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Antigone: Modern tragedy defined July 29, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Americas.

Jean Anouilh’s Antigone attempts to escape fate just like her famous father does, but her fate is not the singular, individualized fate of Oedipus; Anouilh recreates Antigone’s story to make her a symbol of universal fate and in line with contemporary philosophic thought.

Oedipus comes face to face with his fate from the Oracle at Delphi, or at least the fate on which the tragedy hinges. Antigone isn’t told her fate, but she knows her fate just as well. Some have argued that by transferring Antigone’s story to modern times Jean Anouilh has undercut the mystery of the story, thereby reducing it from high tragedy to mere drama, even to tragicomedy.

Actually, however, there really isn’t all the much mystery in the story of Antigone. At its Aristotelian best, tragedy should have no mystery anyway; one of the trademarks of the genre is the cold, dreadful, foreboding knowledge that events can’t be changed and the determined conclusion will always happen. It is also unfair to claim that this version is less than a tragedy. If anything Jean Anouilh has made it more tragic. It is not by oversight that Anouilh does not include the Teiresias section of the original play and dismisses the importance of the gods.

Anouilh realizes that tragedy for people in the modern world isn’t determined by the forces of gods, but by the forces of people like Creon. The play is an excellent example of how tragedy has been transformed from the ancient Greek conception to the modern one in which tragedy is determined not by individual will that upsets the established social order, but rather due to the limitations of individual will.

Jean Anouilh places his version of Antigone not in the ritualized and strictly ordered Greek world of the original, but in the modern world where gods have disappeared and heads of state are the forces that determine and manipulate the fates of individuals. The world inhabited by the modern Antigone is one filled with deception and clashes of interest such as the gods ordained in works by the ancient Greeks; the power, corruption and lies which lead inexorably to tragedy for those living today are cultivated by living, breathing human beings. In essence, then, Anouilh has turned the tragedy of Antigone into an exemplar of that most common of 20th century themes: the individual going up against the all-powerful state and the resulting hopelessness of the situation.

Jean Anouilh retains enough of the original Greek drama in his modern updating to provide a sense of anachronism that works to the overall effect by reminding the reader that even though he has heard this story before, it’s not the same as it was. This produces a disorienting effect in the reader that reflects the intent of linking classic tragedy to modern tragedy and illustrating the difference. And what exactly is the difference?

Classical tragedy allowed for catharsis, for the gods to set things back to right; modern tragedy is based on the fact that things probably won’t be set right by those not in power. Antigone’s tragedy is not that she dies in the end; Creon will die as well, as will Haemon and every other character. Death isn’t tragedy, it’s certainty. Antigone is a tragic figure because of her powerlessness to change the course of events.

Even more to the point, she is tragic not because it is predestined that she will be unable to change the course of events—her fate has not been sealed beforehand by the gods—but because the forces of history have stripped her of individual power. No character flaw prevents Antigone from escaping tragedy and that is the essence of its modern form. Error or frailty is no longer considered vital in condemning a sole to a tragic end; it merely takes an unfortunate birth. In what might be considered a paradoxical notion that seems more at home in ancient Greece than in modern society, one could even say that tragic figures today are born, not made.

Jean Anouilh’s Antigone makes the case that catharsis is impossible in the modern world; redemption is almost if not completely impossible for the mass of modern society. Oedipus is unable to exercise free will because his fate has been determined. In contrast, it is exactly Antigone’s ability to exercise free will that precipitates the tragic occurrences. By making this the case, Anouilh reflects the often tragic events realized in recent history by those at the mercy of great power who have dared to exercise free will.

Ancient tragedy was concerned with the individual in rebellion against the forces of fate; modern tragedy is concerned with the individual in rebelling against the forces of society.

EDITOR’S NOTE > Article by Timothy Sexton, 2006 © Associated Content. All rights reserved.

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