The Play

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This modern version of the ancient drama by Sophocles, about the daughter of Oedipus, takes place in the Theban palace, now ruled by Antigone’s uncle, Creon. In the opening scene, the Chorus, played by one person, introduces the characters, who are all on stage, and gives a brief synopsis of the situation in Thebes and the civil war which has resulted in the simultaneous deaths of Antigone’s two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles. The two sons of Oedipus were supposed to share the throne of Thebes, ruling in alternate years. Eteocles refused to give up the throne after one year, however, and his brother attacked Thebes with the aid of foreign princes. The assault was unsuccessful, and the two brothers killed each other in single combat. Now Creon, who has inherited the throne, has decreed that Eteocles be given a hero’s funeral, but the traitor-brother’s body shall rot in the field without religious burial. Anyone who seeks to bury the body shall be put to death.

The Chorus introduces the players, giving a brief insight into their characters or role in the action. Antigone sits on the stairs that dominate the center of the stage. She is thin and pensive, staring at nothing, a tense, willful girl who is conspicuously unlike her beautiful sister Ismene, who chats amiably with Haemon, Creon’s son. The Chorus remarks that one would think that Haemon would prefer the enchanting Ismene to the withdrawn and serious sister, but, in fact, he has proposed to Antigone, who immediately agreed to marry him.

Creon the king sits with his page at his side. He looks tired and worn. The Chorus explains that he was a lover of music and a collector of rare manuscripts and art in his younger days, when he was simply brother-in-law to King Oedipus. Now he is impelled by a strong sense of duty, trying to restore order in a society ravaged by civil war. Creon’s wife Eurydice, who sits knitting through much of the action on stage, appears to one side with the Nurse who reared the girls. Members of the royal family wear modern evening clothes, one of the frequent anachronisms found throughout the play. Guards wear leather jackets and modern helmets.

The stage darkens and the tragedy begins. It is early morning and Antigone steals in from outside; she is discovered by the Nurse and roundly scolded for having been outside barefoot. Later, Ismene comes downstairs looking for Antigone. When the girls are alone, Ismene remonstrates with Antigone about her resolve to bury their brother Polynices and refuses to join in the enterprise. She gives all the good reasons for not doing so, knowing full well that Creon would feel compelled to put them to death for defying him. Actually, Antigone has already accomplished Polynice’s burial.

A guard enters the king’s office and nervously reports that someone has covered the body with earth the way the priests do in ritual burial. Creon, in well-controlled anger, orders him to expose the body again and tell no one.

Meanwhile, Haemon arrives, and Antigone rushes downstairs to meet him. Haemon is a gentle and loving person, but he is somewhat puzzled by Antigone’s behavior. They discuss the evening before, when Antigone appeared at Haemon’s rooms in unaccustomed, seductive finery, having borrowed Ismene’s clothes and makeup. Haemon was both surprised and somewhat put off by the change, and Antigone left in confusion. Antigone now explains her behavior as an attempt to be like other girls, assuming that men preferred women like Ismene. She had wanted to be desired as a woman. Haemon is both amused...

(This entire section contains 951 words.)

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at her efforts at seduction and annoyed that she did not credit him with knowing his own mind. There is a tender reconciliation, during which Antigone assures him of what a gentle, caring mother she would have been for their son. The affectionate Haemon does not notice the odd subjunctive mode of her speech. Then she makes him swear to leave without another word after she tells him one more thing, which is that she can never marry him.

Antigone is caught by the three guards as she tries again to bury Polynices, this time in broad daylight. They drag her in handcuffs before the king. Creon is amazed, orders the handcuffs removed, dismisses the guards to the anteroom, and tries to persuade Antigone to repent, offering to dispose of the guards and conceal her crime. Antigone refuses to cooperate and vows to do it again. The play reaches its climax as Creon proceeds to expose the idealistic girl to the ugly backroom of politics.

Though not an admirable character, Creon becomes in this emotional scene at least a human and recognizable one: a man caught in the trap of political power. He does not like what he has to do, but he assumes that he can rule well by virtue of his rationality and educated judgment. He considers himself a realist who knows that compromise is necessary. He reveals that both Polynices and Eteocles were rotten and tried repeatedly to assassinate their own father. Creon buried the one with honors and refused burial to the other for political reasons. The people need a hero; even more, they need an example of what happens to traitors. The order of the state must be preserved at all costs.

