Monday, November 29, 2021

life is probably nothing other than happiness - Jean Anouilh and Anne Carson adapt Greek plays, and Jean Giraudoux adapts something else

The French went nuts, in the 1930s and even more so in the 1940s, for adaptations of ancient Greek plays.  I don’t know why.  I have guesses.  The one I read most recently is Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (1944).  The play’s major theme of “duty to the state” versus “duty to something else” (the gods in Sophocles, perhaps the self in Anouilh) sounds like the perfect way to get in trouble with Nazi censors, but no, they seemed all right with the debate. 

A third of the play, one long scene, is nothing but the debate between Creon and Antigone.  Each debater is convinced, by the end, that they are less right than they thought.  Creon is, to a large degree, arguing to Antigone that she should live, that she should let him protect her from his own law:

You’ll despise me more than ever for saying this, but finding it out, as you’ll see, is some sort of consolation for growing old: life is probably nothing other than happiness. (tr. Barbara Bray)

Meanwhile Antigone argues, in contemporary French fashion, that life is nothing other than absurdity and Creon should execute her as soon as possible.  Psychologically, it often seems like she buries her brother not out of duty but as a form of “suicide by cop.”

Greek plays in general, and this one in particular, are ideal for stripped down sets, avant-garde musical accompaniment, and anachronisms.  The big surprise to me was the large, goofy part of the guard, pure comic relief, perfect for, say Lou Costello or Stan Laurel.


Anne Carson has a new adaptation of (riff on) a Greek play, the Herakles or Euripides (c. 416 BCE) turned into the H of H Playbook of Carson (c. 2021 CE).  Like her Antigonick (2012), but I think not her Antigone (2015), it is a mix of poetry and art book, jokes and tragedy, aggravation and brilliance.

I thought the piece starts to snap together when H of H takes the stage, his labors complete, his existentialist doubts just beginning.  Was that really such a good way to spend a life?  I mean, killing a lion, what’s the point of that?  He finds reading Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951) helpful for understanding his own psychology:

Our business was to crush the counterrevolution.  And Victor Serge sums it up: occupational psychosis.

This dang book has no page numbers.  Here it is:

Maybe another photo, too.  It is an art book:

H of H:

I should have left you in The Chair of Forgetfulness.


Maybe you did, Daddio, maybe you did.

H of H:

One correction.  I don’t call them gods.  If god exists, god is a perfect thing, not some hooligan from bad daytime TV.


Anouilh was deeply influenced – in fact inspired to become a playwright – by Jean Giraudoux, and I have trouble telling them apart.  Giraudoux’s “Greek plays” are mostly from the 1930s, while Anouilh’s are form the 1940s, so there’s a difference.  Their styles and interests are similar.  It is strange to think that plays by both writers were once commonly staged in English.

I read a non-Greek Giraudoux adaptation recently, Ondine (1938), where the lovely 1811 fairy tale novella of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué is turned into what else but absurdist French proto-existentialism.  Can a man survive the love a pure water spirit?  No, for he is human.

Parts – the tragic ending – are still lovely, parts ridiculous.  Parts both:

HANS: I’m being called too, Undine; called by something pale and cold.  Take back your ring, and be my true widow under the water. (almost at the end, tr. Roger Gellert)

Giraudoux stuffs in plenty of magic and trickery and surrealist goofing.  Unlike stripped-down wartime Anouilh, he had a budget.


I have been thinking about organizing some kind of readalong for next year, and one idea that seems almost good is to read through the extant Greek plays, all of them, at a pace of one a week.  They are all short, and there are only 45* survivors.  They are foundations of Western literature in multiple ways, and mostly a great pleasure in their own right.  Anyone interested? 

* I first wrote "44," miscounting Euripides, but now I think I will do a 46 week event, reading Menander's complete Dyskolos and also his completed The Girl from Samos.


  1. Re re-reading the Greeks: I'd be in when you get to Aristophanes and Euripides. I've read fewer than half of E's and only two of A's. I'm not ready to revisit the Theban plays or the Oresteia.

  2. All right, maybe I'll do this. I've had worse ideas.

    I am really only committing myself to read them all - what suffering, what hardship - but anyone else could join with whatever seems interesting.

