Brecht and Sophocles on Antigone Essay

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[. . .] Brecht notes that the sisters’ fear of a stranger being in the home immediately vanishes for this sustenance is a welcome sight—and upon pulling out the victuals it suddenly dawns on the sisters that this food is courtesy of their dear brother: “Then we embraced each other and were cheerful for our brother was in the war, and he was well. And we cut and ate of the bacon and the bread that he had brought us to feed us in our need” (Brecht 4). The sisters are so consumed by their basic need of food in fact that they fail to register that the brother is nowhere to be failed. Even the screams do not clue them in. “Take more for yourself. The factory’s killing you,” says one sister to the other, an admission that the war machine touched even the lives of the women left at home by the men during WWII: they had to go and run the factories day and night (Brecht 4). The scream they hear freezes their blood, but they know enough not to go looking for trouble: “Sit still. You go and see, you get seen too” (Brecht 4). So instead they put away their dishes and get ready for work—and then they discover their brother’s uniform and rightfully surmise that he has quit the war: “His war’s over, he has quit…And we laughed and we were cheerful: Our brother was out of the war and he was well” (Brecht 5). But of course all is not well, for Creon will not allow deserters: all must fight for his objectives. Whereas in Sophocles’ play, Polynices fights for himself, in Brecht’s play, Polynices is expected to fight for Creon—for the Third Reich, but will not, because he has seen what war does and no longer wants to be part of it.

The screams that continue are given more thought: the sisters decide that “they are tormenting folk for pleasure” (Brecht 6). Who “they” are is not clear: they could be the enemy or they could mean Creon and the Thebans. In any case, “they” are not people the two sisters would like to be around, nor anyone else for that matter, as they treat others inhumanely for their own pleasure. This is the effect of war: it turns men into vicious dogs and deprives them of their humanity. In this context, Polynices in trying to escape the war is simply trying to cling to his humanity, evident in the fact that he has thought of his sisters and their need and has been willing to bring them food.

And in this way Polynices is made into a far more sympathetic character than he is Sophocles’ play. In the Greek version, Polynices is simply seen as someone vying for the throne left by his father years ago when, in disgrace at discovering his true identity, he blinded himself and left Thebes. Now his sons have gone into battle for that throne and his daughter Antigone is there to see to it that the dead Polynices receives his fair due—a proper burial that he might at least rest in peace in the afterlife. Sophocles casts the play under a cloud of doom, presented by Antigone in the opening lines: “Ismene, sister, mine own dear sister, knowest thou what ill there is, of all bequeathed by Oedipus, that Zeus fulfils not for us twain while we live? Nothing painful is there, nothing fraught with ruin, no shame, no dishonour, that I have not seen in thy woes and mine” (Sophocles). After all, it was Antigone who accompanied her blind father out of Thebes, who guided him on his blind journey to nowhere. She suffered alongside his humiliation and misfortune—and now she intends to suffer still more in order to do justice by her brother.

A New Identity for Antigone and for Creon:

Policy as the Main Theme—Not Piety

Brecht keeps this same cloud of doom in his adaptation—but he uses the suggestions and symbols presented in his preface—namely that Antigone is a victim of the Third Reich and that Polynices is a heroic objector to the war—to bring a modern contextualization to that doom. Brecht’s Antigone says to her sister: “In a long war, one man among many Eteocles fell, our brother. In the tyrant’s train he fell young. And younger than him Polynices sees his brother pulped under horses’ hooves. Weeping he rides from an unfinished battle…” (Brecht 9). Polynices, in short, has been crushed in his soul by the sight of seeing his brother crushed in body by the horses of the tyrant’s train—aka the army of the Third Reich, carelessly traipsing over the corpse of their fallen comrade. It is this inhumanity that serves as a woeful epiphany of sorts for Polynices and explains his motive for deserting. It is not out of cowardice that he flees but rather out of a sense of a need to fly from the horror of inhumanity—the evil of war—the absence of good all around him. And upon returning home, what does he see but “Creon there at the rear lashing them into the fight…” (Brecht 9). Creon is depicted as a tyrannical monster with a whip, beating the soldiers into battle, using the lash to compel them to go and die on the battle field. He does not treat his soldiers like sons but rather like cannon fodder. The image is grotesque but does not stop there for Antigone tells more—Creon “seizes [Polynices] splashed with the blood of his brother and hacks him to pieces” (Brecht 9). This is the king of the Thebans, i.e., the leader of the Third Reich as the symbolism of the SS officer in the Prelude suggests Creon to be.

In Sophocles’ play, Creon is not described in such murderous terms as those by Brecht—the reason is that Brecht is projecting his hatred for Hitler and the Third Reich onto Creon. Creon is even called “my fuhrer”—the name used for Hitler in the Third Reich—by a guard early on in the drama (Brecht 15). That much is clear from the setting of the play and the stage directions which indicate that the Thebans are to be dressed like Germans, that the SS is responsible for the execution of Polynices, that Creon and the Thebes are literally the Germans and Argos serves as the symbol of the Allies.

The theme that emerges in Brecht’s play is that Creon himself is the source of all that is wrong in Thebes: Creon is the symbol of totalitarian aggression. Jones and Vidal note that in Sophocles’ play, “the focus of the story is not policy, but piety” (39). For Brecht, the focus of the story—the major theme—is policy. Brecht is attacking the policy of the Third Reich, through the political framework that he applies to the drama and altering the way in which he wants the audience to interpret the story of Antigone. Brecht does not mischaracterize her piety but he does show more interest in accusing the bad policy at the heart of Creon’s rule as the reason that Antigone is in this position in the first place.

Brecht himself was no stranger to Germany’s policy: he opposed it politically as he did socially (Jones and Vidal). With Antigone he is using his hatred for the regime as a source and it shows. Having left Germany before the war to avoid the rule of the Third Reich and having social proclivities, Brecht naturally allied himself with Germany’s opponents—and thus in a way he himself is like Sophocles’ Polynices, attacking the Theban (i.e., German) rulers. Viewing himself as an exile from Germany, like Antigone and her father were from Thebes, Brecht identifies with their “stranger” status, which is symbolized in his play by the fact that Antigone does not belong to Creon’s rule simply because she does not admit of it. She states, “Of all your words none please me, none will please me and so myself I am not agreeable to you although I am to others for what I did” (Brecht 21) and then goes on to add that the war being waged by Creon is his war—not a war for Thebes (i.e., Germany). She likens her country now to “a foreign country” and argues that “it did not content [Creon-Hitler] ruling over my brothers in Thebes [Berlin] a city of our own and sweet not living in fear, the life beneath its trees. You had to drag them to distant Argos to rule over them there too” (Brecht 22). Antigone then goes on to lament the power-drunkenness of Creon: “Who seeks power drinks of a salty water, he cannot desist but must drink it and drink it. My brother yesterday, today it’s me” (Brecht 22). In this manner, Antigone objects to the rule and policy of Creon, whereas in Sophocles’ play, Antigone objects to… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Brecht and Sophocles on Antigone.  (2018, May 13).  Retrieved February 23, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/brecht-sophocles-antigone/7258775

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"Brecht and Sophocles on Antigone."  Essaytown.com.  May 13, 2018.  Accessed February 23, 2019.
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