Antigone (Anouilh) Background

Antigone (Anouilh) Background

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 be interpreted as a member of the resistance to despotic tyranny that adheres to how 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 censorship which could result in exceptionally harsh punishment if violated. Anouilh chose to adopt a 2,000-year-old tragedy to speak to 20th-century audiences for a reason. One of that reasons was the ability to rip Antigone out of her classical world of ritual and mythic to situate her within the modern condition where the fates of most humans are dictated not by unseen petty gods but by 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 dramatists France ever produced.

Antigone's story was chosen by Anouilh for a purpose- to provide a parallel to the French Underground resistance against their fascist occupiers. Anouilh wanted to write a play that spoke to the hardships of the French people during this time, but he was also aware of the limits that imposed by the Nazi censors. He was forced to make artistic choices that offered some ambiguity to the audience, rather than the play being seen as just a political statement. This ambiguity has allowed the play to become an enduring classic that speaks to audiences in any era.

It is easy to see how the anachronistic elements of the play make it stand out. References to modern life such as toast and coffee, and nightclubs, and people whistling at girls on the street create a sense of familiarity and yet unfamiliarity. Despite being a classic play, Antigone has had limited success in America, as it is often seen as overly intellectual. However, Anouilh still enjoys a great reputation in his native France as one of the greatest dramatists ever produced. He wrote Antigone to speak to the French people during World War II, and it is still relevant today, as it speaks to the need for individuals to stand up against oppressive authority.

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