An audience encountering an unfamiliar story pays more attention to the story than to its treatment; of necessity, then, such a play must be richer in detail and circumstances than one with a well-known story line.
– Friedrich Durrenmatt, Selected Writings Vol. 3
The Plot is the first principle, the most important feature of tragedy. In his Poetics Aristotle states that, tragedies where the outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions are superior to those that depend primarily on the character of the protagonist. Conflicts originate in the characters’ wrestling with forces and result in moving the main action of the play forward.
The protagonists of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie break all stereotypical gender prototypes. Keeping this context in mind, one realizes that the conflicts and tensions within Antigone and Miss Julie and their societal norms, lie at the heart of these two innovative theatrical masterpieces. In these Tragedies, the authors have used, well defined gender conflicts which have definitely helped in advancing the plot, giving the characters reasons for their actions and bringing about unity of action1, an integral part of a Classical Plot structure.
The political backdrop of Antigone is the French Resistance Movement. The entire play is an allegorical reference to this movement. Antigone’s rebellious act against Creon brings out the gender conflict, an undercurrent running throughout this play and is meant to inspire the movement to revolt against the Nazi occupation in France. J.L Styan states that “Anouilh was a dramatist before he was a politician, and it was a matter of pure chance that Antigone met the need for an anti-Nazi play”2. However the main ideological underpinning behind Miss Julie is the theory of Social Darwinism3 which brings out the concept of Natural Selection within civilized society as well. With Strindberg’s history of his step mother trying to dominate his father, his misogyny4 is a natural outcome and is evident in Miss Julie in the form of gender conflict. These sexual tensions and racial conflicts ignite in a struggle for power, freedom and social change during the Oscarian period in Sweden5. Hence both these playwrights use gender conflict as a vehicle for conveying their thoughts.
The Domestic Tragedy Miss Julie is set in the kitchen of the Count’s house with features of a typical Swedish manor house kitchen because that is the only place where Miss Julie could interact with the servants and give us insights into the thoughts of the lower class. This insight helps us learn about Julie’s misogyny and Jean’s gender dominance. On the other hand, the setting of Antigone is universal and is “set without historical or geographical implications”6as the opening sentence of the diadascalia7 itself indicates. Just as Anouilh had adapted Sophocles’ original play and the Greek myth to political advantage during the 1940s, other producers could adapt it to their own settings and interpretations of characters. In a few productions, the role of the page is played by a woman as opposed a man. The page being a woman emphasies on the importance of this gender being the basic advisor in Creon’s life.
Antigone’s refusal to accept the traditional role of a dutiful fiancï¿½ and wife is at the root cause of the main complications that arise in the plot. Her rebellion is foreshadowed when the Chorus says that Antigone will suddenly stop being the “thin dark girl whose family didn’t take her seriously and rise up alone against everyone”8and creates a mood of anxiety. The mood in Miss Julie, is one of passion and foreboding which is created by the romantic environment of the midsummer night, the influence of the aphrodisiac, the absence of the count and so on.
Hippolyte Taine’s theory of the three primordial forces that helps to explain what shapes Miss Julie’s nature, i.e. le race, le milieu and le moment provide “an unbroken brand of determinism that leads to catastrophic consequences.”9 . Thus Miss Julie’s gender conflict is attributed unhesitatingly to her environment. As Miss Julie herself admits to Jean, she had “learned from her mother to distrust and hate men”10 and this coupled with her masochistic11 tendencies leads to her ultimate tragic death. Thus the attempts at gender reversal in this play help to move the plot forward.
Both the plays follow the Climactic Structure. The exposition leads up to the moment when Antigone tells Ismene that she had already buried Polynices body. At this Coup de theatre12 starts the Rise in Action, followed by the Climax i.e. at her moment of Anagnorisis13 and realizes the true nature of her brothers. As the plot advances it reaches the Denouement with the death of the tragic hero. In Miss Julie the Rise in Action includes Jean’s and Julie’s wooing while the climax is during the Ballet when they presumably copulate in Jean’s bedroom. This is then followed by the Fall in Action and finally the Denouement again involving the death of the protagonist. Here after the climax, the class barrier between Jean and Julie seems to be broken and replaced by gender conflict which is seen in Jean while he tries to dominate Julie.
