrayal of
psychological processes.

To Anouilh humanity is made up of two kinds
of people: the anonymous mass of normal and
rational nonentities who accept the banality of daily
existence, and the heroes. The first group is motivated
chiefly by a desire for happiness, not the ecstasy
of the saint but the petit bonheur of the unambitious.
This is the race which populates the earth and
performs the daily drudgery which is the price of
human existence; which ‘‘eats its sausage, makes its
babies, pushes its tools, counts its sous, year in and
year out, in spite of epidemics and wars, right up to
life’s end; living people, everyday people, people
you don’t imagine dead.’’

The second group rejects this banality. Where
the ordinary man realizes the imperfection of the
human lot but nevertheless grasps at the petty
happiness that is offered him, the hero has the
courage to say ‘‘no.’’ It is this second race which
supplies the world with saints, martyrs, Caesars,
artists, assassins, prophets, and above all with tragic
heroes; for the man who refuses to say ‘‘yes’’ to life
thereby condemns himself to a tragic end. These are
‘‘those you imagine stretched out, pale, a red hole in
the forehead, a moment triumphant with a guard of
honor, or between two gendarmes. . . .’’ It is not that
the hero deliberately chooses this path; he is
condemmed to it by the nature of his personality. He
can no more escape tragedy than the ordinary man
can escape banality. The ordinary man and the hero
belong to different species, and they are condemned
to perpetual misunderstanding, suspicion, and enmity;
human existence is an eternal struggle between
heroism and happiness. Out of this antithesis
Anouilh fashions his dramatic conflict. It is signifi-
cant that he includes all his Greek plays in the two
collections he entitles ‘‘pièces noires’’; to him
classic mythology is indissolubly linked with tragedy
and death. . . .

Antigone (1942) treats the same basic theme,
but utilizes a different technique. Like most other
modern Antigone plays, it is based on Sophocles;
the period and décor remain that of classic Greece.
But there is an anachronistic, modern element which
serves to give the action an aura of timelessness.
The drama is played in modern dress; Creon wears
evening clothes, and the palace guards wear battlejackets
and carry automatic rifles. Such incidental
anachronisms aside, the plot roughly follows Sophocles.
To Antigone the burial of Polynices is less a
religious ritual than a symbolic act she must perform
in order to retain her own integrity. Creon, an
intelligent and reasonable Machiavellian, tries to
convince her that her project is both destructive and
meaningless; one by one he refutes her reasons for
wanting to throw her handful of dirt over the corpse
of her brother. He forces her to admit that Polynices
was almost a stranger to her in her childhood; he
proves incontrovertibly that Polynices was a ne’erdo-
well and profligate who wasted his money on
debauchery and treated his father Oedipus without
respect. To clinch his argument he confesses he is
by no means sure the corpse rotting on the outskirts
of the city is Polynices at all. Moreover he, Creon,
has no particular opinions about the virtues of the
two brothers, and is not impressed by the superstition
that unburied souls are condemned to wander
eternally in the nether regions. He believes in any
case in letting sleeping dogs lie. He is merely trying
conscientiously and doggedly (as was, it might be
remarked, Marshal Pétain) to rule Thebes to the best
of his ability, and he wants to keep philosophical
considerations out of the technical process of government.
‘‘Thebes has a right now to a prince
without a history,’’ he remarks. ‘‘Me, I’m just
Creon, thank God. I’ve got both feet on the ground,
my hands in my pockets, and since I am king I am
determined, less ambition than your father, to employ
myself simply to make the world order a little
less absurd, if possible. There’s nothing adventurous
about it, it’s an everyday job, and not always
fun, like all jobs. But since I’ve been put here to do
it, I’ll do it. And if tomorrow some mangy messenger
should come out of the mountains to announce
that he isn’t quite sure of my pedigree, I would
simply beg him to turn around and go back where he
came from. I wouldn’t have any desire to go and
peer at your aunt in the face or to set myself
comparing dates. Kings have other things to worry
about than their personal tragedies, my dear girl.’’

