Study Of The Burial at Thebes

Antigone, a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, was written two and a half thousand years ago. Since then it has been translated, adapted and interpreted with a consistent ability to engage with people across different times and cultures. In the last fifty years or so, around a hundred performances across the world have been recorded (www4.open.ac.uk/csdb/ASP/ViewBook.asp).

Antigone is a mythical story. But through the conflict between the two major protagonists Antigone and Creon, it clearly addresses fundamental issues including ‘individual conscience versus civil power, men versus women, the domestic versus the public sphere, the relevance of the action in times of crisis’ (Heaney, Reading 6.7). People who wish to appreciate these issues by alluding to current day events need to make an imaginative leap, and in this they are assisted through the creation of modern versions and crafted theatrical interpretations. For example, Nelson Mandela who played the part of Creon, while held on Robbin Island, took from the play Creon’s inability to ‘listen to anyone but his own demons…. His inflexibility and blindness ill become a leader, for a leader must temper justice with mercy. It was Antigone who symbolised our struggle; she was, in her own way, a freedom fighter, for she defied the law on the grounds that it was unjust.’ (Reading 6.9).

A modern version of Antigone is the play text, The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney. It was commissioned for the first performance at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in May 2004 during the period of Ireland’s presidency of the European Union. The occasion was the centenary anniversary of the national theatre which had W.B.Yeates and Lady Augusta Gregory as its founders. As Sophocles was honoured by being invited to contribute to the annual Great Dionysia festival, so Heaney was honoured to have been chosen for producing a modern text for this important cultural and political occasion. While Sophocles had gained personal experience through active public life in Athens which he used to write about the challenges of decision making by those in authority, such as Creon, Heaney seemed a perfect choice for reworking Antigone as he was an Irishman who, from birth, had experience of the conditions of living both a civic and individual life in Northern Ireland, and was a Nobel laureate, and author of The Cure of Troy. The Abbey production was supported by government bodies: the Arts Council of Ireland and Radio Telefis Eireann.

Heaney, not a dramatist but a poet familiar with Latin and the classics, followed the scholarly (but un-rhythmic and prose) translations of R.C.Jebb and Hugh Lloyd-Jones in producing his text for a contemporary audience. He felt that his inability to read ancient Greek actually gave him an advantage (DVD Track 14). While keeping close to the meaning of the original, its structure, and many of the Greek theatrical conventions, Heaney’s ‘first consideration was speakability’ (Reading 6.1).

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Heaney’s challenge was to produce a fresh and innovative version of the myth since many dramatists in Ireland had already reworked the tragedy. Heaney speaks of two main inspirations for his work. Firstly, he saw a correspondence between the actions of Creon, ruler of Thebes and the American president George Bush. Creon’s driving the Thebean citizens into an either/or situation in relation to Antigone was seen as analogous with the Bush administration using the same strategy to promote war with Iraq (Reading 6.6). The second related to his difficulty in commencing writing. It was only when he fortuitously came across a link between Sophocles’ heroine and the opening lines of a famous Irish lament Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire that ‘theme and tune coalesced’ (Heaney, Reading 6.6).

Heaney chose to change the title of his work away from Antigone towards a more neutral The Burial at Thebes because the play ‘was done so often, it has become more a set of issues than an actual play’. For him, burial is a term that ‘retains a sacral first-world force’, the play involves many burials, and, on later reflection, he has made a connection with the IRA hunger strikes and the English security forces control of a dead striker’s body (DVD Track 13). As Theocharis notes ‘the central engine here that drives the play is not so much the character of Antigone, as the controversial question of the burial of a prince who was, or was regarded to be, a turncoat (DVD Track 8).

Heaney feels that a ‘Greek tragedy is as much a musical score as it is a dramatic script’ (Reading 6.6) and that ‘verse translation [needs] a note to which … the first lines, can be tuned’ (Reading 6.7). He saw a similarity between the outburst of grief and anger portrayed by the pitch of the voice of an Irish woman traumatised by the death of her husband at the hands of the English and the sister driven wild by the edict of Creon. Thus, he identified the metre for the first dialogue between Antigone and Ismene: ‘Ismene, quick come here!/What is to become of us? (p.1)’ giving an intensity and a pressure of utterance created by the three beat lines. Additionally, ‘the contrast between the language of feeling that is spoken by Antigone and Ismene and the language of power used by Creon….[underpinning all of the issues involved in their conflict] … all of these things were momentarily palpable and in prospect because of the note I had just heard’. (Reading 6.7).