Though disillusioned and grieved by this unwelcome insight, Antigone rallies her defiance and forces Creon to put her to death. Antigone hangs herself in the cave where she is confined, Haemon commits suicide beside her body, and his mother Eurydice also kills herself, leaving Creon alone with his barren task of political leadership.

Dramatic Devices

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Antigone preserves many of the dramatic methods of ancient Greek tragedy. Everyone knows the situation and outcome of the play ahead of time; the only suspense is how a familiar story will be presented. Here, the Chorus assumes the task, unnecessary for a Greek audience, of providing the background and foreboding sense of inevitability which tragedy expresses. The Greek chorus usually commented on the action and voiced the conventional views of the society, counseling moderation, for example, a quality conspicuously lacking in tragic heroes. This Chorus goes considerably further when he discourses on the nature of tragic drama. It is one of recurrent references within the play to role-playing in life as in art. Antigone insists that it is her role to bury her brother and die, just as Creon, in his role as a king, must put her to death.

Anouilh has maintained the Greek convention of the messenger who narrates the more violent scenes, which occur offstage: the suicides of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice. Unlike William Shakespeare and modern film producers, the Greeks— and perhaps Anouilh as well—avoided violence on stage as distracting to the significance of the play.

Frequent uses of anachronistic details and the elaboration of the two main characters make the archaic plot seem both an artifice and a contemporary issue. Though the play appeared before the emergence of the self-absorbed “flower children” of the 1960’s, all American audiences must recognize the idealistic, anti-establishment rebel in Antigone, with her scorn for the merely practical.

The purpose of the first dialogue between Antigone and the Nurse is apparently to demonstrate this essential difference between Antigone and the ordinary, unimaginative people around her. She speaks of the loveliness of the garden “when it is not yet thinking of men” and her feeling that “the whole world was breathless, waiting.” The Nurse, meanwhile, keeps babbling about mundane matters, such as catching cold and getting her feet dirty. Antigone lives in a different world, illuminated by her own imagination and still innocent. By the end of the play, she is no longer so naive, but she proudly repudiates the fallen world that Creon offers her. Even though the king has no doubt earned Antigone’s scorn, he is essentially correct that “death was her purpose, whether she knew it or not. Polynices was a mere pretext!”

The play ends on a more ironic note than the drama by Sophocles, who showed Creon in disgrace and chains after the prophet Tiresias had made plain the will of the gods. In the modern play there is no priest of Apollo to announce the Truth. Creon, though visibly shaken by the family disasters, collects himself, advises his young page never to grow up, and goes to the five o’clock cabinet meeting.

Places Discussed

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*Thebes (theebz). Ancient Greek city northwest of Athens that provides the nominal setting of this play. The play mentions Thebes a dozen times but provides no other historical or mythical references to strengthen its deliberately weak sense of place. On the contrary, other places mentioned in the text are resolutely unspecific.

Anouilh is determined not to provide local or historical color that could delay his audiences’ growing awareness that Thebes is merely a convenient label and the Greek princess Antigone an opportunistic topic, as his primary intention was to blur the distinction between reality and dramatic illusion and to confront the opposing themes of youth and age, resistance and collaboration, irresponsibility and the burdens of power, especially within the exceptional context of occupation by a foreign enemy. Thus, although the visible action never shifts from the royal Theban palace, there are references to the countryside just outside the city, where Antigone attempts to bury her brother, the drinking houses discussed enthusiastically by the guards as they gossip and ignore her distress, the garden and the beach, mention of which reveals the childlike side of her character, and the sinister Caves of Hades, where she is to be buried alive as a punishment for her crime.


Palace. Center of the royal Theban government and the principal stage setting for the play. Anouilh specified a neutral décor for the palace. On one level, ornate splendor would not befit this court, mourning the recent loss of so many members of the royal family. On another, it would delay the audiences’ realization that the action is also appropriate to contemporary France and, moreover, is often self-consciously theatrical. The creation of tension between the audience’s natural desire to suspend disbelief and its sophisticated awareness of these other levels is one of Anouilh’s major achievements.

