Bertolt Brecht’s Antigone as an Example of Epic Theatre



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Bertolt Brecht’s Antigone as an Example of Epic Theatre

Antigone, originally written by the Greek playwright Sophocles around 441 B.C., is a tragedy that has till date been perhaps the most discussed and widely written about. Over the centuries the Greek tragedy has never faded out of the mainstream. Therefore if one were to trace the reception of the play in the context of the phase of the Modern Drama two adaptations emerge as popular; Jean Anouilh’s French production in 1943 and German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s production in Switzerland in 1948. In my paper I shall focus on the latter adaptation i.e. Bertolt Brecht’s “The Antigone of Sophocles” based on German poet Friedrich Holderlin’s translation of Sophocles’ tragedy in German in 1804.

Any discussion pertaining to the development of Modern Drama is incomplete without reference to Brecht who has been the major figure behind the formation and functioning of the Epic Theatre. It is quite interesting to note that during his exile in Switzerland when Brecht was given the opportunity to do a guest production in the town Chur, he had selected Antigone out of a range of plays namely Saint Joan of the Stockyards, Macbeth, Antigone, Mother Courage and Phaedra.

He reworked Holderlin’s translation to suit his interests of critiquing the Aristotelian notions of tragedy as the new kind of theatre that he had in mind was against the production of any kind of emotional effects on the audience. Since this was the first time that Brecht was adapting a Greek play he got the opportunity to provide another perspective of the play that avoided catharsis, purgation of pity and fear which was thought central to tragedy. Antigone for time immemorial has been considered a great example of tragedy and what Brecht therefore wanted to do was rescue the play from under the label of tragedy. He aimed at bringing out the fact that tragedy led to catharsis which in turn left the audience incapable of critically reflecting on the situations being staged. Brecht’s aim through epic theatre was to use theatre as a medium for imparting education to the masses. He had once remarked in an interview that “The audience has to be good enough psychologist to make its own sense of the material I put before it.” (trans.Willet)

Aristotle’s views on tragedy in his work Poetics have always been dominant and were so during Brecht’s time as well. Aristotle regarded tragedy as a superior form of theatre and for any play to qualify as tragedy it was imperative that the action on stage evoked feelings of pity and fear in the spectator. Aristotle’s notions were admired by all throughout the ages and playwrights tried to incorporate his beliefs in their plays without any deviation from the proposed theories. However during the twentieth century when a lot of movements like Symbolism followed by Surrealism then Existentialism were influencing artists all over the world there was no dearth of new ideas and experimentation in the arts. So when Brecht wanted to break from the Aristotelian tradition he found inspiration in people like Erwin Piscator, Reinhardt, Meyehold and a host of playwrights. When Brecht thought of developing a form of theatre which could serve a pedagogical purpose he worked on Georg Kaiser’s ideas. Kaiser like many had fled Germany with the rise of Hitler in 1930s. Kaiser had argued with the symbolists that “a work of art does not exist for itself; at the bottom it should be didactic in purpose, encouraging man to positive effort.” (Styan). When Kaiser was voicing such thoughts it was the time of rise of Expressionism which was closely followed by the coming of Epic theatre. Brecht combined Kaiser’s ideas with those of Piscator who formulated ideas for a drama that combined political and social issues in such a manner that it fulfilled the role of a forum for public discussion. Brecht put forward his ideas as a counter argument to the dramatic theatre. He highlighted the differences between his epic theatre which was non-Aristotelian and the widely followed dramatic theatre as to how epic theatre presented an argument and made the spectator confront a situation opposed to dramatic theatre wherein the spectator was provided with and made to relate to the experiences. He stressed more on highlighting the importance of reason over emotions. Thus Brecht in his adaptation “The Antigone of Sophocles” puts forth the argument that man himself is responsible for his/her own conditions and the state of situations is alterable by making reasoned choices.

Brecht has reformed the plot of the play to a large extent and in his production we get to see a new aspect of the situation where the characters can clearly be termed as good and evil as opposed to the complex characters created by Sophocles where we never resolve the dilemma as to who was a more tragic figure among Kreon and Antigone. Brecht clearly paints Antigone in one shade and Kreon in the other as opposed to their original grey shades in Sophocles. Brecht deviates from Sophocles in showing that the war has not ended and that both Eteokles and Polyneikes were fighting against the Argives as soldiers in Kreon’s army. In addition Brecht added a prologue to the play to place the events in the post-war scenario .It begins with two sisters who are shown against the background of an air raid shelter from which they are returning home in Berlin of April 1945. The two are referred to as “the first” and “the second” instead of any fixed names. Their dialogues are a mixture of direct address to each other and a recount of the tale in past tense. The conversation between the two begins on the whereabouts of their brother. Throughout they are constantly distracted by the screams from outside which in the end they realise were emanated by their own brother. The prologue ends with one sister wanting to go outside to cut her brother off the butcher’s hook on which he has been hung and the other refusing any kind of relation with the dead man on being questioned by the officer in order to save her life.

