The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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 The Chorus remarks that one would think that Haemon would prefer the enchanting Ismene to the withdrawn and serious sister, but, in fact, he has proposed to Antigone, who immediately agreed to marry him.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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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

(Drama for Students)

France during the Occupation
In 1940, France was demoralized by its quick defeat at the hand of Hitler’s panzer...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Through the words of one of his characters, Anouilh explains his theory of theater: ‘‘Naturalness and truth in...

(The entire section is 374 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

How do the characters of Ismene, Creon, and the
Page serve as foils for Antigone?

How do the changes that Anouilh has made...

(The entire section is 108 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A recording of Jean Anouilh reading Antigone
was produced by La Voix de l’Auteur. There is
also a tape of a 1965...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The classic film Casablanca (1942), starring
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, also
concerns making personal sacrifices...

(The entire section is 76 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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


(The entire section is 166 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.