Antigone

Text Box:  

Soviet poster circa WW-II.
Fascism is women’s worst 
Enemy. Fight fascism !

[German women voted
overwhelmingly for
Hitler and NSDAP.]



This narration is not free from some influence by a relatively recent 1944 play Antigone by Jean Anouilh's and by its many adaptations, a tragedy inspired by Greek mythology and based largely on the plays of the same name by Sophocles and Euripides.  Written in 1942, during the Nazi occupation of France, the Anouilh's character of Antigone disguised the French Resistance, while Creon, the king of Thebes, symbolized the Vichy Government, collaborating with Nazi Germany. The play was censored by Nazis, and appeared on stage only in 1944 some months before the liberation of France. The character of Antigone is as applicable today as ever before, and has been lauded by revolutionaries, anti-fascists, and anti-government activists of many hues. Many heroic women of the anti-fascist movement were compared to Antigone, such as a Heroine of the Soviet Union (posthumously,) a beautiful 18-year-old girl, Zoya Kozmodemyanskaya; Nazis hanged Zoya, a partisan who was burning houses where German soldiers were stationed on a cold snowy day of November 29, 1941. According to eyewitness’ accounts, her last words were, “there are 200 million of us, and you won’t be able to hang us all.”

But back in ancient Greece, child protective services did not exist yet in those days, so instead of getting recycled through the foster care system by the “family” court, and becoming a drug-addict and pregnant at age 12, Antigone stays with her father and gets a chance to develop her character. She wonders the country with blind Oedipus, her beloved father (who is also her half-brother, thanks to her mom) for 10 years until they reach the city of Colonus. One day, mortally tired, Oedipus sits down to rest, but the locals yell at him to leave immediately, as he is sitting on the sacred grounds of the Grove of Furies. He’s happy to have reached his destination. His mission is over – he dies, and all 3 parts of the divine prophecy are fulfilled. Oedipus’ story is over, while the story of Antigone’s sophocleshas just begun.

After her father’s death, Antigone goes back to Thebes. She is a tragic “anti-feminine” heroine, compared to the traffic-stopping character of her radiant and busty, super-feminine sister Ismene.  The name Antigone may be taken to mean “unbending”, coming from "anti-" (opposed to) and "-gon / -gony" (corner, bend, angle, as in pentagon). It can also mean “opposed to motherhood,” based on the root gonē, "that, which generates,” as in gonads.

The Sisters’ Rivalry

The two sisters have a rivalry going since their birth. Unlike beautiful and “reasonable” Ismene, Antigone has been a scrawny, sallow, withdrawn and bratty child. She hates her girlhood and has a boyish physique. She has been insisting on the instant gratification of her unbridled desires, refusing to “understand” limits set on her behavior and defying authority. But she combines these qualities with being her daddy’s devoted little girl, enduring the rigors and hardships of his journey in search of Gods’ forgiveness. Yet, she envies Ismene, her hyper-feminine sister, for being a traffic-stopper and the object of men's desires. She steals Ismene’s lipstick and perfume to seduce Ismene’s fiancé Haemon, who reciprocates to Antigone’s advances and falls in love with her. Antigone is “interesting” and stimulates his mind, while Ismene is just beautiful and submissive. What she started as a nasty prank on her sister, turns into a genuine attraction to Haemon. Instead of proposing Ismene, he proposes Antigone. Little does he know that by taking this step, he’s about to step into his grave. The theme of Antigone-Ismene-Haemon is in a way a feminist Cindarella story.

Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polynices, had both agreed to alternate the throne of Thebes every year. But after the first year, Eteocles refused to step down and Polynices attacked Thebes with his foreign supporters (the Seven Against Thebes). Being stupid patriarchal white males as they were, the brothers kill each other in a battle. Their uncle, Creon, ascends to the throne. He decrees, on the punishment by death, that for the crime of waging a civil war, the body of Polynices must rot outside the walls of the city, on the battlefield. Antigone argues that Creon’s order is unlawful and defies it. Creon has no desire to become a villain in Antigone’s death-wish, her self-imposed “Greek tragedy” and tries to talk some sense into her.

Her sister Ismene, unlike Antigone, is a conformist, a “law-abiding” girl. She tries to talk Antigone out of violating the king’s edict, right in the opening scene of the Sophocles’ play. They must give consideration to Creon’s obligations as a statesman.  Ismene would not risk her life or her sister’s life, even if for the right cause. Defying the government is too risky, although the burial of their brother’s body would be just and proper, if… it were not forbidden.

