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  • Allied Antigone: Jean Anouilh in America and England
  • Keri Walsh (bio)

Jean Anouilh is often associated with the French Occupation, but he might just as accurately be described as a dramatist of the Épuration, the chaotic post-1944 period when Charles De Gaulle’s government, now officially in power, made concerted efforts to purge the shame of Vichy, to consolidate the new French state, and to punish traitors. De Gaulle’s postwar speeches claimed that France had been saved from German fascism not by the Allies, nor by the small but committed core of members of Resistance organizations, but by “la vraie France” (the true France), a looser assemblage of national spirit and civilian patriotism.1 This wishful vision of a broadly resistant France would take powerful hold on the national imagination, masking the realities of collaboration exposed decades later in works such as Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Robert O. Paxton’s Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (1972), and Henry Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome (1991).2 It was in February of 1944, six months before the Liberation of Paris, that Anouilh’s most significant work—his adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone—premiered at the Atelier Theater in Montmartre. Like Sophocles’s original, Anouilh’s Antigone opens at the end of a war, and its subject is the complex political task of constructing a new order. Set at the moment between fighting and aftermath, when Anouilh’s Creon announces to Antigone that Polynices must rot and that “Eteocles is a hero and a saint for Thebes now,” the play anticipates De Gaulle’s task of presiding over the public process of distinguishing the traitors from the patriots, the loyalists from the collaborators, in postwar France.3 As events of 1944 made an Allied victory increasingly possible, Anouilh’s adaptation of [End Page 277] Antigone wonders: what would be the fate of those who had chosen the wrong side of history, or had not chosen a side at all?

Anouilh’s own official position during the war was neutrality. His obituary in the London Times reports that on “one occasion, he said that all he had done during the Occupation was watch carefully with a telescope from a top floor flat to see when the food lorry was about to arrive at his nearest grocery shop.”4 Beyond this aversion to taking public political stances, his personal, intellectual, and professional affiliations were with the French right.5 Anca Visdei’s recent biography of Anouilh suggests that he was anxious, during the composition of Antigone, about what German and Vichy censors would make of the piece.6 Mary Ann Frese Witt and Kenneth Krauss have argued that Anouilh’s “neutrality” was the self-protective fiction of a professional dramatist seeking to retain all potential sectors of the audience in Occupied France.7 But Frese Witt sees ideological currents that go beyond equivocation in Anouilh’s play, and she has suggested that his dramatic works, like Jean Giraudoux’s and Henry de Montherlant’s, were not just of the right but were saturated with the tropes and values of what she calls French “aesthetic fascism.” Frese Witt’s assessment is insightful and persuasive. However, here, I want to draw attention to, and critically investigate, another concept presented by the play that is crucial to its dramatic and political relevance in the context of 1944: neutrality.

Anouilh begins with stage directions indicating “Un décor neutre” (a neutral set), and the play that follows pushes the concept of neutrality to the breaking point (Antigone, 9). Making use of a metatheatricality learned from Pirandello (in addition, of course, to drawing on the dialectical structure of Sophocles’s original), Anouilh’s Antigone functions on several levels in a way that seems designed to scramble any coherent political reading and to pressure the audience into a position of dramatic “neutrality” paralleling the political version embraced by countries such as Switzerland and Ireland. Anouilh’s “neutrality effect” emerges from the confrontation he sets up between the elements of tragedy codified by Aristotle in the Poetics, especially “spectacle” and “thought.” In Anouilh’s version, Creon “wins” the audience by thought and Antigone...


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pp. 277-295
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