Saturday, October 31, 2009

Jean Anouilh's play "Antigone"

I did not know Anouilh until I saw his Antigone in school last Thursday. It is usually read as an allegory of Vichy collaboration in occupied France, Creon representing the compromised older generation, Antigone the idealistic younger one. The play is slow-going at the start, what with the Chorus's dull explanations and the Nurse's tedious prattle. But it comes alive in the confrontation scene between Creon and Antigone. The conflict turns around pragmatism and idealism, chance and fate, job and family. 

Creon's speech about the death of Polynieces and Eteocles departs radically from Sophocles' play of the same name. In Anouilh, the brothers died joined together by the weapons they thrust into each other. They were then mashed by the battle beyond recognition, and one of these broken bodies was taken to be celebrated as a hero, and the other to be left unburied. So, Creon hammers home, Antigone cannot even be sure that she is burying her brother Polynieces. The audience does not know if Creon is telling the truth, but his attempt at weakening Antigone's resolve signally fails. 

There is much meta-reference to the audience's need for a heroine who embodies purity and fate, in the midst of filthy compromise and random chance. I am particularly impressed by the scene in which Antigone dictates a love letter to a guard for her fiance Haemon (again not in Sophocles). Unworldly idealism is transcribed by self-serving interest. Events overtake the writing, and the guard never learns for whom the letter is intended. This scene is a poignant allegory itself of a writer's condition in the world.

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