I have been reading Sophocles’ Theban Plays, a loosely connected trilogy which reworks the myth of Oedipus, the mythical king of Thebes who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, and whose family is fated to be doomed for three generations. I also came across the text of Berthold Brecht’s celebrated 1948 production of Antigone, the last of the Theban trilogy (though the first that Sophocles wrote). What is striking in reading the scripts side by side is the chasm between the meaning of the heroine for Sophocles and her meaning for Brecht.
Antigone tells of the confrontation between the eponymous heroine, the daughter of Oedipus, and Creos, the current king of Thebes. Just before the play opens, Oedipus’ two sons Eteocles and Polyneices have killed each other. The two brothers had shared the throne of Thebes, each the ruler in alternate years, until Eteocles had refused to turn over power at the end of his annual term. Polyneices gathered an army and attacked the city in furious retaliation. The brothers died at each others’ hands in single combat. Creon, their uncle, who now becomes king, decides that Eteocles should be buried with full honors as defender of the city. The body of Polyneices will, however, be left outside the city gates, to rot, unmourned, as a traitor. Anyone who would honor him with a burial, Creon decrees, would be put to death.
The play opens with Antigone, sister to both Eteocles and Polyneices, resolving to defy Creon’s decree and to bury the latter. She pleads with her sister Ismene to help her. Ismene refuses, recalling the family history of tragic defiance of both fate and lawful order. Alone, Antigone slips out and scatters funeral oil and earth over her brother’s body. A furious Creon condemns Antigone to be buried alive, letting the gods dispose of her as they will.
To the modern mind, the moral lines in the play are unambiguous. Creon is a brutal tyrant and Antigone an unalloyed heroine, defending her rights and the honour of her family, and of her people, against her antagonist’s savage megalomania. That was certainly how Brecht saw it. In his Antigone, over which the shadow of the Holocaust inevitably looms, the prologue is set in a Berlin air raid shelter. Creon struts like a manic Hitler (his lackeys even call him ‘Mein Fuhrer’ rather than ‘My King’ as in the original), Antigone embodies the spirit of popular resistance. In Brecht’s version, Creon has launched a Theban blitzkrieg against neighbouring Argos. Polynices has been killed for deserting the battle lines after seeing Eteocles fall. At the end of Brecht’s play, as Thebes is losing ground to Argos, Creon insists he would rather see the city destroyed than surrender.
In the programme notes to his 1948 production Brecht wrote a poem to Antigone:
Come out of the twilight
And walk before us a while,
Friendly, with the light step
Of one whose mind is fully made up, terrible
To the terrible.
You who turn away, I know
How you feared death, but
Still more you fear
And you let the powerful get away
with nothing, and did not reconcile yourself
With the obfuscators, nor did you ever
Forget affront, and let the dust settle
On their misdeeds.
I salute you!
The Antigone to whom Brecht addresses this poem is, as the classicist Bernard Knox observes in the Introduction to the Penguin translation of the Theban Plays, ‘the image of what Brecht longed to see – the rising of the German people against Hitler, a resistance that in fact never came to birth’.
Brecht’s Antigone is, however, not Sophocles’ Antigone, nor is Brecht’s Creon Sophocles’ Creon. Sophocles viewed Creon not as a tyrannical brute but as the unbending defender of the polis, as the eloquent champion of the overriding claim of the city upon the loyalty of its citizens, particularly in times of danger:
our country is our safety.
Only while she voyages true on course
can we establish friendships, truer than blood itself.
Such are my standards. They make our city great.
These are my principles. Never at my hands
will the traitor be honored above the patriot.
but whoever proves his loyalty to the state –
I’ll prize that man in death as well as life.
There are echoes of Creon’s speech in Athenian leader Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration which he gave in 431 BC as part of the public funeral for the dead at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, which set Athens against Sparta in ferocious conflict, and which is recorded in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, though Thucydides probably embroidered the text with his knowledge of Sophocles.
If Sophocles’ Creon appears in the glow of patriotic virtue, his chorus shows little sympathy for Antigone. ‘You went too far, the last limits of daring – / smashing against the high throne of Justice!’, it insists. ‘Your own blind will, your passion has destroyed you’, it taunts her.
