Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh: Les Antigones – and the tg STAN performance


Jean Cocteau chose in 1922 to translate Sophocles’ famous tragedy Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729) into French. Cocteau himself, in his diaries, declares that he was motivated by a feeling of sympathy with the heroine, who like Joan of Arc, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Jean Genet, shares the condition of being both persecuted and inspired. For Cocteau, the persecution of Antigone will be based on her purity, which distinguishes her from the rest of corrupt society. The first production of Antigone in 1922 was staged at the Atélier in Paris with settings by Pablo Picasso, music by Arthur Honegger, and costumes by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Charles Dullin and Antonin Artaud played the parts of Creon and Tiresias, Cocteau himself took the part of the Chorus, and Genica Atanasiou played Antigone. This collaboration of innovators in all fields of the arts is typical of Cocteau’s productions and films.

Cocteau’s text shortens Sophocles’ tragedy, adapting the Greek tragedy to a unified French dramatic form, and shifts many of the psychological and verbal emphases of the ancient play. Cocteau’s prose is itself shortened; it is often not only concise but abrupt, giving a feel of avant-garde modernity to the play’s language. Cocteau describes his effort as a reduction and “scouring” of language to the point at which the play “hurtles toward its conclusion like an express train.” At the…

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Antigone, an adaptation of Sophocles’s classic produced in the context of the anti-fascist French resistance, is Anouilh’s most often-produced work today. Antigone premiered in Paris in 1944, but Anouilh had written his tale of lone rebellion against the state two years earlier, inspired by an act of resistance during Paris’s occupation by the Nazis. In August 1942, a young man named Paul Collette fired at and wounded a group of directors during a meeting of the collaborationist Légion des volontaires français. Collette did not belong to a Resistance network or organized political group, but acted entirely alone and in full knowledge of his certain death. For Anouilh, Collette’s solitary act—at once heroic, gratuitous, and futile—captured the essence of tragedy and demanded an immediate revival of Antigone. Aware of Anouilh’s thinly veiled attack on the Vichy government, the Nazis censored Antigone immediately upon its release. It premiered two years later at the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris under the direction of André Barsacq, a few months before Paris’ liberation. The play starred Valentin as the doomed princess, and soon assumed canonical status in modern French theater.


Based on works by Jean Cocteau & Jean Anoulh

Toneelspelersgezelschap [tg] STAN is a company of Flemish actors which applies collective principles both to the process of reworking dramatic texts and to the presentation of postdramatic staged compositions. The company prioritizes actor presence, unmediated communication with the audience, and the second element in its acronym: S(top) T(hinking) A(bout) N(ames). In Les Antigones (2001), tg STAN contrast two contemporary versions of the Antigone myth by Jean Cocteau (1922) and Jean Anouilh (1944) respectively.The two represent different approaches to the issues raised by the tragedy’s characters.
tg STAN entirely reject each and every desire to embody or transcend roles. Motivated by the hypothesis that ancient audiences knew the myths before they saw them on stage, tg STAN relate the myths, stressing the elements they consider important, before enacting them. Adopting a post-Brechtian approach, they remain unsure of their roles, which they mumble rather than recite as they struggle to understand them—a process made more difficult still by the performance being in French, which is not the actors’ mother tongue. The result: Gradually transformed into witnesses to the unfolding of a mental process which starts with the play and is driven by the actors’ stance towards it, the audience rediscovers the well-known myth. Ultimately, the actors’ refusal to identify even with their art—they employ the simplest possible means—brings the audience into unmediated contact with the emotional power the texts, myths and impulses of actors and creators once had.
In Les Antigones, tg STAN return to the simplest means of theatrical expression. Without a hint of reformist rhetoric, they mould an essentially theatrical discourse on the cusp between the dramatic and post-dramatic idioms.,2,77