Saturday, 12 January 2002

Jean Anouilh: Antigone (1942)

Translation: Lewis Golantiere, 1951 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Methuen, 1957
Review number: 1036

Anouilh has taken over the plot of the play directly from Sophocles, while changing the characterisation of Antigone and her uncle Creon to make a point very clear (though presumably not to the German authorities) when originally produced in occupied Paris. His play is not about Antigone's choice but about the futility of resistance and the moral bankruptcy of both resistance and collaboration (the Germans being symbolised by Creon).

The story is basically that Creon has taken over as ruler of Thebes after the self-mutilation and exile of Oedipus; the former king's children grow up under his protection. The two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, eventually kill each other when the former leads a rebellious attack on the city. Creon therefore orders a hero's funeral for Eteocles, but Polynices is left in the open to rot, the death penalty being prescribed for anyone who tries to carry out the burial rites for him. Of his sisters, Ismene is unhappy but not willing to do anything, but Antigone is caught trying to bury the body. Creon tries to spare her, asking her to collaborate with him in covering up her crime, but she refuses and eventually her execution is ordered.

Where Anouilh principally differs from Sophocles is in the motivation of the characters. Antigone begins to defend her actions by claiming that piety is her motivation, but this is quickly demolished - she is known to find religious observance ridiculous, so how can her claim be anything but hypocrisy? Creon claims, in his turn, that he wants the best for Thebes, but he view the best as the preservation of the staus quo, especially when he can claim that he is driven by necessity to such acts as the desecration of Polynices' corpse.

There is an air of unreality about this play, partly because it has been modernised (so that Polynices was a wild young man who liked fast cars, for example), but mainly because Anouilh has changed the function of the chorus. In a Greek play, they tend to expand on the action, reacting in a way that helps explain what is going on or bring out the point the playwright wants to make. Here, Anouilh uses a single man, who is much more separated from the action, acting as a narrator, and constantly pointing out the artificial nature of the theatrical drama. The effect is alienating, and the intention is clearly to make the audience think about the message of the play rather than the events in the drama itself, to distance themselves from their immediate emotional reaction.

In many ways, the meaning of Antigone is bound up with the circumstances for which it was written, more so than is the case for most drama. (Indeed, this is so clearly the case that it must have been quite daring to put on, critical as it is of both occupiers and resistance.) It still has something to say, though, and that is basically that there is something banal about our motives even for important actions; not a cheerful message, but one to provoke some self-examination.

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