Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.12.12

Marianne McDonald, J. Michael Walton, Amid Our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedy. Introduced by Declan Kiberd.   London:  Methuen, 2002.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 0-413-77142-3.  $35.00.  



Reviewed by Elizabeth Scharffenberger, Columbia University (es136@columbia.edu)
Word count: 2993 words

This collection of essays explores how Greek tragedies and myths have been variously adapted and performed by Irish poets and playwrights (e.g. Seamus Heaney, Marina Carr, and Frank McGuiness) and theatre groups (e.g. Stephen Rea's and Brian Friel's Field Day). Its focus is on texts and productions dating to the latter part of the twentieth century, with individual essays devoted to the English-language works of Friel, Heaney, Carr, and McGuiness, as well as Brendan Kennelly, Tom Paulin, Pat Kinevane, and also the South African playwright Athol Fugard, whose Antigone-based drama, The Island, was shown on Irish television and performed at venues in Dublin, Limmerick, and Galway during the 1980's. Declan Kiberd's introduction and the substantial prefatory surveys of the editors help situate these modern endeavors in a broad historical context; they explain the longstanding respect for the classical tradition in Irish culture, and they illuminate how Irish poets and scholars throughout the past few centuries have used Greek myth and literature to critique, resist, and subvert British domination. In addition, several essays compare the contemporary works of playwrights such as Friel and Carr to those of artists who were active earlier in the twentieth century, notably Teresa Deevy, T. C. Murray, and the Irish-American Eugene O'Neill, whereas other analyses draw attention to the influence of W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and other pioneers of modern Irish literature on the imaginations of today's acclaimed poets and dramatists.

It is, in fact, from Yeats's translation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King that the volume takes its title. Responding to Oedipus' request for information concerning the circumstances of his predecessor's death, Yeats's Creon explains (lines 126-7), "Such things were indeed guessed at, but Laius once dead no/ avenger arose. We were amid our troubles...." Given that in 1926 (as in later decades) people in Ireland used the term "troubles" to refer to contemporary political and religious turmoil, the phrase "amid our troubles" would have invited Yeats's original Dublin audience to find a "subtext" in Creon's response and hence to relate, if only momentarily, the difficult situation of Oedipus' Thebes to their own experiences (Michael Walton, "Hit or Myth: The Greeks and Irish Drama," 10). Thus, with the title Amid Our Troubles..., the editors advertise their collection's overarching interest in showing how today's Irish playwrights and poets craft out of ancient Greek sources new works that encourage their audiences to reexamine contemporary issues and problems from fresh perspectives.

This being said, it should be noted that the "versions" of Greek tragedy considered in this volume are of truly diverse character. A few fall into the category of what most of us might comfortably call "translations" -- I am thinking primarily of McGuiness's recent translation of Sophocles' Electra although the excerpted material from McGuiness's text indicate that he at times takes liberties in rendering what Sophocles wrote into English. The rest, which include Heaney's The Cure at Troy, subtitled "A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes," Kennelly's "version" of Euripides' Medea, and Carr's By the Bog of Cats... , which relocates the story of Medea to the Irish Midlands, have fewer direct and precise connections with the ancient texts, and they are perhaps more accurately labeled "adaptations," "translocations," or simply as "inspired by." Of these, a few, such as Carr's The Mai, which evokes the myth of Demeter and Persephone (according to Cathy Leeney, "The Return of Persephone?: Missing Demeter in Irish Theatre," 234-7), look back at general mythical paradigms rather than specific texts. Almost all of the modern works examined in Amid Our Troubles... are themselves dramatic texts intended for live performance; Heaney's poem "Mycenae Lookout," which "transforms" Aeschylus' Oresteia (so Helen Vendler, "Seamus Heaney and the Oresteia : 'Mycenae Lookout' and the Usefulness of Tradition," 181), is the notable exception. Although the essays end up devoting roughly equal attention to the legacies of Euripides and Sophocles (with the impact of Aeschylus receiving considerably less notice), Sophocles emerges as the collection's focal figure. As Walton observes in his informative overview, Sophocles' stubborn and non-conformist heroes have proven especially attractive to Irish dramatists and their counterparts in countries such as South Africa (Walton, 15). As if to affirm this tragedian's paramount importance, the experience of interpreting and adapting Sophoclean tragedy constitutes the common concern of the four playwrights who contribute material to the volume -- Athol Fugard, Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin (in essays), and Frank McGuiness (in an interview with Joseph Long).

