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Traveling Through Time: An Analysis of Antigone in World War II France

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The story of Antigone is one of the oldest, yet most well-known, theatrical pieces. Sophocles, was the first playwright to interpret the myth to create a theatrical performance. The appeal of Antigone to many playwrights, as well as the reason for its longevity, is its ability to adapt to any social or political theme. In 441 b.c. Sophocles adapted the myth of Antigone to a play that emphasises Athenian ideals and cultural values. Centuries later in 1944, Jean Anouilh reinterpreted the play in Nazi-occupied France to reflect this controversial and difficult time in history. He transferred the theme and material into something that would appeal to his war-entrenched audiences. Where Sophocles emphasises the individual will over the will of the state as well as the law of the god over the will of the state, Anouilh heightens the controversy between the rational laws of the state and the individual will of idealism. Thus when Sophocles chooses to focus on Creon’s pride and the dilemma of him learning his lessons, Anouilh emphasizes the conflict between Creon and Antigone. The differences in the conflict can be seen most clearly in the ways each playwright uses the minor characters and the lessons learned by the major characters, and appreciated by understanding the political atmosphere in which each play was adapted.

In Sophocle’s Antigone, the minor characters stay true to their name as being minor. Anouilh makes minor character’s much more important and even replaces one of the original characters. In Sophocle’s version, Ismene is used primarily to show Antigone’s strength and independent spirit. For example, when speaking to Antigone she comments, “Think of how much worse our end will be than all the rest if we defy our sovereign’s edict and his power. Remind ourselves that we are women and as such are not made to fight with men” (AUTHOR AND PAGE NUMBER). In this sense, Ismene simply functions as a foil to her sister, allowing Antigone to express the extent of her convictions. Anouilh, gives Ismene a stronger thematic purpose. She is not afraid of consequences, but rather is a conformist who has a high regard for authority. Though his plot line is essentially the same, Anouilh emphasises that Ismene argued with her sister not out of fear, but out of conviction that Creon was right. As she says, “ I feel sorry for Polynices too. But I do see Creon’s point of view” (Bray, 11). This change helps shift focus to the main conflict of the play (Creon versus Antigone) rather than just a sibling quirrel. Haemon too is given a stronger role in Anouilh’s version. In Sophocles version, Haemon proves a simple purpose. By arguing for Antigone, he demonstrates Creon’s absolute refusal to listen to any human arguments. Creon’s disregard for passion and humanity demonstrates that he is unwilling to compromise the law of the state out of pride and stubbornness. This draw the focus on Creon’s character development, rather than the battle of wills between him and Antigone. Conversely, Anouilh created a scene between Antigone and Haemon, which strengthens the audience’s sympathy for Antigone. When she meets with Haemon they ponder their idealistic future, “Haemon, you know the little boy we would have had…? … You know I’d have shielded him against everything?” (Bray, 18). In this scene, we see Antigone as a young bride-to-be who wishes to live an idealistic life as a mother and a wife. This shift from her martyrial duties enhances the severity of Creon’s sentence, once again shifting the focus from Creon, to the conflict between him and Antigone.

It is also important to note that the two adaptations consist of different minor characters. In Sophocle’s Antigone, the one secondary character that has a deep thematic function is the blind prophet Teiresias. The ‘wise old man’ archetype is responsible for being the mouthpiece of the gods. His role is to guide Creon, giving him advice, “Think, son, think! To err is human, true, and only he is damned who having sinned will not repent, will not repair. He is a fool, a proved and stubborn fool” (AUTHOR AND PAGE NUMBER). He is thusly Creon’s teacher. This character, being only present to Creon reinforces Sophocles thematic emphasis on Creon’s intrapersonal journey. Teiresias does not exist in Anouilh’s version. Instead, we are introduced to the character of Antigone’s nurse. Similarly to the role of Haemon in this adaptation, Antigone’s interactions in which the Nurse speaks down to her, allows us to witness her in a private and domestic light. Such as when we see the Nurse nurturing Antigone, “You’re not well my love. Where does it hurt?” (Bray, 15). The emphasis on Antigone’s childishness in these interactions garners sympathy for her whilst making Creon look even colder, again drawing attention to the moral conflict between her and Creon.

