On 23 October 2008, a “muscular new version” of Sophocles’ timeless tragedy, Antigone, hit the stage at Belfast’s Waterfront Studio. Written and directed by Owen McCafferty, one of Northern Ireland’s most acclaimed playwrights, the new tragedy seemingly speaks to the culture of violence, conflict and reconciliation in Northern Ireland through the culture of violence, conflict and reconciliation in ancient Thebes.
But does it? In ancient Athens, we know that tragedy frequently dramatised and, in so doing, problematised the political events of the day through tales from its mythic past. Did McCafferty employ Antigone the same way: as a metaphor for Northern Ireland’s own legacy of civil violence and hoped-for reconciliation? By analysing McCafferty’s play against the broader historical presence that Antigone has had in Ireland, this essay aims to assess the cultural significance of this Sophoclean classic in contemporary Northern Ireland.
Until then I never realised how pestilent a figure she could be. Nor had I, in previous encounters, quite seen him for what he had most probably been: a highly self-important though ultimately timorous man, thrust into a political crisis not entirely of his own making. But right then, sat in that darkened, smoke-filled Belfast theatre, I could see the protagonists of this Sophoclean tragedy no other way. And because of that, I looked elsewhere.
Watching Owen McCafferty’s new Irish version of Antigone, which had its world premiere during the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival in 2008, it slowly occurred to me that I was being pointed to a space where neither Antigone nor Creon had stood (McCafferty 2008a). There, it seemed – beyond polarised notions of freedom, justice and unity – endured a community of others, a silent majority; never heard above, or heard by, the Antigone and Creon figures that ruled over their world. This play was for them: an Antigone that is perhaps capable of speaking to a new generation in Northern Ireland. “Antigone and Creon”, it whispers, “are your past. Time now to move on.”
The tale of Antigone scarcely needs rehearsing, being well-known amongst the extant Greek tragedies for its political, philosophical and psychological poignancy. Mention her name today and one thinks instantly of a heroine, a lover, a doer of good, a civil disobedient, an incestuous sister, a strong-minded woman, an individualist.
Set in mythic Thebes, the story of Antigone revolves around a duel for political authority between its two main protagonists: King Creon, the newly crowned ruler of Thebes, and his rebellious niece Antigone, daughter of Oedipus. The play opens in the wake of a deadly civil war. Thebes lies in ruins. Amongst the body count are the heirs to the Theban throne, the two sons of Oedipus: Eteocles and Polyneices.
Unable to share and resolve their equal claims to the Crown, the brothers of Antigone met sword with sword in a deadly battle that led each to die at the hands of the other. Wishing to restore order and to move the city forward, Creon decrees, as new king, that Eteocles, the brother who remained loyal to Thebes, is to be buried with full honours, while the traitor Polyneices is to be left unburied, unmourned and un-forgiven.
A city, for Creon, cannot survive without order and rules. If Thebes is not to descend deeper still into chaos, it must firmly entrench order and censure those who would deprive it of it. The memory of Polyneices, through Creon’s decree, was to serve as an example of this.
For Antigone, this was no law. Order is not man’s to have, least of all when it impugns the gods’ designs. Order at Polyneices’ expense is no just order at all. Instead, there can be no meaningful separation between order and chaos: between state and family, man and woman, the rule of one and the rules of many. Creon’s dichotomy or hierarchy – between state and family, man and woman, autocracy and democracy – is conceited and dangerous. No real reconciliation or lasting peace comes to a city that forgets and dishonours its own, even those whose hands are stained with the blood of their kin. This was Antigone’s pledge. She would die to see it fulfilled.
Antigone is a story of a city divided; where a family’s feud for power precipitates a conflict so cruel that it pits friend with friend and neighbour against neighbour. In many ways, no better metaphor exists than this for the civil conflict which has marked Northern Ireland’s recent past.
And the audiences in Northern Ireland, it seems, would agree. The play I travelled to Belfast to see – though I did not know it then – had a history all of its own in the Emerald Isle, especially, as I would discover, as a metaphor for the splintered politics of the North.
