Tragic drama after the holocaust (nihilism and the French avant-garde)


 “To Write Poetry After the Holocaust is Barbaric…” (T. Adorno)


Because tragedy is the imitation of an action – one from which we may be taught virtue and purged of the inherent sickness in our mortal souls – there is an underlying quality of goodness and justice that exists embedded in the lines of history and humanity; or so the concept classically implies. There is always a moral in life, a meaning, something to be learned. However, the Nazi Holocaust blurs the line between suffering and meaning. While 4th century Athenian poets such as Aeschylus and Sophocles stressed the virtue pathemathos in their dramas – that is, through suffering comes wisdom – the victims of the Nazi atrocity showed us that no good can come from such a grisly genocide. There is no justice to be derived from the tragedy, no allegorical meaning or wisdom. While the world of the ancient Athenians was indeed violent and full of suffering and warfare, there was an inherent faith in humanity. There was a trust in the Fates and an acceptance of defeat upon a pedagogical basis. Not so the survivor of Auschwitz. “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured…anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world, the abomination of the annihilation is never extinguished.” writes Jean Améry, a Jewish Austrian philosopher who survived the horrors of Auschwitz. “Faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture, is never acquired again.”

When Aristotle studied at Plato’s academy in 4th century Athens, he documented the assets of tragedy. While Socrates taught that no good can come of tragedy and suffering, especially when it is being reacted mimetically on stage, Aristotle differed. As spectators of a tragedy, we see the degree of folly capable in mankind, we use our analytical minds to assess where the tragic hero went wrong, what they could have done to have prevented their tragic folly, and by comparing the mimesis to our own lives, we learn to build ourselves into better and more virtuous characters.

Therefore, hence the term ‘realism’, the mimesis in the creation of character on the stage must be as close to the human psychic chemistry as possible. The only separation between the mortal on the stage and the mortal in the real world is that the mortal on the stage wears a mask. When the hero makes a tragic mistake, he falls from a mighty to lowly state. This is known as ‘harmatia’.  However, where is the ‘harmatia’ to be found among the victims of Hitler? Can infants be guilty of such ‘harmatia’ as hubris? Can an entire culture for that matter? Were the children of Auschwitz being punished by the Gods for some unpardonable sin from the past? Certainly they were not. Therefore, the idea of pathemathos, as expressed in the dramatic poetry of Aeschylus and Sophocles is bunk. It is, when seen in the light of the Nazi atrocity, utter malarkey. Whether the tragedy occurs for real in Europe, or recreated imaginatively on a stage, there is no meaning in suffering of such a degree. Primo Levi writes in Survival in Auschwitz,

A man is normally not alone, and in his rise or fall is tied to the destinies of his neighbors; so that it is exceptional for anyone to acquire unlimited power, or to fall by a succession of defeats into utter ruin.

Therefore, with the Nazi holocaust comes a reevaluation of the concept of tragedy. In Greek tragedy, for all suffering in humanity, there is an answer. In Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi recalls the unbearable life inside the concentration camp. He writes,

In our days many men have lived in this cruel manner, crushed against the bottom, but each for a relatively short period; so that we can perhaps ask ourselves if it is necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional human state…To this question we feel that we have to reply in the affirmative. We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing.

And this conclusion that the young Levi draws is examined via the mimesis of the tragedy, for example pathemathos in Greek drama. On the contrary, Paul Bailey writes of Primo Levi in the introduction to the last work of the Jewish-Italian author who survived Auschwitz, entitled The Drowned and the Saved, “It is a book in which the questions outnumber the answers, for all Levi’s brave attempts to explain the inexplicable.” Levi writes, “Our wisdom lay in ‘not trying to understand,’ not imaging the future, not tormenting ourselves as to how and when it would be all over; not asking others or ourselves any questions.”

