5 November 2009: Heaney, The Burial at Thebes

Curtain Theater, UMass theater. Subscription series, No. 1.

This is Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ Antigone, freshly translated and first published, I believe, in 2005. It is a fine, sparely colloquial, flowing translation that reflects this Irish poet’s flawless ear for the sound of the spoken word and his sense of structural qualities of sentences. And this production, directed by a graduate student, Dawn Monique Williams, did the play as close to full justice as it might be possible for such an ensemble to do.

There was no attempt at Greek costume here; rather, a vivid visual metaphor was achieved by setting the play in the emerging youth culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The dramaturg, Jason Lites, in a program comment entitled “How do you find your voice in the midst of chaos?” Explained the attempt to meld a contemporary youth culture “and its forms of artistic expression,” including a sharply accented, rhythmic dancing, with the thematic material incorporated into Sophocles’ ancient play about the fatal results of defying human authority and, ultimately, the even greater authority of Zeus.

The chorus of ten persons, seven of them dressed in hand-me-down, rag-picker miscellaneous dress, which spoke eloquently of a hard life on the streets and a principled flouting of middle-class standards of dress, behavior, and thought, and an additional three persons dressed in more ordinary casual shirts and dresses and behaving as ordinary citizenry, together spoke Heaney’s pointed odes, usually in unison (which they had learned to do almost faultlessly), sometimes individually. The combination of these costumes, the angular, raucous music they danced to, and the choreography, with its frequent hard claps, rhythmic stomps, energetic, sudden movements of head and torso, and broad linear-tending use of the rather small performance space, surrounded in three-quarter-round bleacher seating, set a clear, stark image of a group of young people in a somewhat rebellious but also puzzled and querulous frame of mind. Heaney understands the dramatic, dynamic interplay that occurs in Sophocles’ play between the odes of the chorus and the episodes of action. At the same time he blends the edges of transitions between the two forms so that the chorus in this production has more of an “inside” role, not only commenting but actually to some degree participating in the action, and becoming a kind of composite character in its own right. The director, much to her credit (and it would appear she gets a second credit also for choreography, since no one else is credited with that task and there are only credits in the program for an assistant and additional choreographer), has sensed this particular integrative purpose (at least, as I perceive it) and directed movement and dialogue accordingly. The amount of attention given to the part of the chorus in this production was clear and extremely successful. One might say “despite,” and then revise that word to say “because of,” the imposition of the Hip Hop metaphor of time, place, music, and dance, we the audience found ourselves pulled deeply into the action as the play conducts its series of confrontations between major and also minor characters.

The casting of the principals was mainly very good. Antigone’s sister Ismene, played by Connie Russo, had a corpulent body type that was physically much at odds with the almost sylph-like, and strikingly tall figure of the Antigone, performed by Mikayla Dalton. It may be that the stage director had the idea that the very much down to earth, unheroic sister of the rebellious heroine should look vastly different from her; although Ismene’s acting was sincere and heartfelt, it seemed that she was just miscast. Creon, the ruler of this embattled city, Adam Petkus, looked very much like William F. Buckley, Jr., and even had a supercilious smile and generally superior and arrogant attitude much reminiscent of the late Republican political pundit. He wore a three-piece pinstripe suit pulled from the costume stores, evidently, and not quite a good fit. And it seems that neither he nor anyone else involved in the production knows that a person in power who wears such suits never buttons the bottom button of the double-breasted jacket. These, however, are minor flaws in what was a very fine, intense, and wonderfully focused performance. Petkus (too old to be a conventional undergraduate student; perhaps he is a graduate student) has a very good vocal range, and he used it to much advantage, contrasting soft speech with sudden rage. We were to understand, I believe, that this Creon, despite his intimidating blustering, was having much difficulty holding onto the reins of authority. In some cases this translated into over-the-top shouting. The director would have done well to modify those moments, and not to allow as many as she did. She would have needed to explain that an actor must be perceived as always having a little bit in reserve, no matter how close to the edge of the extreme he may come. This, of course, is a more significant qualification on my part than my nit-picking comment about an ill-fitting, overly buttoned up suit. But I hasten to add that, by and large, this Creon captured much of the meaning and significance with which the playwright endowed the character. One nice repeated bit of business on his part was his seemingly involuntary grooming of his face: a small picking motion with the index finger at the side of the nose, for example, spoke of a man outwardly so confident that he could indulge himself in this ostensibly private, offhand behavior in the presence of subordinates; and they were all subordinates.

