Friday, March 23, 2007

The 2nd Chorus from Jean Anouilh's Antigone

One of the most stirring moments in theatre occurs in Jean Anouilh's Antigone. The play itself is was an important one, especially when it was first staged in 1944, because Antigone was seen as representing the French Resistance. But the most interesting thing about the play is that it constantly digresses, in key moments, into the kind of philisophical discussions that playwrights today ought to study: no one can say these make the play boring or unwatchable, or that they dissipate the drama.

The second Chorus, in both the Sophocles and the Anouilh versions, is said after Creon gives the order to uncover the body of Polynices that Antigone has attempted to bury. In the Sophocles version, the Second Chorus is a celebration of Man. "Nothing is beyond his power" the Chorus declares, but ends on a cautionary note, warning against pride, as any self-respecting Greek tragedy ought to do.

Jean Anouilh's Second Chorus, however, meditates on the nature of tragedy. Anybody who has read Sophocles' Antigone cannot help noticing that whereas Sophocles makes man responsible for his own condition, for the tragedies that befall him as a result of his own hubris, Anouilh says that tragedy comes when Man refuses to surrender to his destiny or when he imagines that he can take charge of his fate and change it.

The whole Second Chorus from Anouilh's Antigone below. It never fails to bring on the goose pimples.

The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy. The least little turn of the wrist will do the job. Anything will set it going: a glance at a girl who happens to be lifting her arms to her hair as you go by; a feeling when you wake up on a fine morning that you'd like a little respect paid to you today, as if it were as easy to order as a second cup of coffee; one question too many, idly thrown out over a friendly drink--and the tragedy is on.

The rest is automatic. You don't need to lift a finger. The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled since time began, and it runs without friction. Death, treason, and sorrow are on the march; and they move in the wake of storm, of tears, of stillness. Every kind of stillness. The hush when the executioner's axe goes up at the end of the last act. The unbreathable silence when, at the beginning of the play, the two lovers, their hearts bared, their bodies naked, stand for the first time face to face in the darkened room, afraid to stir. The silence inside you when the roaring crowd acclaims the winner--so that you think of a film without a soundtrack, mouths agape and no sound coming out of them, a clamor that is no more than a picture; and you, the victor, already vanquished, alone in your desert of silence. That is tragedy.

Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless. It has nothing to do with melodrama--with wicked villains, persecuted maidens, avengers, sudden revelations and eleventh-hour repentances. Death, in a melodrama, is really horrible because it is never inevitable. The dear old father might so easily have been saved; the honest young man might so easily have brought in the police five minutes earlier.

In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known. That makes for tranquility. There is a sort of fellow-feeling among characters in a tragedy: he who kills is as innocent as he who gets killed: it's all a matter of what part you are playing. Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is shout. Don't mistake me: I said 'shout': I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That, you cannot do. But you can shout aloud; you can get at all those things said that you never dared say--or never even knew till then. And you don't say these things because it will do any good to say them: you know better than that. You say them for their own sake; you say them because you learn a lot from

In melodrama, you argue and struggle in the hope of escape. That is vulgar; it's practical. but in tragedy, where there is no temptation to try to escape, argument is gratuitous; it's kingly.


Anonymous said...

You are an angel. I just spent hours looking for this speech, despairing of finding it - having lost the orginal copy I owned - and finally I "wound up" here! Thank you thank you thank you - I know it wasn't put here just for me, but thank you!!!!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting - I too was searching for this, had 'the plot's wound up' in my head and went through Iago's speeches in Othello trying to find it. Finally, remembered it was the spring's wound up.

Even more puzzling, for A Level French literature we did Racine's Andromaque, Anouilh's Bal des Voleurs and not Antigone, yet it remained in my mind over decades.

Brilliant definition of tragedy.