Therefore, if the Nazi atrocity shows us that no meaning can be drawn from such suffering, as evinced by the metamorphosis and increasing nihilism of Levi’s Holocaust retrospect, over the years – between Survival in Auschwitz to the Drowned and the Saved – then tragedy on the stage as well is forced to change in order to frame the newly-discovered meaninglessness of suffering on earth.

The ethos at hand is well demonstrated in the Nazi-era and post-Nazi era work of such dramatists as Jean Anouilh and Jean-Paul Sartre who sought to recreate the tragic poetry of Sophocles and Euripides, respectively, in versions where the cathartic-effect of classical tragedy, as inspected by an Aristotelian Poetics, is anachronistic is now dead.

In this era, trial drama was also popular. Trial narratives, wrote Vivasvan Soni in the essay Trials and Tragedies: The Literature of Unhappiness (A Model For Reading Narratives of Suffering),

is a narrative in which the protagonist is subjected to a series of tests, ordeals, or temptations, so that the suffering and hardships are always viewed from the perspective of what can be learnt about the protagonist based on how he or she responds to adversity.

In this essay I will examine The Trojan Women of Euripides and its postmodern adaptation by Jean-Paul Sartre as well as Antigone by Sophocles and the war-era adaptation by Jean Anouilh. I will illuminate the splintering of the tragic effect, and explain how the classical aesthetic is changed by the meaningless horror of the Nazi atrocity.



In the play of Antigone, Oedipus, has four children: Polyneices, Ismene, Eteocles and Polyneices. When Oedipus dies, one child will take the throne for one year each, respectively. After the first year, Eteocles refuses to step down. Polynices march on Thebes and in the ensuing battle, the brothers kill each other, and Creon, Oedipus’s brother, becomes king.  Creon orders that Polyneices does not receive the honor of burial. During the night, in protest, Antigone buries Polyneices and Creon catches knowledge of the rebellious act.

Antigone traditionally stands for youthful and feministic rebellion, as well as family. These are the redeeming qualities to her character. Creon, according to popular analysis stands for law and state; and this, as well  as his remorse at the end of the play, makes him the tragic character.

Eventually, after Antigone’s refusal to reason with Creon, she must be sentenced to death. Instead of following the orders of the king and marrying Creon’s son, Haemon, she hangs herself, though, not before admitting her guilt. And as a result, Haemon  also kills himself. The last line of the play emphasizes the lessons drawn from the tragedy:

The audience of Antigone cannot demonize either Antigone, who admits her wrong, or Creon, who does what he feels a great king should do. Both are forced to make decisions in a state of suffering.

In the essay by Vivasvan Soni, Trials and Tragedies: The Literature of Unhappiness (A Model For Reading Narratives of Suffering), the essayist proposes that

We must understand trials and tragedies not simply in terms of genres or narrative forms, but as what Peter Brooks has called “imaginative moods,” hermeneutic frames through which we make sense of our experience (melodramatic imagination xvii). By “tragic narratives,” I mean narratives of the sort that are common in Greek or even Shakespearean tragedy, narratives in which the protagonist’s life ends in catastrophe and the plot discloses the progressive foreclosure of all possibility for happiness: Oedipus the King, Antigone, Medea, The Bacchae,  or King Lear, for example, but also Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz.

In the essay, Soni compares Sophocles to Primo Levi, “An even more extreme view of Antigone may be found in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, where not even the victims of the most egregious and indisputable criminality imaginable escape moral difficulties.” He writes, “Suffering does not grant them immunity from having to make impossible decisions. Instead, they are called upon to make moral choices that remain tragically difficult.”

