Reed Books: Anouilh’s Antigone

Jess Reed, Editor

Sophocles’s Antigone, a chiefly political play following Oedipus’s daughter Antigone and her defiance against the king in order to bury her brother’s body, has proven itself to be a timeless piece of literature, and Jean Anouilh’s 1942 adaptation is a great example. Performed during Nazi occupation of France, Anouilh tries to comment on European politics while remaining covert enough to not be thrown in jail.

Anouilh uses his artistic liberty liberally, but his best adaptive choice is inventing three characters: the Guards. Used primarily for comic relief, and later for emotional stakes, the three Guards are apathetic observers of the play’s events, complaining about their own problems as Antigone faces down death. The connection between them and the Nazis is pretty clear, but Anouilh never outright states that they are Nazis. They argue that they are “just following orders”, and the Chorus points out that they would follow anyone in charge and are not particularly loyal to Creon. At the very end of the play, with half the cast dead and the other half mourning, the Guards are shown playing cards just as they were in the first scene, because everything that went down is “no skin off their noses”. 

The only part of the adaptation that confuses me is Creon’s characterization. He is more sympathetic in Anouilh’s version than Sophocles, and Anouilh gives him the opportunity in the plot to explain his perspective and scold Antigone. For someone who is supposed to represent Adolf Hitler, he gets a lot of slack. 

Maybe I’m not understanding some sort of subtext or nuance, but the rest of the adaptation is fairly easy to see the allegory in. This characterization doesn’t necessarily take away from the plot in any way, but it’s significant enough for the audience to question Anouilh’s message.

Overall, Anouilh’s Antigone is a historically significant adaptation of the classic play, using the invention of characters to drive home the allegory, though its characterization can be misleading.