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Studies on the contemporary Irish theatre

Jacqueline Genet
Elizabeth Hellegouarc’h

Irish poetic drama: Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy

Colin Meir

Texte intégral

1With apologies to Irish colleagues at this conference who may have already seen the production of the play by Field Day Theatre Company during its recent tour, I want first to present a review of its performance at the Lyric Players Theatre, Belfast, in October 1990, so as to introduce it to our French audience; the second part of my talk has to do with a closer look at the text itself, largely in terms of the ways in which it functions specifically as poetic drama.


2Seamus Heaney’s play gives voice to two kinds of anguish, mental and physical; and let it be said at the outset that the towering performance of Des McAleer as Philoctetes vividly conveys both. For various reasons, however, qualifications have to be made about the way both play and players in other respects achieve the author’s purpose. Closely following Sophocles’ Philoctetes in subject and theme, Heaney’s play concerns the plight of the Greek hero of that name who was abandoned by his countrymen on the island of Lemnos because of a festering wound in his foot which made him repugnant to them. It begins when, years later, Odysseus returns to Lemnos with Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, in order to obtain the magic bow of Philoctetes, without which it is prophesied that the city of Troy will never be taken. The play first exposes the opportunism of Odysseus in conflict with the dilemma between shame and duty faced by Neoptolemus, who is initially persuaded to lie to Philoctetes in order to serve the Greek cause. When this deception is uncovered, a more subtle and enduring conflict develops in the main character, Philoctetes, who, in the words of Heaney’s programme note “suffers a division in himself between a sense of personal grievance and an inner command (which he keeps repressing) to comprehend his own experience, however painful, in the light of a more generous, less self-centred vision”. Responsive to Philoctetes’ predicament, and stung with remorse as his own duplicity, Neoptolemus, against Odysseus’s command, returns the bow to Philoctetes; and the play ends with a reciprocal change of heart as Philoctetes is persuaded to renew his trust in mankind and to set forth with Neoptolemus in order to fulfil his mission for his country’s future by bringing about the downfall of Troy.

3Although the narrative and mythological structure behind Greek drama is much more remote from today’s audience than was Irish legend from the audience which first saw Yeats’s Deirdre or his On Bade’s Strand, it would be quite unjust to assert – as many critics have short-sightedly argued about Yeats’ drama – that Heaney’s play is written more for the page than for the stage. The fact that it is eminently suitable for radio does not preclude its being staged, but where words for the most part take so much precedence over action this production quite properly emphasizes simplicity of set and costume. As the play opens, the white sheet covering everything on the stage billows up to suggest a blank desert waste, and is then withdrawn to reveal two white staircases flanking the set which provide exits and vantage points and which are joined at the back by a white wall; against this lies the shattered head of a giant white Greek sculpture, symbolizing broken Greek trust. The Chorus and the Greeks wear terracotta robes which contrast with the rest of the set and with the chalky, half-naked figure of Philoctetes who, clad in white rags, drags along his diseased limb wrapped in a tattered and blotchy grey-white bandage. This simple but arresting design underlines the diametrically opposed viewpoints which are described in the opening scene by the three members of the Chorus, who speak separately and then are cleverly used – in a device extraneous to the text – speaking together to repeat the most telling or informative lines. For example, early on in the play when Neoptolemus sets out to find Philoctetes, each of the following stanzas is spoken separately by each of the three members of the Chorus; and then, for purposes of clarity and emphasis, the second stanza is repeated by all three together:

  • 1 Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy, London, Faber and Faber, 1990, p. 13.

It’s a pity of him too
Afflicted like that,
Him and that terrible foot.
And not a one to talk to.
Like the last man left alive.
How does the being survive?
Human beings suffer
But not to this extent
You would wonder if it’s meant.
Why him more than another?
What is the sense of it?
Out in the open always,
Behaving like a savage.
Nothing but squeals and laments,
Nothing left but his instincts.
Howling wild like a wolf1.

4This device in Heaney never brings about the juxtaposition which Yeats achieves in On Baile’s Strand through the almost manic repetition of phrases and names by the Fool and the Blind Man which evoke and intensify the dramatic irony of the action, but here it does serve to suggest to the audience, even before Philoctetes appears on the stage, that the disease metaphor of the play implicates all mankind: in a quasi-Christian sense, the physical contamination represents man’s ineluctable fate (Philoctetes, we learn, was bitten at a holy shrine); and later a clear distinction is made between corruption of the body and corruption of the mind when Philoctetes accuses Odysseus of poisoning Neoptolemus’s noble nature.

  • 2 Ibid., p. 27.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 48.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 72.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 41.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 1.

