Antigone by Sophocles and Brecht: Critical Comparison
The chronicle of Antigone as represented in the drama, Antigone by Sophocles, has been an appealing story that dramatists have continued to use as a vehicle to express their own ideas. When studying a narrative as ancient and as prevalent as Antigone, it is important to define the source material from which it is drawn. In the case of Antigone, that source material takes on unusual definitions. For Sophocles, all indications are that his drama was based off a popular Greek myth, yet in the case of recent versions, the source of the story shifts from the myth to the rendition in Sophocles’ play.
Gilbert Highet defines myths as serving one of three purposes. They either re-tell historical fact, symbolize permanent human truths, or explain recurring natural processes (520). The myth that Sophocles used as a basis for his drama clearly had little to do with explaining recurring natural processes. According to Highet’s definition, then, Antigone was either a historical figure, or a symbol for universal human truths, and mythical by this definition.
The source for recent versions of Antigone are not the ancient Greek myth but the drama of Sophocles. Connections to the myth of Antigone come indirectly through Sophocles’ Antigone. These dramas are based upon the story, the characters, the themes, etc. of Sophocles’ Antigone, which in turn used the myth of Antigone as the source for his story, characters, themes, etc. This study compares Bertolt Brecht’s 1948 Antigone in relation to Sophocles’ original version of the Antigone myth.
Though Brecht’s Antigone is not different from Sophocles version in regards to its dramatic action, it is immediately obvious, from the moment Antigone first speaks, that Brecht has adjusted his version thematically.
But our brother
Polyneices was even younger when he saw his
to death under the hooves of the war-horse. In tears
he fled from the unfinished battle; for others
another decision is made by the spirit of battle, when
with a hard
blow with his right he unnerves his hand. Now
the fugitive lurches forward
until he has crossed the Dirsean river—breathing a
sigh of relief
at the sight of Thebes, his seven-gated city—when he
is suddenly seized
by blood-spattered Creon, who killed his brother—
standing behind them,
lashing them all into his battle—and he is
From this it is clear not only where Brecht’s sympathies lie, but also where he intends for the sympathies of his audience to rest as well.
According to Brecht’s version, Polyneices and Eteocles were never divided; rather they were comrades for Thebes in a war where Creon was “lashing them all into his battle.” It isn’t the treasonous act at subjugating the city of Thebes, then, for which Polyneices is guilty in the eyes of Creon; instead, it is simply the act of desertion upon witnessing the death of a brother for whom he obviously cared. Combined with the image of a “blood-spattered Creon,” and the inference of blame that Brecht casts upon the king, the gory picture of a tyrannical despot becomes assuredly associated with Creon.
A staunch Communist, Brecht was a vocal opponent to the Nazis and the lingering post-war Fascism (Bentley, Memoir), and his Antigone is no exception to these political proclivities. The idea of fate is nearly non-existent in Brecht’s version, and instead he emphasizes the theme of the individual fighting against an unjust establishment within the context of war.
In her preface to her own translation of Brecht’s Antigone, Judith Malina mentions that “Brecht himself developed the text in a direction that underscores the play’s relevance to the Nazi debacle” (v). This is illustrated by the fact that the war which functions as a back story in each of the other versions, including Sophocles’, becomes the context of action in Brecht’s play. In this version they are in the midst of the war, as opposed to having just won it. Here, it is tangible and present, but instead of it being fought at and around the seven gates of Thebes where Creon and Eteocles are forced into a necessary stance of defense, Creon has driven his war to the Argives. The war in Brecht’s Antigone, as opposed to that in Sophocles, is an act of aggression, and he uses this to establish an association between it, and the Nazis of World War II.
Brecht added an emphasis on the inevitable calamity spawned by political rigidity for which the fate of the Hitler regime clearly served as a model. This is most evident in Brecht’s use of the character of Creon’s son, Megareus, who is…commander of the armies gone after conquest…Megareus is absent in the Sophoclean version, but Brecht brings him onstage for a blood-curdling monologue in which the dying soldier describes in chilling detail the fiery rout of the forces of the homeland. Thus Brecht attempts to anchor his play…as firmly in the history of this century as in the tales of the ancient world (Malina vi).
The conflict between Antigone and Creon depends upon this immediacy of Thebes’ war with the Argives. It is also through this conflict that the issue of the war is continuously brought to the fore of the play. He eliminates Creon from episode four, where Antigone is escorted to her sentence. By avoiding the confrontation between these two characters, Brecht allows his protagonist to deliver a political denouncement of Creon, which associatively, denounces the Nazi supporters as well:
You’re really the victims.
More mangled bodies
will be heaped up for you, unburied as a cairn
for the unburied. You, who dragged Creon’s war
across distant frontiers, though you may
win battles, the last one
will destroy you. You, who called for booty, you
will not see full wagons, but
empty ones. I mourn for you, survivors,
—what you will see
when my eyes will be filled with dust! (48)
The tone Brecht creates is far more militant than that found in either Sophocles or Anouilh. The characters are consistently unyielding, and each episode is driven by the polarity of their black and white ideals. Creon holds to his beliefs through to the end, agreeing to release Antigone only out of necessity so that he may continue his war; and Haemon never separates his loyalties between family and state in that a distinction is never made between his love and loyalty toward his father and his anger at the injustice in his ruling.