And yet, Antigone is also clearly a heroine, even in Sophocles’ eyes, a figure defiant of human rule and insisting on God’s justice. The burial of the dead – even the enemy dead – was an ethical absolute for the Greeks. Antigone’s heroism is, however, diluted by her hubris. Antigone is unswervingly resolute, possessing unalloyed confidence in her judgment and in her ability to define that which is just. What makes her almost a goddess for Brecht diminishes her in the eyes of Sophocles.
For Sophocles, Antigone is right but too certain. Creon is wrong but willing to entertain self-doubt, and eventually to change his mind. With his own hands he unearths Antigone and buries the body of Polyneices. Antigone, having found a higher justice, will not discuss her judgment, remains unyielding, never doubts the wisdom of her course. She insists that only she is able to grasp the meaning of higher justice.
There is an echo here of the most famous play in the Theban Trilogy: Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is brought down by his own desire for truth, and by his certainty that he can solve any puzzle. As a young man, Oedipus had solved the riddle of the Sphinx, for which he had been given the kingship of Thebes whose king Laius had mysteriously been murdered. Now Thebes is stricken by a plague, the consequence, the oracle at Delphi determines, of religious pollution, the failure of the city to catch the Laius’ murderer. Oedipus vows to find the murderer and curses him for the plague that he has caused. Oedipus’ investigation leads him to the terrible truth – that Laius was his father, who had abandoned him after an oracle foretold that ‘he is doomed/To perish by the hand of his own son’; that having been brought up by the childless King Plybus of Corinth as one his own, and never knowing that he was adopted, Oedipus leaves Corinth after hearing a prophecy that he would kill his father and wed his mother; that on the road from Corinth to Thebes he meets Laius, neither recognizing the other, falls into a quarrel and kills him; and, having been made king of Thebes after solving the riddle of the Sphinx, he marries Laius’ widow Jocasta – his mother. Once the shocking tale is unravelled, Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself with her gold pins.
Antigone and Oedipus Rex both open with family and city facing a crisis, and with the tragic hero resolving to right the wrongs. Both Antigone and Oedipus claim to know justice with the certainty of a god. But neither Oedipus nor Antigone can see the full picture. Both are blind to key elements of the problem.
Sophocles’ excoriation of hubris made Oedipus Rex one of the great Greek dramas for the twentieth century, a century of unparalleled bloodshed and destruction, an age that grew increasingly pessimistic about the human condition. Oedipus Rex spoke to age in which people came to see human reason and agency as forces for destruction rather than for betterment. In Antigone, however, twentieth century critics saw less her hubris than her heroism, less her certainty in the face of human foolishness than her bravery in the face of relentless tyranny. The chasm between Sophocles’ Antigone and Brecht’s is the chasm between the ancient concept of the primacy of the polis and the modern view of individual liberty.
Aristotle thought Oedipus Rex the greatest of all Greek tragic dramas. But he found Antigone perplexing and did not regard it as a significant work. Nevertheless, he would undoubtedly have agreed with Sophocles that Creon was not a brutal tyrant but someone defending the polis. No citizen, Aristotle wrote, ‘should think that he belongs just to himself’. Rather, all citizens belonged to the polis and ‘and the responsibility for each part naturally has regard to the responsibility for the whole.’ So much so that ‘even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of the community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.’
For Aristotle, and for Sophocles, the warrant for moral rules and right conduct came from the community. To be moral was to be part of a community through which our desires and dispositions could be formed and trained toward the pursuit of certain, commonly acknowledged goods. The coming of modernity, however, dissolved the old communities and recast the very the idea of morality. At the heart of modernity was the rise of the individual as a new kind of social actor. Individual conscience, not the needs of the community, now provided the warrant for right conduct. This is why Brecht’s entirely moral Antigone is so different from Sophocles’ far more ambiguous heroine.
Great art, it is often said, is great because it embodies universal themes that resonate over the ages. That is true. But those universal themes can only be expressed in the language of the particular, and it is in the particular through which the universal is understood. The meaning of ideas, of concepts – the meaning of what it is to be human – constantly transforms through history. What is timeless is not the meaning of those themes, but the necessity and desire to excavate and explore that meaning. The greatness of Sophocles, and the reason that he still speaks to us, lies in his ability to marry the universal and the particular, and through the particular – both his and ours – to shine light upon the universal.