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Adaptation Of The Antigone Of Sophocles English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2597 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This paper is for a presentation about how Brecht’s adaptation of Antigone could be pave way for proto-Marxists behaviour and belief in the end of the World War II. The presentation would shed light on how Sophocles’ original play about divine intervention and early laws in ancient times could have led to passivity in terms of oppression, and how Brecht tried to raise the suppression in his means of adapting Antigone.

Bertolt Brecht was a man of great achievements in the field of Arts. He has helped shaped the world of theatre acting as it is known today with his varying styles and approaches [1] . Throughout his career, he has helped transform lives and the artistic industry.

When it comes down to it, it could be said that Brecht is among those who are responsible for opening the eyes of the people for their power to revolt and defend their stands against their betters. Since the Elizabethan era follows the whims of monarchs and the decrees of royalty and their superiors, those who are poor are left without a voice to be heard. They will pay high taxes if it was asked of them, they will march on to war if their landlord commands them to do so.

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Following this logic, it is no wonder that Bertolt Brecht labels Ancient Greeks and Englishmen of that age as barbarians [2] . They could be classified as barbarians in such a way that they are embracing the emotions expressed by the heroes of Sophocles and Shakespeare. Though pretty the dialogue might be, there lies a hidden truth in each accusation that the audience are barbarians in the sense that they are lapping the tragedies and misfortune of other people and using them as their own gauge of how beautiful their lives are. And if it so happens that the barbarians were able to catch a glimpse of how horrid reality was to those who are less fortunate than their high statures, then they would continue to ignore it and proceed in their daily lives without trying to make a difference.

Perhaps in order to shed light and shock these ‘barbarians’ as Brecht refers to the upper class, he adapted a popular play by Sophocles entitled Antigone. Sophocoles’ original play was about earthly laws and the power of the divine and heaven’s wrath. However, Brecht’s aptly called The Antigone of Sophocles showed a political play which illustrated how a divided country could be devastated after a pointless war [3] . Brecht’s adaptation of Antigone reflects how familial tragedy could be turned into a political pawn in a timely manner wherein the Germans are ripe for understanding and changes.

Yet before the speaker brings the listeners deeper into the mind of this unusual mind, it would be most preferable to introduce Brecht’s background and who he was. This will help the audience understand the context of Brecht’s works, which will thus enable them to relate more on how his works could be used to go in accordance with Sophoclean tragedy.

The year 1898 brought to life Bertolt Brecht to a modest family, wherein he was exiled in 1933 when Nazis occupied Germany. He left Germany and disembarked to a journey heading to Austria, and found himself in the Switzerland and the soils of France. He set premature roots in Denmark, and had to leave after six years when the war was its earnest. Brecht at that time eluded it with his loved ones by going to Sweden, and finding refuge in Finland, and by travelling along the length of the Soviet Union. Finally, he found a boat which took him all the way to the land of the free, which is in Los Angeles, California, in the United States in the year 1941 [4] .

In the safety of Los Angels, California, Brecht wrote his masterpieces entitled Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Setzuan, and the famed The Life of Galileo. The last piece was previewed in Hollywood which stared a big name in theatre of that era: Charles Laughton, who assisted Brecht in penning the English text. The Life of Galileo was proven to be so beautiful that it was showed in Broadway for a season [5] .

During this time, Brecht was already planning to return to Europe, but it was not fated to be. The House Committee on Un-American Activities as a branch of the US Congress subpoenaed artists, directors, and writers who were allegedly known as having leftist sympathies. There were ten writers and directors who were sent to jail because they were uncooperative and insisted on their rights to Freedom of Religion and Political Belief. As a result, they were dubbed as the Unfriendly Ten, and were sentenced to contempt.

Brecht was the eleventh person to be subpoenaed by the Committee. On October 30th, Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas tried Brecht and questioned him about the play Die Massnahme which was set in the Japanese Noh and was published in a left-wing publication in the United States. Brecht denied allegiance to any left-wing movements, and was hereby released by the Committee to pursue his writing.

Antigone was written from March 30 to December 12, 1947. Brecht was in Zürich, Switzerland with his family when the play was finished. It was first shown in Chur Stadttheater in February 1948 [6] .

From its opening night, theatergoers have mentioned how Brecht’s The Antigone of Sophocles is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps this could be attributed to the unavailable English translation, which was only made available during 1984. From 1948 to the launch of the English translation, the audience had to make do with Brecht’s adaptation of the original Sophoclean tragedy [7] .

The original play portrays Brecht’s loose translation of Friedrich Hölderlin’s prior interpretation from Sophocles’ original drama. A member of the audience notes how an argument between Creon and Antigone becomes political when Antigone berates Creon, yet Creon retorts in anger and demands Antigone’s silence [8] . Though it was clear that Creon was in the wrong, society still dictates that a woman cannot hold such strong opinions against her betters. Another controversial fact about the play is how despite the fact that less than five months prior the play’s opening night, Brecht was questioned by the Committee about his loyalty to the country, and yet he wrote such a controversial scene wherein Creon was urging the audience to condemn Antigone for her lack of patrionism.

