The following is excerpted from “Questions, Not Answers,” originally published in The Dramatist.
By John Biguenet
Unlike a lecture hall, the theater is not a place to recite opinions: it is a forum in which a community phrases its most pressing questions. Whether we are considering Antigone or King Lear or Mother Courage, we are examining powerfully phrased questions, not answers.
If we look to the Greek origins of Western theater, we find few assertions of moral certitude. Instead, we see Athenians struggling with a new social order, the state, that conflicts with the pre-existing social structure it seeks to subordinate, the family. That rivalry for preeminence between state and family is often embodied in men who demand that loyalty to society supersede the ancient bonds of the family, nearly always defended by women. There are few clearer examples of the needs of the state taking precedence over obligations to the family than Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, to gain favorable winds for the Greek assault on Troy. His victorious return home from the war years later is short-lived: Clytemnestra, his wife and Iphigenia’s mother, murders her husband in his bath with an ax. Aeschylus may seem to have justified Clytemnestra’s vengeance, but he forestalls our sympathy for the mother of a sacrificed daughter by making Clytemnestra, as well, the adulterous lover of her husband’s cousin, Aegisthus, and the murderer of the blameless Cassandra, her husband’s enslaved Trojan concubine. The playwright denies his audience the satisfaction of justified vengeance in favor of a drama complicating the judgment of who is in the right. Aeschylus offers us not a moral lesson but a moral question.
Sophocles, too, may give the impression he thinks Antigone is the hero of the final play of his Theban trilogy, even using her name as its title, but critics continue to debate whether Creon, in fact, might be the protagonist.
The play counterposes young Antigone and her uncle Creon, the weary king of Thebes. Eteocles and Polynices, Antigone’s brothers, have each killed the other in a power struggle from which Creon emerges as king. Creon brands Polynices a traitor and refuses to allow his burial. Antigone, the fiancée of Creon’s son, defies the king’s edict and attempts to bury her brother, fulfilling her family obligation. Creon, trapped by his own obligations as king, condemns his niece to death for violating his state decree. In response, she commits suicide, and her death is followed in quick succession by the suicides of Creon’s son and his wife, who, cursing her husband, kills herself in grief over the loss of her son. Family has its bloody revenge, but the state survives.
For Jean Anouihl, staging his adaptation of the play in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944, Antigone heroically resists the authority of Creon in insisting upon the burial of her brother. Rosamund Deutsch, in her 1946 article on “Anouilh’s Antigone” in The Classical Journal, notes that “Anouilh had in mind the German occupation of France when he wrote his Antigone.” She describes the French playwright’s heroine as an “ordinary determined woman who fights stubbornly and emotionally for freedom of action.”
However, in the same issue of the journal, Edmund Berry quotes the conclusion of Lewis Galantière’s program note for the 1946 production of the play by the National Theatre in Washington: “The reader will have to take my word for it that only a citizen of a German-occupied country. . . would be able to come away from the play feeling that Antigone’s case was stronger than Creon’s.” Bernard Knox confirms that assertion when he reports in Historum that “At the first performance [in Paris in 1944], the play was greeted with applauds [sic] from both the French and Germans in the audience.” Clearly, even Anouilh’s patriotic adaptation of Antigone resulted in a question about contending moral responsibilities rather than in a conclusion the French playwright forced upon his audience.
But surely in such a partisan culture as ours, what I’m proposing may sound like nothing more than cautious neutrality. It is difficult for us even to imagine what it would be like not to choose sides. And as a member of a democracy, I subscribe to a system of government that demands I enter a voting booth and choose between alternatives. So as an American, I must make a choice. But as a writer, I have a different obligation.
When our political leaders use language not as a torch to illuminate our challenges but as a prod to stoke our fears and hatreds, we all have a duty as citizens to combat such debasement of civil discourse by exposing the contradictions between those leaders’ grandiose promises and the likely consequences of their implementation. But writers have a second responsibility: to strip away the rhetoric that shrouds in palatable justifications the underlying prejudices to which such leaders appeal and reveal what citizens are actually embracing when they support such politicians. The writer’s task, I believe, is neither to criticize nor to proselytize but to hold up a mirror in which audiences can see their own faces and judge themselves in the stark light literature casts upon our lives.
John Biguenet is Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, USA. He has published nine books and had six plays widely produced. His latest book, Silence, is part of Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series.