Historical Context

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France during the Occupation In 1940, France was demoralized by its quick defeat at the hand of Hitler’s panzer division, surrender to Germany, and German occupation. While Germany ruled the northern half of France, a puppet French government controlled the southern region from Vichy.

Anouilh had served a short term in the French military, then returned to Paris. From there he supported and participated in the French Resistance movement, which consisted of about 200,000 people who manned an underground army. They sabotaged German operations in France and performed espionage in the service of the Allies. First Great Britain and then the United States, under General Eisenhower, supplied and directed them. Underground Resistance forces also assisted in rescuing downed Allied pilots and secretly helped Jews to escape the Nazis.

When the Germans instituted forced labor conscription, the Resistance movement swelled. Rebels resorted to guerrilla tactics to hinder the German forces. Whether or not the actions of the French Resistance significantly deterred the Wehrmacht (German armed forces), its very existence provided a much-needed morale boost for the entire French nation.

In this milieu, Antigone proved an invaluable source of communication. Howard Barnes of the New York Tribune wrote that ‘‘Men of good will, muted to the verge of silence, discovered that a modernization of a Greek tragedy afforded them elliptical communication with their comrades. Sophocles became an honorary member of the French resistance movement. His stern account of a young girl defying a persuasive tyrant must have needled the Wehrmacht no end in its colloquial translation, but the Germans could do nothing about it.’’

Modern French Theatre Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, European dramatists sought to depict in objective and precise detail the individual in society. Known as realism (depicting life objectively) and naturalism (focusing on the human at the mercy of his social or natural environment), these movements found expression in Henrik Ibsen’s work, which were social dramas about everyday people and problems.

In the 1890s, the theater of anti-realism came into being as an outgrowth of and reaction to realism and naturalism. The new movement reached fruition in 1913 in a manifesto by Jacques Copeau entitled ‘‘Un essai de rénovation dramatique. . . ,’’ which outlined his concept of absolute simplicity and the necessity for an absence of artifice. Instead, the plays emphasized and explored psychological themes.

Taking this legacy a step further, Jean Cocteau, Jean Giraudoux, Armand Salacrou, Paul Claudel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Jean Anouilh dabbled in dramatic surrealism, where theatrical devices deliberately confute dramatic realism and draw attention to the theater’s means of staging a play. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, they experimented with self-reflexive devices and carried forth the theatricalism movement, in drama as well as in the new medium of film, evolving their philosophy to the brink of the theater of the absurd of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet.

Literary Style

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Theatricalism Through the words of one of his characters, Anouilh explains his theory of theater: ‘‘Naturalness and truth in the theater, my dear, are the most unnatural thing in the world. Don’t think that it suffices to find the precise tone of real life. . . . Life is very pretty, but it has no form. The object of art is precisely to give it one, and through all possible artifices to create something that is truer than truth.’’

In this way Anouilh rejected dramatic naturalism, which seeks to present a realistic representation of life through sparse staging, lighting, costuming, and props. This style of drama is embodied by the work of Henrik Ibsen.

While the characters may speak and act realistically in Anouilh’s play, the story is more concerned with their ideas. In an attempt to scrutinize the modern psyche, playwrights rejected realism and concentrated on the themes of the play—staging was meant to underscore those themes. Constant reminders of the theater’s artificiality—such as the nurse anachronistically bringing the modern breakfast of coffee, toast, and jam to Antigone—are meant to disturb the viewer and contribute to themes of disillusionment, disenchantment, and hypocrisy as they are echoed in the set.

Allusions to the theatricality of the story occur regularly, as when Creon hisses to Antigone, ‘‘You have cast me for the villain in this little play of yours, and yourself for the heroine.’’ These references to play-acting demystify the theater. However, the subtle references to Antigone’s youthful innocence suggest a nostalgia for a more romantic, bygone era.

Chorus For ancient Greek audiences, the chorus provided necessary background information on the story, interpreted the events of the play, sang philosophical odes, and judged the characters’ actions. The Greek chorus evolved from a band of men who sang at religious festivals; this band gradually took on more dramatic function as the theater evolved.

