Life and death are very important themes throughout Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone.” It is made very clear from the very beginning what sort of character Antigone will be.
“C’est la petite maigre qui est assise la-bas, et qui ne dit rien. Elle regarde droit devant elle. Elle pense.”
Even if you were not aware of the original Sophocles play and either read or saw the play, you would automatically think negatively. To be alone and to be thinking quietly is a sin. You have ulterior motives if you do. True, Antigone did have ulterior motives, but she did them because she believed what she was doing was right.
Then there are the guards. Jonas, the first and only guard with a name, knows that the news he brings to his king will affect his life. He, too, had ulterior motives, but he was not to prove that he and his fellow guards were upholding the law. He knew that by carrying the news to Creon, his life would be in jeopardy.
The way both these characters look at life and death is indicative of their places in the machine.
Antigone knew that death was the only punishment if she tried to bury her brother. So she willfully buried him – with his own shovel – to make a point.
She did not want his immortal soul to wander the earth alone. When caught the second time trying to bury Polynices, Creon tries to call her out on looking at situations with a youthful eye.
“Un matin, je me suis reveille roi de Thebes. Et Dieu sait si j’aimais autre chose dans la vie que d’etre puissant.”
But he fails, especially after trying to convince her that compromising one’s beliefs is a part of growing up.
“Quel sera-t-il, mon bonheur? Quelle femme heureuse deviendra-t-elle, la petite Antigone? “
Her childlike approach to life has sworn her to stand by what she believes in, even if it means death. Her loyalty is to no man, no country, not even a god. She does what she does because it is the right way. Anouilh clarifies that to be young is to be stubborn and stand by what is right.
On the other hand, Jonas prefers to live. So before he begins to try and explain what had happened to Polynices’ body, he tells Creon about his life and his career.
“J’ai dix-sept ans de service. Je suis engage volontaire, la medaille, deux citations.”
However, he is quick to explain that he was innocent, yet nothing he had said so far would give Creon an inkling of guilt.
“On ne dormait pas, chef, ca on peut vous le jurer tous les trois qu’on dormait pas!”
When Jonas finally delivers the truth of his visit, Creon does not even think twice. Naturally, he must do damage control. But what is Jonas’ response?
“Chef, j’ai deux enfants. Il y en a un qui est tout petit. Vous temoigne-rez pour moi que j’etais ici, chef, devant conseil de guerre.”
This exchange highlights the primary difference between Antigone and Jonas. Jonas was an adult. He had outgrown the youth that would have encouraged him to die for his beliefs. He thought that gaining Creon’s sympathy by mentioning his family and long career would spare him.
Of course, this would have no bearing on Creon in the end. The king was willing to sacrifice the three guards who arrested Antigone. He would end their lives to spare hers.
The chorus defines tragedy as quiet. It sleeps; it rests. Furthermore,
“dans le drama, on se deblat parce qu’on espere en sortir. C’est ignoble, c’est utilitaire. La, c’est gratuit. C’est pour les rois. Et il n’ya a plus rien a tenter, enfin!”
By stating it thusly, you would hope that the hero would argue and resist his fate at every turn. You want the hero to escape to a better tomorrow. However, within the play, there is no temptation to try to escape.
Only kings have the breeding and bearings to know that a fight cannot be won and accept it.
When we highlight the weaknesses of living to die and dying to live – as seen in Antigone and Jonas, respectively – we see that there is a tragedy in the simple act of both.
There is a tragedy in wanting to live and doing anything to achieve it.
There is a tragedy in the pursuit of death and knowing that there is no black and white answer.
Everything is gray, and no one wins the fight.