Making a complete break from Brand/Ross, why is it that our writers dwell so much and so successfully on the Greek classics? Thirty to forty years ago the poets took refuge in lyricism, in the personal and in the deep roots of pre-history. More recently writers have been delving into the fundamental themes of epic tragedy to find more public resonance and depth. Theyre all different but their personal background is very relevant. Much of the original inspirations have Yeats in common, I guess. The US poet Robert Pinsky boldly pegs Heaneys The Cure of Troy to contemporary troubled politics and you can see why, in the dramatic poems best known lines.
The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
Tom Paulin went further than any of the others setting his version of Sophocles Antigone The Riot Act for Field Day in 1985 in our own place. Both Owen McCafferty and Frank McGuiness have Sophocles running at the Waterfront in Belfast and the National in London respectively.
You can see the appeal of classics to the intensity of our political themes. This review from the US Ivy League college Bryn Mawr of the contemporary place of Greek drama in our modern pulls the theme together nicely.
Paulin clearly intended his audiences to react sympathetically to Antigone while seeing Creon as a politically corrupt figure; just as The Island was crafted as an indictment of apartheid, so The Riot Act aimed to bolster the republican cause in Northern Ireland (and to counter a widely circulated Unionist interpretation of Sophocles’ tragedy that unequivocally favored Creon). Their highly politicized approaches to adapting Antigone contrast with the more subtle efforts of Heaney and McGuiness. Both of these playwrights acknowledge the impact of violence in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and elsewhere on their conceptions of Philoctetes’ and Electra’s situations. Yet, in Heaney’s words, The Cure at Troy portrays Philoctetes as “an aspect of every intransigence” and “a manifestation of the swank of victimhood” rather than a “trimly allegorical representation of hardline Unionism” (Heaney, 175); McGuiness similarly insists that his version of Electra is not a “veiled metaphor for the civil war in the North of Ireland” (Long, 268). Instead, the paralyzing grief of his Electra is meant to offer a general “warning against mourning too much…”
Looking back at his endeavor in The Riot Act, Paulin concedes the limitations of readings and productions that simply make Antigone a martyr of righteous resistance while failing to “take on the complexity of Creon’s actions” His remarks, when considered together with the observations of the other three artists, give us much food for thought about how modern versions of ancient dramas (whether translations, adaptations, “tranlocations,” or something else) may and may not provide prisms for viewing the world in which we live and for understanding how its problems might be ameliorated. This topic is provocatively taken up by Seamus Deane (“Field Day’s Greeks (and Russians),” 148-64) who respectfully critiques Paulin’s effort in The Riot Act, arguing that Sophocles’ complex treatment of Creon makes Antigone at best an awkward and imperfect vehicle for the political message that Paulin and his associates in Field Day wanted to conveyŔ
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London