Like the artistic creations that are their subjects, the individual essays take diverse approaches to analyzing these modern versions of Greek tragedy, and, as is to be expected, there is among them some healthy disagreement over the significance and success of particular projects as well as over general trends and strategies. There is also more variation from essay to essay in style, focus, and sophistication than is typical in a collection of scholarly articles, and a few of the collection's contributions seem out of place. At times, especially in the introductory essays, I found myself looking for some specific, systematic discussion of the essential differences between translations and other types of re-workings of ancient texts, especially since Michael Walton has elsewhere asserted that "[t]here is... a fundamental difference between directing, adapting, translating, rewriting, presenting plays as 'based on' or 'versions of'... [a]ll have their place" (Illinois Classical Studies 26 (2001) 80). Nonetheless, taken together, these largely insightful and accessible discussions of a significant phenomenon in today's theatre will impress readers anew with the power of ancient Athenian drama to "speak to the future" (Walton, 24-5) as well as to the past, and they will hearten all who believe that the theatre offers unique opportunities to tackle the thorniest issues of the times, no matter when and what those times are.

The first-hand commentaries offered by the four modern dramatists on their creative processes, aspirations, and concerns make for illuminating and thought-provoking reading. Heaney ("The Cure at Troy: Production Notes in No Particular Order," 171-80) and McGuinness (in Long's "The Sophoclean Killing Fields: An Interview with Frank McGuiness," 263-82) are particularly generous in describing how they handle the technical challenges of making ancient dramas, with their choruses and dei ex machina and ubiquitous mythological references, sensible and accessible to modern audiences. Readers familiar with their work will be delighted by their clear and frank explanations of how their interpretations of the situations and dilemmas facing Philoctetes and Electra shaped their creative choices. Fugard ("Antigone in Africa," 128-47) and Paulin ("Antigone," 165-70) provide brief but compelling accounts of how they came to write, respectively, The Island and The Riot Act. It is thrilling and more than a little sobering to read about the genesis of The Island, which was inspired by the actual experiences of an actor nicknamed Sharkie, who had been a member of Fugard's Serpent Players troupe in the early 1960's when he was sentenced to South Africa's notorious political prison on Robben Island, and who managed to stage a daring fifteen-minute performance of Creon's and Antigone's climactic confrontation for his fellow inmates (Fugard, 133). Tom Paulin's description of the formative stages of The Riot Act, which Stephen Rea commissioned for Field Day in 1984, shows how readily modern playwrights can find in Antigone's courageous resistance a meaningful vehicle for "breaking conspiracies of silence" (so Fugard, 143) about a variety of oppressions. Like Fugard, Paulin clearly intended his audiences to react sympathetically to Antigone while seeing Creon as a politically corrupt figure; just as The Island was crafted as an indictment of apartheid, so The Riot Act aimed to bolster the republican cause in Northern Ireland (and to counter a widely circulated Unionist interpretation of Sophocles' tragedy that unequivocally favored Creon). Their highly politicized approaches to adapting Antigone contrast with the more subtle efforts of Heaney and McGuiness. Both of these playwrights acknowledge the impact of violence in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and elsewhere on their conceptions of Philoctetes' and Electra's situations. Yet, in Heaney's words, The Cure at Troy portrays Philoctetes as "an aspect of every intransigence" and "a manifestation of the swank of victimhood" rather than a "trimly allegorical representation of hardline Unionism" (Heaney, 175); McGuiness similarly insists that his version of Electra is not a "veiled metaphor for the civil war in the North of Ireland" (Long, 268). Instead, the paralyzing grief of his Electra is meant to offer a general "warning against mourning too much..." (Long, 273).