Yet audiences who went to see Antigone in Belfast were promised something new. Written and directed by Belfast-born playwright Owen McCafferty, the play was billed as a fresh take on “the nature of power, democracy and human rights.” But if plays past, which have included offerings like Mojo Mickybo and Scenes from the Big Picture, were anything to go by, then what McCafferty’s Antigone would really offer would be a dark dramatisation of the ambiguities and brutalities of modern life, all cast to a demotic he brands as the “new Belfast theatrical speak”.
And that, I think, was what audiences got.
McCafferty’s version of this Sophoclean tragedy only stands as the latest in a line of IrishAntigones reputed for their political influence. For one thing, it is worth reiterating that this Sophoclean tragedy has, according to Irish drama scholar Kelly Younger, appeared “again and again in Ireland, at one point appearing four times by four different authors in the very same year” (Younger 2006:149). That year was 1984. And though the actual times in which Antigone has been staged in the North of Ireland pales in comparison to the South in recent years, it has nevertheless established an unmistaken repute as a metaphor for the conflict there. In all, Antigonehas been staged professionally in Ireland, according to Oxford’s Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, on at least twelve separate occasions during the past century alone – a number that accounts for half of all the Greek tragedies to have ever been staged there.
If one could draw any overall conclusions from this statistic it would be that the play has held some sort of special significance in Northern Ireland of late. Which is precisely what Anthony Roche and Christopher Murray, two Irish theatre experts, believe. For them, Antigone is a play that, when staged, has reflected explicitly the political developments of the day. As they suggest, there may be several possible reasons for the surging Irish interest in the play. For instance, in 1984 – the year which saw four separate productions of Antigone throughout Ireland – there emerged the repressive New Ireland Forum Report and the Criminal Justice Bill. In addition to that, it was also the year which saw the collapse of the abortion and divorce debates and with it the defeat of the broader liberal-progressive sentiment in Ireland. In response to these developments, Roche exhorted that Antigones “were never more needed than at present, when every statement from [Irish] political and church leaders carries with it the implicit injunction: “Antigones, lie down (Roche, 1988: 250).”’ That year “was an appropriate year for Antigone to walk forth and state her “non servium” to the Irish establishment,” as Murray writes, “with the understanding that the establishment would not, could not, be shaken from its position” (Murray 1991:129).
As a figurehead, Antigone has become a symbol for the underdog, the progressive and, more specifically, for the Nationalist movement in Northern Ireland. Creon, on the other hand, has come to epitomise authority, conservatism and the Unionist cause.
But these demarcations have been susceptible to permutation throughout the years. Jus take two renowned examples for instance: Conor Cruise O’Brien’s 1968 and Tom Paulin’s 1984 interpretations of Antigone.
O’Brien, a politician, academic and writer, infamously invoked Antigone only to rebuke her and, by extension, the Nationalist-Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland. He first employedAntigone as a metaphor in a lecture he gave to a Civil Rights gathering at the Queen’s University, Belfast, in October 1968. Later published in the Listener, O’Brien says several things about Northern Irish politics through the play. The first is that Antigone’s act of civil disobedience is, for him, the kernel that hastens violence and death. Her resistance he equates with the unnecessary conflict and suffering that proceeds from her act of resistance. It is, for O’Brien, “[a] stiff price for that handful of dust on Polyneices” (O’Brien cited in Paulin 1996:4). Creon’s edict may have been hastily given, but it was equally hasty of Antigone to disobey it. Which leaves Ismene, a character whom O’Brien esteems because she refused to risk life even though she was also a sister of Polyneices. O’Brien’s conclusion then: “Creon’s responsibility was the more remote one of having placed this tragic power in the hands of a headstrong child of Oedipus’ (O’Brien cited in Paulin 1996:4).
Using Antigone as his metaphor, O’Brien goes on acknowledge the real injustices faced by the Catholics in Northern Ireland only to pose the question: “is removal really worth attaining at the risk of precipitating riots, explosions, pogroms, murder?” (O’Brien cited in Paulin 1996:5). His answer: no. The inspiration for his answer: Ismene.
