Caitlin teaches college English and composition. She holds an M.A. in Publishing and Writing.
We're all familiar with how movies and television shows adapt works of literature. But it turns out, movies and TV weren't the first to do this. Jean Anouilh adapted Greek playwright Sophocles' Antigone and paid homage to it by hitting most of the same story notes, but also made it his own by using it as an inspiration for anti-Nazi sentiment. It's pretty cool that writing a play can be seen as a revolutionary act, but that's exactly what Antigone was in German-occupied France in the 1940s.
Jean Anouilh was a French playwright living in German-occupied France during World War II. He wrote Antigone in 1942, though the play was originally censored due to its anti-authority message. The play was not staged in Paris until 1944, shortly before Paris' liberation.
The play starts with the Chorus introducing the main characters of the play, including Antigone, the titular tragic heroine and daughter of Oedipus; Ismene, Antigone's beautiful and feminine sister; Haemon, Antigone's fiance and the Prince of Thebes; and Creon, Antigone's uncle and the world-weary King of Thebes, who's married to Eurydice. The Chorus also narrates the background lead up to the play: Antigone's brothers Eteocles and Polynices fought for the rule of Thebes and killed each other. Creon then became king and declared Polynices a traitor, meaning he should get no burial.
The action picks up with the Nurse, an original character, discovering Antigone sneaking back to her room early in the morning, supposedly from a romantic tryst. Ismene arrives and tries to talk Antigone out of burying Polynices against Creon's edict. She's afraid to go against the law.
Haemon visits and Antigone admits to dressing up in Ismene's feminine accessories out of insecurity of Haemon's love for her. She then says that she loves Haemon but she will not be able to marry him. Hurt, Haemon leaves. Ismene returns to remind Antigone that Polynices was not kind or loving. She says that this is Creon's business. Antigone confesses to already burying him.
Meanwhile, Creon learns that Polynices has been buried, though without much depth. Creon orders his body uncovered and any person found trying to bury the body again arrested. He also orders his guards to keep quiet about this.
The Chorus then returns to meditate on the meaning of tragedy.
During the day, Antigone tries to bury Polynices again and is caught. The guards bring her before Creon, though they don't recognize her since they are more interested in how this can benefit them. Their ridiculousness is meant to be humorous against a tragic backdrop.
Antigone confesses to her actions without reservation. Creon tries to cover up the crime to protect Antigone, but she says she will just bury the body again. Creon tells Antigone she, as the daughter of kings, must obey the law. Antigone, however, refuses. Creon realizes her motivations aren't actually religious, as the rituals being used are hollow. Rather, she cares only for herself. Like her father, she thrives on tragedy. No matter what argument Creon makes to try to convince Antigone to back down, she refuses. Ismene arrives and tries to take some of the blame on herself, but Antigone refuses to let her. She wants to be sentenced to death alone.
The Chorus warns Creon not to kill Antigone, but Creon does not see any other way. Haemon then arrives and tries to intercede on Antigone's behalf, but Creon does not change his mind because the story has already spread around Thebes. He has no choice but to uphold the law or risk rebellion.
In a cell, meanwhile, Antigone bribes a guard to record a letter to Haemon in which she apologizes to her fiance. When she's done, she's taken away to a cave.
A messenger then arrives to reveal to Eurydice that Antigone hanged herself in the cave. Haemon found her, and when Creon arrived, Haemon drew his sword on his father but stabbed himself. Creon returns and states he has laid the pair out together. However, the Chorus tells him Eurydice cut her own throat after learning of Haemon's death.
Alone except for his young page, Creon goes on with his required duties while the guards continue playing cards.
Anouilh's Antigone is, on the surface, set in Ancient Greece in the palace at Thebes. However, Anouilh includes items like cigarettes and motor cars to muddle the time period the play is taking place in. This allows audiences to watch a familiar tragedy play out while applying it to the time period of Nazi occupation in the 1940s. The actors also dress in modern clothing, like suits.
This muddled sense of time and space is further enhanced by the staging, which is purposefully minimal. The entire play takes place in one space with lighting signaling the time of day or change of scene.
Perhaps the main theme of Anouilh's Antigone is acceptance versus rejection of authority. This conflict plays out through the characters of Creon, who symbolizes acceptance, and Antigone, who symbolizes rejection. When taken in the context of German occupation, Creon represents Nazi rule through its puppet, the Vichy government that ruled France, and those who follow it, while Antigone represents the French Resistance.
Though Creon survives the play when Antigone does not, seemingly indicating the victory of authority and the Nazis, the fact that Creon loses everything and must hollowly keep moving forward is perhaps a greater loss than Antigone's death, which was her aim from the beginning. Antigone seeks death, which is often symbolically seen as a type of freedom. Therefore, Antigone, the freedom fighter, seeks freedom from oppression and achieves it.
We must also keep in mind that Anouilh was writing with Nazi censorship in mind, so killing Creon would have not only been different from Sophocles' version of the play but would also have been an overtly revolutionary message. The only way to get the play staged was to be ambiguous.
Let's review. Jean Anouilh's Antigone adapts the play of the same name by Sophocles. It was written during World War II during the German occupation of France. After her brothers killed each other in an attempt to claim the throne of Thebes, Antigone buries Polynices, the brother declared a traitor by the acting king, Creon. When she's caught, Antigone shows no remorse and even claims she'll bury the body again if she is freed.
Despite Creon's pleas to get Antigone to reconsider her actions, he must sentence her to death for breaking the law. However, Antigone is not the only one to die by the end of the play, as Antigone's fiance and Creon's son, Haemon, and Creon's wife and Haemon's mother, Eurydice, both kill themselves as well. Left alone, Creon continues working because it's his duty. Creon, who represents the acceptance of authority (the Vichy government) is in thematic conflict with Antigone, who represents the rejection of authority and the spirit of French resistance during a time of war.
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