Existentialism in Antigone

Existentialism in ‘Antigone' by Jean Anouilh and ‘The Visit' by Freidrich Durrenmatt

–An analysis of the concept of free will

“Human existence cannot have a relationship with being unless it remains in the midst of nothingness.”[1]

-Martin Heidegger

With several choices to make in life, various rational agents exercise control over one's actions and decisions. This gives rise to the concept of free will, a key determinant of Existentialism. The principal thesis of Existentialism is that the paths of our lives can be determined only by ourselves, and that only we can create any meaning in our lives[2]. This notion of free will is common to both ‘Antigone' by Jean Anouilh and ‘The Visit' by Freidrich Durrenmatt, making both plays Existential in nature. While a steadfast Antigone chose to challenge orders of the state and bury her brother Polynices' body, Claire Zachassian strips Guellen of its morals on account of her riches.

The purpose of writing itself breeds Existentialism in the two plays. Anouilh's main political objective was to instigate the French to rise up against the Nazis. Therefore ‘little' Antigone is portrayed as a brave person defying the ‘mighty' state. On the other hand, one of Durrenmatt's principal messages was to make people aware of the evil side of capitalism and has done so with the character of Claire Zachanassian. Both playwrights have tackled the cultural problem of women's inferiority using free will. The female characters in discussion seem to challenge the stereotypical image of women that society has been living with for centuries. Category

The popular themes associated with existentialism are those that are philosophically significant as they deal with the quest for new categorical frameworks and governing standards. These include minor themes in both plays such as conviction, frustration, revenge and so on. It is these sub-themes that fuel the Existential aspect of the two plays. The common theme of death too arises due to Existentialism. While Antigone chooses to die, Claire chooses to kill Alfred Ill.

Very often, the location plays an important role in determining the extent of Existentialism – the more space a character has, the greater is the potential for him/her to exercise free will. Although the story time of ‘Antigone' is confined to a single location, Antigone's boundaries extend to other parts of Thebes as well such as the location of Polynices' body. In ‘The Visit' too, all the characters are free to move around Guellen.

People must be conscious of themselves as they are and not be concerned of the manner in which people see them or how they are expected to be. Antigone does not care about her physical appearance. Her blatant disregard for her status and societal stereotypes leads her to make the decisions she does. “…..one who was safer than all real mothers put together, with their real bosoms and their nice big aprons!”[3] Claire too is virtually artificial with prosthetic body parts and does not seem to care about her original status in society. All she cares about is taking her revenge on Ill and she accordingly takes various decisions such as ordering the shooting of the ‘black panther' or even her irresistible offer of one million dollars to an impoverished Guellen if Alfred Ill was killed.

Certain critics argue that along with the free will or authentic consciousness there is the presence of the inauthentic consciousness. Before she dies, Antigone seems to want to experience all aspects of being a woman.When Antigone talks to Haemon, we learn that she had earlier attempt to seduce him by wearing Ismene's makeup and perfume, etc.The desire to be a mother along with a motherly instinct is also visible in Antigone.“You know I'd have shielded him against everything”[4]Anouilh once again highlights what lies in the subconscious of every woman, the fear of being unable to carry out all her responsibilities well. Claire Zachanassian too exhibits inauthentic consciousness in her subconscious love for Ill. She buries him in a mausoleum in Capri, thus showing her deep rooted love for Ill and her attitude that if she cannot have Ill then no one can.

In order to analyse the aspect of free will in the two plays, I will analyse the cause and effect of the decisions taken by Antigone and Claire Zachanassian. Antigone is portrayed as one who is dissatisfied with life. To her, happiness could not be achieved without compromising on one's ideals, which greatly opposed her idealistic nature. The Greeks believed that the souls of unburied bodies wandered the earth eternally; however Antigone herself says that she does not believe in ritual. Thus, her choice was neither based on factors such as loyalty and love for her brother nor religious beliefs, but on her own moral code of right and wrong, even though she knew the attempt was going to be futile.

On the other hand, the chief reason why Claire decided to enslave the whole town and kill Alfred is revenge. As mentioned earlier, in his youth, Ill had slept with her and then bribed Koby and Loby to make a false confession. With the luxurious life she leads, she has no reason to come back to Guellen. However she has waited patiently all her life to get even with Ill. She says, “The world turned me into a whore. I shall turn the world into a brothel.”[5]

The direct consequence of Antigone's actions is her death but there are several indirect consequences. Haemon and Eurydice die as well while Creon, the essentialist has no choice but to continue carrying out his duties as a king. He uses the extended metaphor comparing Thebes to a sinking ship in which he is the responsible Captain. Claire succeeds in executing her sinister plan of vengeance. Ill dies but according to Murray Peppard, “Only Ill has found freedom…….by a withdrawal from the community into death.” He adds that the Guelleners have transformed from victims of poverty to captives of prosperity. According to me, Claire, together with her economical might and free will acts as a catalyst in draining Guellen of its morals and former glory. She does not show a significant change in character through the course of the play.