Yet while Brecht’s ideologies may be connected to his own post-war society, one cannot deny their parallels to the Athenian concept of homonoia. In both Brecht and Sophocles, Creon refuses to capitulate to the will of the people concerning the burial of Polyneices:
Creon: What should be done! To honour disobedience!
Haemon: I would not have you honour criminals.
Creon: And is this qirl then not a criminal?
Haemon: The city with a sinale voice denies it.
Creon: Must I qive orders then bv their permission?
Haemon: If vouth is follv, this is childishness.
Creon: Am I to rule for them, not for myself?
Haemon: That is not qovemment, but tyranny.
Creon: The kinq is lord and master of his city.
Haemon: Then you had better rule a desert island
Creon: This man, it seems, is the ally of the woman.
Haemon: If you’re the woman, yes! I fight for you.
Creon: Villain! Do you oppose your father’s will?
Haemon: Only because you are opposing Justice. (26)
Creon: …But you, knowinq little of the case, knowing nothing, you advise me: watch your step, look for alternatives, talk to them in their terms, as if authority could sway the many-bodied masses to difficult deeds by being nothing but a small, cowardly ear.
The Elders: But it saps the strenqth to think up cruel punishments.
Creon: To crush the curse to earth. until it curses, requires strength.
The Elders: But the qentle uses of order can do much.
Creon: There are many orders, but who gives the orders?
Haemon: Even if I were not your son I’d say: you do.
Creon: If I am charged with it, I’ll do it my way.
Haemon: Do it your wav, but make it the right way.
Creon: Not knowinq what 1 know, vou can’t know what it is. Are you my friend no matter how I do it?
Haemon: I want you to do it so that I can be your friend. But don’t say you alone can be right, and no other. (40-1)
Philosophically antithetical to Athenian homonoia, Creon’s egocentricity is accentuated further by Brecht’s focus on the war between Thebes and Argos. In his version, the war is omnipresent, and it is made clear throughout that it is a war of Creon’s doings and desires. From Antigone’s rebuke at the beginning, to the Messenger’s lengthy tale at the end of how the Theban army fell to the Argives, the lines are clearly drawn. More than anything, perhaps, it is this aspect of Brecht’s Antigone that separates it from Sophocles’. While Sophocles’ play may be underscored with themes of war, Brecht’s play ultimately is about war.
The 1940s were a time of extreme political unrest. The effects of World War II were felt to some degree across the globe, but for those in the direct line of Hitler’s expansion, the war became a constant presence. In Europe, playwrights like Brecht made use of the war in their work. With Antigone, the theme of the individual’s struggle against an oppressive state suddenly found a new relevance within the context of World War II. Brecht could escape the influence of World War II in their lives. Subsequently, in an effort to criticize Nazi rule, he turned to Sophocles’ Antigone. By extending the story of this Classic play, Brecht found a way to make their statement while minimizing the backlash from, or association to, the Nazi movement during the war and the post-war years.
Gilbert Highet thought that “tragedy must rise above the realities of every day, upon the wings of imagination and emotion” (538). Sophocles’ Antigone exemplifies this. In doing so Sophocles managed to achieve what no poet or playwright had been able to accomplish before him: he took a myth of questionable origin and which had been the product of a dubiously documented oral tradition for centuries and created a definitive record of it from which all subsequent versions have been drawn.
Myths have always been an indomitable part of the human psyche. Carl Jung believed that myths were “patterns in which the soul of every man develops, because of the humanity he shares with every other man” (Jung, qtd. in Highet 524). Drawing from universal, immortal truths myths capture on a primal level those elements which have an irresistible appeal. This is evidenced by the mythical stories, often of similar design, that exist in diverse cultures around the world to this day.
Some of the world’s greatest artists have continually drawn from myth for source material. These include Homer’s Odyssey, Rembrandt’s “Danae,” Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and of course the uncredited “Venus di Milo.” Theatre, however, may be the most indebted to, and dependent upon, myths. Virtually born from myth, the Western theatre’s oldest extant plays are dominated by tales of gods, witches, soothsayers, and other fantastic individuals. Even those stories with historical origin such as the Trojan War became mythic in nature due to the natural embellishment that their oral tradition laid upon them through time.
Bentley, Eric. The Brecht Memoir. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1985.
Brecht, Bertolt. Antigone. Trans. Judith Malina. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1990.
Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition, Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Malina, Judith. Preface. Antigone. By Bertolt Brecht. Trans. Malina. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1990. v-vii.
Sophocles, Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra. Trans. H.D.F. Kitto (1962). Ed. Edith Hall and H.D.F. Kitto. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1998. 2-45.
 Brecht uses alternative spellings for some characters, but for the sake of consistency here the choice has been made to standardize the names.
 See chapter one, page nine.
 Selected text for both Sophocles and Brecht is transposed from verse to prose.
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