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For Heaney, ‘with the first tune established’ he could then find ‘variations’ such as making the Chorus ‘speak a version of the four beat, alliterating, Old English … echoing a metre Anglo-Saxon poets (Reading 6.6). The guard talks in the ‘patter of Northern Ireland but his circumlocutions are true to how messengers in Attic drama speak (Payne, 2004). Heaney’s previous experience of Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, Irish/English and European traditions is likely to have primed him for his choices, and his text is ‘redolent with … inter-textual allusions’ (Hardwick, 2004).

The rhythm, tone and language used by Creon in the first episode of The Burial at Thebes appear stately but reflecting of political concerns post 9/11. It contrasts dramatically with the Parados. Creon uses relatively long sentences in blank verse, the medium of iambic pentameter, with the metaphor of ‘ship of state’ which has ‘entered calmer waters’, praising citizens for being ‘a loyal crew’. Creon then goes on to give his understanding of the nature of leadership, particularly his ‘nerve’s not going to fail’ he will be ‘acting in the interests of all citizens’ while ‘personal loyalty always must give way to patriotic duty’ and appealing to citizen’s sense of civic duty ‘the whole crew must close ranks. The safety of our state depends on it’. (p.9/10). Through such means, spectres of colonialism may resonate with Irish readers and spectators.

Sophocles’ play was performed as part of a civic and religious festival, held during daylight, in the open air theatre of Dionysus, with an audience capacity of around 14 thousand. The festival provided Athens with the opportunity to demonstrate its accomplishments to other states and foreign dignitaries (Hardwick, 2008). While the performance of The Burial at Thebes at the national theatre similarly promoted Irish accomplishments, the staging and production was on a much smaller scale. For example, the Greek Chorus would comprise 10 or 15 people while the Abbey production had two.

Each member of a theatre audience brings to a production their own cultural framework and assumptions. So, not surprisingly, reviewers provide interesting but conflicting commentaries on the perceived success or otherwise of transplanting Seamus Heaney’s work to the stage through the efforts of director, set designer, costume designer, musical director and actors.

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In a review of the Abbey production for the Guardian, Michael Billington (2004) criticised Lorraine Pintal’s production for ‘lacking any sense of cultural specificity’. He observes that in Heaney’s text ‘there is not only a clash of opposed principles… the tragedy is as much Creon’s as Antigone’s’ while in this production ‘the dice are loaded both by the directoral style and by Carl Fillion’s design which suggests some standard-issue, theatricalised tyranny’. He concludes that while Heaney has ‘brilliantly stripped Sophocles’ play to the bone’ the director has ‘perversely, [chosen] to dress it up again. In contrast, Luke Clancy writing for The Times concludes that ‘Lorraine Pintal provides a new staging … that usefully enhances Heaney’s contemporary urgency without sacrificing a deeply sophisticated sense of timeless rage.’ In its British premier at the Playhouse, Nottingham, a review by Dunnett (2005) for the Independent praises the set as ‘a mirror image of a Greek theatre’ while ‘the characters seem almost elemental’ as does the chorus music, and he concludes that the power of the director’s production ‘rests in the way she lets Sophocles’ lines speak for themselves’.

Thus, re-translating a written text to the stage or an audio production is an extremely complex process which, according to director John Theocharis, involves taking decisions on the extent to which ancient and modern aspects are introduced into the setting of the play; appreciating the Chorus as a valuable theatrical device underpinning choices between speaking and singing, one voice or many; and choosing a composer based on liking their style and having a good rapport (Tracks 3 to 6).

As the archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama shows, more than a thousand productions worldwide have occurred during the last four centuries. The fundamental issues which have been addressed can be recognised in a ‘new’ text through the judicial use of language, and various cultural and contemporary references. However, while Sophocles’ original text may be exploring the conflict between the two protagonists to consider how the ruling class should act (Hardwick, 2008), since the range of perspectives is so rich, a range of ‘meanings’ are available and in this essay we have explored some of the factors which shape the responses of readers and audiences to one recent version.

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