Sophocles' Antigone, Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, Jean Anouilh's Antigone and Ridley Scott's Blad
Length: 3205 words (9.2 double-spaced pages)
The representative population of a community is not comfortable when confronted by an individual who defies the laws that bind them. Whether or not the laws or the powers behind them are just, the populace must deal with any challenge to their authority. In some cases, the community, fearful of a powerful regime, will side with that power and avoid the risks associated with rebellion. Others find the tyranny too unjust to stand idly by and, risking their lives, join with other defiant individuals against it.
The group of characters named as Chorus in both Sophocles' Antigone and Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound witness the rebellion of the titular characters against their respective authorities. In both plays, the Choruses (heretofore distinguished as Chorus A for Antigone and Chorus P for Prometheus Bound) recognize the ruling powers as both dangerous and tyrannical and are sympathetic to the plights of Antigone and Prometheus. However, the similarities between the two groups end at this point. While the actions of Chorus A are understandable given that their maturity has made them keenly aware of their own mortality, they appear mundane and self-serving in comparison to the noble selflessness of the youthful Chorus P.
Chorus A are introduced as "the old citizens of Thebes" (p65). The effect of age upon their demeanor is immediately evident in their description of the defeat of Polynices and his armies. The elders are certainly triumphant, calling out: "Glory! ...great beam of the sun, brightest of all that ever rose against the seven gates of Thebes, you burn through the night at last!" (117-19). In these lines there is also a shade of relief. Born of freedom from the fear of their enemy's ...vast maw gaping closing down around our seven gates, his spears thirsting for the kill..." (132-34). These men are not the brave Theban warriors who fought with Eteocles. They are the elder citizens who cowered through the night of war hoping for, and receiving, "Victory! Glorious in the morning..." (164). They are cautious enough to stay out of the physical battle and they display the same self-interest when involved in the coming political confrontation between Antigone and Creon.
Chorus P, introduced as "barefoot girls with the wings of seabirds" (p35), are equally exemplary of their youth as Chorus A is of their age. Where Chorus A relies on caution to guide them, Chorus P charges in to greet their imprisoned friend: "We forgot to be shy: look, we come barefoot. Our wings hurried us here" (199-201). As the young are wont to do, Chorus P acts before thinking. They do not have the experience to recognize the consequences of their acts or words, therefore, their fears do not guide them. They waste no time in joining in the cause of Prometheus, taking up his anger at Zeus almost immediately:
What brute hearted God would smile at this? Who wouldn't howl feeling with you at this outrage? None but Zeus. His spite, His will won't bend: but crush the children of Father Sky. Zeus won't let up till Zeus has had enough unless, against all odds, He's overthrown by ambush! Done with! (238-48)
They are so excited and horrified by Prometheus' punishment that the danger of their words is not apparent to them. In their youthful haste, they do not consider that their stated defiance of Zeus could result in their own persecution.
Chorus A does not make the mistake of defying the powers that be. They would much rather appease the interests of the party that potentially threatens them than risk an offense that might result in their deaths. When Creon warns that they should "never side with those who break [his] orders" (245), the Leader of Chorus A responds, "Never. Only a fool could be in love with death" (246). It is not the love of their city that keeps them loyal to its master, but fear of his retribution. They try to explain their position to a doomed Antigone:
Reverence asks some reverence in return- but attacks on power never go unchecked, not by the man who holds the reins of power. Your own blind will, your passion has destroyed you. (959-62)
They criticize Antigone's defiance of Creon's law not for the meaning of it, but for the wrath it draws. They reduce her noble defiance to an act of "blind will" and "passion." While they are not afraid to be passionate, as with their triumph over the defeat of Polynices, they understand that there are consequences in showing similar enthusiasm for the cause of Antigone.
Chorus A is not without compassion, however. Although they would never openly rebel against Creon?s rule, they do grieve for Antigone's fate, almost to the point of defying their lord:
But now, even I would rebel against the king, I would break all bounds when I see this- I fill with tears, I cannot hold them back, not any more...I will see Antigone make her way to the bridal vault where all are laid to rest. (895-99)
All they can offer are their words, as they understand the limits of their nature. When they say "even I would rebel," the implication is that they are the least likely group in Thebes to act against Creon. Antigone's plight allows for the contemplation of revolt from men who know better than to take such a risk. This is not necessarily a reflection of Chorus A's bravery but of the power of Antigone's rebellion. Even they are not so self-centered that they are unable to feel for the doomed girl.