Reflecting on his Listener article several years later in States of Ireland, O’Brien again restates his animus towards the Antigone figure even if he had, by that time, slightly retrenched his support for Creon. Nevertheless “after four years of Antigone and her under-studies and all those funerals”, O’Brien affirmed in 1972, “you begin to feel that Ismene’s common-sense and feeling for the living may make the more needful, if less spectacular element in “human dignity”’ (O’Brien cited in Paulin 1996:5-6).
Tom Paulin disagrees. For him, to side with Ismene is to implicitly support Creon’s rule of law (Paulin 1996:7). Failing to choose sides is itself a choice. Arguing that O’Brien had misinterpreted the tragedy, Paulin sought to rectify the bias with his own – arguably biased – version of Antigone.
Unlike O’Brien, though, Paulin’s Antigone was actually a play, provocatively titled The Riot Act: After Antigone. Inspired by the political developments of his day, Paulin’s play was a direct response to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the continued unlikelihood of consociational rule in Northern Ireland – despite the widespread support enjoyed by the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein during the early 1980s (O’Rawe 1999). Even more immediately, one month before the play’s premiere, violence had broke out on the streets of Belfast during which Sean Downes, a civilian bystander, was killed by a stray bullet. It may be instructive, Des O’Rawe suggests, to read Paulin’s play in light of these events (O’Rawe 1999).
Sympathetic to the Nationalist cause despite his Protestant upbringing, it comes as no surprise that Paulin makes his Antigone the paradigm of our sympathies. Set in Northern Ireland, Antigone is represented in her Ulster demotic as a martyr for the Nationalist movement. As for Creon, he is made into a corrupt Unionist politician of the Thatcherite era. The express aim of Paulin’s adaptation was to rouse the Nationalist sentiment and quell prominent Unionist interpretations ofAntigone, like O’Brien’s, which had become popularised in the 1970s and 80s. The cultural significance of Antigone was very much political in this respect. As Paulin’s Antigone chides, “It’s not in my name, I can’t rip myself with hate.” Here, she is referring to the hatred in Creon’s heart that has prevented him from seeing like for like and which stops him from forgiving an enemy, even one whose blood flows through his own veins. Caught in his obstinate anger, Paulin makes Creon destroys everything near to him. Ultimately, though, it is a stalemate between Antigone and Creon, one which commentators intimated paralleled Northern Ireland’s political impasse at that time. Needless to say, Paulin’s Antigone was, in more ways than one, a tragedy of its times.
In late 2008 Antigone once again reclaimed this stage. McCafferty’s Antigone, like its predecessors, had set foot onto a stage marked by the lives and politics and fate of peoples past.
Like Antigone and Creon and Eteocles and Polyneices, before them, the conflict in the North of Ireland has unravelled as an insidious civil conflict that has torn away at its social, political and religious fabric. Antigone, as a Greek tragedy that dramatises the divisiveness and viciousness of civil war, seems to speak in a language that many in the North appear to comprehend – having lived firsthand in a society scarred by tragic divisiveness. For an entire generation, the politics of the North was dominated by what is commonly referred to as “The Troubles”. Whether understood as a civil war or in terms of a colonial struggle, the relationship between the mainly-Protestant Unionists and the predominately-Catholic Nationalists has been blemished by violence, mistrust and segregation. Yet despite that, there rests between them a shared history and geography – however contested and contestable they are.
Drawing on Judith Butler’s notion of “predicament’, Younger therefore believes that it is Antigone’s predicament that the Irish understand and share above all else. Both Antigone and the Irish people, in this respect, ‘have appropriated the “stance and idiom” of the one they opposed’ (Younger 2006:149). What results, by their doing so, is an existence – lived by both Antigone and the Irish – which has been and continues to be unpredictable, divisive and chaotic.