Sophocles was an innovator with this dramatic technique. He increased the number of its members (from twelve to fifteen) and had them voice their opinions on the characters’ virtues. Anouilh also provides new uses for the chorus by letting them introduce the characters of the play. In addition, he allows the chorus to meditate on the nature of tragedy.

Compare and Contrast

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Ancient Greece: In the ancient Greece of legendary Thebes, the king has absolute power. Rulers are in constant danger from assassination attempts and coups.

1940s: France is invaded by Nazi Germany; a puppet government is set up to rule over the French people. A Resistance movement forms to undermine the Nazis and their collaborators.

Today: France is a stable democracy.

Ancient Greece: Women hold inferior positions in society, remaining in separate quarters in the household. They are expected to follow their father’s or husband’s rules, and to be spoken of as little as possible. By the latter half of the fifth century, around the time that Sophocles wrote Antigone, women are enjoying a period of emancipation and can exercise greater autonomy.

1940s: Women enter the workplace in great numbers because of the need for labor and the demands of World War II. Although ninety percent of the military and the Resistance fighters are men, women support the war effort and the fight for French freedom through their work.

Today: Great strides have been made in the struggle for gender equality in business; in many countries, women’s roles are still very limited.

Media Adaptations

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A recording of Jean Anouilh reading Antigone was produced by La Voix de l’Auteur. There is also a tape of a 1965 Cleveland Touring Company production of the play.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Anouilh, Jean. Jean Anouilh: Five Plays, with an Introduction by Ned Chaillet, Methuen, 1987.

Della Fazia, Alba Marie. Jean Anouilh, Twayne Publishers, 1969, 154 p.

Falb, Lewis W. Jean Anouilh, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1977.

Kelly, Kathleen W. Jean Anouilh: An Annotated Bibliography, Scarecrow Press, 1973.

Pronko, Leonard Cabell. The World of Jean Anouilh, University of California Press, 1961.

Further Reading Chiari, Joseph. The Contemporary French Theatre: The Flight from Naturalism, Gordian Press, 1970, 242 p. Traces the development of theatricalism in French theater.

Della Fazia, Alba Marie. Jean Anouilh, Twayne Publishers, 1969, 154 p. A comprehensive study of Anouilh’s life and work, with analysis of the major plays.

Harvey, John Edmond. Anouilh: A Study in Theatrics, Yale University Press, 1964, 191 p. A study of the theatricalism of Anouilh’s plays, with discussions of his staging and characterization.

Lenski, B. A. Jean Anouilh: Stages in Rebellion, Humanities Press, 1975, 104 p. Analyzes the theme of rebellion in Anouilh’s works.

McIntyre, H. G. The Theatre of Jean Anouilh, Harrap, 1981, 165 p. Examines theatrical elements of Anouilh’s plays.


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Archer, Marguerite. Jean Anouilh, 1971.

Della Fazia, Alba. Jean Anouilh, 1969.

Falb, Lewis W. Jean Anouilh. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1977. A generally reliable overview of Anouilh’s plays, prepared fairly late in his career. Somewhat more authoritative on the earlier works than on the later ones. Good discussion of Antigone.

Harvey, John. Anouilh: A Study in Theatrics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964. Situates Anouilh’s major work within the world dramatic tradition, showing how even in Antigone, playability takes precedence over ideas. Generally useful discussion of Anouilh’s approach to stagecraft.

Howarth, William D. Anouilh: Antigone. London: Edward Arnold, 1983. Prepared for a British student audience, Howarth’s volume provides useful background on Anouilh’s career, the Antigone theme in world literature, and historical context of the play’s first performances.

Kelly, Kathleen White. Jean Anouilh: An Annotated Bibliography, 1973.

Lenski, Branko Alan. Jean Anouilh: Stages in Rebellion, 1975.

McIntyre, H. G. The Theatre of Jean Anouilh. London: Harrap, 1981. Although relatively brief, perhaps the most useful study of Anouilh’s entire dramatic output, finding continuity and consistency where other critics have not. Interpretation of Antigone shows Creon as the more exemplary character without stressing implications of war allegory.

Pronko, Leonard C. The World of Jean Anouilh. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961. Perhaps the strongest early study of Anouilh in English, prepared as Anouilh turned fifty, with his future direction still to be determined; good analysis of Antigone.


Critical Essays


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