But Ismene’s words of reason fall of deaf ears: Antigone’s devotion to the family honor is unyielding, even if punishable by death. Antigone would not let government come between her and her obligation to her family, come hell or high water. She despises the “Law of Man,” petty and opportunistic, she believes that  Natural Law rules supreme.  When Ismene refuses to help her with the burial, Antigone disowns Ismene.  When pushed to make a choice, which to her is clear, Antigone shall sacrifice herself if she must. Her role model is her beloved father, Oedipus, whose inner beauty shines through at the moment of truth, when he suddenly realized the bitter truth and lost all servile hope not to be the one who have transgressed against the human civilization’s most sacred, fundamental taboos. Now her moment of truth has arrived. Unlike Ismene’s traffic-stopping earthy beauty, Antigone’s beauty is tragic, spiritual, not of this world, making passers-by stop and look at her in awe.

Her character is juxtaposed to Creon, who is a practical man, a statesman who just wants to keep peace, law and order in his kingdom. He cannot allow civil war to go unpunished and must set a harsh example to strike fear into the hearts of any copy-cat rebels. He wished he did not have to discipline anyone, but he must. He likes Antigone, even despite her obstinacy.  She is far more important to him as his son’s bride than a martyr. He wished the loud-mouthed girl would wise-up, and just shut up. But she would not relent or compromise. Antigone disobeys the decree and gives her brother a rite of funeral, covering his body in dust, so his soul may enter the afterlife. She hints or feigns to her old nanny, who is concerned that she is not like “other girls” that she was not in her bed at night because she took on an illicit lover, maybe even her brother, hence she is a “normal” girl, but it was said in jest: Antigone begs her nanny not to cry, Antigone was only teasing. There is a sense that her “illicit lover” is death itself, although her feint evokes a popular trope in the Antigone tradition, that of Antigone's unnatural love for her brother, which is a bunch of hooey. (Nanny does not exist in Sophocles’ Antigone.)

In spite of Antigone’s betrothal to his son Haemon, Creon has no alternative but to sentence her to a horrible death: she is to be buried alive (but with plenty of food and water to last her a long time, so she could reflect on her transgressions and heresy.)  Ismene then wants to die with Antigone and declares she aided her sister, though she did nothing of the kind. Antigone refused to let Ismene be a martyr and denies that anyone helped her. So much does she despise Ismene’s petty-bourgeois ways that she even pretends that her “law-abiding” sister does not exist, calling herself the “last descendant of Oedipus” to remind Ismene, that she is disowned. After that Ismene just goes into obscurity, and dies many good years later.

Teiresias, the blind prophet, then enters the stage. He sternly reminds Creon that it is a great crime to keep a living person underneath the earth, and the body of a dead citizen – not buried, he must free Antigone at once and bury Polynices. Otherwise, the Gods are poised 2nd century Roman statue of Dionysus, after a Hellenistic model (ex-coll. Cardinal Richelieu, Louvre)[1]to punish him: he would lose his son. The Chorus, terrified, urges Creon to take the seer’s advice. Shaken, he agrees.

Creon rushes over to the tomb to free Antigone, a retinue of helpers trotting behind him. However, they are late: in her last act of defiance to Creone’s authority, Antigone has hung herself just as soon as she was walled-in. Her fiancé Haemon, the son of Creon, opens up the tomb, and at the sight of his dead bride – much to his father’s horror – the grief-stricken boy plunges the sword into his own heart. With Haemon’s last breath, his red blood streams down Antigone’s dead pale cheek. Their wedding is thus consummated in death. There you have it: Another Greek tragedy! With the death of Antigone the house of Oedipus has finally come to an end.

But that’s not the end of Creone’s troubles: his beloved wife, Eurydice, mother of Haemon, kills herself upon the news of her son’s death and curses Creon for his rigidity. Urgent cabinet meetings do not even allow Creon to grieve. He got his wish: he is a statesman now… but a broken man, who can see clearly … that he will never know joy again. As the recent history shows, the Creons of today are far less human and far more self-reighteous, unlike back then. They are not moved by anything. Only bullets would stop the malignant narcissists and sociopaths.

 

 

 


           

All rights reserved ● Copyright ©  2011, Eric Ross, Ph.D.