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.
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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