5The dialogue supports the overall scheme of clarity of presentation; colloquial and contemporary, it is carried in sharp Northern Irish accents which are on occasions searingly appropriate, and in a diction and syntax which are markedly dialectical, if not in places specifically regional. Pleading with Neoptolemus to take him home aboard his ship, Philoctetes says, “I’m on my knees to you, look, and me not fit/ To move hardly2”; and later, having agreed to rescue Philoctetes but becoming fully aware of the consequences of his action, Neoptolemus declares, “I’m all throughother3” – words which will certainly need translation for a non-Irish audience! The several long speeches in the play could not, however, be sustained without the idiomatic turns of phrase which identify the issues involved within the realm of common experience, but Heaney’s wish to avoid the “high talk” of poetic drama can lead to tricks of speech that fail because they are too facile, as when, near the end, Neoptolemus, trying to shake Philoctetes out of his narrow self-absorption, attacks him with: “You aren’t/Bearing up, you are bearing down4.” To limit the figurative within the terms of idiomatic reference is also dangerous in that it risks leaving the dramatic situation awkwardly inert, as when Neoptolemus, faced with the frightening spasms suffered by Philoctetes, merely says: “This is terrible. There must be something/I could do. Can I not give you a hand5?” Such tritely commonplace words seem a woefully inadequate reaction to the extraordinary event being witnessed on the stage: a man subject to unwarranted and unmerited agony. Heaney places this scene at the centre of the play, both literally (that is, exactly half-way through it) and metaphorically (that is, as an emblem of the political analogue which insistently develops as the action unfolds); and he clearly intends us to see in Neoptolemus’ response the powerlessness of language to express horror and outrage as well as the helplessness of the individual who is confronted by suffering. The fact that it doesn’t quite work out that way in the production at the Lyric Theatre has something to do with the relationship between action and words, and hence with the business of casting. As is indicated by their opening gestures – the text directs: “All three in series stir and move, as it were seabirds stretching and unstiffening6” – the role of the Chorus is stylised; but even here, where facial expression is curtailed and movement formalised, Veronica Duffy, who also doubles as a Merchant, is outstanding. But the huge demands made of the three male characters in the play are not uniformly fulfilled. In terms of physical presence as of voice control and tone change, the pivotal performance of the play is that of Des McAleer as Philoctetes. If perhaps too strident at the outset, this actor both vocally and physically commands the stage, most strikingly in the terrifying spasms or fits that he undergoes: an almost intolerable physical representation of pain which is followed by one of the most evocative moments of the drama, when, in silence, Philoctetes reaches out to touch Neoptolemus – to hold his arm in affirmation of the intrinsic human need for the presence and succour of others. The theme which Heaney has chosen to explore necessarily puts the character of Philoctetes centre-stage, but in this production the case is made to look excessive precisely because of the rather wooden performance of Sean Rocks as Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son. In some respects this is the most difficult role in the play, since he is the character who is most constantly subject to self-doubt and self-criticism, and Mr. Rocks sadly failed to find the voice, gesture and facial response necessary to illustrate fully the anguish of Neoptolemus’ equivocation or his shame. Relatively speaking, the part of Odysseus is easier because more straightforward, but Seamus Moran’s bland performance missed much of the contrast intended between the guileful maturity of the Greek hero and the youthful idealism of Neoptolemus. Both actors play sufficiently well to convey the basic meaning of their parts, but potentially more subtle effects have yet to be achieved.

  • 7 Ibid., p. 77.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 25.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 49.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 57.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 60.

6While such weakness may well be overcome or at least mitigated as the present cast gains experience, the obtrusively overt references to contemporary events in Northern Ireland – the chorus cites the innocent in jails, a hunger-striker’s father, and a police widow as examples of “wrong(s) / Inflicted or endured7” – constitute an artistic imbalance which is both untoward and unnecessary: untoward because what has engaged the audience’s sympathy throughout the drama is capable of much wider application than any specific case of injustice or suffering or self-destructive obduracy; and unnecessary because the political analogue is intimated in the opening speech of the Chorus, and re-inforced time and time again throughout the play by what the characters say and how they say it. So that lines like “War has an appetite / For human goodness but it won’t touch the bad8” or “I’m an affliction to myself, that’s all I am9” or “I always heard / That suffering made people compassionate, / But he’s only got harder10” or “If you seek justice, you should deal justly always11” have both a contextual relevance and an extra-textual resonance which is all the more powerful precisely because it is not fixed to a particularised interpretation. By the same token, the play doesn’t really need its epigraph – the two stanzas from W.H. Auden’s ballad “As I walked out one evening” which end with: “You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart”. What it does need and what it properly supplies is the limpidly evocative poetry of the Chorus’s speeches, as concluding commentary, which allow for the metaphorically declarative tones of such lines as:

  • 12 Ibid., p. 78.

