Seamus Heaney and the Classics: Political Contexts for The Burial at Thebes

I am very pleased to have an essay included in a new essay collection, Seamus Heaney and the Classics, edited by Stephen Harrison, Fiona McIntosh and Helen Eastman for Oxford University Press, due out on 1 September of this year. ‘Speaking Truth to Power: Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes and the Poetry of Redress’  initially explores the play’s historical contexts, which I would like to draw to attention to here.

Heaney was mindful of the prominent, contentious position Antigone occupied within Irish political discourse, particularly since the onset of the Troubles. In the wake of the Civil Rights March in Derry in October 1968, and again in 1972, Sophocles’ play had been famously invoked by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who took the view that, paradoxically, campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience like that advocated by ‘Antigone and her under-studies’ inevitably trigger violence. Clearly preferring Ismene’s ‘calculations’ to Antigone’s ‘idealistic’, ‘headstrong’, ‘uncompromising’ position, O’Brien suggests that removing the ‘disabilities’ and injustices faced by Catholics in Northern Ireland ran ‘the risk of precipitating riots, explosions, pogroms, murder’. Years later, Tom Paulin, Heaney’s fellow director at Field Day, vigorously rebutted O’Brien’s stance, first through a review, later in the form of his own adaptation of Sophocles’ drama. In Paulin’s view, by placing undue emphasis on Antigone’s (the Civil Rights Movement’s) responsibility and siding with Creon’s notion of the ‘rule of law’, O’Brien ‘virtually absolved’ the guilty parties in Stormont and Westminster for the carnage that ensued from the late 1960s onwards. Though one might have expected him to endorse Paulin’s view, one the latter had considerably modified by 2002, it is worth noting that in a lecture from 2004 Heaney avoids criticising O’Brien’s stance on Antigone and its applicability to the Northern Irish situation, stating instead that his ‘provocative’ reflections established ‘co-ordinates that have been helpful ever since’.

That Antigone retained a capacity to stir such deeply-felt, contrary responses added to its attraction. So much in the play – its emphasis on familial solidarity, its political and ethical freight, its clash of inflexible opposites, its pitting of individual conscience against executive power, its post-war context, its catalogue of bloody events – struck deep chords in Heaney, as Ted Hughes in a letter back in 1984 suggested it might. Another more recent spur to taking on the play arrived in June 2002 with the publication of Amid our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedy. Its co-editor, Marianne McDonald, had had regular contact with Heaney since The Cure at Troy‘s first production and proved herself a committed financial supporter of Field Day; she had herself translated Antigone in 2000, and became the dedicatee of Heaney’s version. The volume included a piece on Athol Fugard’s The Island, one of the most momentous reinterpretations of the tragedy in recent times, in which two inmates on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island rehearse a performance of Antigone for the benefit of fellow prisoners. As Mee and Foley point out, the three individuals who created the play – it was a collaborative work involving Fugard, and the actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, could themselves be viewed as Antigone-like figures, given their deliberate violation of South African laws which forbade discussion of the prison system, the hours a white man was permitted to work alongside a black man, and an edict imposing strict segregation in the theatre. The combined brilliance of John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s acting, Fugard’s direction and Sophocles’ text in the National Theatre’s London production of 2000 served as a reminder of theatre’s ability to engage contemporary audiences in ‘serious… ethical and political debate’, derived from distant cultures and times.

Pressed by interviewers  in Spring 2004 on what insights his version of Sophocles’ Antigone might shed on twenty-first century politics, Heaney regularly mentioned the Iraq war and its aftermath. In Irish Writers Against War,  an anthology published in March 2003 to which Heaney contributed, Brian Friel spoke of the impending invasion as ‘not-thought-through’, ‘wildly disproportionate’, and ‘inimical to reason and reasonableness’ , comments which equally apply to Creon’s decisions in Antigone. Around the time that The Burial premiered in April 2004,  interviewers regularly pressed Heaney to elucidate what insights his adaptation might shed on twenty-first century politics. In his replies he frequently drew analogies between the political rhetoric and abuse of power of Thebes’ ruler and those of the White House’s then current incumbent.  Often these remarks were followed up with references to the ill-usage of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, which Heaney likened to that endured by the ‘first internees in Northern Ireland’ in 1971. During that same month and succeeding months, revelations of human rights’ violations, carried out by US military personnel in Abu Ghraib prison, appeared in newspapers worldwide.

For Heaney, Sophocles’ preoccupations with issues of justice had a strong resonance in the light of Troubles’  history and recent attempts to address appalling wrongs. Absolutely central to Antigone is a conflict over the dead and their rights, and an individual’s refusal to allow the body of a family member to be left dishonoured. Although requiem masses and funeral solemnities had been held for the victims of Bloody Sunday in early February 1972, in a figurative sense they remained ‘unburied’ as a result of Lord Chief Justice Widgery’s Report. Not only had that voiced suspicions that some of those killed might have been armed, it also largely exonerated  British soldiers of responsibility for their deaths. Both before and during the period when The Burial was being composed, there was sustained, detailed coverage in the media of Lord Saville’s inquiry into Bloody Sunday, a belated, but nevertheless welcome attempt by the British Government to establish an accurate account of what happened and why. From late September 2002 the Saville team relocated from their main base in Derry’s Guildhall to Methodist Central Hall in London in order to gather crucial testimony from politicians, senior military officers and the soldiers who had fired on, wounded and killed civil rights demonstrators on that day. For the relatives of the dead, but also within the wider nationalist community, 2002 had already been an emotionally harrowing year, beginning as it had with the thirtieth anniversary of the shootings. Research carried out by Mark Shevlin and Karen McGuigan from the University of Ulster, submitted to the British Journal of Clinical Psychology in July 2002, but published in November 2003, discovered how    trauma continued to afflict the families of Bloody Sunday victims, and extended to generations born after the tragedy. ‘For these individuals’, McGuigan told the BBC, ‘Bloody Sunday is still an open wound’.

Another, as yet unresolved issue at this juncture was the fate of  Northern Ireland’s ‘Disappeared’. The Provisional IRA were facing increasing pressure to reveal the whereabouts of the remains of seventeen people they had abducted,  killed and secretly interred. mainly in the first twelve years of the Troubles. Despite the setting up by the Westminster and Dublin governments of an independent commission to locate the bodies in late April 1999 , progress in identifying sites and recovering bodies was slow. Renewed attention to the issue came with the publication on 30 September 2002 of Ed Moloney’s The Secret History of the IRA, which foregrounded the case of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten dragged away from her home and children by twelve masked Republican paramilitaries in December 1972, and shot dead for allegedly spying on behalf of the British Army. Her children were never provided with an accurate account of what happened to their mother, and though in March 1999 the IRA admitted having killed her, it was not until August 2003 that her remains were finally discovered on a beach near Carlingford, County Louth.

Despite my emphasis here on The Burial at Thebes‘s historical and political contexts, my principal focus in the essay is on the play’s literary qualities, and on the importance of recognising the significance of Heaney’s translations within his whole oeuvre. This is something also taken up by many  contributors to Seamus Heaney and the Classics,  which includes the work of well-established literature scholars and ones at earlier stages of their career.   For full details, go to