When Jean Anouilh wrote his adaptation of Antigone, it was performed in Nazi occupied France in 1944.  Ted Freeman writes in an introduction to Anouilh’s Antigone,

The most important point to be born in mind when it comes to comparing the two plays is that in Sophocles’ version Creon is very much the central figure. Although Antigone is locked in conflict with him because she is adamant about doing what is morally paramount, burying her brother, she is absent from the last quarter of the play once she has been sent to her death…

…From that point on, Creon is the sole tragic focus. He is left to pay a terrible price for his ‘tyranny’ by realizing that he has also caused the suicide of his son Haemon, who is betrothed to Antigone, and in turn of his wife Eurydice…Although he needed to restore order to Thebes, Creon is deemed by everyone in the play to be wrong, both sacrilegous and a tyrant, and a tyrant, in denying funeral rites to a dead man, however traitorous.

Freeman explains Anouilh’s departure from Sophocles

The one change of some significance is that Anouilh has completely omitted the prophet Tiresias (this is one of the ways in which he switches the focus in the play more towards the heroine and away from Creon than did Sophocles).”

As for performing the tragedy-cum-melodrama in Nazi occupied France:

Antigone was seen as a Greek play with a thinly disguised message for the French. At first, certain of Anouilh’s compatriots hostile to collaboration with the Germans interpreted Antigone as a play with a meaning for a country suffering under alien rule… was not Antigone an incarnation of the spirit of resistance to tyranny, if not coded encouragement to the French resistance? This was a plausible interpretation of Antigone’s stubborn defiance and self-sacrifice…

He continues:

…However, the anti-collaborationist meaning was not the only to be decoded from Antigone in the context of the occupation. The play had been authorized for performance without difficulty…

…shortly after its completion in 1942, and the German bureau of censorship had no second thoughts during the play’s long run of some five hundred performances. The reason is not difficult to find: the Germans and their eager French collaborators also had ways of interpreting Antigone’s defiance, and they were actually quite pleased with the play…

As Albert Camus once said of his interpretation of all tragedy, “Antigone is not right, but Creon is not wrong…” The allegorical value, therefore, is ambiguous at best for all tragedy of the era; tragedy is, nonetheless, pedagogical. We sympathize in this version more with Creon than Antigone. The Germans liked the play because it stressed the outcome of rebellion as a negative one of chaos, loss and tragedy. It could serve as a warning to the French resistance. The Germans still sympathized with Antigone, for the sake of pedagogy. However, Anouilh’s message to the French could not have been this; he was a fervent opponent of the Nazi occupation. His focusing more on Creon than Antigone was under the influence of postmodern humanism, rather than being bent on the cosmos, as in the case of Sophocles. This was the message the Germans failed to read. Anouilh’s Antigone does not end in nihilism, though the allegory, the value, is different from Sophocles’s version.



There is little room to wonder why the play The Trojan Women by Euripides, appealed to Nazi-era postmodern humanists and existentialists. The play, even in its original form, is a condemnation of war. If war is glorified by the epic poetry of Homer, Euripides turns the macho image of early Hellenistic theatre on its head. Translator Nicholas Rudall writes:

What makes Euripides’ case so compelling is that the women whom we meet are Trojans: they are the “barbarians.” The oppressors are Greeks: they are the “civilized.” In a very real sense, Euripides forces his audience to see its own heroes—the victors of Troy and the great figures of the Iliad, Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Menelaus—as cowards who kill and enslave helpless women and children.

The tragedy is concerned with the fates of the women of Troy, after the Argives have sacked the city. In the opening scene, Athena and Poseidon are debating ways to punish the Argives. Andromache will become a concubine of Achilles. Hecuba learns that she will be kidnapped by Odysseus, and Cassandra, daughter of Hecuba will become a concubine of Agamemnon. Cassandra receives the curse of prophetic powers that no one will believe, and she learns that Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra will kill her. And Helen will return to Greece with King Menelaus, where she will be executed. The play illustrates the partition between the glorious victory of warriors and the pitiful suffering of the defeated, emphasizing with the humanity of the latter class.