    I am myself a kind of a Euripidean, so I think they are all of the highest interest, even when they are not good. The same is true of Aristophanes, really.

    I just knocked up a timeline, and the idea of doing a semi-chronological reading is not bad, so Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes would be mixed together.

  3. I've not read any Greek play. Reading them with you sounds like a good idea, but I'm intimidated.

  4. They're easier than Shakespeare! Generally. And also a lot shorter. The first four Aeschylus plays, for example, are about 30 pages each in the Penguin editions.

  5. I'd join in for a Greek play read-along. Maybe I'd even think about reading some of them in Greek. (But probably not...)

    Euripides is da man.

  6. In Greek, that would be some fun. Good, please join in. Come to think of it, I've read Oedipus Rex in French. All languages are welcome!

    Maybe later in December, or in early January, I'll post a schedule of some kind and pump it up on Twitter.

  7. I'm interested, since it's next year. I've announced early retirement at the end of July 2022--kind of taking part in the "great resignaton"--and intend to spend time on more worthwhile things.

  8. Definitely interested, although I probably won't manage all of them. I have about 8 or 9 that have been on my shelves for years, so it's about time!

  9. Yes, whatever prompt works, however it works.

  10. Reading the Greek plays sounds good. I think I've got about half of them in the old University Of Chicago translations - it would be interesting to read a mix of translators, I wonder how much difference it would make.

  11. A mix is exactly what I have read, including many of those U of C translations. I'll make some comments about translations but really there are now a lot of plausible versions of most of the plays. Given that I have no Greek, and know nothing, at least.

  12. The play’s major theme of “duty to the state” versus “duty to something else” (the gods in Sophocles, perhaps the self in Anouilh) sounds like the perfect way to get in trouble with Nazi censors, but no, they seemed all right with the debate.

    This is exactly why so many Russian and Soviet historians-in-training went into Roman/ancient history; they could say things that they'd never get away with if they were dealing with more recent events. Censors are often remarkably stupid.

    Thanks for the Carson excerpts; they've convinced me she's Not My Thing.

  13. It clearly helped Anouilh get a pass.

    Carson has a strong flavor, that is for sure. A salt licorice kind of writer.

  14. I'm always reading the Greek plays, so I can happily join in. There's more or less 1 extent play of Menander too, and of course really Plautus and Terence are Greek plays, just written in Latin and given a roman context. Interesting to compare with Menander.

    I'm intrigued when Greek tragedy became known in the modern world. It doesn't seem to be known at all in Shakespeareab times, or afaik spanish drama, but Racine is clearly very influenced.

  15. I'm going to count Menander as two, I guess, although I counted him as one above, and also apparently mentally blocked Rhesus, since I was counting Euripides as 18, not 19.

    So, 45 complete survivors which I will make a 46 week project. So glad you'll join in somewhere. Maybe I'll move on to Latin plays afterwards, although reading all of Plautus seems a little redundant. But it is the Romans we need for Shakespeare and so on.

    I don't know when the Greeks really spread. When Ben Jonson compared Shakespeare to "thundering Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles," who really knew what he meant?

    1. I was wondering if you were counting Menander at 44, but then Rhesus is an odd bird, too, so I could see glossing over that...

  16. Yes, I immediately made a serious error. I am sure more will follow. The best part of the internet is the error-correction. Which I have not done yet. Hang on.

  17. I remember hating Anouilh's 'Antigone' when I read it nearly 20 years ago. The ambiguity (pro- or anti-Vichy?) seemed rather calculated, and that sentimental nonsense with the dog was nauseating. Perhaps I should give it another go - or read some more Anouilh.

    Have you seen the Straub/Huillet film of Antigone? This is Sophocles via Hölderlin via Brecht. The actors are directed to be as stilted as possible, pausing rigidly at the end of every line even if the clause runs on. I don't think there's any camera movement (or if there is, it's minimal); the shots are composed with an austere precision. Real love it/hate it cinema - I loved it.

  18. "Calculated," yes that's where I'm at, and the idea that it's some kind of Resistance play seeming especially far-fetched. Retroactive.

    My favorite Anouilh play at this point is an early, farcical one, Le bal de voleurs / The Thieves' Ball (1938), a farce with an edge.

    I have not seen the film, and will keep an eye out for it. I can watch stuff like that.