Jean Anouilh updates the context of the classic Greek drama by Sophocles to make it resonate with the era in which it was written: during the occupation of France by Nazi Germany during World War II. As a result, Antigone can clearly be interpreted as a member of the resistance to despotic tyranny that adheres to the ways in which the French Underground organized resistance to their fascist occupation.
At the same time it can be easy for the modern day reader to miss that connection since the characterization of Antigone as a rebellious freedom fighter (or terrorist from Creon’s perspective) is somewhat muted by ambiguity. That ambiguity turned out to be one of the greatest strengths of the play in the wake of its long legacy as it avoids seeming like mere political propaganda representative of a certain place and time. Worth noting is Anouilh had ambiguity forced upon him by the nature of the means of production: the premiere performance of Antigone took place in Paris in early 1944 when the Nazi censors were still controlling all aspects of the French entertainment industry.
One must assume that the artistic choices made were not entirely the result of the imposition of a censorship which could result in exceptionally harsh punishment if violated. Anouilh chose to adapt a 2,000 year old tragedy to speak to 20th century audiences for a reason. One of those reason was the ability to rip Antigone out of her classical world of ritual and mythic in order to situate her within the modern condition where the fates of most human are dictated not by unseen petty gods but terrifying petty despots. The symbolic connection linking the familiarity of Antigone’s story within that ancient world with the context of Nazi occupation thus allows the more ambiguous elements of her story in Anouilh’s hands to become a broader implication of the power and necessity of the individual to rebel against the unchecked authority of the state.
What makes this particular updating of a classic piece of literature especially worthwhile is the way that Anouilh positively engages inherent anachronisms. References to toast, coffee, nightclubs, party girls and guys whistling at girls on street corners commingle with a narrative that veers little from its ancient origins to produce a disorienting effect not unlike déjà vu: the story seems both familiar and unfamiliar, different yet the same
Although Antigone has proven capable of being more than World War II propaganda, its success in performance has tended to be restricted to France or those places where its message of rebellion against authority resonates strongly. As a result, its original run on Broadway was very short and it has never been a particularly popular choice for theatrical productions across America. On the other hand, Antigone essentially made Anouilh’s reputation and contributed to a long career marked by great critical success. While dismissed as overly intellectual in America, in his own he still enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest dramatist France ever produced.