Antigone deals primarily with a timeless conflict as pertinent to modern times as the past: the conflict between the individual conscience and the demands of the state. Although the plot is substantially the same as the drama by Sophocles, the older play developed the conflict as between the laws of the gods, defended by Antigone, and the laws of man, as devised by Creon. The ancient clan rules for family burial were presumably ordained by the gods of the underworld. Creon put his faith in the city-state and a supposedly more enlightened and pragmatic view of justice and patriotism.
Both Creon and Antigone, in Sophocles’ play, displayed an almost puritanical self-righteousness, and that trait is not entirely absent in the modern version. Anouilh elaborated the conflict in subtler psychological terms, however, focusing on essential differences in temperament. Antigone is a person dominated by intense feelings. She hardly knows herself why she does things. Although she considers herself a social misfit, her companions, including Ismene, Haemon, and Creon himself, are drawn to her passionate conviction. Creon, on the other hand, is the man of thought, convinced that rationality and order must take precedence over feelings. Although he fancies himself in control of destiny, he too is doomed by his choices. He is possibly as much the victim of illusion in his calculated expediency as Antigone is in her irrational self-sacrifice. Haemon tries vainly to warn his father that he has miscalculated the mood of the people and overvalued the sanctity of the law that he himself created. The issues are not exclusively political, however, in the climactic scene. Although Creon seems to have destroyed every rational excuse for Antigone’s behavior, she realizes, perhaps for the first time, that she aspires to a purity that simply cannot be maintained in the real world. In a choice between compromise and death, she chooses to die.
The Chorus notes the essential difference between tragedy and melodrama. The latter displays wicked villains and persecuted maidens and last-minute reprieves. Tragedy, however, is clean and devoid of both sentimentality and hope. Though each of the participants in the drama is, from one viewpoint, innocent, no one escapes the consequences of his actions. Thus, the play remains true to the ancient attitudes of Greek drama, which shows disaster as the result of prideful human action. It brings suffering to the participants, but also insight into themselves and others. It also expresses a contemporary French existential view of human character and fate as essentially self-chosen and self-defined.
Anouilh was not the only French dramatist to revive classical myths during the early twentieth century. Jean Cocteau and Jean Giraudoux (whose influence Anouilh acknowledged) both adapted Greek drama, especially that of Sophocles, to the modern French stage. They created a heightened atmosphere of theatricality, thus leading a departure from dramatic realism that until then had been the only mode of the theater.
For example, Anouilh’s Antigone has the intellectual abilities to challenge Creon on a philosophical level. Creon attempts to save his young niece from self-destruction by...
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