The First: Then I looked at my sister. Would she now under the penalty of death try to free her brother? If only he had not died. (prologue, Malina)

The last dialogue of the prologue thereby posits as a beginning for the events that will unfold in the play starting with the two sisters namely Antigone and Ismene involved in a discussion on the burial of Polyneikes. In addition Brecht had also written a poem “The Antigone Legend” as a summary of the entire narrative of the plot for the aid of the audience, to help them in understanding the developments of the action on stage. Brecht’s adaptation draws Kreon as a tyrant on the lines of Hitler who only lusts for power and is ignorant to all other issues. Brecht was always against fascism and dictatorship, and he never left an opportunity to criticize Hitler in his work. In plays such as Round Heads and Pointed Heads (1931), Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (1938), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) he had openly disclosed his hatred for Hitler and Nazism. Therefore it does not come as a surprise that parallels can be drawn between Kreon and Adolf Hitler in the given play. Kreon in Sophocles’ play was depicted as a ruler who wanted to ensure the safety and smooth functioning of the city state of Thebes. He viewed himself as the guardian of Thebes who saw it as his duty to work in the best interests of the state as he proclaimed in the play:

I believe that he who rules in a state and fails to embrace the best men’s counsels, but stays locked in silence and vague fear, is the worst man there. I have long believed so. And he who cherishes an individual beyond his homeland, he, I say is nothing. Zeus who sees all will see I shall not stay silent if I see disaster marching against our citizens, and I shall not befriend the enemy of this land. For the state is safety. When she is steady, then we can steer. (Sophocles)

Therefore it is a complex situation, for Kreon rejects proper burial of Polyneikes on the grounds that he was the enemy of the state as he with the support of Argos had attacked Thebes to take over the throne. When Antigone justifies that she buried Polyneikes because he was her brother and to dishonour the dead was against the law, one finds that both Antigone and Kreon are right in their own stance as they both have reasons to defend their actions. This is an important aspect of Sophocles’ play that adds to its tragic nature. However Brecht shows that Kreon in his play refuses to give proper burial to Polyneikes because he tried to flee from the battle on seeing his brother Eteokles die. So according to Brecht’s Kreon Polyneikes is a traitor because he refuses to carry on fighting in the battle against Argos which Kreon had undertaken. In fact Kreon himself makes it clear that the war with Argos is over economic issues as he says:

When I attacked Argos, who sent me? The metal spears went out to bring metal from the mountains at your request; for you know Argos is rich in metals. (Malina)

Throughout the play in Kreon’s conversations with both the Characters and Chorus one can clearly see his imperialist motives behind fighting with Argos as he constantly says “rich Argos” and talks of the numerous riches they can pillage from Argos as booty. In thus showing a materialist and power hungry Kreon Brecht ensured that Antigone was a contrasting figure who stood all for peace and wanted the good for the people of the state. Antigone’s arguments in her conversation with Kreon enlighten the audience to judge Kreon as a mere tyrant:

The man who’s after power is like the thirsty man who drinks salt-water; he can’t hold it in, but he has to have more. Yesterday it was my brother. Today it is I. (Malina)

Therefore the audience will not have problems reflecting over the downfall that Kreon meets in the end of the play because the audience will be able to intelligently reason out the cause and effects in the end which would in no way leave any scope for them to feel any pitiable emotions.

It was not that Brecht entirely dismissed ancient Greek theatre as an old form rather he picked up the techniques from it that served the purpose of his Epic Theatre. For instance although he has changed the storyline in the play he uses the Chorus for the same purpose as was used by Sophocles. The function of the Chorus in both plays is to provide a distanced view of the actions. Brecht found this useful for Epic Theatre as the Chorus would ensure in maintaining the alienation effect that was an integral part of the Epic Theatre. The nature of Chorus in both versions is however different. In Brecht’s version the Theban Elders appear to be supporting both opposing individuals Antigone and Kreon. The Chorus condemns Kreon’s actions only when they hear out Antigone’s arguments against Kreon’s ruthless war policies. As opposed to that the Chorus in the original appear as the wise group who comment on the happenings and also advise Kreon to mend his wrong decision of punishing Antigone. Kreon in the original seems to possess only one flaw that he was excessively immersed in doing right for the state because everywhere else he does argue his point with people but still leaves scope to amend his actions. In Brecht’s version for instance when Tiresias pays a visit to Kreon, the latter only mocks him in harshest tones whereas in the original Kreon is more respectful towards Tiresias. These changes in Kreon’s depiction to a great extent distance the audience from feeling pity for Brecht’s Kreon.