Many have, by now, heard those stories, told during the darkest days of The Troubles, about parents who were forced to send their children to bed fully clothed for fear they would have to flee their homes in the night. Or of children as young as six or seven taking to streets as soldiers, warring against men twice their size and with none of the makeshift weaponry they possessed. And though many have tried to forget the episode, they will continue to remember “The Disappeared” – the group of individuals from the North who were abducted and taken to the South to be murdered. Their exact whereabouts – that is, for the few whose remains have since been found – were often only uncovered decades after their murder, during which time these individuals laid without burial or commemoration (Phelan 2009). (Think here of Polyneices.) Even today, one still gets a sense of the urban battlefield, the division and the devastation when walking the streets of Belfast and Derry.
For the Irish, perhaps most of all in the North, Antigone sits as a reminder of their tragic existence. Understood as the “sense of futility and loss at the brutal extinction of individual lives”, the term tragedy is one firmly wedded to contemporary Northern Ireland and the conflict there (Richards cited in Younger 2006:148). But it is also wedded to how the ancient Greeks understood existence more broadly – as tragic – and explains why they created and esteemed the art form of tragedy so highly. Because the chaotic unknown and even death itself always lurks behind the facade of prolonged peace, prosperity and progress, Simon Goldhill believes that “[t]ragedy’s politics is a detour through the other to expose the cracks in our edifice of self-knowledge and self-assertion (Goldhill 2007:151). “It is a politics indispensable within any society punctured by irreconcilable difference, dogma and solipsism. Where there are Antigone and Creon figures in the midst there will be tragedy. Looking to tragic drama is one way of understanding and sharing this predicament, and because of that it can also provide a way forward, even if it first requires taking two steps back. As Irish drama scholar Steve Wilmer says, Greek tragedies like Antigone
have been used by Irish poets not such much to express tragedy as to express hope – a hope that comes out of years of tragedy. At the same time the Greek tragedies contain a warning – that pride, inflexibility, intransigence and extreme actions will only lead to more suffering (Wilmer 1996).
Given this, it seems fitting that Antigone’s reputation in Northern Ireland is as a play which has corresponded to the politics there. And this, if nothing else, explains why its politics has been prone to shift depending on the political mood of the day: oscillating between the Unionist and Nationalist cause, embodied variously in Antigone’s rebellion, Creon’s steadfast rule or Ismene’s vacillation.
In general, as Wilmer explains, the Greek tragedies that have appealed most to Irish poets and playwrights ‘are those which emphasise a conflict between the individual and the state (Wilmer, 1996).’ Depending on the political environment and at whose hands the play lies, the scales of interpretation have swung to favour either the individual or the state. The characters of Antigone, Creon and Ismene to a lesser extent have repeatedly found themselves caught in the middle of this political charade; paraded about in many cases like the pawns they seem to have become in Northern Ireland.
That there have been few “pure translations” of Antigone in Northern Ireland recently may be testament to the cultural connotations associated with the tragedy. Accordingly, where it has been staged and evoked in the North, it has been made or assumed to respond to “some crisis in Irish culture and society” (Wilmer 1996). Unlike their ancient Greek antecedents, therefore, Irish adaptations of Greek tragedies are frequently suspected of providing specific political advice or taking sides in contemporary political conflicts (Boedecker and Raaflaub 2005:122, 123). Indeed, so poignantly has Antigone been directed to enter the political conflict in Northern Ireland it is now assumed that whenever Antigone appears it will reflect the political scene in some way. Never, to put this somewhat differently, has Antigone‘s presence not been political.
But is this still the case today? Does Antigone still provide cultural commentary on Northern Ireland’s politics? Is it still invoked as a symbol of its divided past?
Not, it would appear, if the developments of recent years have anything to say about it. Perhaps reflecting the broader mood sweeping through Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the newfound political, economic and cultural confidence – as imperfect as it is – has fostered new ways of thinking and acting, and new spaces for doing so.
It was into this expectant space that the Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s 2004 translation ofAntigone set out to fill. Commissioned by Dublin’s The Abbey Theatre, the play was selected to commemorate the centenary of Irish drama. Of all the plays, it is remarkable that the Abbey Theatre selected Antigone as the play which best captured the achievements of Irish drama in the twentieth-century.
