Creon in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone

Aristotle believed that in order for a tragedy to be truly fulfilled, there must be a tragic villain who is completely aware of their evil but takes little pleasure from acting evil. In Jean Anouilh’s Antigone that character is Creon from the moment he is “cast as the villain” in the Prologue. Central to the prevalent success of Antigone is the way that Anouilh characterises Creon to overcome personal, moral or religious ethics to act with a degree of political pragmatism. This rationality largely derives from his gain of responsibility and power as we see Creon develop into a decisive leader, before his brutal pragmatic instincts diminish towards the end of the play. This is illustrated clearest during his confrontational power struggle with Antigone, where Anouilh uses literary techniques such as rhetorical devices to not only develop the audience’s perception of Creon as a pragmatist, but to also link his political expediency to the political backdrop of France at the time.

As the play progresses, Anouilh develops Creon into a cynical leader, despite holding Thebes at the vanguard of any decisions that he makes. Anouilh opts for rhetorical devices when displaying this, such as when Creon says Antigone would “do Thebes more good that way than by dying, believe me,” in regards to giving Haemon a son. This is but one of the numerous occasions where Creon considers the judgement of his citizens as the priority, and displays shrewd persuasiveness. In this case it is shown by “believe me” as Creon uses his position of power to exercise a facade of wisdom. Despite this, it is evident that Creon is confined as a leader by the very same people of Thebes, and is forced to act rationally in a way to please his people, through dialogue such as “They’ll say it isn’t true. That I’m sparing my son.” Nevertheless, the greatest examples of Creon’s pragmatic ruling shine through in his decision making. For example this occurs when Creon did not know whether he had buried the body of Eteocles or Polynices, but wanted to hold what seemed a just burial process for each brother in the eyes of the people of Thebes. This magnifies the omnipresent awareness that Creon holds of the judgement of his inferiors. Although it could be interpreted that this inhibits obstinate and self-willed decisions made by Creon as a ruler, it certainly proves to be an indication of Creon’s wisdom and a reoccurring feature of his pragmatism as he acts in the best heart of his people to avoid conflict.

Another reason why Creon feels obliged to act rationally in his decree is because he feels that the welfare of Thebes relies on himself alone, and Anouilh uses an extremely clever extended metaphor to persuade Antigone and the audience of this. By saying “Someone has to steer the ship. It’s letting in water on all sides”, the desperation in the voice of Creon is encapsulated, and how vulnerable he feels when faced with the prospect of displeasing the people of Thebes when “The rudder’s adrift.” The sheer length of this metaphor forces the audience to take notice of its significance in a wider context. It draws attention to how this anxiety that surfaces from Creon not only ensures that he is presented to be ill-fated as the antagonist or the tragic villain, who must tackle the onerous task of managing a crew that “won’t take orders,” but it also adds an extra dimension to his character. We are able to sympathise with Creon as Anouilh exposes the viewers to the valour demonstrated by Creon, being the “someone” that has “to say yes” to the task of ruling over a Thebes in turmoil as a much needed pragmatist.

Creon’s pragmatic qualities that result from this reliance upon him, are cleverly illustrated by Anouilh through his advising, and wise persona. This is best exemplified when he first meets Antigone and asks whether anybody had known about Antigone’s crime before formulating a well-constructed plan that would keep all parties involved content. He says to Antigone “go to bed, say that you’re sick, that you haven’t been out since yesterday. Your nurse will say the same thing. I’ll make those three men disappear.” The way in which Anouilh prescribes Creon with dialogue in short, formulaic sentences that are based on imperative verbs such as “go”, “say” and “make” amplifies the clarity and logical thought processes of Creon. It highlights Creon’s will to not only keep Thebes from rebelling by not hearing of Antigone’s crime, but to also satisfy Antigone and therefore Haemon once again. This highlights Creon’s initial consistency in acting as a utilitarian, making Creon appear as a signpost for logic and rationality in the eyes of the viewers. Therefore, we see Creon’s pragmatism could well have been the prevailing quality, that would resolve his dilemma with Antigone, but instead it was Antigone who provoked conflict in the play by failing to co-operate with the sagacity of Creon. Thus, the pragmatism of Anouilh leaves the extent of Creon’s ruthless and dictating nature open to interpretation for the viewers, who are also able to now question whether Creon really was the true antagonist of the play.

What also makes this judgement from the audience so much more stimulating, is the way in which Anouilh creates a pre-ordained destiny for each character. The meta-theatrical narrator prophesies death to anybody rebelling against Creon’s orders in the Prologue, and how one day the guards will be “ordered to arrest Creon.” This leaves little manoeuvrability for Creon to prove himself as a just ruler and sway the spectators away from the “intransigent purity and innocence” in Antigone. Nevertheless, Creon’s string of logical reasoning and allegiance to a pragmatic decree persists in his confrontation with Antigone and augments the dubiousness of whether or not Creon is the true antagonist of the play. This pragmatism is also of paramount importance to Antigone as it once more enables the fulfilment of tragedy, as Creon’s harsh political expediency inevitably results in the climax of the play; Antigone’s punishment.

After this confrontation with Antigone however, Creon’s political pragmatism fades in Antigone as he loses the decisive edge that made him seem apposite for the intimidating task of ruling Thebes. Anouilh does this by embedding hesitation into the voice of Creon; “the mob knows already…I can’t turn back,” where Anouilh’s use of ellipses amplifies an intimation of regret in Creon’s dialogue. This is coupled with how Creon tries to alleviate the culpability of sentencing Antigone to death, by instead leaving her to die in a sealed cave. It is at these points in the play where Anouilh opens the audience to the degradation of Creon. He was once a liberated man who “loved music and fine buildings,” but becomes subject to the encumbrance of Thebes as he gains power and Anouilh’s ascription of Creon’s political expediency proves to be insufficient for stabilising Thebes. This deterioration of Creon’s principles here bridges to what Creon ultimately symbolises; how he is only an “archetype bound within his time and political system” in the words of Jan Parker. The symbolism of Creon’s character extends when one delves deeper into the political context of Anouilh’s Antigone. It could be considered that Anouilh uses Creon to draw comparison to the political pragmatism of German fascists who ruled over France through the Vichy government. Moosavinia puts it into perspective by saying Creon too “has no respect for the traditional, moral and cultural values.” This is clearly evident when Creon labels the burial process as “some ecclesiastical rigmarole” which forefronts Creon’s cynical nature. This dictatorship approach to his decree and Germany’s ruling over France through the Vichy Government at the time of Anouilh writing Antigone makes it seem clear that there is a correlation between Creon’s character and German fascists. Creon abolishes former order, as the Germans did through abandoning the national motto of “freedom, brotherhood, equality” before acting with political expediency to gain absolute power. Therefore, it slowly unravels that Creon’s expediency is the tool used to give Antigone its most significant and universal dimension through symbolism, which is how ominous expediency can be for a society.

To conclude, Anouilh uses Creon as a symbol for the corruption that will inevitably fall when a ruler transforms into a dictator. Although Creon acts with a justified decree of political pragmatism that Thebes needed, it is this same quality that proves to be his downfall. He cannot prevent the truly violent and inexorable deaths that enable the ending to ultimately be tragic, and so the prophesies predicted in the Prologue by the meta-theatrical narrator are inevitably fulfilled. This helplessness contributes to the true tragedy between the lines in Antigone. It is that a judiciously pragmatic Creon, who will one day be subject to the ubiquitous system within Thebes of unremittingly dispensing rulers, will be forced to die lonely, whilst a foolish Antigone can die as a noble martyr for a reason that Anouilh’s viewers would not be able to work out after leaving the theatre.