Jean wins eventually both as a sexual aristocrat 14and as a member of the bourgeoisie class whose misplaced sense of pride did not lead him to suicide – unlike Julie whose aristocratic upbringing cause her hamartia to surface. Being unable to face society after her transgression, she thus committed suicide. In Antigone at the second climax where Creon talks about Happiness, Antigone goes on to say that in order to be happy, she’ll have to “lie” or “smile” at someone or “sell herself to” someone15 highlighting the gender conflict and bringing out the Unity of Action in the play while in Miss Julie Unity of Time and Place is marked as the play time is almost equal to the time it would take in reality and the setting is constant throughout the play.
The “Chorus”, in the form of the other servants in Miss Julie sings a song about Miss Julie which too highlights gender conflict. The song seems to foreshadow the sexual relation that Jean and Julie share later. Similarly in Antigone, the chorus breaks the fourth wall 16 with the use of Metatheatre. The didascalia in Miss Julie and the Chorus in Antigone also help in creating an alienation effect17by using pantomimes and soliloquies respectively, giving the audience a chance to reflect upon the events occurred so far more dispassionately thus reducing the impact of catharsis. However, at the same time, they also further the plot movement by informing the audience about events off stage or by commenting upon recent events.
Other themes in the plays also help in highlighting the gender conflict. The theme of Feminism in Antigone evident when Ismene states that “it’s alright for men to die for their ideas”18 shows gender conflict. This is also predominant in Miss Julie where the class conflict gives rise to Gender conflict after the climax thus moving the plot forward.
Elements of Naturalism and Existentialism are clearly evident in Miss Julie and Antigone respectively. The Preface of Miss Julie tells us how Julie’s mother was responsible for her misogyny hence she was a product of her nature and nurture. In Antigone too, the nature of the protagonist and her death being a choice of her own free will brings out the idea of Existentialism which was supposed to inspire the French Resistance Movement and also highlights the gender conflict as she imposes her free will over Creon who was her superior in terms of both hierarchy and gender.
The writers of both the tragedies have used several literary devices that help in bringing out the themes and conflicts of the play. In Antigone symbols such as the doll gifted by Creon to Antigone reinforces the stereotypical role of women in contemporary society. In Miss Julie, phallic symbols such as the poplar trees, the Count’s boots and the speaking tube – which is also symbolic of the Count bring out the gender conflict symbolically besides the evidence provided in the primary text.
Jean ultimately dominating Julie and instructing her to commit suicide is ironic because Julie’s broken engagement clearly depicts her desire for power over her male counterpart whereas here, she is being instructed by Jean as to what she should do clearly bringing out an underlying gender conflict. Antigone’s last moments too are laced with philosophical irony since her rebellion against her male superior, Creon seems futile as she confides to Jonas when she says “I don’t know anymore what I’m dying for”19. Thus the complications created in the plot as soon resolved and the play moves towards its Denouncement.
Certain dramatis personae help to highlight the true characteristics of the protagonist’s. In Antigone, Creon is a realist and therefore a foil to Antigone’s Idealistic character. Ismene’s conformist20 nature is a striking contrast to Antigone’s feminist tendencies which too brings out the gender conflict. Moreover, the nurse brings out the softer side of Antigone, something a male character could not have done. Similarly, Haemon highlights the romantic side of Antigone not evident otherwise in the play. In Miss Julie, the themes bring out certain characteristics like misogyny, masochism etc. which further the gender conflict and thus help in advancing the plot.
These themes, devices and characters have been very well defined and have been used by the playwrights successfully in bringing out the all important element of gender conflict through which they conveyed messages of rebellion and misogyny in Antigone and Miss Julie respectively.