The adaptation of The Trojan Women by Jean-Paul Sartre differs slightly, casting a shadow of existentialism over the liturgical nature of the original version by Euripides. Sartre, as an existentialist, was intrigued by Hellenic archetypes. For instance, the play, The Flies, models itself after the Electra myth, adapted originally by Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles. “In some respects” writes Sartre in an article written in 1965:

 I have modified the general style of the play itself. The Trojan Women is not a tragedy in the sense that Antigone is: it is more of an oratorio. I have therefore tried to increase the dramatic tensions implicit in the original text by emphasizing some of the conflicts, such as that between Andromeda and Hecuba, the ambivalent attitude of Hecuba herself, who, at times, is content to abandon Troy to its misfortune, while at others she rails against the injustice which has caused it.

To illustrate what Sartre intends, we may analyze the endings of the two versions of the tragedy, respectively. Euripides’ version of the tragedy ends while Hecuba mourns the loss of her city and the tragic fate that has befallen its occupants. The last word spoken in Sartre’s drama is a question. While there is no doubt the message is an anti-war message, however, the use of the question mark after the last word underscores the decidedly existential tone. In an article written in 1965, Sartre wrote:

The play ends in total nihilism. But whereas the Greeks had to live with Gods who were capricious, we, seeing their predicament from outside, realize that they were, in fact, rejected by the deities. I have tried to emphasize this, and Hecuba’s final despair is the human reply to Poseidon’s terrible ultimatum, in which the gods break finally with men and leave them to commune with their own death. This is the final note of the tragedy.

As for the sense of nihilism, we are reminded of Survival in Auschwitz when Primo Levi writes, “…goods wagons closed from the outside, with men, women and children pressed together without pity, like cheap merchandise, for a journey towards nothingness, a journey down there, towards the bottom…”

Herein is to be discovered the main difference between the version by Sartre and the version by Euripides. As in Sartre’s version, where “the gods break finally with men and leave them to commune with their own death” there is a decidedly nihilistic view of war and suffering. As Primo Levi writes in Survival in Auschwitz, speaking for the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp, “Our wisdom lay in ‘not trying to understand,’ not imagining the future, not tormenting ourselves as to how and when it would be all over; not asking others or ourselves any question.”

There were some modernists who stressed to dispel the Aristotelian poetics. Their reason for doing so however was from a purely artistic motivation. While such writers sought to deactivate or circumvent catharsis in their drama they did it simply because as artists they wanted their work to exist as sui generis, not to be used as a method to please a bourgeois audience, within the parameters set by some 4th century philosopher who, himself, was not an artist. Not so Sartre and Anouilh. For these two dramatists, the Greek tragedies were perfect to help them proclaim their social and political commentaries.

Ronald Duncan writes in his introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre’s adaptation of The Trojan Women by Euripides why postmodern humanists and existentialists chose Greek tragedy, “Greek tragedy is a beautiful monument which we inspect with interest and respect with a scrupulous interpreter by our side. But is a ruin where nobody would want to live.” Perhaps, despite the didactic and cathartic aims of Greek tragedy, it is “a ruin where nobody would want to live” such as Auschwitz is “a ruin where nobody would want to live.” Duncan continues, “Devotees off classic drama periodically attempt to resuscitate Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and present them in their original style. But we are left feeling remote from such parodies.” He explains where the breakdown of tragedy happens in the post-modern world of atheism, nuclear war and extermination camps, “The reason why we find it difficult to connect with such productions is that these plays were inspired by an essentially religious conception of the world which is now completely strange to us. And when Jean-Paul Sartre chooses to adapt a classic tragedy…and of all the tragedies the one which is the most static and the least theatrical, indeed, one which even the Athenians themselves did not take to immediately…” he is referring to The Trojan Women.

The German-Jewish philosopher Theodore Adorno famously wrote:

The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.

Anouilh, and more so Sartre, might have said that to teach the ethos of pathemathos, or the value of respecting despotic authority, in the wake of the Nazi tragedy or under German occupation, is certainly barbaric.



About the Author
Scott Krane has been blogging for The Times of Israel since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, The Jerusalem Post and the Daily Caller, among others.