Dan Sandman

38: The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney

In Books, Fiction, Literature, Plays on 18/09/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Burial at Thebes by Seamus HeaneyThe Burial at Thebes by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013) is a translation of the Antigone myth. It was first published in 2004, nine years before Heaney died in Dublin. His skills as a poet were second to none, and I’m so glad that this book exists. It pretty much follows the original play by Sophocles in terms of plot and character. Where it differs from more ‘authentic’ translations (i.e. ones that try to replicate the Greek), is in its particular choice of phrasing. I wouldn’t dare say that it improves upon other scholarly versions, but the English certainly feels more readable than it does in the Cambridge text I recently reviewed. Somehow, Heaney succeeded in almost perfectly balancing plain and poetic English, whilst staying true to the Ancient Greek roots of Sophocles’ Antigone.

At first glance, the text appears to be a mix of blank verse and plain prose. Just like in many Shakespeare plays, characters of different social standing use English in different ways. For example, when Creon makes his opening speech to the Chorus of elders, it is presented in fine poetic verse. The precisely measured way in which he uses ship imagery – ‘Our ship of state’ (pp.9) – and repetition of certain words – ‘city’, ‘good’, ‘fail[s]’ – are typical rhetorical devises used by politicians throughout history. Creon’s commanding use of language is contrasting to the more bawdy language of the Guard – ‘loony’, ‘old dog for the hard road’, ‘over a barrel’ (pp.12). Although the Guard speaks in an engaging way and uses his own earthly imagery, his inability to speak in blank verse and his lexical choices represent a gulf in class. When we notice the juxtaposition between the two approaches to the English language, the result is actually quite comic.

But this play is not a comedy, and Creon is not a character with a good sense of humour. No, the tragedy that befalls the city of Thebes is a lesson set to hold a mirror up to society. As Professor Simon Goldhill of Kings College London points out, the first audiences of the classic Athenian tragedies were partaking in a religious festival called the Great Dionysia. This pompe would have included the sacrifice of bulls; a strange parade, involving bread and fake penises, led by an aristocratic virgin woman; and the performance of tragic plays, such as Antigone, with a moral message. Today, we do not worship pagan gods or slaughter animals on a night out at the theatre. However, human beings continue to live and love and die, and we still struggle to understand what it all means. This is where literature can help us come to terms with our own lives. By updating ancient texts, writers draw upon the wisdom of those who came before.

May we continue to translate this remarkable play.

  1. “Today, we do not worship pagan gods or slaughter animals on a night out at the theatre.” That’s only because you haven’t gone to the theatre with me yet, Dan. Nice write-up, I always learn something from your posts.

    • Thanks Jade, that’s the best comment I’ve had so far (since January 2013). I guess, today, we have Broadway, the West End, online trailers and film adaptations of Shakespeare; but despite new technologies changing how we interact with Antigone or Macbeth, it’s the same old tragic stories that make us cry. Has the world really changed that much?

      • My pleasure, Dan. Aren’t there supposedly only 7 basic plots? We will always be drawn to the same kind of stories and archetypes, I suppose because the more we repeat them, the more they make us feel like there is some kind of order, and justice and sense in the world. But I do use an electric carver to do my animal sacrifices these days, so yes, I suppose the world has changed.

      • Ha, thanks Jade. Yes, that 7 plots idea is rather appealing. Having had a go at writing a novel, I’d say that choosing one of those 7 early on definitely gives you a loose form to work from. Talking of stories, one of the best things about being a child is storytime. Even though no one reads to me anymore, bedtime stories continue to help me sleep and dream up another day in this wonderful world. Reading is a good habit.

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