The specific circumstances surrounding the origin of Greek drama were a puzzle even in the 4th century BC. Greek drama seems to have its roots in religious celebrations that incorporated song and dance. By the 6th century BC, Athenians had transformed a rural celebration of Dionysis into an urban festival with dancing choruses that competed for prizes. An anonymous poet came up with the idea of having the chorus interact with a masked actor. Later, Aeschylus transformed the art by using two masked actors, each playing different parts throughout the piece, essentially inventing Greek drama as we know it. With two actors and a chorus, complex plots and conflicts could be staged as never before, and the poets who competed in the festival were no longer writing elaborate hymns, but true plays. Athens was the only Greek city-state where this art form evolved; the comedies, tragedies, and dramas handed down to us from the period, although labeled generically as "Greek," are in fact all Athenian works.
After the defeat of the Persians in a decisive campaign (480-479 BC), Athens emerged as the superpower of the independent Greek city-states, and during this time the drama festival, or the Dionysia, became a spectacular event. The Dionysia lasted four to five days, and the city took the celebrations seriously. Prisoners were released on bail, and most public business was suspended. Roughly 10,000 free male citizens, along with their slaves and dependents, watched plays in an enormous outdoor theater that could seat 17,000 spectators. On each of three days, the Athenians were treated to three tragedies and a satyr play (a light comedy on a mythic theme) written by one of three pre-selected tragedians, as well as one comedy by a comedic playwright. The trilogies did not have to be extended dramas dealing with the same story, although often they were. At the end of the festival, the tragedians were awarded first, second, and third prize by the judges of Dionysis.
Although Antigone is grouped together with Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus as a trilogy (sometimes called The Theban Plays or The Oedipus Trilogy), the three works were actually not written as a trilogy at all. It would therefore be totally erroneous to say that Antigone presents some kind of "final word" on the themes of the trilogy. In fact, although Antigone deals with the events that happen chronologically last in the myth, the play was produced in 441 BC - some 14 or 15 years before Oedipus the King, and a full 36 years before Oedipus at Colonus. Sophocles was clearly fascinated by the Oedipus myth, but inconsistencies in the events of the three plays seem to indicate that he wrote each play as a separate treatment of the story.
For modern readers, the Chorus may be the most alien element of the play. Greek drama was not meant to be what we would consider "naturalistic." It was a highly stylized art form: actors wore masks, and the performances incorporated song and dance. The Chorus delivers much of the exposition and expounds poetically on themes, but it is still meant to represent a group of characters. In the case of Antigone, the Chorus is constituted by the Theban elders, old and powerful citizens of the city who watch and comment on the action. It interacts with the actors, and in Antigone the Chorus intercedes at a crucial point near the end of the play.
Consistent with the norms of Greek drama, Antigone is not divided into acts or scenes. The action flows uninterrupted from beginning to end. However, time elapses in non-naturalistic fashion: at certain points, from reports of what has happened offstage, it is clear that a great amount of time is meant to have passed even though only a few minutes have passed for the audience. In general, as noted by Aristotle, the action of most Greek tragedies is confined to a 24-hour period.
In his influential Poetics, Aristotle sets guidelines for the form of tragedy using Oedipus the King as his ideal model. Tragedy is usually concerned with a person of great stature, a king or nobleman, who falls because of hubris, or pride. There are unities of time, place, and, most importantly, action. Action may be thought of simply as motive or "movement of spirit": in Oedipus the King the action for most of the play is "find Laius' killer and stop the plague in Thebes." The action in Antigone is "preserve rightness and order in Thebes." Antigone is a strange case because the "movement-of-spirit" arguably comes from two directions: Antigone and Creon are both championing what is right, but they define rightness through different sets of values. Key elements include the moments of reversal and recognition, although not every tragedy has these moments. Reversal means a great and unexpected turn in events when the action veers around and becomes its opposite. Antigone experiences no reversal, but Creon does: at the Chorus' prodding, he finally backs down and listens to the advice he has been given, turning against the preservation of the kind of order he cherishes. Recognition means that a character gains sudden and transformative understanding of himself and the events he has experienced, moving from ignorance to knowledge. In Antigone, Creon finally recognizes that he has been misguided and that his actions have led to the death of his wife and son. Ideally, according to Aristotle, the reversal and the recognition hit at the same instant, as they do in Oedipus the King. While the Poetics are indispensable for the student of Greek drama - and, indeed, drama in general - Aristotle's theories should not be a straitjacket. Aristotle's guidelines make it difficult to appreciate the genius of Euripides, and by the standards of the Poetics, the great tragedies of Shakespeare would be failures. Aristotle is writing from a particular time and place, and he is also speaking from a very specific artistic sensibility. He may be the first word on Greek tragedy, but he is not the last.
In this ClassicNote, the quotations and the line numbers given with the citations match the lines in the David Grene translation; the reader is encouraged to look at different translations of Antigone to get a feel for the striking difference that a translator can make.