Compassion drives Chorus P. They feel not only for their friend, Prometheus, but also for others, such as Io, who have been undone through Zeus' cruelty:
NO NO make it go away! I never dreamed I'd hear so horrible a story, such barbaric words such pain, such filth it?s not to be seen, not endured! My heart's goaded stabbed iced It's FATE! Your FATE! Io, I shudder at[.] (1025-38)
They are besides themselves with grief and pity at the treatment of the transformed girl. The only fear they show is for the fates of those around them. Their only self-interest is that they would rather not bear witness to the pain of others. They reserve their strongest feelings for Prometheus:
...your savage fate has made me cry. My cheeks are wet with tears welling from my delicate eyes...The waves break the surf moans, the depths sound and sound, the black bottomless deep hollows back, and the pure springs of rivers and brooks all for you sorrow[.] (577-80, 611-19)
Whatever physical and mental tortures Prometheus is plagued with, their heartbreak at his suffering is nearly as painful to them. As they are not bound to him, they could leave at any time. However, Chorus P's choice to stay is evidence of their compassion as well as their bravery.
Chorus P are equally brave in their actions. Prometheus chooses to rebel against the word of Zeus and his course of action is never in doubt. Chorus P, on the other hand, is given the opportunity by Hermes to avoid Prometheus' fate and "get out of [there]- before Zeus' lowing thunderclap stuns [them] senseless" (1620-22). There is no question that they will be punished should they stay. Yet they do stay and openly defy Zeus:
How could you order me to be a coward, how? I'll suffer by his side whatever comes, because I've learned to hate treachery: to me, the filthiest disease. (1627-31)
Instead of standing by as witnesses to the events of the drama, they become active participants. Prometheus is not fighting for the rights of humans, but against the tyranny of Olympus. It is this battle that Chorus P willingly joins, if only to be struck down for their solidarity.
Chorus A does not share the same esprit de corps with Antigone. While they are sympathetic to her cause, they are also old men who choose not to be actively involved other than to offer belated counsel to a frightened Creon: "Disasters sent by the gods cut short our follies in a flash" (1227-28). They do not rebel when Antigone is sent off to her death because they believe it is ultimately not their place to interfere with the acts of the gods. For this chorus, it is up to fate to bring about a resolution:
The power of fate is a wonder, dark terrible wonder- neither wealth nor armies towered walls nor ships black hulls lashed by the salt can save us from that force. (1045-50)
This belief in the power of the gods and fate to rule the destinies of men and women removes the burden of responsibility from Chorus A. They cannot act to save Antigone. If she is fated to die defiantly, then there is nothing they can do other than to stand idly by and bear witness.
Prometheus and Antigone each have witnesses as they defy the will of a greater power. While both of their causes
are noble and just, only Prometheus is joined in his rebellion. A group of young girls with eternity to lose throw caution to
the wind to stand with him. The old men who guard themselves by merely looking on as Antigone and Creon are brought
down by vicious fate would deem their counterparts foolish for joining the battle. The young women would only wonder
what kind of fools would stand idle in the face of tyranny.
In the past, it was often a responsibility of a given community to bear witness to those who would defy authority. Groups of men and women would either stand by and watch as the rebellious were punished or stand with the defiant individual in solidarity. Sometimes, however, it falls to an individual to act as the eyes of the community at large. This solitary figure can become either a subversive narrator or a kind of moral compass whereby others can judge the true nature of the rebellious.
In both Jean Anouilh's Antigone and the director's cut of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, individuals replace the group choruses of Sophocles' Antigone and Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound respectively. The Chorus of Sophocles serve only to witness Antigone's death and its aftermath while Aeschylus? group of young women are ultimately influenced by the plight of Prometheus and sacrifice themselves. Their actions (or lack thereof) served as examples of how the audiences, and community at large, should respond in a like circumstance. Their modern counterparts use their choruses in a like manner. Anouilh's Chorus, a single character, possesses the same faults as his (assuming the part is played by a man) ancient brethren as he does not involve himself in actions he sees as inevitable. He differs from Sophocles' group in that he subtly encourages change in audience. Scott presents his chorus in the part of Deckard, a conflicted participant who, upon witnessing the efforts of the defiant to play more than their part, joins in their rebellion.
The story of Antigone is a model of the consequences of rebellion against an all-powerful state. Anouilh does not alter the fundamental structure of Sophocles play. Rather, he makes the familiar Antigone into a tool for subtly encouraging his intended audience in Vichy France to not stand passively as a chorus "who sit or stand here, looking at [Antigone], not in the least upset ourselves- for we are not doomed to die tonight" (3). The story is presented by Chorus as immutable and this point is brought up over and over until it is apparent that the only way to change the ending is for the community to stand fast with, in the case of the French, those who would rebel against the occupation and fight the seemingly insurmountable power.
The primary function of Chorus for Anouilh is to act as a kind of place-setter to help his audience identify not only the characters and their functions within the tragedy, but also the position of the audience as well. His opening lines remove himself from the action and place him somewhere between the audience and the characters: "Well, here we are. These people are about to act out for you the story of Antigone" (3). By grouping the audience with himself, however, he co-opts them into his position as a witnessing community member who allows the defiant Antigone to play her part:
...she is going to die. Antigone is young. She would much rather live than die. But there is no help for it. When your name is Antigone, there is only one part you can play; and she will have to play hers until the end. (3)
Knowing that her youthful rebellion will result in her death, they can only join Chorus in watching the affair. As members of the community, they must inevitably share some guilt for her fate.