Lives that suffer and come right
Are backlit by immortal light12,

7as well as for the open-ended appeal of the play’s final stanza:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 81.

Suspect too much sweet talk
But never close your mind.
It was a fortunate wind
That blew me here. I leave
Half-ready to believe
That a crippled trust might walk
And the half-true rhyme is love13.

8At its best this poetry simply yet pregnantly states what the play has enacted. The half-rhyme occurs, of course, between believe and love: a resolution which is more akin to late Shakespeare than to Greek tragedy; and, so some will think, equally improbable.

  • 14 George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy, London, Faber, 1961; repd. New York, OUP, 1980, p. 303-324.

9George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy paints a gloomy picture for the future with regard to poetic drama14. Despite his rather flamboyant presentation of them, the reasons he gives are fairly straightforward: first, he argues that modern poetry has become too intimate to impose itself in that most public of places, a modern theatre; second, he suggests that the conditions of language itself in our time may be such as to render nearly impossible a renascence of dramatic verse: language, he believes, has been so abused by political terror in the twentieth century and by the illiteracy of mass consumption that it has lost the power of meaning and mystery; third, he asserts that the task of the would-be poetic dramatist is made impossible because he can no longer write within the context of a pattern of belief shared by his audience. The death of language and of mythology has, for Steiner, brought about the death of tragedy. I am going to argue, with various qualifications, that Heaney’s play roundly refutes all these suppositions, but I am going to do so by engaging with the much more practical considerations of T.S. Eliot’s essay, written in 1950, on “Poetry and Drama”, since it is clearly this essay against which Steiner measures his views in The Death of Tragedy.

  • 15 T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose, London, Penguin, 1953, p. 84.
  • 16 Ibid, p. 75-76.

10“It seems to me”, Eliot says, “that if we are to have a poetic drama, it is more likely to come from poets learning to write plays, than from skilful prose dramatists learning to write poetry15.” One may be tempted here, in the light of Steiner’s doomsday philosophies, to rewrite that last phrase as “... than from skilful critics who have never written a poem or a play! ”. Earlier in the essay Eliot in part answers Steiner’s objection that today’s poetry is too intimate for the stage by making the obvious point that in the theatre the poet must deliberately write for other people’s voices not, as in lyric verse, for his own; and furthermore, that the poet, under the necessity of dramatic relevance, may well be constrained to eschew familiar features of his personal lyric style16. The lines Heaney gives to his characters, as distinct from the three members of the Chorus, in The Cure at Troy fully exemplify Eliot’s theory. Here is Odysseus, as he and Neoptolemus approach Philoctetes’ cave:

  • 17 The Cure at Troy, p. 5-6.

That’s it. That’s him:
So he has to be around.
With a foot like his, he’ll not be travelling far.
Out scavenging, likely,
Poking for things to eat, or maybe out
Gathering herbs to try to get relief.
Anyway, he’s going to be back,
And something tells me, soon –
So get your lookout posted. We can take no risks.
I am the marked man here.
Of all the Greeks,
I am the one that Philoctetes wants17.

11And here is part of an early speech where Neoptolemus, following the plot laid by Odysseus, makes Philoctetes believe that he, Neoptolemus, has also got good reason for hating the Greeks:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 22.

I raved and cried, then I asked them simply, why?
Why were the weapons not reserved for me?
So who pipes up but Odysseus himself
And says because he was present on the spot
And saved the arms and saves my father’s body,
He was entitled.
And that put me wilder still.
I had a fit. I savaged him to his face
And insulted him and cursed him. But he comes up –
Not out of control, but definitely provoked –
And he says to me,
“We bore the brunt, not you.
When you should have been with us, you went missing.
So rant and rave your fill, but you will never
Be seen in your famous armour on Scyros Island18.

  • 19 Ibid., p. 6-8.

12There’s is little here of Heaney the lyric poet, except perhaps echoes of some passages from the dialogues in Station Island. As elsewhere in the play, the flexibility of the decasyllabic blank verse gives free expression to the spoken voice, idiomatic and colloquial. But there are two attendant problems which Heaney does not consistently solve throughout: first, there is insufficient distinction, apart from what is actually being said, between the way in which each of the characters speaks; and second, some of the passages of extended dialogue – at one point Odysseus has a forty-eight line speech19 – pose difficulties for the director in terms of movement. Because by its nature the play is almost exclusively concerned with dialectic, and – except for Philoctetes’ bow – is devoid of props, action is statically confined to gesture and facial response. The way, for example, the character of Neoptolemus progresses through equivocation and ambivalence, to deceit, to compassion, to a dilemma of disgrace, then to confession, and lastly to defiance of Odysseus’s will, presents the most complex acting challenge of the play, one which requires a far more subtle interpretation than was seen at The Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast last October. I have already indicated my hesitancy about the effectiveness of the colloquial at the crucial scene of Philoctetes spasms, but clearer changes in diction are perhaps also needed at this point in order to alert the audience to the changes which occur in Neoptolemus.

