I finished Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles’ Antigone last night. Heaney did the translation for the Abbey Theatre in Ireland to commemorate its centenary. His goal was to do a version that the actors could speak–Greek tragedy often had songs, dance and music. Heaneys’ version, The Burial at Thebes, is well done but in turning it into something spoken I think some of the music was lost.
In case you don’t know or don’t remember the plot, Antigone and Ismene are the daughters of Oedipus. Remember Seven Against Thebes? The brothers Eteocles and Polyneices were also children of Oedipus and they killed each other in battle over Thebes. With Eteocles dead, Creon has become king of Thebes. Creon has declared that since Polyneices was a traitor he is not to have proper burial but to be left on the plain to be eaten by dogs and birds. Antigone cannot bear that her brother, traitor or not, will not receive proper burial and be able to go to the land of the dead. She defies Creon’s order and performs burial rights for her brother. As a result she is sentenced to death. This being Greek tragedy, hers does not end up being the only death and in the end Creon is heartily sorry for refusing to bend.
I have read Antigone before, long ago, but had no recollection of it except that Antigone dies. So it was really interesting how politically current the play is. Heaney even mentions in his endnote that one reason that contributed to his decision to translate the play was its similarities in some respect to a certain–now former–American presidential administration.
It is sort of creepy to read Antigone telling her sister about Creon’s decree:
“I’ll flush ’em out,” he says.
“Whoever isn’t for us
Is against us in this case.
Whoever breaks this law,
I’ll have them stoned to death.”
Creon, it should be noted, is paranoid about corruption and traitors and subversives in their midst. Does this sound familiar?
But rest assured:
My nerve’s not going to fail, and there’s no threat
That’s going to stop me acting, ever,
In the interests of all citizens. Nor would I,
Ever, have anything to do
With my country’s enemy. For the patriot,
Personal loyalty always must give way
To patriotic duty.
Creon trusts no one and thinks everyone can be bought. He even accuses the guard who comes to tell him that Polyneices had been buried of having been bribed to do it. Creon even blows off Tiresias, calling him a fake. The Chorus gets up the nerve to suggest to Creon that he is overreacting a bit and even hint that perhaps Creon is the one that is the problem. Creon challenges them to dare say more and they back down.
Creon’s son and soon to be husband of Antigone, Haemon, does stand up to Creon and tells him he is acting like a child. Creon basically tells Haemon to shut up. Haemon replies, “Shutting me up still doesn’t make you right.” To which the blustering Creon declares that Haemon will be sorry. But of course it is Creon who is sorry in the end.
It is kind of odd, but the play ends with the Chorus delivering a moral:
Wise conduct is the key to happiness.
Always rule by the gods and reverence them.
Those who overbear will be brought to grief.
Fate will flail them on its winnowing floor
And in due season teach them to be wise.
The moral is odd because the Chorus is on the stage alone after Creon exits after making a speech bemoaning his fate and stupidity. It is clear from the play itself what the moral is so why Sophocles had to sum it up at the end I don’t know because it sort of takes the wind out of everything that came before. Perhaps it gave the audience a chance to compose itself and get its emotions contained after the preceding horrors? Not sure. It will be interesting to see if any of Sophocles’ other plays end with a moral.