Yet for Younger, at least, there was another, more commendable accomplishment of Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes. In what appears to be a definitive break with past productions of the tragedy, this burial, he argues, is made to take place at Thebes, and not in Belfast or Derry (Younger 2006:159). Though Antigone may have cemented a place in the history of Irish drama, it has rarely done so on its own terms – terms prescribed, translated and produced according to the spirit of the Greeks and independent of the conflict in Northern Ireland. In other words, of all the IrishAntigones this has been the least Irish and most Greek. Such an accomplishment merits reiterating because, in Younger’s analysis, Heaney finally directs Antigone to cross “the Irish stage solely as a Greek heroine in a Greek tragedy, not an Irish one” (Younger 2006:159).
If Antigone has, indeed, been reflective of the politics and history of Northern Ireland in recent decades, and been used as such by its poets and playwrights, then this is perhaps a firm indictment that things are slowly changing, for the better. Saying that this Antigone was not political is perhaps to go too far. 1 But it does represent a different politics – a politics of elsewhere – which frees Antigone from the politics of the North. Through Heaney’s treatment, Antigone’s battle to defy Creon, and his bid to hold onto power however desperate and undeserved, is made to portray the past; a past slowly being passed back from Northern Ireland to its creators in ancient Greece.
But traditions rarely perish so easily. And all it took, it seems, was another Antigone for that to be proven. On 24 October 2008, as the final curtains fell on the opening night at The Waterfront Studio in Belfast, it was apparent how resilient the connotations of Antigone‘s politics and history were in Northern Ireland. The strength of its cultural legacy is not easily displaced, in spite of the social and political developments afoot.
So it was that reviewers and audiences alike would, in part if not in toto, see Owen McCafferty’s play, the latest in a line of Irish Antigones, as generations past had seen it. Through conjecture, deduction or instinct, links were drawn again between Antigone and the conflict in Northern Ireland.
In her review for the Irish Times, for instance, Jane Coyle notes how the play seems set ‘firmly in the context of modern day warfare and civil unrest, a transition not wasted on a first night audience in Belfast’ (Coyle 2008). Similarly, writes Ian Hill in The British Theatre Guide, McCafferty’s treatment of this ancient duel parallels “Northern Ireland’s flirtations with opposing fascisms…[all of which] rings poignantly true as Ulster fitfully debates the need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (Hill 2008). Finally, Helen Meany for The Guardian: “Set in the aftermath of a civil war, Sophocles’ tragedy has intense resonance in post-conflict Northern Ireland’ (Meany 2008). Even from this small but authoritative pool of theatre critics, the verdict appears obvious: this Antigone seems no different from Antigones past, and so, represents a return to the past even as Northern Ireland now looks expectantly ahead.
But is McCafferty’s Antigone really no different from Antigones past? Not, I would suggest, if the play itself and McCafferty’s account of it have anything to say about it. 2
In the first instance, just look at Antigone and Creon – erstwhile figureheads of the conflict in Northern Ireland. In versions past, it has been too easy to see – in some cases being explicitly obvious – how Antigone represents in some form the Nationalist’s cause and Creon the Unionist’s. Both had their merits and, depending on one’s political preference, both were laudable and flawed as tragic protagonists often are. With convictions that refused to be faulted, Antigone’s and Creon’s visions of the good and of what was necessary for the city drove them heroically to their demise. In a diverse and unpredictable world they were characters truly enticed by glory and wrought with chaos. Both were tragic protagonists who aspired for greatness only to precipitate their downfall by their doing so.
McCaffety’s Antigone and Creon gave no such impression. Both were like for like: both irritating, grating, conceited, unreflective. If, in fact, they do represent some broader political movement or ideal, then it seems that neither is particularly worthy of our admiration and empathy. Neither were laudable, just flawed. In this way McCafferty, I think, made it harder for audiences to feel for either or for their cause in quite the same way we were made to feel for the others – the bystanders, the victims and the innocents of this conflict. Instead of Antigone or Creon, the play points us to the human cost, the daily struggles and the camaraderie that formed between friend and foe – even as Antigone and Creon continue to remain the play’s focal points.
