“Antigone” by Arthur Honegger

— Jean Cocteau’s Antigone

Few twentieth century writers have succeeded in being scandalous to the extent of being persecuted, even beaten, and having their works banned, and yet without ever having taken a clear partisan position. In this trait Cocteau recalls an earlier French iconoclast: Voltaire succeeded in fighting the Church without being an atheist; Cocteau, in lambasting the establishment without being a Marxist.

Antigone clearly demonstrates this capacity, at once, to draw out and to pare down the elements of the original drama, so much so that Sophocles would have found Cocteau’s version, if not unrecognizable, at least, un-Sophoclean and un-Greek. The play was a significant contribution to the neoclassical movement in the arts of the 1920’s. Igor Stravinsky and Les Six were setting forth the aesthetic of the pared-down and the streamlined in music. Picasso, who did the scenery for Antigone, was making thin-lined sketches of classical subjects; indeed, it is commonly believed that he adopted this style under the direct inspiration of Cocteau’s own drawing style. Cocteau’s thin single line in ink, which captures the essentials of form and meaning, graphically embodies, not only the style of Cocteau’s neoclassical works, but also the aesthetic underlying all his works. In all the arts of this avant-garde neoclassicism, Greco-Roman subjects are used wherever possible; they are rendered, however, with a style and for a purpose that is modern. Sometimes a small touch in the dialogue of Antigone, more often, in the stage directions, makes it clear that the work is about modern France, indeed, about the modern experience.

Cocteau heavily underlines those elements in Creon the Tyrant that would be found in any twentieth century ruler. Like his modern counterparts, he lives in constant fear that the opposition is secretly plotting his downfall. Above all, Creon mistakenly believes that money is the wellspring of everyone’s deeds. He even accuses the obviously irreproachable seer Tiresias of taking foreign bribes. Money, which is but one element among many in the work by Sophocles, is heavily underscored by Cocteau in his delineation of Creon. The supreme irony of Creon’s tragedy is that his downfall results not from a group of paid subversives, motivated by worldly considerations of money and power; rather, he receives justice from someone who is inspired by moral sanctions.

Yet the agent of Creon’s undoing has a further irony—it is a young woman, Antigone. When Antigone tells her sister that they must jointly act according to higher ethical demands and bury their brother in spite of Creon’s law forbidding it, Ismene replies that she cannot, because women are helpless in the face of male power. Although Ismene proves unable to take action with her sister, she desires, in accordance with her conception of women, to partake of the martyr role that grows out of Antigone’s act.

Female submission in the face of male domination is the essence of Creon’s conception of political power in the largest sense. He says that disorder is his greatest fear and that nothing would strike at the primal basis of his order with more certainty than the revolt of the women. “City,” “family,” and even the army depend on keeping women in their place within the patriarchal structure, and consequently, nothing is more deadly than should it happen that “the anarchist is a woman.” Creon puts the matter even more brutally to his son Haemon, saying that the city is but a wife to its leader. In a patriarchal structuring of both family and city, both a wife and the people must be kept subordinate to the male in power. Cocteau’s choice of lines for Creon cuts even deeper: As he believes that money is the motivating force of those who resist power, so, too, does he believe that women are instruments of propagation and nothing more. Concerning Haemon’s deep love for Antigone, his intended wife, Creon says that “he will find another womb.” These elements are in Sophocles’ play, but Cocteau has selected them out from other elements, brought them to the fore, and underscored them in a way that renders them modern.

Cocteau’s Antigone represents the eternal spirit of disorder that eats away at the social structure on all levels—a structure that Cocteau finds inevitably repressive of the best in the human spirit. The fact that Antigone is a woman gives an added impact to the symbol: She has the capacity to deconstruct not only the obvious political system at the top but also the institution of the family. Cocteau’s drama presents an outsider who gives her life to reveal the hypocrisy and rottenness of the social fabric. Antigone, although possibly influenced by the first wave of the feminist movement as it broke around Cocteau at the time he was writing the play, is not a tract for the stage as is George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs.Warren’s Profession (wr. 1893, pb. 1898), but it is still no less important socially or politically, and it is in some ways, perhaps, more profound. (Source: literariness)

— Arthur Honegger’s Antigone

From 1924 to 1927, Honegger wrote his operatic work Antigone. This was initially the play of Sophocles by Cocteau that was written in 1922, with music by Honegger. He then used this piece to create his radical opera Antigone. The music is harsh, hard, and difficult, working mainly by patterns rather than themes. Dedicated to Andrée Vaurabourg, who he married in 1926, the opera is performed in 1928 at the Monnaie de Bruxelles with the Pauvre Matelot by Darius Milhaud. The performance is not a great success even if the critics are aware of the importance of the work. (Source: Arthur-Honegger.com)

Émile Colonne as Créon in “Antigone”, as premiered
28 December 1927, La Monnaie, Brussels

Opera, Blood, and Tears
an opera in three acts
December 28 at I:30pm EST
on Clubhouse

Music: Arthur Honegger
Libretto : Jean Cocteau
Based on Sophocles' Antigone
Language: French
Premiere 28 December 1927
La Monnaie, Brussels

Antigone: Geneviève Serres
Ismène: Claudine Verneuil
Eyridice: Janine Collard
Tiresias: Andre Vessieres
Créon: Jean Giraudieu
Le Garde: Bernard Plantey
Hemon: Bernard Demigny
Le Messager: Michael Roux

Choeurs de la R.T.F.
Orchestre National de France
Maurice Le Roux

Recorded: 11.10.1960
Archives of l'Institut National de l'Audiovisuel


After the bloody siege of Thebes by Polynices and his allies, the city stands unconquered. Polynices and his brother Eteocles, however, are both dead, killed by each other, according to the curse of Oedipus, their father.

Outside the city gates, Antigone tells Ismene that Creon has ordered that Eteocles, who died defending the city, is to be buried with full honors, while the body of Polynices, the invader, is left to rot. Furthermore, Creon has declared that anyone attempting to bury Polynices shall be publicly stoned to death. Outraged, Antigone reveals to Ismene a plan to bury Polynices in secret, despite Creon’s order. When Ismene timidly refuses to defy the king, Antigone angrily rejects her and goes off alone to bury her brother.

Creon discovers that someone has attempted to offer a ritual burial to Polynices and demands that the guilty one be found and brought before him. When he discovers that Antigone, his niece, has defied his order, Creon is furious. Antigone makes an impassioned argument, declaring Creon’s order to be against the laws of the gods themselves. Enraged by Antigone’s refusal to submit to his authority, Creon declares that she and her sister will be put to death.

Haemon, Creon’s son who was to marry Antigone, advises his father to reconsider his decision. The father and son argue, Haemon accusing Creon of arrogance, and Creon accusing Haemon of unmanly weakness in siding with a woman. Haemon leaves in anger, swearing never to return. Without admitting that Haemon may be right, Creon amends his pronouncement on the sisters: Ismene shall live, and Antigone will be sealed in a tomb to die of starvation, rather than stoned to death by the city.

The blind prophet Tiresias warns Creon that the gods disapprove of his leaving Polynices unburied and will punish the king’s impiety with the death of his own son. After rejecting Tiresias angrily, Creon reconsiders and decides to bury Polynices and free Antigone.

But Creon’s change of heart comes too late. Antigone has hanged herself and Haemon, in desperate agony, kills himself as well. On hearing the news of her son’s death, Eurydice, the queen, also kills herself, cursing Creon.

Alone, in despair, Creon accepts responsibility for all the tragedy and prays for a quick death. The play ends with a somber warning from the chorus that pride will be punished by the blows of fate.