Tom Kilroy, ‘A Young Girl Before the King: Seamus Heaney takes possession of a classic and in the process gives us a play for our time’, in The Irish Times (10 April 2004) [Weekend Review]

Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes, from Sophocles’ Antigone, is a companion piece, not to the other two Theban plays of Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrranus and Oedipus at Colonus (Yeats gave us versions of those) but to Heaney’s own version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy (1990).

It is best, I think, to look upon The Burial at Thebes as a contemporary poet’s possession of a classic in which he makes something new and personal out of the material, writing, in effect, a play for our time. As you would expect, it is beautifully written, filled with lines of arresting pithiness and the exchanges of sister and sister, niece and uncle, father and son, have a true freshness to them. It is, however, worth looking at the relationship of the new play to its original.

As in The Cure at Troy, Heaney has changed the original title. By doing so he emphasises the healing, restorative product of tragedy rather than the dark journey itself. Indeed, in The Cure at Troy, he created some memorable, consolatory lines ("hope and history rhyme") which were taken up by Bill Clinton as part of the Peace Process.

This warmth is partly due to the benevolence of the man himself, to the capacious humanism of the poet, but what it offers us is a particular view of what these tragedies have to say.

In his book Antigones, George Steiner has reminded us, in his usual, crushing fashion, that this play has dominated European consciousness over the millennia. Partly, this has to do with the sublime concentration, the usable simplicity, of the story itself.

The young girl, Antigone, defies the decree of her uncle, King Creon, and proceeds to burial rites over the body of her brother, Polyneices. Creon has thrown the body as carrion outside the city walls because of Polyneices’ treachery against the city.

There are, in fact, two burials in the play, the first a mysterious, supernatural one which alerts us that the gods are on Antigone’s side, not Creon’s.

This conflict between Antigone and Creon has been read, over the centuries, as the ultimate expression of the conflict between the private and the public, between the call of personal feeling and the call of duty, between the domestic and the political, the traditional and the modern, between female and the male. You name it.

But it is still extremely difficult for us to get back to the Greek play itself, especially its language. Take one example in the text. The first stasimon or choral ode is one of the best known passages in classical Greek literature. In its ironical celebration of the wonders of mankind it anticipates an equally famous passage in Hamlet. Heaney opens with a splendidly phrased couplet:

Among the many wonders of the world
Where is the equal of this creature, man?

The problem begins with that word, “wonders”, because the Greek, deina, has the added connotation of terror or horror. There is simply no single English word to carry this collision of meanings. And this duality, of splendour and the monstrous, of beauty and horror, runs not only through this passage but through the very centre of Greek tragedy. Furthermore, this choral list of great human attributes is to be found in a play of human savagery, incest (the womb-brood of Oedipus and Jocasta), fratricide, a putrefying corpse, live immurement in a cave and triple suicide.

As the chorus offers its list of great human attributes, Sophocles puts two stoppers in place. One is that for all his achievement man remains subject to death. For some reason Heaney omits this. At the end of the passage Sophocles pulls up the flow of praise once again with a reminder of man’s evil and the need of civilised society to shun the perpetrator. Maybe because of his benign tone, Heaney’s ending of the ode, to these ears at least, carries something less bleak than this human capacity for monstrous violation.

Is there any contemporary art which carries the barbaric, the monstrous in such high, aesthetic definition as Greek tragedy, with its formal elegance containing the extremes of human monstrosity? I can’t think of any, although, heaven knows, we have plenty of barbarism in our midst and plenty of horror on our screens.

In the Sophocles, Antigone exits two thirds of the way through the play and we’re left with the retribution visited upon Creon. This always bothers some modern audiences. Saturated, as we are, with simple-minded narratives, we find it hard to take.

Why can’t we see Antigone again? Why don’t we see her entombed in her cave? Why don’t we witness her death instead of having it told to us by a third party? Heaney effects something quite brilliant here. By skilful tightening of the original he seems to bring Antigone’s exit and Creon’s suffering closer together. This creates a powerful frisson, something close, I’m sure, to the effect originally intended. His Creon, too, will be immediately recognisable to a contemporary audience, neo-puritan, sexist, power-hungry, with a mastery of the soundbite ("Whoever isn’t for us is against us"). Maybe the current White House will be persuaded to read this play? Doubtful. This political layer in the Heaney is all the more effective because it is achieved with great tact.

The most famous “political” Antigone (by Jean Anouilh, and still one of the best theatrical versions) was presented in a black-and-white modern-dress production in occupied Paris in 1944. The effect was electrifying. Anouilh’s success, his tact, you might say, was shown when he was attacked by both collaborationists and members of the Resistance movement.

The history of theatre (and cinema) is a history of adaptations. This endless recycling is, perhaps, part of the very art of imitation itself.

And the good adaptation always sends you back to the original with insights and a need to begin reading all over again. Both of Seamus Heaney’s versions of Sophocles do precisely that.

Thomas Kilroy was recently awarded a Special Tribute Award at the Irish Times/ESB Theatre Awards for his contribution to theatre. The Burial at Thebes, Sophocles’s Antigone, translated by Seamus Heaney, opened at the Abbey Theatre on Monday. The Burial at Thebes: Sophocles’ Antigone Translated by Seamus Heaney, Faber & Faber, 56pp. 12.99.

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