Antigone replies that for Creon this position is
eminently rational and just; it is, in fact, the only
position he can logically maintain. He has said
‘‘yes’’ to life, and in doing so he has brought upon
himself a whole chain of consequences which force
him to act as he does. As for herself—‘‘I haven’t
said yes. What do you think that is to me, your
politics, your necessity, your miserable stories? I
can still say no to everything I don’t like, and I’m
the only judge. And you, with your crown and your
guards and your panoply, you can only put me to
death, because you have said yes.’’ Her choice
made, Antigone goes to her death and drags Hemon
after her because she refuses to tell a useful lie as the
price of happiness. As Creon tells Hemon toward
the end of the play, Antigone was born to die; even
though she herself did not realize it, Polynices was
only a pretext. . . .

The essence of tragedy as it was understood by
the ancients was that a noble hero came to his
downfall through an inherent fault in his character;
usually this flaw consisted of an excessive fervor or
self-confidence. When the classic tragedy demonstrates
that hybris brings its inevitable nemesis, it is
merely reiterating that the Dionysian personality
carries within itself the seeds of its own catastrophe.
This is precisely the nature of the catastrophe which
arrives to the heroes of Jean Anouilh: fanatic idealists
who will accept no compromise, they come to
destruction because they are born into a world in
which compromise is the price of existence. Most of
the other tragic heroes of modern drama are not
tragic in this sense; they are destroyed only because
they could not achieve their ends. Anouilh passes
beyond this modern pseudo-tragedy to arrive at the
essence of the tragic situation, and his technique
proves itself in the unmistakable emotion katharsis
the spectator feels at his plays.

Anouilh himself distinguishes between true
tragedy and catastrophic melodrama in a curious
passage he inserts into the middle of Antigone.
While Creon muses over the mysterious burial of
Polynices, the chorus comes forward and analyses
the situation with a remarkable scholarly detachment.
‘‘It’s nice, the tragedy. It’s calm, restful. In
the melodrama, with those traitors, those desperate
villains, that persecuted innocence, those avengers,
those Saint Bernards, those glimmers of hope, it’s
horrible to die, almost by accident as it were. You
might have escaped, the good young man might
have arrived in time with the gendarmes. In the
tragedy you can relax. In the first place, you’re at
home—after all, everyone’s innocent! It isn’t that
there is someone who kills and someone who is
killed. It’s just a question of arrangement. And then,
most of all, the tragedy is calm because you know
there’s no hope, no dirty hope; you’re caught,
you’re caught after all like a rat, it’s all on your
shoulders, and all you can do is cry out—not groan,
no, not complain—to bawl at the top of your voice
what you have to say.’’

Tragedy should speak to us, as it spoke to the
Greeks, as a living and contemporary human drama;
the action should appear to involve persons like
ourselves who are seen in predicaments we can
understand. If this feeling of timelessness is not
present, if we feel we are viewing a ‘‘historical’’
drama, we cannot believe the tragedy is our tragedy,
and the drama degenerates into mere spectacle.
Anouilh’s dramas, written in modern vernacular
and filled with the objects and figures of our own
daily life, achieve a universality in time which
would be impossible in a mere sterile imitation of
the external apparatus of classicism.

Source: Donald Heiney. ‘‘Jean Anouilh: The Revival of
Tragedy’’ in College English, Vol. 16, no. 6, March, 1955,
pp. 331–35.