While analyzing the aforementioned decisions an important contrast observed is that Claire has a very clear plan chalked out in her mind. She has pre-planned all her moves while Antigone contemplates on several occasions. This not only highlights the theme of individual versus self in ‘Antigone' but also fosters the climactic confrontation between Antigone and Creon that Ted Freeman describes as a masterpiece of dramatic construction.

The power to shape one's own life is seen in characters apart from the ones mentioned above. Haemon, Eurydice and Ismene all take their lives into their own hands and choose the path of death like Antigone. Ill takes the decision to leave the town of Guellen although he is unsuccessful.

There are several reasons why critics argue that the plays are not Existential. Speaking of Anouilh's ‘Antigone', it can be looked as an Essentialist text. Creon is committed to his duty as king even though he would much rather spend his time listening to music and in antique shops. John Harvey says, “As for existentialist drama, it would seem that Anouilh's tragedy lies at the furthermost pole from it; for what possibility do Anouilh's heroes have freely to decide what they are or to form themselves through their acts?” This is in line with the meta-theatrical aspects of the play where the chorus and characters keep reminding us that their fate is already sealed. “She's thinking she's going to die. But there's nothing to be done. Her name is Antigone and she's going to have to play her part right through to the end.”[6] According to Greek mythology too, one's life is governed by the three sisters of Fate. On the other hand, ‘The Visit' can certainly be analyzed in light of Determinism[7]. Claire's actions may seem determined rather than existential. If so, the prior occurrences that fuel her actions are those that happen in the back story particularly the time when Alfred Ill slept with Claire.

The free will present in the two plays most certainly brings to light the rich and carefully premeditated subtext. ‘Antigone' is certainly a critique of tragedy while Durrenmatt chose to delve into the genre of tragicomedy. During the mid-twentieth century, it was hard for writers not to incorporate political subtext in their works. ‘Antigone' is anti-Semitic in nature while ‘The Visit' portrays Switzerland's neutrality during the Second World War. Anouilh seems to have attempted to revive the use of free will particularly rising against despotism[8] in Western Europe while Durrenmatt has succeeded in conveying an economic message by reminding readers of the dark side of capitalism. Claire is able to buy virtually everything in the play including justice. “With financial resources like mine, you can afford a new world order.”[9] Ill too bribed the two blind servants to avoid being penalized by the court. Antigone's existential nature inspires women to stand up for what they believe in. On the other hand, Durrenmatt wrote to analyze the human nature and psyche with specific focus on human greed and evasion of responsibility. ‘The Visit' is a perfect example to illustrate the Theory of Compensation[10] and the Bystander Effect[11].

“Man is a being with free will; therefore, each man is potentially good or evil, and it's up to him and only him through his reasoning mind to decide which he wants to be”[12]

-Ayn Rand

It is certain that both Anouilh's Antigone and Durrrenmatt's ‘The Visit' can be classified as existential plays. While Antigone uses her free will to end her life, Claire uses it to put an end to someone else's life. However it is this ability of a character to choose his/her own path that lends a fascinating yet complex dimension to a text.

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[1] http://www.thecry.com/existentialism

[2] http://www.angelfire.com/ok2/Moo/authenticity.html

[3] Anouilh, Jean. Antigone. Trans. Barbara Bray. London: Methuen , 2000. p 18

[4] Anouilh, Jean. Antigone. Trans. Barbara Bray. London: Methuen , 2000. p 18

[5] Durrenmatt, Friedrich. The Visit. Trans. Patrick Bowles. New York: Grove Press, 1990. p 67

[6] Anouilh, Jean. Antigone. Trans. Barbara Bray. London: Methuen , 2000. p 3

[7] Determinism is the philosophical proposition that every event, including human cognition and behavior, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences

[8] Despotism is a form of government by a single authority.

[9] Durrenmatt, Friedrich. The Visit. Trans. Patrick Bowles. New York: Grove Press, 1990. p 67

[10] According to the Theory of Compensation, humans will compromise on their ideals and will go to any length they are demanded to if they are given adequate compensation -

[11] The Bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect

[12] http://www.saidwhat.co.uk/research/free_will_quotes

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