Looking back at his endeavor in The Riot Act, Paulin concedes the limitations of readings and productions that simply make Antigone a martyr of righteous resistance while failing to "take on the complexity of Creon's actions" (Paulin, 169; cf. 166-7). His remarks, when considered together with the observations of the other three artists, give us much food for thought about how modern versions of ancient dramas (whether translations, adaptations, "tranlocations," or something else) may and may not provide prisms for viewing the world in which we live and for understanding how its problems might be ameliorated. This topic is provocatively taken up by Seamus Deane ("Field Day's Greeks (and Russians)," 148-64) who respectfully critiques Paulin's effort in The Riot Act, arguing that Sophocles' complex treatment of Creon makes Antigone at best an awkward and imperfect vehicle for the political message that Paulin and his associates in Field Day wanted to convey (Deane, 152-3). Although he appreciates how Paulin and Heaney (in The Cure at Troy) use the intransigence of Creon and Philoctetes to expose how political injustice is sustained by the "stereotyping of the self," Deane suggests that neither playwright succeeds in his goal of showing how such self-stereotyping can be abandoned without "catastrophe," since "[n]either play sees transformation and reconciliation as a process that is activated before catastrophe strikes" (Deane, 160-1).

In a comparably sensitive yet provocative essay, Richard Cave examines in detail Brian Friel's theatrically self-conscious adaptation of Yeats's "dreaming back" structure in Living Quarters, which translocates the story of Theseus, Hippolytus, and Phaedra to contemporary Ireland and seeks to explore issues of free will and responsibility ("After Hippolytus: Irish Versions of Phaedra's Story," 101-27). For all its artistry, however, Cave finds Friel's drama less emotionally and esthetically satisfying than two earlier dramatic updatings of Euripides' Hippolytus, T. C. Murray's Autumn Fire and Eugene O'Neill's Desire under the Elms, which were both first produced in 1924 and which share Friel's interest in making the Theseus-figure "a powerful presence" (Cave, 121). The problem with Living Quarters, according to Cave, is that it fails "to evoke an off-stage world" that could afford its characters "a firm psychological basis for their motivation", and this makes the action of Friel's drama difficult to interpret for actors, set-designers, and audiences alike (Cave, 120; cf. 109-10). In contrast, Murray and O'Neill take "care to root their dramas within a meticulously represented and particularized verisimilitude"; it is because of this care that they "can in time move confidently into handling archetypical material," which poses real challenges and dangers to the playwright who chooses to recast a story such as Phaedra's in a modern setting (Cave, 120; cf. 101-2).

Cave's preference for such "particularized verisimilitude" may not be shared by all readers and theatre-goers. Nonetheless, his concerns about the potential dangers of translocating and adapting ancient tragedies -- i.e., the risks of reductionism, which can make the new work "seem trivial to an audience, banal by contrast with the paradigm that inspired it," and of excessive predictability in plot and characterization (Cave, 102) -- are indisputably legitimate, and they are intelligently adumbrated in John McDonagh's careful analysis of Brendan Kennelly's interpretation of Medea ("'Is Medea's Crime Medea's Glory?: Euripides in Dublin," 213-31, esp. 216). According to McDonagh, Kennelly successfully recasts the story of Medea so that it reflects a distrust of institutions that "speaks to a contemporary Irish audience" (McDonagh, 217); keeping to the archetypal story inherited from Euripides, Kennelly provides, in Jason's efforts to better himself, a mirror-image of "post-colonial Ireland's attempt to distance itself from the poverty of its colonial past" and, in Medea's all-consuming rage, a hint of "rejection of traditional stoic acceptance of male abuse" suffered by Irish women like those whom the playwright met when he was hospitalized for alcoholism in 1986 (McDonagh, 223-4; cf. 214-5). But, as the chorus asks in the final lines of Kennelly's play, is Medea's crime Medea's glory? In contrast to the confidently affirmative response of Brian Arkin ("Women in Irish Appropriations of Greek Tragedy," 198-212, esp. 202), McDonagh suggests throughout his essay that the drama affords no easy response to this question, and he leaves readers to ponder the implications of the ambiguity.

