Ancient Tragedy, Greece and Rome
Andrew Scholtz, Instructor
Ancient Tragedy, Study Guide. . .
Text Access via Blackboard Course Site "Content"
My Bb@BU > Ancient Tragedy, Greek & Roman-SPG10 > Content > ANOUILH: Antigone
Anouilh, Jean. Antigone. Trans. Barbara Bray. Plays: One. Variation: Methuen World Classics. London: Methuen, 1997. 77-137. Print.
In Anouilh's Antigone, the Chorus states:
In drama you struggle, because you hope you're going to survive. It's utilitarian — sordid. But tragedy is gratuitous. Pointless, irremediable. Fit for a king! (102)
QUESTION: Is that what tragedy is? Why? What does prior reading tell you?
I would suggest you subject this to rigorous critical thinking, by which I DON'T mean simply to REJECT it, but to THINK ABOUT IT. DO YOU/DON'T YOU BUY INTO IT? IS THAT A GUT REACTION? HAVE YOU CRITIQUED YOUR OWN FEELINGS ABOUT IT?
PLEASE NOTE: This quotation needs to be treated with care:
- What is "drama" here? Aren't tragedies, comedies, satyr dramas, a whole lot of stuff, dramas? (Have we ever studied anything called, simply, "drama"?) How's the Chorus using the word?
- Please note that in some ways, Anouilh's play seems to conform to the definition presented here of tragedy: a play "fit for kings," foregone conclusion, etc. But it arguably is also a "drama" as defined by the Chorus — what to make of all that?
- If this is Anouilh attacking tragedy, then could he be at some level attacking his own play? If that makes sense (and it might!), how to make sense of it?
- Do we pick and choose what to process here, or do we take the quote as a whole?
- In particular, is it critical thinking to ignore the Chorus' characterization of tragedy as pointless? Do we take that at face value, or how to make sense of it?
I'm not trying to prime you for an expected answer, but neither is it true that anything goes. Rather, I am urging you to be sentive to nuance, to the spaces in between more extreme positions, to think critically. . . .
Introduction to Playwright and Play
Playwright Jean Anouilh (pronounced "an-OO-ee") once wrote to a critic, "Je n'ai pas de biographie," "I have no biography and am very glad of it" (Plays: One, p. x). Still, he did have a biography. Born in 1910, in Bordeaux, France, he moved to Paris at a young age. He spent World War 2 in that city under the Nazi occupation. His playwrighting continued after the war, the influence of which shows up in his war-time and post-war creations.
For Anouilh's Antigone, the obvious antecedent will be Sophocles' play of the same name, a play that Anouilh's Antigone at times seems to map fairly closely. Yet the context for the later play's composition and first production seem to set it far apart in a number of ways. So, for instance, its prologue comments on the play as if offering a self-commentary, and assuming that the action is a foregone conclusion. So, too, the ending seems to come crashing down on the characters with the speed of a tornado. Yet the Chorus anticipates eventual oblivion for its action. Finally, the play as a whole is labeled "Scene One" from beginning to end - as if scene two, the inevitable sequel, remained to be supplied by the viewers themselves. Thus it is, in every sense of the word, a "modernist" creation.
Though not one lacking context, as it was composed and produced under the Nazi occupation of France (the year of production was 1943), and therefore had to be vetted by Nazi censors before it could be staged. Yet the mere fact that its Nazi censors gave it the go-ahead forces us to ask how what, if any, ideological commitments they will have found in the play, and what ideological commitments we seem to find there.
As to which, Anouilh's protagonist will, for many, embody the brave spirit of the French resistance standing up to the cowardly compromises of French collaborators - figures like Philippe Pétain, who headed the puppet government in the unoccupied French South after the German occupation of the North. One could, at the same time, say something similar about Antigone as a forward-looking feminist.
For others, Antigone's eventual acquiescence to Creon's revelations, to his utilitarian rationale for comprise, may suggest a "rebel without a cause" seeking death as the easy way out of a difficult moral choice. Read thus, the play could almost be accused of critiquing the resistance as a beau geste pursued only for the sake of gratuitous self-aggrandizement.
So the question becomes, what, if anything, does Antigone's death, what does Oedipus' uncompromising pursuit of truth, what does TRAGEDY GENERALLY, prove? What does it achieve? What is it, anyway?