May 2005

Sharon Adarlo


The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone by Seamus Heaney

Old as dust, as obscure as Azerbaijan, Sophocles’s play Antigone does not hold much sway when we have TV karaoke, game contestants eating creepy crawlies, or the besotted media regaling and entertaining us with a real life Metal Gear Solid taking place in the sand-heaped cradle of civilization. Updating this classic would be an unenviable task, and when the famed Abbey Theatre of Ireland asked Seamus Heaney to provide a new translation for their centenary, he was skeptical. “How many Antigones could Irish theatre put up with?” he thought. But Bush was beating the drums of war in early 2003, and Nobel Prize winning Heaney was finding new and urgent relevance in the play. His new and slimmed out translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, titled The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone, is faithful and yet not slavish; instead it is a fresh and uncomplicated translation that does away with the cobwebs and the caked dust, and instills new vigor to a tragedy about a rebellious woman and her head-strong tyrant uncle. In the end it serves to teach timely and important lessons on wisdom, individual rights, and maybe some geo-politics.

The particulars of the play for people not familiar with the story is that Antigone, daughter of the infamous Oedipus, buries her dead brother, Polyneices, and in turn defies the order of her uncle King Creon: that Polyneices must be denied funeral honors due to his taking arms against Thebes in the ensuing war that engulfed the kingdom when Oedipus stepped down. The tragedy is multiplied when not only Polyneices is felled in the war, but also Antigone’s other brother, Eteocles, perishes on the opposing side -- Creon’s side. The stain of Oedipus extends to his ill-starred offspring.

Sister to her father, Antigone, the tragic heroine, knows that her royal line is a tainted one. Heaney establishes this with a quickness and a lightness in the first few minutes of the play -- using a three beat tune, he strips the translation to its bare bones to make it plain and stark, but he keeps a rhythmic, formal structure in place. Heaney writes in the back of the volume, “Greek tragedy is as much musical score as it is dramatic script. I wanted to do a translation that actors could speak as plainly or intensely as the occasion demanded, but one that still kept faith with the ritual formality of the original.” In the opening scene, Antigone rushes onto the stage with Ismene, her sister, and cries out in Heaney’s succinct but metered verse:

Ismene, quick, come here!
What’s to become of us?
Why are we always the ones?

There is panic and passion in her laments that lead her to defy King Creon, and ultimately, the final augers of her fate point to death and more tragedy for her royal house and her kin: King Creon orders her to be sealed in a cave and in turn sets in motion a chain of events that will break him and his arrogance. In the ensuing action, we are treated to the geriatric yes-men Chorus of Thebes, the bumbling comedy of a punk-ass guard, and the shuffling and moaning portents of Tiresias, the fortune-telling she-male of mythological Greece, who warns Creon to guard his rash actions. Besides these, there are beautiful jewels of verse here that punctuate the heaviness; Antigone, strong and relentless in her grief, and led to her cave becomes a bride to Death -- breaking the betrothal to her beloved Haemon, King Creon’s son:

Given away to death!
Remember this, citizens.
I am linked on Hades’ arm,
Taking my last look,
My last walk in the light.
Soon the sun will go out
On a silent, starless shore
And Hades will step aside.
He will give me to Acheron,
Lord of the pitch-black lake,
And that bridegroom’s cold hand
Will take my hand in the dark.

Contemporary parallels to the play shine slyly in the thick of this doom and gloom family tragedy: namely the clash between the individual and the state -- an always tricky dichotomy that has never been fully resolved, and often enough, with catastrophic consequences, the resolution lands like a spiked cudgel on the weak, tender, and singular. Or as Heaney states in the after word, “Creon puts it to the Chorus in these terms: Either you are a patriot, a loyal citizen, and regard Antigone as an enemy of the state because she does honor to her traitor brother, or else you yourselves are traitorous because you stand up for a woman who has broken the law and defied my authority. And Bush was using a similar strategy, asking, in effect: Are you in favor of state security or are you not? If you don’t support the eradication of this tyrant in Iraq and the threat he poses to the free world, you are on the wrong side in the war on terror.” And if you don’t, as some innocent and not-so innocent people have found, you get royally rogered by a nightstick in Gitmo. Or worse.

The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus & Girroux
ISBN: 0374117217
88 Pages