The Antigone played a more than adequate character, caught in the meshes of an unreasoning, inhuman authority that could not discern the difference between the need to give proper obedience to the strictures of the gods and the requirement of civil polity to obey a justly appointed ruler even when he issues an edict that patently flies in the face of the gods’ insistence on appropriate respect to be accorded a deceased relative. In this case, Antigone has insisted on giving proper burial rites to her fallen brother, despite Creon’s prohibition. She will pay a terrible price for refusing to capitulate to Creon’s edict. But this is only the beginning of what happens to Creon. His son Haemon sides with Antigone, and he ends up in the walled-up cave where Creon has imprisoned her. When, impelled by Tiresias’s solemn reprimand, Creon, now understanding that hubris has been moving his every action, reverses himself and opens the walled up cave, he finds that Antigone has hanged herself; and he has arrived in time to see his own son a suicide. The bodies are brought back on stage and Creon is brought low, and then the tragedy is augmented still more by the death of Eurydice, Creon’s long-suffering wife, who has killed herself out of shame and grief over the loss of her son. The final lesson is driven home: it does not pay to defy the wishes of the gods.

Antigone’s role in these thematic proceedings is such that Sophocles seems finally to be more interested in the lesson and the loss than in the pain and suffering that all of this inflicts on Antigone. It would seem that it is at this point that the priorities of the ancient Greek playwright, and all his audience as well, tend in a different, less personal direction than what a modern playwright and his modern audience would have. Euripides sometimes seems excruciatingly modern, even contemporary, to us; Sophocles, somewhat less so. And yet he was such a remarkable playwright that his portrayal of individual suffering, as in the cases of Antigone and her father Oedipus, in his play, is incisive, acute, and piercing. What we modern audiences lack the capacity to understand is that this sharp personal pain has, for Sophocles and his audiences, a greater, more compelling rationale. That rationale lies at radical variance from the way we moderns look at the world and find it ethically a blank, a chaos, or an inscrutable phenomenon altogether. For the Greeks it was quite different: to paraphrase Robert Browning’s character’s sentimental simplification, for them it was “God’s in his heaven, all’s wrong with the world.”

I started to say something about Mikayla Dalton’s performance of the title role. I said she was more than adequate because she was able to capture much of the emotional resonance, the piety-driven self-righteousness that distinguishes the character. The conflict that Sophocles portrays between Creon and Antigone seems in fact to be based on two cases of self-righteousness, both of which betray a lack of perspective. Sophocles does not mince words about the issue of civic responsibility. Creon’s son Haemon has words with his father that constitute almost a textbook case of how civic responsibility is supposed to work. Creon complains that his son is lecturing him, and he is. But Sophocles is able to put these rational thoughts in the mouth of Creon’s son and not throw his play off track because Haemon is not the chief character; and so Sophocles can afford to indulge in some didacticism for the sake of making a necessary point without risking muddying the waters of intense emotional clarity for his central character. If you were to compare Eugene O’Neill’s treatment of this subject, in his modern retelling of Sophocles’ trilogy, and you examined the terrible angst that O’Neill’s much put-upon central character (I can’t be sure of the name) suffers, and put that up against the suffering of Sophocles’ Antigone, you would see at once that Sophocles is the greater dramatist, because he can capture the authentic felt pain of the character while at the same time setting it, in the most thoroughly integrated way, in the larger context of the relations between men and gods. That relationship, to be sure, is exactly what O’Neill said he was so interested in; but he is beaten at his own game by the older dramatist. In the context of these dramaturgical and thematic issues, Dalton’s performance was about as good as it could have been for a talented undergraduate actress who hadn’t the experience of feeling deeply and tragically about such epic matters as the loss of a brother and the failure of the community to give him a proper burial. She did what she could, and what she did was well done. But it would take an actress of the character and experience of, say, Fiona Shaw to measure up to this sort of thing, as Shaw did in the case of her Medea.

What I am getting at here is that Dalton was doubly hampered by her lack of personal and acting experience and by a misunderstanding that the cast and the audience, and possibly even Seamus Heaney himself, may have shared. We tend to trivialize the things we cannot fully comprehend. It is all too easy to sum up, or perhaps even to dismiss, the meaning of Sophocles’ Antigone by saying, as I did at the beginning of this chronicle, that we see it does not pay to go against the gods’ wishes. In its most mundane form, that exhortation has not much more force and moment than the exhortation of the old television commercial, “It doesn’t pay to mess with Mother Nature.” We have a difficult time connecting with a culture that felt the total impress of powerful deities on human life and at the same time felt powerless itself to guard against behavior that would transgress their laws and bring on a consequent doom. It would call fora truly remarkable degree of understanding and assimilation of this kind of predicament in a twenty-year-old actress in order for the character to be gotten right: virtually an impossible task.

What is remarkable about this production, in addition to the precisely rendered posture of the chorus vis-à-vis the principals, is how much clarity there was that shone through the mists and darkness of long-distance cultural vision. This seems to me quite a good, if not thoroughly excellent, attempt to get at some things of real importance, things that we may begin to realize we hold in common with that ancient Greek audience, some twelve or fifteen thousand strong, who spent a bleak and yet deeply satisfying two hours on that Athenian hillside, in the theater of Dionysus, contemplating what it is to be human.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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