Sally Richardson reviews Amid Our Troubles: Irish versions of Greek tragedy, Marianne McDonald and J Michael Walton (eds), Methuen, £25 hbk
“SOPHOCLES HAS been Field Day’s dramatist”, writes Seamus Deane in his essay in this volume on the Derry theatre company’s use of classical texts.
And it is Sophocles’ play Antigone -- the classic confrontation between the conflicting demands of conscience and law -- that emerges as the key text from the Greek canon.
Antigone defies the orders of Creon, King of Thebes, who has forbidden the burial of her brother, killed whilst launching an attack on the city, and maintains her allegiance to a higher authority, which no state or law has a right to deny.
Tom Paulin’s 1984 version of Antigone (Brendan Kennelly and Aidan Carl Mathews also produced versions the same year), called The Riot Act, set the play in the six counties.
Other dramatists, including Brian Friel and Marina Carr have explored and critiqued contemporary society with their modern Irish settings of other Greek tragedies like Hippolytus and Medea.
Myth comes out of the deepest recesses of the human psyche, which is why these old stories remain so powerful. They deal with moral imperatives and strong human emotions. As Marianne McDonald points out, Greek dramatists’ versions of these myths are intensely political and often a response to events of the time. Euripedes’ anti-war play The Trojan Women was a response to war-crimes and atrocities committed on the island of Melos by Athens.
Seamus Heaney’s prose is as luminous as his poetry, and his production notes to his play of healing, reconciliation and moral choices, The Cure at Troy (based on Sophocles’ Philoctetes), discuss the political background to the work. Heaney’s understanding of the creative processes behind poetry, and its place in society, are exemplary.
Athol Fugard, in Antigone in Africa, describes his involvement with the Serpent Players, a group of amateur black actors. Their production of Antigone -- disrupted by the arrest and imprisonment of several actors -- was a political act of defiance and condemnation of apartheid.
There is far more in this book than can be adequately discussed in a short review. It seems that most of Ireland’s major contemporary writers have adapted or been inspired by Greek drama and myth.
It’s a testament to the theatre as a vital arena for political protest and debate. Theatre is more than merely entertainment, or an indulgence for an elite. Somewhere, at this moment, an Antigone is confronting a Creon, and standing up for the dictates of conscience against tyranny.
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