Willet (1959) mentions how despite the script being written by Hölderlin, Brecht has changed the lines to fit his message. His style was carefully interwoven with Hölderlin’s that is become impossible to distinguish which lines where written by which writer. Therefore Sophocles’ tragedy was given an entirely different meaning from what it was initially intended for. Brecht was also famed for using the Chorus to lead the audience in their responses.

In line with Brecht’s changes to the script, it became apparent that Antigone became concerned with the rights and needs of an individual, against the power and needs of the State, which is the situation during its showing in Switzerland [9] . Though Sophocles’ initial script indicated how individuals should submit blindly to Fate and to decision of gods at all costs, Brecht’s interpretation of Antigone displayed how it could be possible that ‘man’s fate is man himself’ [10] .

Perhaps it could be said that Brecht introduced post-Marxist ideals in the play, and how the original beautiful tragedy was translated into a political ploy. Brecht showed the means of a post-war, defeated Eastern Germany, and how he changed Sophocles’ intention about divine laws upon the reality of state terror after the war.

In Brecht’s The Antigone of Sophocles, it was portrayed how the Berlin of 1945 was in utter disarray. Through the story of Antigone, Breech was able to show how two sisters who might have a brother who left his responsibilities and deserted the German force by hanging himself would fare. There are two choices: would they risk being caught by the authorities, or should they leave him? Brecht showed how Creon was a very brutal tyrant, and how the system is smothering the people [11] .

Brecht showed consistency in his works when he repeated how passive acceptance could be ruined people. He mentioned this in Kleines Orpnon as well as in Antigone [12] .

The political message of Antigone is plain and simple. When it was rewritten by Brecht, Europe was still adjusting after the turmoil caused by World War II, and the author had personally witnessed the changes brought about by the destruction and disability of leaders to admit they’re wrong. This goes hand in hand with the message in Brecht’s Antigone, wherein violence feeds upon itself, and entices those surrounding the violence to a vicious cycle of wars and conflicts that will continue after the people involved are dead, and are crushed for all their supports [13] .

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At the start of the play, Creon launched Thebes in a very aggressive and deadly war against Argos. This was similar to Berlin’s air-raids during the World War II. Creon consistently brings destruction and violence, and takes down his whole country into destruction, instead of surrendering in order to salvage some of their home. The audiences of the play have said that this is similar to Hitler’s black motives against Antigone’s white actions to try to give her brother a decent burial. Hitler tried to drag down all the people, and Brecht was trying to tell the German citizens to raise against Hitler – as Antigone argued with Creon – to be able to bring peace and harmony within the country [14] .

There were others who mentioned that Antigone was the symbol of hope and all that is good. Creon was the tyrant whom Antigone was resisting to follow his evil deeds. She was the angelic voice of reason and conscience, and that goodness comes the practical lesson of achieving practical wisdom against adversity [15] .

With the Chorus which represents the masses in accordance to Creon’s messages and military victory, they are leading the audience into thinking that war is the proper answer to their problems instead of peace. However, in the end of Brecht’s written script, the Chorus turns against Creon, and attacks him for launching the unnecessary war [16] . This could be said to be an eye-opener for the audience, as they felt the power of the masses and how they could share their opinions for the betterment of the group.

Yet according to history, the death of Stalin brought about the revolution of East Berlin’s workers. This uprising was crushed by Soviet tanks, and Brecht was said to have supported the repression [17] . There were speculations about how Brecht was rewarded for his efforts by having his pieces premiered and performed, and how the Stalin Peace Prize which he was given during 1955 was another emblem of how he supported Marxists behaviors. Nevertheless, after he died in 1956, the world all mourned for the great writer.

This presentation shows how Bertolt Brecht was able to change the perspective of people in the turbulent times of World War II. In comparison with Sophocles’ original piece, Antigone and Creon were given the opportunity to discuss their defensible claims before the tirades of the war went on. In the original story, Polynices was not allowed to be buried for he was deemed as a traitor. Antigone then goes against the decree and buries Polynices, which angers Creon. Thus continues Sophocles’ tragedy wherein Antigone argues that she was following the divine commands of gods to bury the dead, and Creon was insisting that Antigone went against the State’s wishes [18] .

Sophocles’ thesis is simple: Antigone shouldn’t have buried Polynices because this is against the State’s orders. Yet with Brecht’s version, Antigone was the one in the righteous position because she was opening up the eyes of the State and the people that to deprieve the dead of burial is unjust and unfavoured by gods.

In the end the question to be answered is how much the people is willing to raise up against the country. The Antigone of Sophocles’ in Brecht’s adaptation opens the possibility of a political play which reflects the horrors inflicted by the war and the concerns of modernity. Is the power of the State so great that even dead men cannot receive justice? Brecht was able to show the different side of the war: war wherein the families of deserters were suffering for not being able to pay their loved ones proper respect, and how to swallow their morality for the sake of not enraging the gods.

The speaker strongly believes that in Brecht’s adaptation of Antigone was given the proper justice it deserves by today’s mediums and forms of communication. The Sophoclean tragedy was able to step up and be in accordance to Brechtian Epic Theatre which relieves the past and makes the audience feel the impact of the war. Clearly, it is a matter of addressing which position should the audience play in terms of determining their freedom, and the possibility of controlling a man’s own fate, instead of letting the heavens be the judge of the future.


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