From the outset, then, we see Antigone set a course premised on the dual rejection of Creon’s edict and the counsel of others. “king” [sic], she sibilates snidely, “don’t speak to me of him as king – if it wasn’t for the spilt blood of our family he’d be nothing” (Antigone in McCafferty 2008b:4). Insisting that ‘no cowardly blood flows within our veins”, Antigone taunts Ismene for her refusal to collaborate in her plan (Antigone in McCafferty, 2008b: 5). “liar’, she charges Ismene, ‘you are hiding behind the law only because you are afraid to confront it” (Antigone in McCafferty 2008b:5). Ismene is weak, in Antigone’s eyes, due to her failure to act even when an injustice as blatant as Creon’s has been committed. And for that, she impugns Ismene for betraying their brother, Polyneices. But from her tone and bodily gestures, it is clear that what she may actually be thinking is that Ismene – and Creon – has betrayed her, not Polyneices. It is not difficult to see Antigone’s actions in this version, scripted and directed by McCafferty, as being solely about her. As the first scene draws to a close, Ismene questions Antigone’s true motives: “i only hope that is true and you are not just disobeying the king because you are headstrong and need something to attack “because you hate the fact that it’s there at all.” To which Antigone responds, with disdain: “don’t think that ” if you do those that love you most will end up hating you” (Ismene in McCafferty, 2008b:7).
The audience is introduced to Creon shortly after, garbed in the attire of a fascist dictator. But it is through his self-introduction that we first glimpse what creed of man he really is:
do not fear this moment my fellow Thebans – together we must embrace the future – under my command this city will be saved – there will be structure not chaos – government not rebellion…i am your rightful king – it is my duty to take decisions on behalf of this mighty city – and in that respect i will not be found wanting – i am a military man versed in both the ways of law and government – it is this alone that will give you insight into my thought and judgement (Creon in McCafferty 2008b:9).
“This alone”. Nothing else matters to Creon.
Even when faced with death, Antigone still stubbornly resists Ismene’s companionship, wilful to the fact that “my death is my death – you cannot share in that” (Antigone in McCafferty 2008b:21). Because of her egoism, her final message to the citizens of Thebes, before she faces her cavernous tomb, loses all merit. Her lament is mocked by the chorus of the Old Man and, I suspect, by the audience also. By doing what she has done, in the manner she has done it, Antigone wins the sympathies of no one.
And neither does Creon who, refusing wise counsel, bawls at the audience: “respect – fucking respect – i own this city” (Creon in McCafferty 2008b:28). The moment he curses Haemon, his son, declaring that he “go – go on fuck off”, he, like Antigone, has lost the respect he once had (Creon in McCafferty 2008b:29).
It is not Antigone or Creon, therefore, that enjoy the audienc’s support in McCafferty’s version, unlike in Antigones past. It is not even Ismene who, loving as she is, too often resembles her sister.
Instead, the greatest feat of McCafferty’s Antigone lies in its ability to foreground the community of others, the voiceless majority encapsulated most potently in the characters of Haemon, Eurydice and especially through the chorus of the Old Man. The second most compelling moment of the entire play, in fact, takes place when Haemon confronts his father concerning Antigone’s punishment. Bidding his father to see the errors of his way, to acknowledge the desires of a city that wishes to exonerate Antigone, Creon erupts in typical fury. This is the play’s most physically wrenching moment. Haemon struggles to unbind himself from his father’s maddened clasp. It is an emotional and psychological rupture as much as a physical one. Freeing himself, Haemon parts with a warning to Creon, though it could have been spoken to Antigone also: “there is an emptiness to one that doesn’t listen to another voice’ (Haemon in McCafferty 2008b:27). Deaf to all of Thebes, Haemon’s is above all else a crucial reminder of how necessary a democracy is. It is a reminder ensconced in the work of the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (1997:286), who sees in Haemon’s intercession the precepts of democracy laid bare.