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When the greek tragedy ends, Creon is the only main character left to continue. In both plays, Creon opted for a life, though lacking in idealism, and must continue his responsibilities and state duties. Focusing on Sophocles Antigone, Creon feels, “[his] heart is sick with dread. Will no one lance a two-edged sword through this bleeding seat of sorrow?” (AUTHOR AND PAGE NUMBER) It is clear that Creon is stricken by the deaths in his family. Thus, at the end of Sophocles Antigone, Creon is left to learn that he and his pride are responsible for the tragedy, through which he gains wisdom. Anouilh does not include said lesson. Creon remains unaccountable, he simply took care of business by following the law of the state. He does however, acknowledge the grimness of his role, but states “You can’t just fold your arms and do nothing. They says it’s dirty work. But if you don’t do it, who will?” (Bray, 60). The important differences between Anouilh and Sophocles, is that Anouilh offers no catharsis, “Everyone who had to die is dead: those who believed in one thing, those who believed in the opposite… even those who didn’t believe in anything, but were caught up in the story without knowing what was going on. All dead: quite stiff, quite useless, quite rotten. And those who are still alive are quietly beginning to forget them and get their names mixed up” (Bray, 60-61). The lack of remorse in Anouilh’s Antigone highlights the thematic differences between the two adaptations. Sophocles emphasised the individual will over the will of the state as well as the law of the god over the will of the state, Anouilh heightened the controversy between the rational laws of the state and the individual thirst for idealism. The aspect of remorse is key in shifting the focus from the will of the state to the law of the state. This is because will implies emotion, and law implies an emotional disconnectedness, a difference that can be accredited to the prominent influence of the political aspect at the time of construction.

Sophecles, had a certain amount of political import to convey in this play, as the Athenians collectively valued divine law and order in a society. Because of this, the audience would have sided with Antigone, as she stood for the same political and social value that they focused on. If Sophocles wanted his play to succeed, he would need to soften the so-called failure of Antigone’s spirit to appease the Athenians. Hence the need for Creon to demonstrate remorse. Creon’s ability to understand his accountability in the tragedy, whilst also respecting the will of the state, gained him the respect of the audience, whilst honouring the tragedy. Anouilh, on the other hand, was forced to take a socially neutral stand due to the political tumultuous atmosphere of the time. It seems that the inspiration behind Anouilh’s adaptation of the Antigone was the divide between the french resistance fighters and the Nazis and Nazi collaborators. By making Antigone defiant yet idealistic and Creon disciplined yet sympathetic, he made the play accessible to both parties. A resistance-sympathetic audience would see Antigone as the spirit of the resistance and would share in her idealistic approach to life. Whereas the Germans and collaborators would see Creon as a hero, who sacrificed everything he cared for, for the greater good of his people. Hence The importance of a lack of remorse shown through Creon in Anouilh’s adaptation. Either party would see any emotional regret as offensive to their values.

To conclude, Sophecles was the first to adapt the myth of Antigone for the stage, but he was not the last. Jean Anouilh used Sophocles foundation to create his own unique political commentary. The conflict in each play is where Sophocles’ and Anouilh’s themes diverge. The conflict in each version is clear, Sophocles focuses on salvation of the state versus the salvation of the human soul, and Creon’s intrapersonal journey to understand this delicate balance. Anouilh focuses on the value of reason versus the value of ideals, but makes it clear that there is no absolute right or wrong. Through the use of minor characters and the lessons learned in the final scene, both playwrights create entirely different social themes that reflect the political atmosphere at their respective times of construction.

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Traveling Through Time: An Analysis of Antigone in World War II France. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
“Traveling Through Time: An Analysis of Antigone in World War II France.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Traveling Through Time: An Analysis of Antigone in World War II France. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 May 2023].
Traveling Through Time: An Analysis of Antigone in World War II France [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2023 May 29]. Available from:
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