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MonkeyNotes-Antigone by Jean Anouilh
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LITERARY/HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

There are two sources for the play, Antigone. The original story is from the Greek play, Antigone, one part of Sophocles' trilogy about Oedipus; and second source comes from the contemporary political scene during the Nazi invasion of France. Anouilh mixes both of these sources into a timeless tragedy of universal significance that examines the conflict between human will and divine will.

In ancient Greece, the staging of tragedies was an integral part of the annual festival at Athens in honor of Dionysus, the Greek god of fertility and prosperity. Based on popular myths and legends, the plays had a solemn grandeur and sublime music in the choral odes sung by the Chorus. The Chorus also had the important role of narration and of being the ideal spectator and judge of characters and events. In the fifth century, tragedy significantly developed in the hands of the three great Greek playwrights: Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

Sophocles' tragedy, Antigone, examines the age-old conflict between the demands of human and divine law as it centers on the dispute over the burial of Polynices. After the deaths of Oedipus'' sons, Polynices and Eteocles, Creon becomes King of Thebes. One of his first decrees is that since Polynices is a traitor to Thebes, no one is allowed to bury him. Antigone, his younger sister, plans to defy Creon's edict and bury Polynices, as she has promised. Burial rites are very important to the Greeks because they believe a soul does not attain rest until the body is decently buried. For Antigone, religious laws are superior to the laws of the state. Creon unsuccessfully tries to persuade Antigone to comply with his decree, but she refuses to listen. After she conducts the burial, Haemon, who is Creon's son and Antigone's fiancé, begs his father to temper justice with mercy in dealing with Antigone. Creon is too proud to listen. According to the law, Antigone is to be buried alive. Torn between fear of fate and the desire to be firm, Creon rushes to free Antigone from her tomb, but, it is too late, for she has hanged herself. In grief, Haemon attacks Creon and then stabs himself. Queen Eurydice, on hearing of her son's tragic death, slits her throat and dies. Creon is overcome with remorse and admits his error and guilt in the end.


In Jean Anouilh's tragedy, Antigone, the play, for the most part, follows the storyline found in Sophocles' classic drama. Anouilh, however, somewhat changes the Chorus, which functions as the link between the past life of Oedipus and the present predicament of Creon. It introduces the cast and comments on the various traits of the characters. Midway through the debate between Creon and Antigone, the Chorus gives a summary of what tragedy is and calls it pointless; then finally, it tries to influence Creon to be merciful to Antigone. It also comments on the pointless deaths of Haemon and Eurydice, on the shame of political machinations, and on the futility of life.

Jean Anouilh's play also becomes a political satire. The rise of Nazi power towards the end of World War II is the backdrop of the drama. Antigone's supreme sacrifice for justice and truth is a powerful theme, especially during the war, and various versions of Antigone were staged all over Europe from 1941 until the war's end. Whereever it played, it always excited interest and passion. It was seen as the struggle between the individual and the tyrannical state and symbolized the French resistance movement. Antigone becomes the anarchist (lawless individual) who decides to revolt against Creon's law, much like the French rebels fought against Charles De Gaulle, whom Anouilh hated and believed was a dictator-like despot.

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