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ANTIGONE AS A TRAGEDY
The divine tragedy of antiquity or classicism is scaled down in this play to the dimensions of a human drama. After the defeat of the seven princes who attack Thebes, Creon, the new king, forbids the burial of the traitor Polynices. His sister, Antigone, preferring the god's laws to man's, disobeys and is sent to her death by Creon. For this, Creon is punished by Heaven with the suicide of his own wife and son.
Creon is not necessarily wrong, but intoxicated with his new authority. The Chorus, the voice of heaven, condemns Creon for his action. Creon, however, is not entirely wrong; neither is he entirely right. And his real problem comes from the fact that Antigone is neither fully right or wrong. It is just that loyalty to divine law and loyalty to the state are incompatible. Antigone is totally possessed by the interests of her sacred duties to her family, and Creon, by the interests of the community and his political life. As a result, the two of them must clash and suffer as a result; but when justice is done, there is no place for pity. The moral complexity presented in the play is the true essence of the tragedy.
There has been much varying criticism of the play. Many modern critics have pointed out that Antigone says little about her fiancé, Haemon, and claim she was really in love with her brother Polynices. Other critics feel that Antigone was also in love with her father, Oedipus. Many see the play as a farce of classical tragedy, where artifice in language and situation reigns and stereotyped characters abound. In spite of these interpretations, the play has a special appeal because its central problem is still deep and universal. It depicts a simple clash between two views of the law. Sometimes, Antigone is judged as immoral for her refusal to live under the law of the state; but she believes her 'unwritten laws' are eternal. Like Socrates and Joan of Arc, she is willing to die for her ideals.
The play changes tone towards the end when Antigone dies. The cursing of the Chorus and the description of Antigone's death and Haemon's despair are indeed vivid, and there is much lamenting. Queen Eurydice's death, however, evokes little emotional response other than horror, for she is not a developed character in the course of the play.
Anouilh is not the only twentieth century playwright who highlights pathos rather than romanticize tragedy. Osborne, a British dramatist, and Beckett, an Irish dramatist, also imply the tragic condition of mankind by exposing the absurdity of life and man's essential helplessness before it. Man's heroism lies in facing life, conscious of the losing battle he wages, rather than in escaping from it. Neither Antigone or Creon really faces life; one is unbending in idealism, leading to death, and the other lives by crime and compromise, not facing life as it really exists.
In the tragic world presented by Anouilh, there is little hope in living. This element of "hopelessness" is common in twentieth century literature, as in The Wasteland (a poem by T.S. Eliot), Waiting for Godot (a play by Beckett), and in Mourning Becomes Electra (a play by Eugene O'Neill). Any attempts to conquer the mediocrity of the human situation invites doom or death; thus, the heroes of Anouilh must live alone and die alone. The solitude of the heroic character is brought sharply into focus in this play, with Antigone isolated in death and Creon isolated in living.
The Chorus says Antigone is driven by forces or fate. There is no picture in the play of a benevolent God to set matters right; there is no hope for reconciliation. As a result, the audience is left in a continuous state of mental distress, as opposed to the classical definition of tragedy which ends with catharsis and the promise of spiritual renewal. The dramatist refuses to please the audience by providing a neat solution to the problem he has raised; instead he leaves the final decision of whether Antigone was right or wrong to the individuals in the audience. The conclusion of Anouilh's play, based upon a classical tragedy, is, therefore, very modern in its concept.