The Dissonance Between State Law and Moral Law

From the very first moments of the play, Antigone’s resolve to bury her brother despite Creon’s order not to emerges as the central conflict. This tension, which becomes especially prominent as Antigone argues with Creon after her arrest, highlights the notion that state laws do not necessarily align with unwritten moral laws. Creon crafts state laws with the intent of navigating various political situations, a stance that he makes very clear when he admits that he did not particularly care which brother’s body rotted in the sun. As a leader, Creon believes that he cannot let his decisions be controlled by “private feelings” because they have the ability to distract him from fulfilling his duty of maintaining social order. This straightforward worldview, however, fails to account for mankind’s complicated nature, and Antigone refuses to let Creon’s decrees compromise her own moral code. Although Anouilh’s Antigone does not derive as much direct inspiration from spirituality or family loyalty as Sophocles’s, she does inherently sense that Creon’s political maneuvers are unjust. She refuses to back down from her fight with Creon despite his endless attempts to make her sacrifice her belief system. Anouilh’s expression of this theme throughout the play is what leads many scholars to read Antigone as a reflection of the French Resistance during World War II. Much like Antigone, members of the resistance rebelled against the unjust laws of the Nazi regime. Considering Antigone’s struggle through this lens further reinforces just how important upholding moral laws or codes are, especially in the face of injustice.

The Nature of Tragedy

Halfway through the play, the Chorus appears on the scene to announce that the tragedy is on. His speech offers a meta-theatrical commentary on the nature of tragedy. Here, in apparently a reference to Jean Cocteau, tragedy appears as a machine in perfect order, a machine that proceeds automatically and has been ready since the beginning of time. Tension of the tragic plot is the tension of a spring: the most haphazard event sets it on its inexorable march: in some sense, it has been lying in wait for its catalyst. Tragedy belongs to an order outside human time and action. It will realize itself in spite of its players and all their attempts at intervention. 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 those events' realization.

Having compared tragedy to other media, the Chorus then sets it off generically, specifically from the genre of melodrama. Tragedy is "restful" and "flawless," free of melodramatic stock characters, dialogues, and plot complications. All is inevitable. This inevitability lends, in spite of tragedy's tension, the genre "tranquility." Moreover, it gives its players innocence as they are only there to play their parts. Though Creon will later accuse Antigone of casting him as the "villain" in her little melodrama, the players are embroiled in a far more inexorable mechanism. Again, note the incommensurabilities between Anouilh's theory of the tragic and political allegory. The latter is necessarily engaged in the generally pedagogical passing of ethico-politico judgment, the arbitration of innocence, guilt, and complicity. Though tragic players face judgment, they do so on rather different terms.

Read about another explanation of tragedy with Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The Sisters' Rivalry

As with Sophocles' sistes, Ismene and Antigone appear as foils and rivals. Ismene is "reasonable," timid, and obedient, full-figured and beautiful in being a good girl. In contrast, Antigone is recalcitrant, impulsive, and moody, sallow, thin, and decidedly resistant to being a girl like the rest. Though the Chorus emphasizes the play's distance from conventional melodrama, it is interesting to note how, in revision the opposition in Sophocles' version, it perhaps imports the good girl/bad girl structure typical of this genre, not to mention a number of rather "sentimental" scenes. Ismene advises moderation, understanding, and capitulation. They must take Creon's obligations into account.

Anouilh develops another form of rivalry between the sisters with regards to femininity. Whereas Ismene is the appropriate, beautiful girl, Antigone curses her girlhood. Antigone in particular manifests her hatred for the ideal of femininity Ismene incarnates in their childhood, brutally binding her sister to a tree to stage her mutilation. Anouilh attributes Antigone's hate and envy in Ismene's capacity to figure as an object of desire, as the woman men want. Thus, in attempting to seduce Haemon and become "his woman," Antigone steals Ismene's goods—lipstick, rouge, perfume, powder, and frock—in another act of sisterly dismemberment. Through Ismene, Antigone would be a woman; as we will see, however, such "human" pleasures are not meant for her.

Read about a similar sibling rivalry in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.