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Tragedy deals with high moral issues, and the pleasure of it lies in the spectacle of virtue that triumphs over evil through the catharsis (purgation) of the emotions of pity and fear. In a modern reworking of the ancient Greek tragedy, Antigone by Sophocles, Jean Anouilh changes the tragedy to suit his style and to address the contemporary problems of the Nazi troops that occupied France in the height of the French Resistance. The age-old and universal conflict between human and divine law and between practical compromise and unbending idealism are examined in the play.
The tragedy unfolds in three parts and eight episodes. The Chorus introduces the dramatist personae, or cast of characters, to the audience: Antigone, the protagonist; Creon, the King of Thebes; Eurydice, the Queen of Thebes; Creon, the brother-in-law of Oedipus; the three guards and the Messenger; Ismene, Haemon, and the page.
In Episode I, the Chorus narrates the past events leading to the present time. Oedipus, King of Thebes and father of Ismene, Antigone, Polynices and Eteocles, puts out his eyes on learning the truth of his incest with his mother, Jocasta. After his death, he decrees that his two sons are to rule in alternate years. At the end of his year's rule, Eteocles does not step down to give the throne to Polynices. As a result, civil war breaks out between the brothers, and Polynices brings in foreign princes to overthrow Eteocles. Both the brothers are killed, and Creon, brother-in-law of Oedipus, becomes the King of Thebes. Then, a conflict is created by Creon's edict that no one shall bury Polynices, as he is considered a traitor to the state. On the other hand, Eteocles is given a ritual burial and a state funeral.
In Episode III, the guards discover that someone has broken Creon's law. They find a toy shovel near Polynices' mud-covered body conclude that a child has tried to bury him. Creon makes a swift decision; he orders the guards to uncover the body, to keep quiet about the attempted burial, and to stand watch over the corpse again. Creon worries about who would have broken his law and cannot believe that it is a mere child.
In Episode IV, the Chorus (the mouthpiece of Jean Anouilh) gives a brilliant exposition of the elements of tragedy. It compares the mechanics of building suspense in a tragedy to a spring being wound up tightly. In both the spring and the tragedy, any small act can trigger the uncoiling, and the rest is automatic. The chorus also claims that tragedy is restful, clean, and flawless, a far superior form of art than melodrama, where there is the possibility of escape from one's fate. In tragedy, there is no escape from inevitable doom.
In Episode V, the guards capture Antigone in the act of covering Polynices' body with dirt. They handcuff her and drag her to Creon for justice. Creon is stunned to see that his niece Antigone is the criminal. He tries to cover up the truth and plans to get her to change her mind.