Critical Review of Anouilh's Work

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Antigone is adapted from the adaptation made by
Jean Anouilh, played in Paris during the occupation,
and more or less put over on the German censors.
Though acted in modern costume, the scene was left
in ancient Greece, and little essential change was
made in either the action or even the motives. In
Sophocles’s original the conflict is already that
between the individual and the state, or, more
precisely, between the laws decreed by a supreme
secular authority and those of God and of nature. To
transform it into a fable for the times, little more
than a mere modernization of the terminology was
necessary. Make Creon a rationalizing fascist dictator
who justifies himself by arguing the need for an
established order in the turbulent Greek states,
make it clear that Antigone’s insistence upon burying
her brother springs from her conviction that
necessity, the tyrant’s plea, is never superior to the
claims of fundamental human decency, and you get
a play which the Germans could not and obviously
did not fail to recognize as a discussion of the
current situation.

Lewis Galantière’s obviously skilful version—
it is not called a translation—is acted by Katharine
Cornell and Cedric Hardwicke in modern dress
upon a stage bare except for its draperies and in one
continuous act, which runs for a bit over an hour and
a half. Horace Braham, serving as narrator-commentator,
is the chorus compressed into one person,
the dramaturgical method is Greek, not modern,
and, indeed, even the order of the incidents follows
fairly closely that of the Sophocles original; so that
what one gets is something perhaps even closer to
the Greek in form than it is in thought.

On the whole most of the reviewers seem not to
have been very greatly pleased, and Antigone got a
rather poor press. I find myself agreeing with many
of the specific strictures made, but I seem to have
been more interested and more moved by the whole
than those of my colleagues whose reviews I have
read. It is true, I think, that to make the guards
neither like Greeks nor like S. S. men but like
simple-minded American tough guys is probably a
mistake. I agree that though Miss Cornell’s performance
is excellent—specially and as usual with
her, pictorially excellent—acting honors probably
go to Hardwicke, whose portrait of the icily reasonable
dictator is a genuinely memorable one. Moreover,
even at the risk of seeming pedantic, I might
add that the modern playwright actually outdoes the
Greek in decorum, since though of course Sophocles
permits no deaths upon the stage he does have
the body of Haemon brought in, and I wonder,
difficult as such things are to manage properly, if
some such presentation of the bodies might not have
added the final scene which the play as it now stands
does need. But all these are relatively minor matters.
I found none of the play, except perhaps some of the
very earliest scenes, uninteresting, and I found the
interview between Creon and Antigone, which takes
up perhaps a third to a half of the entire running
time, both absorbing and moving. One of the boldest
of the author’s modifications of his text, that in
which he makes Creon confess that he is using the
dead brother merely as a politically useful scapegoat,
seems to me very effective, and Antigone’s
retort at the climax of the debate is conclusive and
tremendous. Creon has launched into a characteristic
rhapsody in praise of vitality and the will to live.
‘‘Ah,’’ interrupts Antigone, ‘‘if men were only
animals, what a king you would be!’’

Since the German censors could not have failed
to recognize that the play was intended as a commentary
upon the current situation one wonders
why they permitted it at all. One wonders also if
they would have permitted a revival of Shaw’s ‘‘St.
Joan,’’ in which the same problem is discussed and
in which, though the very presence of Jeanne d’Arc
might have been thought intolerable, the claims of
the central authority really come off rather better
than they do in the American version of Antigone.
Obviously the Germans decided that they were
willing to risk their case on the effectiveness of
Creon’s presentation of it, and a note in the present
program helps make it understandable that they
should have done so. The play as we now have it is
not quite the play that was performed in Paris during
the occupation. No Frenchman, Mr. Galantière assures
us, could have come away feeling that Creon’s
argument was stronger than Antigone’s, but, so he
implies, a German might have felt otherwise, and in
the American version Antigone’s case has been
somewhat built up, ‘‘not by taking anything away
from M. Anouilh’s Creon, but by adding something
to his Antigone, his chorus, and his Haemon.’’

Since a part of the interest in this American production
is documentary and historical, I am not sure that
Mr. Galantière would not have been wiser to give us
the argument precisely as it was given in the French

Source: Joseph Wood Krutch. Review of Antigone in the
Nation, Vol. 162, no. 9, March 2, 1946, p. 269.


Critical Overview