A major deviation in Brecht’s version is the omission of Eurydice’s suicide which comes right after when the news of her son Haimon’s death reaches her. Hence in the original the audience sympathise with both Antigone, who was given death punishment for going against the order of Kreon by burying her brother and who eventually commits suicide by hanging herself, and Kreon who mourns the loss of his son Haimon and wife Eurydice. Therefore as specified by Aristotle that death is an integral part of tragedy, Sophocles’ version has three deaths which begin with Antigone’s suicide leading to her lover Haimon’s suicide which in turn becomes the cause for his mother Eurydice’s suicide. Therefore one naturally feels empathy for Kreon who wanted to amend his wrongdoings and was in the process of doing so as he had begun with Polyneikes’ burial when he gets to know of Haimon’s grief on losing Antigone. And as the scenes unfold Kreon is left all alone grieving his loss and the Chorus remarks:

For their grand schemes or bold words the proud pay with great wounds…And great wounds before today have taught sense even to the aged. (Sophocles)

In omitting Eurydice’s suicide Brecht removes the tragic aspect of Kreon’s character as implied in the original version. His Kreon like the original also grieves for his son Hamon however he grieves more for the state of Thebes which is about to meet its doom as we are told that the Argives are on their way to attack Thebes which shall not be able to defend itself. Kreon carrying Hamon’s bloody shirt at the end remarks

…but what there was of courage and of excellence was turned against me, so now Thebes falls; and it should fall, should fall with me, should be done with and left to the vultures. (Malina)

This would make the audience then reflect over Kreon’s actions and thus reach the conclusion that it was his own doings and not the workings of the fate. This realisation comes across as important for Brecht thought the audience would apply the same logic to their state outside the theatre and work towards altering it. On the other hand in Antigone we only sense a rebellious aspect for she offers a sharp criticism of Kreon throughout the play. She rejects submission to Kreon rather she becomes that voice which tries to awaken the people of Thebes against the injustices meted out to them by Kreon. By committing suicide it appears as if she puts up herself for the sacrifice which will lead to rebellion against Kreon.

Brecht became innovative with the plot when he introduced onstage the monologue of Kreon’s elder son Megareus who is shown dying while speaking of the horrors of the war. Judith Malina from whose translation I have cited omits the portion pertaining to Megareus rather she gives a similar sppech to a messenger.

To further understand how Brecht showed the working of Epic Theatre in his version of Antigone one needs to also take into consideration his work Antigonemodell 1948 in which he mentions that

The Antigone story then unrolls the whole chain of incidents objectively, on the unfamiliar level of the rulers. This possibility of objectively presenting a major state operation was due precisely to the fact that the old play was historically so remote as to tempt nobody to identify himself with its principal figure. (Brecht)

It was Caspar Neher who had designed the stage for the production and Brecht recounts as to how the benches were placed in full view of the audience so that the actors would get up and perform their parts, at the same time not letting the audience forget that they are in a theatre. The props used were bare minimums like a millet bowl and wire jar for Antigone, Kreon’s laurel wreath and sword, and posts with horses’ skull.

Brecht’s version has in all aspect freed itself form tragic overtones as what is presented to the spectator is not the emotional experience of events but a more intellectual kind of experience.

Works cited:

Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Richard Emil Braun. London: Oxford University Press,1974

Brecht, Bertolt, Judith Malina, and Sophocles. Sophocles' Antigone. New York, : Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1990.

Brecht, Bertolt, and John Willett. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

Drakakis, John, and Naomi Liebler, eds. Tragedy. New York: Longman, 1998

Styan, John L. Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 2. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981

Styan, John L. Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 3. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981

Hillesheim, Jürgen, and Stephen Brockmann. Young Mr. Brecht Becomes a Writer =: Der Junge Herr Brecht Wird Schriftsteller. Madison, Wis: International Brecht Society, 2006.

Jones, Frank, and Gore Vidal. "Tragedy with a Purpose: Bertolt Brecht's" Antigone"." The Tulane Drama Review 2.1 (1957): 39-45.



Rosenthal, Cindy. "Antigone's Example: A View of the Living Theatre's Production, Process, and Praxis." Theatre Survey 41.01 (2000): 69-88.


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