Language -- raw, sexually explicit, and often obscene -- is undoubtedly one element that Kennelly uses to take possession of Medea's story and make it relevant to contemporary audiences. Deploying this kind of idiom constitutes, of course, a major departure from the practice of the ancient Greek tragedians, as does the use of local dialects, such as those favored by Marina Carr, and more conservative audiences and readers might take issue with these choices. Helen Vendler offers a sensitive and persuasive defense of Seamus Heaney's decision to put aside his accustomed linguistic restraint in the poem 'Mycenae Lookout,' which he composed after the 1994 cease-fire in Northern Ireland, when he felt himself "at last free to write violently of the war as it had been, to show what it had revealed of human nature..." ("Seamus Heaney and the Oresteia: 'Mycenae Lookout' and the Usefulness of Tradition," 181-197). Although its indecorous, brutal, and vulgar words and images in themselves do not match what Aeschylus presents in his Oresteia, the implicit concerns pervading 'Mycenae Lookout' about the self-censorship that war and civil unrest impose and the impossibility of describing in words the awful results of war arise from and are legitimized by the emphases of both the Watchman and Cassandra in Agamemnon (Vendler, 183-8). As Vendler sees it, Heaney's frank and unsentimentalized linguistic reduction of Oresteia to "vulgar brawling and war-lust" is no gimmick designed to shock or titillate. It is the eruption of "hitherto pent-up historical anger" in a poet who had for years seen it as his responsibility to give his audiences hope (as he seems out to do in The Cure at Troy) and who, with the peace accord, could at long last allow himself to give vent to what had for years "agitated, polluted, inflamed, and appalled" his mind, and to put "the troubles" in a historical context reaching back to the Trojan War and its violent aftermath in Mycenae (Vendler 186-8 and 196).

Works like 'Mycenae Lookout' and The Riot Act attest that political turmoil and violence, especially in the north, constitute one major interest in contemporary Irish versions of Greek tragedy. Another principal concern, evidenced in dramas such as Kennelly's Medea, Friel's Living Quarters, and Murray's Autumn Fire, is the status of women and the tradition of patriarchy. It is accordingly no surprise to find in this volume a group of essays (in addition those by Cave and McDonagh) dealing with plays that use ancient dramas and myths to explore the condition(s) of women in Irish society: Brian Arkin's "Women in Irish Appropriations of Greek Tragedy" (198-212), Cathy Leeney's "The Return of Persephone?: Missing Demeter in Irish Theater" (232-42), and Eamonn Jordan, "Unmasking the Myths?: Marina Carr's By the Bog of Cats... and On Raftery's Hill" (243-63). Of these essays, Leeney's is the most intriguing; her argument is that Carr's The Mai, like Teresa Deevy's 1936 Katie Roche and Pat Kinevane's more recent The Plains of Enna, deliberately distorts the story of Demeter and Persephone so as to highlight how, when women focus all their attention and longing on absent male lovers (in contrast to Demeter, whose longing is for her daughter), children are deprived of the parental guidance they so desperately need, and thus a cycle of familial dysfunction is perpetuated. In suggesting that these plays do not represent women exclusively as passive victims of male aggression but rather lay some responsibility for the problematic status of women on the behavior of women themselves, Leeney's analysis accords with what McDonagh finds in Kennelly's Medea and also with what Jordan claims about Hester Swane and other female figures in Carr's By the Bog of Cats..., "who are acutely alert to their own capacity to violate, hurt, and inspire chaos and dread" (Jordan, 252). Moreover, Leeney contrasts the circularity of the Persephone myth with the linear conflict-to-resolution pattern of drama, and she suggests in conclusion that the works of Carr, Deevy, and Kinevane, by dramatizing the dysfunction that attends the distortion of Demeter's and Persephone's story, urge all of us to interrogate "master dramatic narratives of autonomy through individual achievement" and question the "definition of the self through separation" (Leeney, 233 and 240).

Given the collection's stated interest in "versions of Greek tragedy," the inclusion of Síle ní Mhurchú's and Patricia Kelly's list of (mostly) ancient texts of all genres that were translated into Gaelic during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ("Translations into Irish of Greek Drama and of Other Works Concerning Greece," 87-100) is a bit puzzling. The list is surely meant to help readers appreciate the broad historical context of the plays examined in the volume, specifically the importance of the classical literature and scholarship in Ireland, but its exact contribution is unclear. What it underscores, perhaps unintentionally, is the fact that all the Irish poets and playwrights considered in the volume have written in English. I am not sure what the full significance of this fact is, but it seems to bear witness to the rich cultural complexity of contemporary Ireland -- a complexity in which the classics have played and still play no inconsiderable role. For their part, the essays in Amid Our Troubles... make me grateful that Heaney, Friel, and their fellow dramatists have chosen to write plays in English, so that non-Gaelic speakers like myself can appreciate how Ireland and her artists are continuously breathing new life into Greek tragedy.

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