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Antigone in the Twentieth Century: an Icon of ResistancE

Rossana Zetti. University of Edinburgh. Scotland.

Antigone in the Twentieth Century: an Icon of Resistance

Rossana Zetti. University of Edinburgh. Scotland. 

In the parodos of Brecht’s 1948 version of Sophocles’ Antigone, the chorus of Theban elders celebrates the victory over Argos and encourages the people to forget the recent war. Such a call for forgetting is clearly manipulated by Creon in order to camouflage the reality: the much praised victory is in fact a lie because the war is not over. The eagerness to forget is opposed to Antigone’s efforts to remember the past: the heroine insists that it is important to remember the disasters of the past in order to avoid their repetition in the future.

Through his reworking of the ancient original, Brecht encourages his audience to remember and reflect upon the recent tragedy of the Second World War and attempts to unveil the mechanisms behind the acquisition and dismantling of power; at the same time, he suggests there is also another, false way of remembering the past by imposing a distorted reading upon literary texts, as Hitler did with German poets such as Schiller and Hölderlin: Hölderlin’s Antigone (1804) was frequently performed towards the end of the war in support of Hitler’s nationalistic propaganda.

In this paper, I will uncover issues of memory, propaganda and politicisation behind different interpretations of the play: I will show the malleability of the Antigone myth which, far from being fixed, has been readapted and “remembered” in different ways to communicate different ideologies. Significantly, Sophocles’ Antigone has been adapted and performed on the stage innumerable times in the twentieth century: the reception history of Antigone offers interesting insights into the historical and political developments of this period. The interpretation of the play shifted throughout the twentieth century, influenced by coeval European events. Appropriated both by the Nazi regime and by factions of the Resistance, Antigone was exploited as a political, subversive document or as representative of a nationalistic classical tradition. I will focus on two significant examples which more explicitly situate the Antigone as a political play:

(1) Hölderlin’s translation (1804), one of the very earliest post-Revolutionary witnesses to this political understanding of the play, provides a context for Brecht’s and other twentieth-century versions of the myth, and represents a crucial step towards the current interpretative model in which Antigone is an icon of radical dissent and resistance. Yet it was through the Nazis’ reading that the long-neglected poet gained powerful ideological resonance: he was transformed into an example of spiritual leader and patriotic self-sacrifice, and became a nationalist icon of German Nazism.

(2) Bertolt Brecht’s adaptation (1948) represents the culmination of this process through which Antigone enters the realm of politics. His version represents a landmark moment of the reception history of Antigone and serves to explain why Antigone still matters today. For his own innovative reworking of the Sophoclean myth, Brecht exploited Hölderlin’s text, which responded to his desire to overtly oppose to the classical reading of the play, and to distance himself from the purely classical-humanist and “bourgeois” interest in Greek tragedy.

In this paper, I will offer a historicised reading of Antigone’s conceptualisation as a political play through the analysis of Hölderlin’s translation and its appropriations in this century. This account of the reception of Sophocles’ Antigone in twentieth-century Europe will contribute to shed light on the ideological climate which produced such a high number of adaptations of the ancient play, as well as on the reasons for its pertinence to twentieth-century temporal-political conditions.

Selected Bibliography:

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Billings, J. (2011), ‘Greek Tragedy and vaterländische Dichtkunst’ in K. Kortländer and S. Singh, eds., Das Fremde im Eigensten: Die Funktion von Übersetzungen im Prozess der deutschen Nationenbildung, 9-22.

Brecht, B. (2003), Collected Plays: Eight (The Antigone of Sophocles, The Days of the Commune, Turandot or the Whitewashers’ Congress), T. Kuhn and D. Constantine, eds., London.

Cairns, D. (2016), Sophocles’ Antigone, London / New York.

Castellari, M. (2011), ‘La presenza di Hölderlin nell’Antigone di Brecht’ in F. Cercignani, ed., Studia Theodisca xi, 143-182.

Chancellor, G. (1979), “Hölderlin, Brecht, Anouilh: Three Versions of Antigone”, Orbis Litterarum: International Review of Literary Studies 34, 87-97.

Ciani, M. G. (2000), Antigone: Variazioni sul Mito, Venezia.

Costantine, D. (2001), Hölderlin’s “Antigone”, Northumberland.

Flashar, H. (2009), Inszenierung der Antike: das griechische Drama auf der Bühne, Munich.

Mee, H. P. and Foley, E. B. (2011), Antigone on the Contemporary World Stage, Oxford.

Morais, C., Hardwick, L. and De Fátima Silva, M. (2017), Portrayals of Antigone in Portugal. 20th and 21st Century Rewritings of the Antigone Myth, Leiden.

Pöggeler, O. (2004), Schicksal und Geschichte, Antigone im Spiegel der Deutungen und Gestaltungen seit Hegel und Hölderlin, München.

Steiner, G. (1984), Antigones, Oxford.

Taxidou, O. (2007), Modernism and Performance, Jarry to Brecht, New York.

Vöhler, M. (2013), ‘Correcting Ancient Myths: Brecht’s Approach to Antiquity’, in A. Simon and K. Fleming, eds., The Reception of Classical Antiquity in German Literature, 154-171.

Wilmer, S. E. and Zukauskaite, A. (2010), Interrogating Antigone in Post-Modern Philosophy and Criticism, Oxford.

Ziolkowski, T. (2000), “The Fragmented Text: The Classics and Postwar European Literature”, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 6(4), 549-562.

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