Introduced towards the play’s end, Eurydice, Creon’s wife, embodies the innocent’s grief. Her part in this episode has only been as a mother and a wife. Yet for that she has been made to endure the deaths of those most dear to her. “queen of thebes”, she laments,
i never asked to be that – my husband was crowned king and i followed behind – and now because of it i have lost everything – why should a woman suffer because she is a mother and a wife – what law is that – man’s law…and what say did i have in any of this – not one word – either whispered or shouted in anger (Eurydice in McCafferty 2008b:41).
Hers is the suffering of one who has had no voice, perhaps having wanted none, in the politics of the day. She suffers the consequences of decisions made for and to the exclusion of her. Her pain is real in a world like ours.
Most of all, though, it is the Old Man, who is made to take the place traditionally reserved for the chorus in Greek tragedy, that exacts most empathy from us. He is the city’s undertaker, the man who collects and bags the bodies which have been left to decay in the battle’s wake. As the play opens, he drags a body bag to the left of stage. And as the play progresses, he is seen, always in the background, adding to them.
But in McCafferty’s hands, this lowly man is made to possess the wisdom and wit no other protagonist seems to have. Having spent all his days with the dead, he perhaps knows best just how precarious a thing life is. Even if his existence is seen by kings as having a value that is equivalent to “dirt and filth…having no significance”, he proclaims just the same that “i wouldn’t change places with any of them – not for one second – to want that would be to deny the people I have lived my life with – what man would do that” (Old Man in McCafferty 2008b:38-39). Not him, it would seem, even if he now searches among the dead for one of his own. Having had her solipsistic and pitiful farewell to the world interrupted, Antigone chides the Old Man: “why do you mock me.”
Old Man: i am not mocking you
Antigone: what then – feel compassion for me as i walk to my death
Old Man: who’s to say i don’t – i am tired of stacking dead bodies – my son – like your brothers – died yesterday on the battlefield – he had no choice – and neither was the war of his making – i will eventually find him in one of these bags – yours is not the only grief (Antigone and Old Man in McCafferty 2008b:32).
This, the final line, the Old Man shouts. But it’s almost a cry. It cuts through the theatre’s silence, which has been building to this point.
The grief of others – not solely Antigone’s, Creon’s and Ismene’s – is what moves us now. It is the politics of their existence which the future must contend with: both in ancient Thebes and modern-day Northern Ireland. The play’s fulcrum is here.
Following the performance on 28 October, Owen McCafferty stays behind to participate in a question-and-answer session. Pressed by Irish drama expert, Mark Phelan, and the students of his Theatre Criticism class at Queen’s University, Belfast, McCafferty persists to rebuff their allusions and suggestions. Was this Antigone a commentary on the political situation in Northern Ireland like so many previous versions had been, Phelan asked. No, McCafferty replies: “I wasn’t especially trying to bring it back to Belfast”, he says. “I didn’t wish to make audiences feel that it is just or all about us.” Later, he adds that Antigone is “timeless for any society going through conflict. It’s a good time for it to go on in Belfast – any time is a good time for it to go on in Belfast.” But, then, to the astonishment of many, McCafferty says what few had thought possible: +it may sound absurd, but I didn’t feel the play was going to have a huge political impact. We were not too concerned with the outside world when we were working through the script.” I sense – in myself if not in those seated around me – let down.
But should I have? It was true that McCafferty’s answers came across as vaguely curt, sometimes thoughtless, even as arrogant. But a man who scrutinises charily over the written, and indulges affect as any good poet or director must, surely have given the answer he did for a reason – if not a satisfactory reason a reason nonetheless?
That reason was given to me the next day, though not by McCafferty. Speaking with the Outreach Manager of Prime Cut Productions, the Belfast theatre company which produced McCafferty’sAntigone, I was told of the tendency in Northern Ireland and particularly in Belfast for theatre audiences to always, automatically expect plays to be political and the play’s politics to be about “us, The Troubles” whether that was intended or not.
