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Ancient tragedy but never old

Jamie James is a critic and author of "The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe" and a new novel, "The Java Man."

In an appearance at the Oxford Literary Festival this year, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney joked that his translation of Sophocles’ “Antigone” could have been called “An Open Letter to George Bush.” The poet found a ready parallel to bellicose, intransigent Creon, the king of Thebes in Sophocles’ tragedy, in the American president.

In Heaney’s translation of the opening scene, Antigone declaims with haughty sarcasm:

This is law and order

In the land of good King Creon....

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‘I’ll flush ‘em out,’ he says.

‘Whoever isn’t for us

Is against us’

Heaney was motivated to undertake the translation, he writes, because “the situation that pertains in Sophocles’ world was being reenacted in our own world.” And if anyone could make modern readers appreciate the play’s relevance to our times, surely it would be the poet who made the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf” into an international bestseller in 2000.

Few works of classical literature have exerted as powerful and enduring an influence on Western thought as “Antigone.” Whereas the Oedipus plays provided a primal template of the human psyche long before Freud made them a cornerstone of his theories, the tragedy of Oedipus’ daughter Antigone is the classic paradigm of the conflict between the individual and society.

As a parable of the power -- and the peril -- of civil disobedience, the tragedy of Antigone has enjoyed great popularity in distant times and places since its first performance in Athens in 441 BC. In his comprehensive history of the play, “Antigones,” the critic George Steiner concluded that “whenever, wherever, in the western legacy, we have found ourselves engaged in the confrontation of justice and of law ... we have found ourselves turning to words, images, sinews of argument, synecdoches, tropes, metaphors, out of the grammar of Antigone and Creon.”

After the devastating War of the Seven Against Thebes, Antigone learns that her brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, have fought against each other and both are dead. Antigone’s uncle Creon, the new king of Thebes, decrees that Eteocles, who fought for his homeland, will receive a state funeral, but the body of the traitor Polyneices must be left to rot. Antigone flouts Creon’s command and performs a symbolic burial rite over her brother’s corpse. Creon orders her to be immured alive in a cave, but he soon repents his sentence: After his son, who is betrothed to Antigone, and then his wife kill themselves from grief, Creon orders Antigone freed. But it is too late, for she has hanged herself in the cave.

Antigone recognized that Polyneices had violated the social contract, but she placed a higher value on the demands of familial loyalty than on those of the state: Even an outlaw, if he is your brother, deserves to have a handful of dust sprinkled over his bones. The king, by setting the law above compassion, is left completely bereft.

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Perhaps the most famous modern production of the play is Jean Anouilh’s modern-dress staging, with stark black-and-white designs, presented in occupied Paris in 1944. Yet nowhere in modern times has the defiant Antigone been embraced more ardently than in Ireland. W.B. Yeats, who created legendary versions of Sophocles’ two surviving Oedipus plays for performance at his Abbey Theatre in Dublin in the 1920s, concluded his masterpiece collection “The Winding Stair and Other Poems” (1933) with a translation of one of the choral odes from “Antigone.” In it, the poet-chorus gives the tragic heroine this impetuous, revolutionary command:

Overcome Gods upon Parnassus;

Overcome the Empyrean; hurl

Heaven and Earth out of their places.

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So it is hardly surprising that in 2003, to celebrate its centenary, the Abbey, Ireland’s preeminent theater company, commissioned a new version of the play from Heaney, the greatest of Yeats’ successors. In his note to the new translation, which he calls “The Burial at Thebes,” Heaney says that his initial reaction to the commission was to ask himself, “How many ‘Antigones’ could Irish theater put up with?”

In the preceding 20 years, the island had produced at least five new versions of the play. Some productions, staged in 1984, Orwell’s year, explicitly drew topical parallels: In Aidan Carl Matthews’ production, copies of a controversial new piece of legislation widely perceived as restricting Irish civil liberties were handed out to the audience and read aloud at the intermission; Tom Paulin’s incendiary version of the tragedy was called “The Riot Act.” Yet Heaney noted that since Yeats himself had never tackled the whole play, “to that extent at least the road was open.”

Heaney’s Creon, however, speaks with a rhetoric not tethered to Ireland but more familiar to an American audience. He sets forth his political vision in a distinctly contemporary idiom:

For the patriot,

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Personal loyalty always must give way

To patriotic duty.

Solidarity, friends,

Is what we need. The whole crew must close ranks.

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The safety of our state depends upon it.

If the echoes of modern presidential rhetoric sound blatant and even a bit heavy-handed, Heaney nonetheless strikes a fine balance in his presentation of the conflicting claims of private and public loyalties. While the Creon of “The Burial at Thebes” lacks imagination and empathy, he isn’t some spluttering, bloodthirsty tyrant but a reasonable protector of public order who passionately defends his decision to refuse burial to Antigone’s brother.

Heaney, who has translated Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” with the title “The Cure at Troy,” renders the “grammar of Antigone and Creon” faithfully, in a variety of forms, from lithe, vigorous blank verse for the lofty idealism of Antigone’s oratory to earthy Irish prose for the Guard (as the Irish call their policemen) who reports to Creon:

Well, here’s what it is. The corpse. Somebody has as good as buried it. Somebody’s after attending to it right.

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In Heaney’s version, the drama is a quick, taut, invigorating read that promises to play well on the stage. While Heaney’s vision of the ethical dilemma of ancient Thebes is lucidly rendered, it’s clear that in the end the Irish poet’s sympathies lie with the uncompromising, disobedient Antigone, whose defiant devotion to the claims of love and family finally overpowers the imperious resolve of her earthly king:

And never, you men of Thebes,

Forget what you saw today:

Oedipus’ daughter,

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The last of his royal house

Condemned. And condemned for what?

For practicing devotion,

For a reverence that was right. *

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