The cast sits about palace. The Chorus descends from the top of the staircase and introduces the players to the audience. It begins with Antigone, explaining that she is about to "burst forth as the tense, sallow, willful girl" who will rise up alone against the king and die young. With the rise of the curtain, she began to feel the inhuman forces drawing her from the world of those who watch her now. They watch with little concern, for they are not to die tonight.
The Chorus then introduces the chatting pair, Haemon, Antigone's dashing fiancé, and Ismene, her radiantly beautiful sister. They recount that though one would have expected Haemon to go for Ismene, he inexplicably proposed to Antigone on the night of a ball. He does not know his engagement only earns him the right to die sooner. The Chorus then turns to the powerfully built Creon, king of Thebes. When he was younger, and Oedipus ruled, he was an art patron. The death of Oedipus and his sons bound him to the weary duties of rule. Next to the sisters' Nurse sits the good Queen Eurydice. She knits and will go on knitting until the time comes for her to go to her room and die. The Messenger stands against the wall, brooding over his premonition of Haemon's death. Finally the Chorus presents the three red-faced, card-playing guards. They are common policemen, bothered by the worries of the day-to-day, eternally innocent, indifferent, and prepared to arrest anyone under any leader.
The Chorus then recounts the events leading up to Antigone's tragedy. During their recitation, the stage goes dark, a spotlight illuminates the faces of the Chorus, and the characters disappear through the left arch. Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene's father, also had two sons, Eteocles and Polynices. Upon his death, it was agreed that they would each take the throne from one year to the next. After the first year, however, Eteocles, the elder, refused to step down. Polynices and six foreign princes charged the seven gates of Thebes and all were defeated. The brothers killed each other in a duel, leaving Creon king. Creon ordered Eteocles buried in honor and left Polynices to rot. Furthermore, any who attempt to bury him will be put to death.
It is an ashen dawn and the house is still asleep. Antigone sneaks in from the outside. The Nurse appears and asks where she has been; she was not there when she went to check if she had flung her blanket off in the night. "Nowhere," Antigone replies, musing on how beautiful the world is when gray, how lovely the garden is when not thinking of men. The whole world was "breathless, waiting," though not for her. The Nurse asks angrily if she went to meet someone—perhaps a lover. Antigone assents. The Nurse is outraged and says that girls are all the same. Even Antigone, who never used to wear makeup, primp in front of the mirror, and ogle boys like Ismene. She was convinced Antigone would be alone for life. Now she knows she is a hypocrite.
Antigone unfolds almost entirely in the course of one day, in one space (the palace), and in largely uninterrupted dialogue/action. Though dispensing with act divisions, Antigone thus relies on the dramatic unities as appropriated by the French classicists. The Chorus frames the tragedy with a prologue and epilogue. In the prologue, the Chorus directly addresses the audience and appears self-conscious with regards to the spectacle; we are here tonight to take part in the story of Antigone. Unlike conventional melodrama, for example, we are not asked to suspend our disbelief or watch a spectacle that would seamlessly pass itself off as reality. In some sense, like its ancient predecessor, Anouilh's Chorus prepares a ritual—the absence of such rituals in modern theater perhaps explains why this first scene might seem somewhat "artificial." In preparing its ritual, the Chorus would instruct the audience on proper spectatorship. Note, in particular, the ironic jab that the spectator need not upset himself as the tragedy does not affect him. This jab recalls the trio of crude and indifferent guardsmen, which the Chorus will cast in similar terms. Unlike the guardsmen, we have come to the tragedy to be upset.
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The Chorus, who ultimately enters a spotlight, also recounts the events leading to Antigone's story and introduces all of its players under the sign of fatality. They have come to play their roles and, if such is their fate, die. The Chorus is omniscient, narrating the characters' thoughts: their roles, already predestined, should be self-evident, even if the reason they come to doom is ultimately not. Thus the Chorus traces each character's fate. Antigone is here to rebel and die; Creon is the unwilling king; Eurydice's role is but to die in her room; the guardsmen emblematicize the common rank-and-file. Importantly, it also establishes a key contrast between the two sisters: Ismene the full-figured beauty and Antigone the scrawny, sullen brat.
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The action begins at dawn. Unlike in the Sophocle's Antigone, Antigone has already committed the crime, though the play, perhaps relying on the spectator's memory of the Sophocles's version, keeps this revelation in suspense in the first scenes. Anouilh himself commented on the paradoxical nature of this suspense: "What was beautiful and is still beautiful about the time of the Greeks is knowing the end in advance. That is real suspense. As the Chorus notes, in tragedy everything has "already happened." Anouilh's spectator has surrendered, masochistically, to a succession of events it can hardly bear to watch. Suspense here is the time before the realization of those events.
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Thus Antigone's death is prefigured in her first words. The first scene involves Antigone and her fussy, aging Nurse. Their touching relationship is one of the more sentimental in the play: note especially Antigone's entrusting her dog, Puff, to the Nurse's care. Like many of Anouilh's heroines, Antigone wanders nowhere in a gray world, a world beyond the postcard universe of the waking. This world is breathless with anticipation: it doubles the stage, set apart from the human world, upon which Antigone's tragedy will ensue. At the same time, this world does not lie in wait for Antigone—she is meant to pass onto another, one beyond the living. Firmly located in her care-taking duties, the Nurse understands none of Antigone's ramblings. Instead, she bluntly asks if Antigone has taken a lover. Though Antigone is the opposite of the coquettish and hyper-feminine Ismene, to the Nurse she is just the same—another young, foolhardy girl like the rest of them. The Nurse does not appreciate what makes Antigone different from other girls.
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Notably, Antigone tells the Nurse what she wants to hear—in some sense confirming that she is like the rest—and feigns that she has a paramour. We should weigh this subterfuge carefully. First, as we will discuss later, Antigone has gone out to attempt to become someone's lover, Haemon, having donned her sister's accoutrements to attempt to participate in pleasures that are not meant for her. Second, it is not for nothing that Antigone feigns to have taken a lover after having an illicit visit to her brother's corpse. This feint evokes a familiar trope in the Antigone tradition, that of Antigone's unnatural love for her brother. This love numbers among the desires Antigone refuses to surrender, desires she will follow to the point of death. Though somewhat suppressed in Anouilh's adaptation, this desire haunts the stage nevertheless.
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