That, it seems, is what Antigone has become in Northern Ireland and for audiences there. From the earliest period of The Troubles to the peak of hostilities, Antigone has reappeared to this effect. As a cultural metaphor for the struggles on both sides of the conflict, the protagonists have become a symbol to rally behind. Where political censorship is oppressive, artistic outlets such as the theatre are often the only good outlet for politics (Wilmer 1996). It was in this respect that the politics of Northern Ireland became the politics of Antigone, itself becoming a barometer for the political sentiment of the day.
By removing itself from that – by engaging in a politics of not being political – McCafferty may be reiterating Conor O’Brien’s position of four decades earlier. But that, I suspect, is not what he is doing. For him to say that he did not anticipate his Antigone would have a huge political impact was only to say that his Antigone may be identified as Irish without necessarily being identified as a moniker for the past politics of Northern Ireland. By his admission, he frees the play from its past. First, he frees Antigone from past interpretations and adaptations which have primarily used it in relation to the conflict in Northern Ireland. And second, he frees it from translations like Heaney’s which remove Antigone from the politics of the Emerald Isle altogether.
But that this can be said and achieved at all may intimate that the politics of the past is slowly becoming just that: past. In today’s Northern Ireland a new, uniquely confident and yet still fragile politics is emerging – wherein new actors can reflect on and express a novel range of social, political and metaphysical concerns. In McCafferty, figures like Haemon, Eurydice and the Old Man may be the conduits, the embodiments of these endeavours. This is a task for which Greek tragedy is supremely suited.
At least, that is what I have since taken away from McCafferty’s statement; as his way of saying that the politics of Northern Ireland is changing. That, in short, the violence and conflict, which has so dominated Northern Ireland’s recent past, is finally giving way to the more diverse and less dogmatic brand of politics which comes with reconciliation. Tragedies like Antigone, from what I see, can be non-political in no other way.
If this is in fact correct, if this is what it means to be non-political, then what we may be seeing are the signs of a new Northern Ireland where a fresh, “non-political’ Antigone can be staged and enjoyed for what it is: a Greek tragedy adapted for a twenty-first century audience, perhaps but not necessarily in the North of Ireland. When McCafferty has his Old Man say ‘maybe other thinking is required now” it, I believe, applied in equal portions to the politics of Northern Ireland and the politics of Antigone (Old Man in McCafferty 2008b:37).
In the final scene of the play, before Creon is to be led away, he leaves the audience with these words: “the gods were lying in wait – as they always are ” a smile on their faces” (Creon in McCafferty 2008b:43). Maybe now the people and audiences of Northern Ireland have finally seen an Antigone they too can smile about.
(1.) Indeed, Heaney has identified the current War in Iraq as an express inspiration for his translation. See Seamus Heaney, “Search for the Soul of Antigone”, The Guardian, 2 November 2005, Accessed from http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2005/nov/02/theatre.classics on 3 July 2009; Gary Wills, “Red Thebes, Blue Thebes”, The New York Times, 5 December 2004; Catriona Menzies-Pike, “Antigone: Burial at Thebes”, M/C Reviews, 14 April 2008, Accessed from http://reviews.media-culture.org.au/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=2515 on 2 July 2009.
(2.) Yet, given the fact that I am not Irish, rather only a visitor to Belfast, and given the fact that I cannot claim expertise on the history of Irish theatre, my understanding must inevitably stand in opposition to those familiar with Antigone, having lived through The Troubles firsthand. See Jane Montgomery Griffiths, ‘Remembering Derry: Sophocles’ Electra and the space of memory,”Didaskalia (Vol.7, No.2, 2009) for further exploration of themes of memory, place and space in this regard.
An earlier version of this essay was presented at The Second Conference of the International Society for Cultural History (ISCH), 20-23 July, 2009, The University of Queensland. I would like to thank Ciaran McQuillan, then Outreach Manager at Prime Cut Productions, ISCH conference participants, The School of Political Science and International Studies, Roland Bleiker, and the editor and anonymous referees of Double Dialogues for their assistance and feedback.
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