Saturday, May 30, 2009

Antigone by Jean Anouilh

I was partway through reading Jean Anouilh's Antigone when I realized that I knew exactly what came next. I've played Ismene, Antigone's sister, in some sort of shortened scene adaptation, in a past life. I can't remember which past life -- it might have been high school, or it might have been my first year at university, but I remembered Antigone and Ismene's discussion at the beginning of the play clearly. It leant an extra emotional punch to that scene, because I'd had to figure out what Ismene was feeling, and why, and how, in order to portray her effectively, and I remembered all of that too. It was one of my more interesting reading experiences in a while.

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that I'm not a big fan of things that don't have happy endings. Antigone does not have a happy ending: Antigone is a tragedy, true to Sophocles. But I still really enjoy this play.

Anouilh's Antigone follows essentially the same plot as Sophocles'. Oedipus of Thebes had four children: Eteocles, Polynices, Ismene and Antigone. Eteocles and Polynices have waged war upon each other, and killed each other; their uncle, Creon, must take the throne of Thebes in the aftermath. He had sided with Eteocles, and thus Eteocles gets a proper, regal burial; Polynices is left to rot, and no one must bury him on pain of death. Perhaps you can guess what happens next, even if you don't know the story. I don't really want to spoil everything for anyone who doesn't know the story.

But of course, the tension isn't so much in the story; everyone knows what must happen as soon as all the characters are introduced. Anouilh employs a chorus, the characters, and the plot, but otherwise this play bears very little resemblance to a Greek play. The language is poetic, but immediate, and the characters are not cutouts declaiming the words of the gods, or simple puppets of fate; they are very human and very passionate and very emotionally real. The language is beautiful, and the sentiments deep and conflicting.

There are a couple things in particular I like about this play, the poetry aside. Anouilh uses the chorus not just to tell the audience what is going on. He also uses it to discuss tragedy as an art form, to draw attention to the structure of the play itself. In this way, the chorus and the other parts work against each other, their purposes at odds: the chorus distances the audience from the emotion and action, but the other players draw the audience in. And the chorus and the other characters interact at points, the chorus serving to point out to the characters themselves both the absurdity and inevitability of the situation they are in. As the chorus tells the audience at one point:

The rest is automatic. You don't need to lift a finger. The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled since time began, and it runs without friction. Death, treason and sorrow are on the march; and they move in the wake of storm, of tears, of stillness. Every kind of stillness. The hush when the executioner's axe goes up at the end of the last act. The unbreathable silence when, at the beginning of the play, the two lovers, their hearts bared, their bodies naked, stand for the first time face to face in the darkened room, afraid to stir. The silence inside you when the roaring crowd acclaims the winner -- so that you think of a film without a soundtrack, mouths agape and no sound coming out of them, a clamour that is no more than a picture; and you, the victor, already vanquished, alone in the desert of your silence. That is tragedy.

As you can see, the language is not the language of a Greek play -- it is contemporary, but it is also describing something very ancient and primeval. Tragedy has been around since the dawn of theatre as we know it, and our greatest plays are tragedies even if we think we like the comedies better.

The other thing I really like is that the tension between Creon and Antigone is not just between their characters -- it's also between what they each represent. The audience, at the end, ends up conflicted and wondering where their proper sympathies should lie. Antigone is the heroine, Creon the villain. But Creon, to me, is more noble, and more sympathetic, even though it was his heartless decision in the beginning (well offstage, before the play starts) that allegedly sets the events of the play in motion. That sets off an interesting tension in the individual viewing the play -- we know where our sympathies are supposed to lie, but we're not sure where they should.

I say that Creon "allegedly" sets events in motion, because it's hard to figure out, as the play unfolds, how things could possibly ever have happened differently. The ending is inevitable. The play isn't about its ending, it's about the beginning, and about the characters as they make their eloquent way to their inevitable fates. And here, this is why I like tragedy, as the chorus makes clear for me:

Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless. It has nothing to do with melodrama -- with wicked villains, persecuted maidens, avengers, sudden revelations and eleventh-hour repentances. Death, in a melodrama, is really horrible because it is never inevitable. The dear old father might so easily have been saved; the honest young man might so easily have brought in the police five minutes earlier.

In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known. That makes for tranquillity.


emaki said...

Did you read his Medea? Also quiet fine.

They are and they aren't puppets of fate. The procession of events is automatic, but the characters are inhabited. It's a lovely pairing... a classic story with human characters.

Unknown said...

I really hesitated when writing that line, actually, because I agree entirely with you. It's interesting to me that they don't rail against their fates. There's never any suggestion of deviance from their roles. They are puppets, but very complex puppets.

No, I didn't get to Medea before I had to take the anthology back. I think I probably should get it out again at some point.

Phyl said...

This sounds beautiful, not to mention very gripping. I don't normally read plays (and not much poetry either, though certainly more of that), but this really sounds like something I'd like. Wonderful description!

Unknown said...

Phyl, it is beautiful, it really is. It's not a long play, either -- unlike Hamlet, which is like unto reading a novel. I think it does become richer with a more careful reading, and I think a re-read is beneficial, but not necessary. I hope you enjoy it!