As Scott greatly alters the Prometheus legend from Aeschylus' original, Deckard's sense of guilt for the duties required of his position becomes an important means for allowing an audience unfamiliar with a pre-existing story to identify with him as their representative onscreen. He is not cold-blooded in his pursuit of the replicants he must destroy for their defiance of the laws that enslave them. In fact, he is reluctant to resume his position when Bryant asks him to use his ?blade runner magic.? When Deckard tells Bryant that he is retired, Bryant threatens him, saying, "...if you're not cop, you're little people" and that he has "no choice," implying that there will be dire consequences for not coming back to work. And even though Bryant later describes him as "...a goddamn one-man slaughterhouse" after he "retires" Zhora, his first response is to get drunk, to forget the necessary violence of his job...to disguise the guilt with alcohol. It is this shame that reinforces Deckard's humanity and makes him a sympathetic witness.
Deckard witnesses an abstract re-enactment of the Prometheus myth. Instead of Prometheus, as represented by Dr. Tyrell, playing the rebellious part, it is his creations, primarily Roy Batty, who seek to defy the death sentence with which their creator curses them. Tyrell becomes Zeus-like, denying the fire of life to the replicants and, while Batty does not succeed in stealing that fire for his kind, he steals the power to give and take life from Tyrell by killing him. Ultimately, Roy becomes a victim of his fate, but not before proving to Deckard that humanity is not the sole province of humans and that sometimes rebellion is the only option.
Anouilh's Chorus does not make the argument that rebellion is the only option, but he does hint that it is a preferable one. As an observer, Chorus can only bear witness to the story as it unfolds and comment upon it. In an aside, he describes the conventions of tragedy:
In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known. That makes for tranquility. There is a sort of fellow-feeling among characters in a tragedy; he who kills is as innocent as he who gets killed: it?s all a matter of what part you are playing. Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You?re trapped. (24)
It is simple for the characters in a tragedy to act as they do and accept their fates. They lack a choice to do otherwise. The audience of which Chorus makes himself a part does not have to share in the tragedy of Antigone and Creon. They can choose to "argue and struggle in the hopes of escape" (24).
Roy Batty shows Deckard that life is about struggle. Batty knows his time is running out, yet he never gives up and he does not let Deckard give up either:
You better get it up. Or I'm gonna have to kill you! Unless you're alive you can't play! And if you don't play...[Deckard gets a weapon] Good! That's the spirit!
Roy allows Deckard the opportunity to continue to exist. Roy is "more human than human" and therefore is ultimately superior to Deckard and could kill him at his whim. Knowing that his time is limited, Roy nobly uses the moments remaining to him not only to save Deckard's life on the rooftop, but to instruct him as to the reasons for the replicants' rebellion: "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave." Deckard, at this moment, is finally able to understand Batty. He is a slave to Bryant and fears the consequences for choosing to be otherwise. What he discovers from Batty is that he does not have to submit to a life of fear.
Deckard, much like the young chorus in Prometheus Bound, ultimately joins the tragic Batty in rebelling against the powers that be. He chooses the love and trust that have grown between him and Rachel, a replicant he can save rather than retire. He challenges a system that not only enslaves its creations but tortures them with the knowledge and fear of their own deaths. Before he dies, Leon describes it as being "painful to live in fear." Deckard rejects that fate not only for himself, but for Rachel as well. He chooses Anouilh's "foul, deceitful thing," hope.
There is one moment in Antigone where Chorus seems to succumb to the hope he disdains. As Antigone is carried away to her doom, Chorus steps out of the audience and into the play to persuade Creon to change his mind: "You must not let Antigone die. We shall carry the scar of her death for centuries" (45). While it seems that Chorus is changing his philosophy, it is far more likely that he is being faithful to his part in the drama. He understands his role as well as Antigone's and knows that he must, in some way, be the conscious of the king. His lines may also be directed at the audience, once again warning them to that should they let tyranny prevail, it may have devastating consequences.
Scott intended Blade Runner "to be a warning - - about the environment and the future, and the manipulation of life"? (handout). At the time of its release in the 1980's, science was progressing at a prodigious rate. The scenarios Scott predicts are not beyond reality. The audience, through Deckard, must deal with the problem of losing their humanity through the pursuit of "a new life." Deckard ultimately recovers his by rebelling against the system and siding with those slaves who have been named a "hazard" should they choose to be human. The audience must decide which is worth more, convenience or a soul.
Each chorus, in his own way, does more than serve as a witness; he participates. Gaff, a subordinate of Bryant, leaves
Deckard with the thought: "It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?" Both Deckard and Anouilh's Chorus
could respond that while it is a terrible thing that people are doomed to die, it is far more tragic not to struggle to live free
against a power that holds the lives of others in its hands.