By Jean Anouilh
Antigone owes its story line to Sophocles’ tragedy about the daughter of Oedipus, who sacrificed her life in order to fulfil her religious and familial duties by burying her brother’s corpse in direct contravention of the edict of her uncle, Creon, ruler of Thebes.
While retaining such classical conventions as the use of a Chorus (reduced here to a single figure) and observance of the unities of time, place and action, Anouilh’s version differs in many respects from his model. In terms of character, the motivation of the heroine has become less clear, while audience reaction to Creon’s intransigence is modified as he is allowed to justify his decree and to explain the problems and responsibilities of exercising power. The other characters are similarly humanised. As for the theme, the clear central issue of the Sophoclean text splinters into a whole series of questions concerning the rights and duties of the state, the individual and more besides.
Antigone was written in 1942, and its manners and language are of that period. It reached the stage in 1944 in occupied Paris, having been approved by the German censors, and immediately became the centre of controversy. It was at first attacked as being an apology for the authoritarian regime of the occupying power, owing to the softening of the portrayal of Creon noted above, but soon the character of Antigone, through her refusal to yield to Creon’s threats and arguments, was seen as a symbol of revolt and an inspiration for the Resistance.
The immediate success of the play may be seen as partly due to this perceived topicality and the different interpretations imposed on it by the public. Its continuing popularity in France and elsewhere is, however, best explained in the judgement of Harold Hobson, doyen of theatre critics: ‘Antigone does not owe its immortality to the fact that … it was at one particular point in history… a document of high social significance, but to the other and more important fact that it is a living and breathing play, instinct with the spirit of bitterness and regret, of poetry and disgust, of horror at the contrast between what could be and what life is that makes Anouilh one of the very greatest dramatists in the whole of European history’.
Jean Anouilh was born in Bordeaux in 1910, and from an early age showed great interest in playwriting. His family’s move to Paris provided him, in his teens, with the opportunity to see many plays by an exciting new generation of authors including Cocteau, Sartre and Giraudoux, whose Siegfried made a particularly strong impression on him. His own arrival on the Parisian stage as the author of The Ermine came in 1932, and until his death in 1987 he worked as a highly successful and sometimes controversial dramatist. A naturally retiring man, he withdrew in 1956 to his home near Lake Geneva, remote from the contentions of the capital.
His choice of subjects is wide-ranging. Many of his plays could be described as domestic, dealing with contemporary concerns, but as well as Antigone he took from classical myth the tales of Orestes, Eurydice and Medea, while historical figures included Napoleon, Robespierre, Joan of Arc and Thomas Becket – not that we should look for historical accuracy in his portrayal of these characters, for he confessed that they were not researched from books, but created to serve his purposes.
He confided in one of his rare interviews ‘I make plays as a chair-maker makes chairs. Chairs are made to be sat on and plays are meant to be played, to provide actors with work and the public with entertainment.’ He liked to think of himself as a painstaking craftsman, and his work certainly shows a mastery of all the tricks of the theatrical trade – changes of tempo and mood, expertly modulated climaxes, coup de theatre and the like – that ensure that his audience is kept entertained. But his is much more than that: his plays may not attempt to promote this or that political, religious or social philosophy, but they do present a coherent tone and view of the world, which some will consider pessimistic and others realistic.
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