Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone pulls the Sophoclean tragedy into the twentieth century, especially with regards to the heroine who here is seen as human, and not merely as a symbol of resistance. Antigone undergoes a journey to self-realisation which releases her from the preconceptions associated with the ancient tragedy. Her fate is inevitable, but in order to retain its tragedy Anouilh shows Antigone’s growth as a character, using meta-theatricality and her discovery of her individual identity to engage his audience.
Anouilh begins his play by introducing his actors instead of his characters. Antigone’s actor prepares herself mentally for her role, thinking that ‘she’s going to be Antigone… she’s going to die’ (Anouilh 3). At this stage in the play the instances of meta-theatricality suggest an inevitability and resignation towards the role of Antigone. The ‘lousy hope’ (26) as it is called later in the play by the Chorus creates an Antigone that is, unlike her Sophoclean counterpart, uninspiring. This is largely due to the fact that her death is not of her choosing – she is being forced to conform to the limits of the play, both as an actor and as a character. This resignation is emphasised when Antigone talks to Ismene, asserting that this is ‘how the cast-list was drawn up. What can we do about it?’ (11). Rather than Antigone taking up arms at this point voluntarily, her political fight with Creon is inherited along with her name and she sees no point in escaping it. Her awareness of her lack of control over her actions creates an apathy that distances the audience from her – not only because they are less emotionally involved due to the constant reminder that she will die, but also because she barely seems to believe in what she will die for.
Ted Freeman in his commentary on the play questions whether the meta-theatrical techniques in the play do not ‘reduce, or even totally destroy’ the ‘tragic impact’ (Freeman 38) of the play. Whilst Antigone’s inevitable fate builds a barrier, Anouilh makes a conscious and successful effort to counter this by making her acceptance of her fate and obedience to the script strangely child-like. She admits to stealing ‘lipstick, the powder, the pretty dress’ (Anouilh 17) in a desperate attempt to reassure herself that Haemon loves her, which is reminiscent of a teenage girl who is insecure. Similarly, her devotion to Polynices is like of that of a younger sibling, and she explains her reasons for burying him with childishly naive words, saying that ‘He’s going home, to where Mother and Father, and Eteocles too, are waiting for him’ (31-32). Whilst the moments spent acknowledging the real world might distance us from Antigone, these instances of vulnerability make Anouilh’s Antigone human and emotionally available in a way that Sophocles’ Antigone never was. Her stubborn character gives way to moments in which the audience is allowed to see a girl who is truly damaged by her lack of family and this is extremely endearing to the audience. This is because Anouilh requires that his audience ‘truly believe in Antigone’ (Harvey 93) as a real human as opposed to some sort of emblem of divine obedience who is constantly put on a pedestal.
Freeman asserts that ‘Antigone’s brief fears about her brother’s unburied spirit wandering eternally are unconvincing in a context of night-clubs, fast cars and gambling debts; it would have been better to omit them altogether’ (40), however this view ignores the important role that such naivety plays on the audience’s understanding of Antigone’s growth as an individual. It is easy to spot moments in which Antigone acts like a child, however instances of her maturity appear more frequently as the play goes on, such as when she attempts to distance herself from the other characters in the play. The stage directions describe her as sounding ‘strangely at peace’ (Anouilh 21) when she breaks away from Haemon, and the act is like that of a resistance fighter who is trying to avoid implicating anyone in their actions, either physically or emotionally. Rather than belittling her, the audience is aware of the consideration in her actions. Most notably, her maturity is visible when in conversation with Creon. He treats her like a child, demanding answers: ‘Why are you acting like this, then? To impress other people, those who believe in it? To set them against me?… Not for other people?… For whom, then?’ (35). Antigone’s answers are short and to the point: ‘No one. Myself’ (35), giving the impression of a calm, collected, mature person, closer to an adult than a child which shows that during the play, we see Antigone growing up and becoming an adult mentally. This conversation between Antigone and Creon is captivating, not just because of the high tension it creates, but because viewers are able to see the change in Antigone’s character.
The final stage of Antigone’s journey to self-discovery is key to the belief that the play is a tragedy. Harvey remarks that ‘The climax is the epiphany; it is the moment of revelation when the hero finally discovers not his guilt or hubris but his very identity, the meaning of his role’ (Harvey 90). Antigone’s identity is formed when she rejects conformity which is a constant theme throughout the play. Ismene is too afraid to go against Creon’s orders, arguing that ‘everyone agrees with him’ (12) which counts her amongst the masses of unnamed conformists in the play; Creon’s determination to create unity in the kingdom comes at the expense of individual identities and voices – ‘He hasn’t got a name any more. And neither have you’ (40) and even Polynices and Eteocles were ‘both unrecognisable’ (44) from one another when they died. Antigone’s ‘epiphany’ comes when Creon asserts that ‘life is probably nothing other than happiness’ as it is at this point that Anouilh’s Antigone differentiates herself from the Antigone of Ancient Greece and finally becomes the tragic hero of this play. Despite the fact that she cannot escape her death, she ends up dying not as the emblem of religious obedience, but for the right and ability to lead her life, and her death, as she wishes. She contradicts Creon’s determination to have a unified kingdom with one voice by asserting her own and refusing to ‘be quiet’ (46). She also attributes the ‘lousy hope’ that has so far been interpreted as her own apathy to Creon and the other conformists who do nothing to escape their prescribed destinies, crediting her own new liberty of mind to the fact that she never ‘stops asking questions’ (47). Her new invigoration of spirit is easily absorbed by the audience who has become emotionally attached to the vulnerable child who has now developed into a strong, wilful adult with a clear idea of why she would be willing to die. Her uncompromising stance on how she should be able to live her life without the ‘ugly’ (47) conformity that is accepted unquestioningly by the others in the play becomes the ‘meaning of her role’. Harvey asserts that Anouilh’s tragic roles aspire to ‘idealism’ (90) however, in Antigone’s case it should be expanded to ‘personal idealism’, because she sees the conformist ideal of happiness as ‘a scrap’ (47) of ‘lousy hope’ that barely exists and doesn’t allow them to understand what ideals truly are any more.
Freeman believes that in her last appearance before her death, Antigone confesses that she ‘no longer knows what she is dying for’ (Freeman 42) which proves that she dies for no reason other than sheer stubbornness. However the full line is: ‘Creon was right: it’s awful, but here, with this man beside me, I don’t know any more what I’m dying for.’ (Anouilh 56-7, my emphasis). To Antigone, Jonas is the epitome of conformity, he is merely a ‘man’ who is the same as every other person in the city – someone without a voice who apathetically accepts his lot in life. That the last person to see her is unlikely to change as a result of witnessing her fate is tragic, but does not present a hopeless case because Jonas ‘pockets the ring’ (58) that she gave him in return for writing her letter, risking a court-martial which seems to be an unprecedented move for his character.
Antigone’s tragedy does not lie in her simply dying – that has been understood as inevitable since the beginning of the play. Her tragedy lies in that her self-realisation occurs in the very moments that she has to forfeit it to complete her role. Antigone’s growth from child to woman is cut short for the audience who was just learning to accept and understand her as an uncompromising figure with an identity of her own, and so there is a feeling that she died too young, even if she may have achieved her aim of changing the people which is hinted through Jonas’ pocketing of her ring.
Anouilh, Jean. Antigone. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013. Print.
Freeman, Ted. Commentary. Anouilh’s Antigone, Antigone. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2013. xxxvi- xlv. Print.
Harvey, John. Anouilh: A Study in Theatrics. Connecticut: The Yale University Press, 1964. 90-93. Print.