Neil Corcoran, review of Seamus Heaney, The Burial at Thebes, in The Guardian [Sat.] (1 May 2004)

Details: Neil Corcoran, ‘The state we’re in’ review of Seamus Heaney, The Burial at Thebes, in The Guardian [Sat.] (1 May 2004) - available online, via link from Literary History, online, and RTC Common Book, online [accessed 16.02.2010].

Sub-heading: Seamus Heaney reworks Sophocles’ struggle between principle and pragmatism to great effect in The Burial at Thebes, says Neil Corcoran,

In his book Antigones George Steiner showed how Sophocles’ play is one of the most enduring texts in the history of western literary, philosophical and political consciousness. The play tells how Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, gives her brother, the traitor Polyneices, a form of ritual burial (she scatters his corpse with dust) against the explicit instructions of her uncle, King Creon, and the advice of her sister, Ismene, even though she knows that the consequence will be her death. She thereby initiates a grimly tragic process: not only does Antigone die, hanging herself when Creon, in retribution, buries her alive in a cave, but Creon’s son Haemon, who is betrothed to Antigone, also kills himself out of grief, as does Creon’s wife, Eurydice. Creon, eventually convinced by the prophet Tiresias and the play’s chorus of elders, does relent - too late - but Antigone is intransigent, despite a striking moment of self-doubt before her incarceration.

The play therefore stages a deadly struggle between principle and pragmatism and between private, familial loyalties - conceived by Sophocles as the gods of the underworld - and the citizen’s responsibilities to the state, which Seamus Heaney’s new version calls the “god in upper air”. Part of the play’s enduring strength is its susceptibility to allegorical interpretation. During the second world war, for instance, Bertolt Brecht made an adaptation in which Antigone becomes the embodiment of his hope for a German rising against Hitler. (When Heaney has Creon say “There is no ‘is’ any more”, I wonder if he’s remembering what Primo Levi tells us that he was told in Auschwitz: “Here there is no why.”)

This new version has been commissioned to mark the centenary of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It maintains the high-profile classicism of some of Heaney’s recent work, which he shares with a number of other contemporary Irish writers: this may have been almost programmed into subsequent Irish writing by Ulysses, James Joyce’s “version” of the Odyssey. Notably, in Heaney’s case, there’s been a previous version of Sophocles - The Cure at Troy, produced by the Field Day Theatre Company, of which he was a director, in the Guildhall in Derry in 1990. There is also the sequence “Mycenae Lookout”, perhaps the finest single thing in The Spirit Level (1996), which implicitly reads recent Irish history through the savage lens of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and eventually attempts to inflect that catastrophe towards a tentative hopefulness.

By choosing Antigone to celebrate the endurance of the Abbey, Heaney also reminds us of the significance of the play in Irish culture and politics. W. B. Yeats, who, with Augusta Gregory, initiated the cultural agitation that led to the theatre’s founding, made versions of Sophocles’ other two Theban plays. Yeats also ended his sequence “A Woman Young and Old” with a version of one of the choral odes from Antigone; and that sequence itself concludes his magisterial volume, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933). Yeats’s Antigone is implicitly a figure for the depredations of civil war, the calamity wreaked on “Brother and brother, friend and friend, / Family and family” by the “great glory driven wild” that is Antigone’s response to Creon, “driven” by familial piety and affection against the unreasonable demands of the state. So, linking 1904 to 2004, Heaney’s Antigone may be a gesture of piety to Yeats, that founder (in several senses) who has been a major presence in his own poetry and criticism since the mid-1970s.

The play has featured more recently, too, in Irish public life in the controversial article that Conor Cruise O’Brien published in The Listener in October 1968, in which he identified Antigone with the Queen’s University student civil rights campaigners - Heaney was a lecturer at Queen’s then - declaring that the consequences of her action were “a stiff price for that handful of dust on Polyneices”, and recommending instead the quietism of Ismene. Tom Paulin, in a relatively level-headed piece of spleen, subsequently derided O’Brien in an essay which he reprints at the head of his volume Writing to the Moment (1996), chastising him in particular for his failure to appreciate the true nature of Creon’s (that is, in this context, the British government’s) potentially devastating and always unaccommodating power. It was out of this aggression and rebuke that Paulin developed his own version of Sophocles, The Riot Act, produced, also by Field Day, in 1984.

Given this context, you might expect a Heaney version to crackle with poetic, political and cultural static. And the play does have its electric moments, notably its strikingly beautiful versions of the Sophoclean choruses. But in fact it’s a scrupulously faithful version, in varied verse forms, and a spare and vigorous one. The idiom is markedly Irish: “You have me scared”; “Somebody’s after attending to it”, and so on; and the “guard” - the Irish word for “policeman” - is particularly Irish in idiom and accent, and is also (wittily) elevated from low-life prose to more heroic blank verse when he steels himself to rebuke Creon and then pityingly hauls Antigone before him. The play also includes a contemporary idiom of power politics: “traitors and subversives”; “disaffected elements”; “patriotic duty”.

Nevertheless, this version is less transparent to specific political instance than The Cure at Troy, even if Tiresias’s encouragement to Creon must sound with particular resonance from a poet whose work has been so profoundly involved in the matter of Northern Ireland: “All men make mistakes. / But mistakes don’t have to be forever. / They can be admitted and atoned for.” However, although Creon is allowed to plead his case, and although the matching inflexibility of Antigone is implicitly criticised by her treatment of Ismene, it’s clear from the lithe movement and intimately inward responsiveness of the writing associated with her that the play defends and celebrates the values of Antigone. “Where I assist / With love, you set at odds”, she says to Creon, in meltingly delicate self-justification and rebuke, where “assist” gracefully modulates into, even as it chastises, “set”. This version makes a fitting place for itself in the canon of Antigones and in that of this absorptive, and absorbing, poet’s work.

While I was preparing this review I taught Milton’s Samson Agonistes to first-year students. One said, and the others agreed, that Samson was a suicide bomber. I’d never thought this; so here was a melancholy instruction in the way classic literature always exceeds itself in the recognitions made by succeeding generations. But I wondered if suicide bombers too might perceive themselves as Antigones. Although she makes her protest by non-violent civil disobedience, her god, as Creon insists, is Hades, the god of death. How might she behave if she stayed alive and Creon never relented? For Cruise O’Brien, Antigone is “an uncompromising element in our being, as dangerous in her way as Creon”. Her other god, Eros, is dangerous too - as Heaney, translating Eros as Love, knows when his Chorus is drawn admiringly to her but also horrified by her potential for damage:

Love leads the good astray,
Plays havoc in heart and home;
You, love, here and now
In this tormented house
Are letting madness loose.

[ close ] [ top ]