In comparing the classical plays ‘Antigone’ and ‘The Inspector – General’ I propose to examine the concept of ‘authority’ meaning ‘sovereign’, ‘arbiter’ in relation to a, or in conflict with a character representing law of natural justice personifying moral authority in the two different periods and societies of human civilization, the ancient City of Thebes and a typical provincial Russian town. The two plays are more than two millennia apart; one is a tragedy while the other is comical. Both the plays, in their unique ways reflect the ruling ‘authority’ and the moral order of their times.
Antigone – true to her name as “the one who goes against” defies the authority of a despotic ruler Creon. She acts based on her conviction that the laws of right and wrong are to be obeyed above the authority of a sovereign. “If in defiance of the law we cross a monarch’s will? – Weak women, think of that, not framed by nature to contend with men. Remember this is too that the stronger rules; we must obey ordersâ€¦.” – says Ismene, the response of Antigone is, “I shall abide forever the eternal laws of Heaven.” Ismene and Antigone represent diametrically opposed characters, one of passive submission and the other of courage. Creon is obsessive in his concern for ‘order’ and defense of the City of Thebes, convinced that absolute and unchallenged power alone can protect his kingdom and its laws. In his world nothing and nobody is above the State. The issue of natural justice and moral principles do not exist in his rulebook. In the pursuit of his power to enforce the laws of the kingdom he is merciless and dictatorial. The obsessive concern for the laws of Thebes to be observed by everyone for its survival makes him highly insecure; he is frightened by any kind of challenge to his authority – real or imaginary. “My guards have been bribed, men in the city have been muttering against me.” Sophocles dexterously uses the chorus in the play ‘Antigone’ partly as a narrator.
On the other hand in Gogol’s play the broad landscape of the nineteenth century Russia, radically different from a small city – state of Thebes, is described through the life of an anonymous provincial town. If, for Creon bribes were the worst evil, in ‘The Inspector – General’ bribery is a way of life, “Don’t graft higher than your rank” sounds like a statement of virtue. The Russian Tsar presiding over the largest landlocked kingdom on Earth wielded unchallenged and absolute power. His dictatorial writ in the vast land of Russia is implemented through an elaborate bureaucratic structure where a town’s governor is the despotic authority, ruling his fief in collaboration with other equally corrupt functionaries like a judge, police, hospital head and even ‘charitable organizations’ in the town are in sync with the corrupt system.
If Creon speaks with contempt for a woman, “Speak, girl, with head bent low and downcast eyes, does thou plead guilty or deny the deed?” Gogol’s governor is a vulgar and funny caricature, though tragic for the society. “In those two weeks I have flogged the wife of a non – commissioned officer, the prisoners were not given their rations, the streets are dirty as a pothouse – a scandal, a disgrace!” – exclaims the governor in a rare moment of silent introspection. While Creon is scared of any challenge to his authority, more so if it comes from a woman, the governor of Gogol is a woman – beater, disdainful of women in general, “To say women and enough’s said. Everything is froth and bubble to you. The worst you would get would be a flogging; but it means ruination to the husband.” Creon’s sentry displays wisdom greater than his master. He says that a wrong judgment by a person in power is disastrous for the society. Such a sentry’s equivalents for the Russian Governor are Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky. They are totally servile and spineless creatures, even more stupid than the Governor himself. Their greatest ambition is to be mentioned to the Tsar, “I beg your highness or your Excellency most worshipfully, when you get back to St. Petersburg, please tell all the high personages there, if you should happen to speak to the Tsar, then tell him too, Piotr Ivanovich Bobchinsky lives in this town.”
Creon is convinced that punishment for disobeying his authority should be severe and exemplary – “There is nothing worse than disobedience to authority.” In Gogol’s world of the ‘authority’ each official, be it the governor or the postmaster lives in eternal fear of the central authority in the Capital of Russia. At the same time the powers delegated under the Tsarist absolute rule are manipulated and misused by them for their own individual benefits. Their apathy is tragically comic. The caricature and tragedy of this absolute power is reflected in the personages of the governor and his team on the one hand and Khlestakov on the other. Khlestakov boastfully holds forth to his frightened audience of the all powerful town authority, “Even the Imperial Council is afraid of me. I don’t spare anybody. I am everywhere, everywhere.” The great authority trembles at his empty words.
The eternal conflict between the right and wrong is reflected broadly in every great classic of the World be it, ‘Antigone’ with its highly dramatic conflict between the rules of the State on the one hand and the center of moral authority on the other as reflected in the powerful character of a vulnerable young woman who throws a challenge to the king’s orders – “Whoe’er transgresses shall be stoned to death.” However, Antigone’s conviction is mightier than Creon’s authority – “The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven. They were not born today nor yesterday; they die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang. I was not like, who feared no mortal’s frown to disobey these laws and so provoke the wrath of Heaven. I knew that I must dieâ€¦.” The impotent anger of the sovereign Creon – the greatest authority in the kingdom is expressed in his reaction to Antigone’s revolt – “Now if she thus can flout authority, unpunished, I am woman, she the man.”
Gogol was a supporter of the Tsarist order. “It is the monarch who generates love towards himself and he alone can reconcile all classes and turn the nation into a harmonious orchestra. Thus, the Tsar is God’s earthly image and representative.” – wrote Gogol. How he described the life of Russia under the Tsarist order, in effect is in contradiction with his belief in the Tsar’s authority. His ‘Governor’ is far from being God’s image on the Earth who rules with total contempt, not only for women, but for all citizens. He is corrupt to the marrow of his bones and his fear results in stupidity. The conditions in the court, school and hospital underline moral bankruptcy of the Tsarist authority. The insecurity of the powers that be leads them to become subservient to a young twenty three year old crook, Khlestakov. This is in deep contrast with the conflict depicted by Sophocles. The two plays not only belong to different ages and civilizations, one is a tragedy in form, while the other is a delightful satire. No civil society can do without an active rule of law and authority, at the same time, a dictatorial rule destroys the foundation of a civil society. The ruler of Thebes lives in fear of his authority being sabotaged. Whereas in the vast Russian empire, the Governor of the town, exercising dictatorial powers lives in morbid fear of being exposed in his corrupt ways and losing his authority. In Gogol’s ‘The Inspector – General’ there is no Antigone to challenge the authority of the state and assert moral authority. Gogol uses satire and achieves the same result in depicting bankruptcy of immoral State power as Sophocles did though depicting a tragic conflict.
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