13This scene between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes takes up nearly half of the play. At its centre is a ritual enactment of Heaney’s main theme where Philoctetes offers his miraculous bow to Neoptolemus. Convinced of the latter’s goodwill towards him, Philoctetes says:

  • 20 Ibid., p. 37.

I was under the heel of enemies
But you raised me up above them.
You of all men have the right to hold
Philoctetes’ bow. What’s mine is yours.
You gave to me. I give to you20...

  • 21 Ibid.

14The biblical echo in those first two lines only serves to intensify the dramatic irony of the situation, since the audience is fully apprised of Neoptolemus’s intended duplicity, but it is at the brief stage direction – The bow is profferred, elevated and held significantly between them21 – that Neoptolemus’s sympathy for Philoctetes is initially engaged. The handing over of the bow is a symbol of that generosity of spirit which the play asserts is necessary for the forgiveness and the healing of the wrongs human beings inflict on one another. Philoctetes continues:

You and you alone can tell the world
You touched this weapon, and the reason why
Is the reason I got it from Hercules
In the first place: generous behaviour.

15To which Neoptolemus replies:

  • 22 Ibid..

There’s a whole economy of kindness
Possible in the world; befriend a friend
And the chance of it’s increased and multiplied22.

16Later on this scene also produces some elements of what Eliot decreed as an almost impossible ideal of the combination of dramatic and musical order in the verse when, his fit having subsided, Philoctetes lies down exhausted and murmurs:

  • 23 Ibid., p. 45.

From now on, I am going to belong
Entirely to the earth. Be earth’s for the taking.
I’ll lie on top here first, and then lie under23.

17The parallel with King Lear is perhaps unavoidable, but the moving simplicity of the words here is so rooted in the action that the play is not diminished in the comparison.

18It is in the role of the Chorus that Heaney differs most strikingly from Eliot’s comments on the successes and failures of his own practice in poetic drama. Heaney makes fluent use of the Chorus – principally as commentators on the action; and this is where a formal poetry distinctly and deliberately takes over from the spoken idiom of the rest of the play. He also uses them to persuade different attitudes, such as taking part in Neoptolemus’s deceit or, very soon afterwards, echoing sympathy for Philoctetes’ plight. Eliot not only argued that his Chorus or Furies were obtrusive on the stage itself, but that a shock of change from the spoken voice to conscious poetry disturbs an audience. Such is not the case in The Cure at Troy, partly because theatre-goers in the latter half of the twentieth century have become used to the flouting of conventions and to a fluidity of role-playing in the cast which promotes the interchangeable status of actor and audience. The speeches of the Chorus at the end of The Cure at Troy are vibrant with the play’s meaning and thus condense its action, the only blemish here being the overt political references. If, like Yeats, Heaney rewrites his play after every performance, it is to be hoped that such weaknesses, along with others, may be removed. I quote, omitting the stanza which contains the parallels drawn from contemporary events in Northern Ireland:

  • 24 Ibid., p. 77-78.

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term24.

19These verses help to provide an adequate ending because they impose an order upon reality. Some people, as I have suggested, will think such an order is impossible to achieve; but the counter argument in respect of this play is that the theatre should be able to voice hope for the future, to establish the terms under which that hope may be realised – those of generous behaviour and forgiveness which the action has demonstrated.


  • 25 Ibid., p. 2.

20Of all three of Steiner’s strictures on the existence of modern poetic drama, I tend to agree most with the last: the need for a common mythology as the poet’s window on the world of day-today reality, that is perhaps one of the reasons for his praise of Yeats’s Purgatory because, although neither he nor Eliot (who shares his admiration) mention it, this play is based on Christian mythology: the unresolvable chain of consequence in Purgatory relates of course to original sin. Steiner’s requirement – which he says can no longer be met in our day – for a mythology, a shared system of belief within which the poet may operate, is provided in Heaney’s play partly by its Christian values, but also by the divisions which exist in Northern Ireland. The veiled political analogue acts here as the real world of circumstance and belief which the language of the play elicits; and, like a true myth, its power is reduced if it is given a too-literal explanation or if exact parallels are demanded of it. As the Chorus state in their opening speech, poetry operates on the borderline “Between / What you would like to happen and what will25.”


1 Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy, London, Faber and Faber, 1990, p. 13.

2 Ibid., p. 27.

3 Ibid., p. 48.

4 Ibid., p. 72.

5 Ibid., p. 41.

6 Ibid., p. 1.

7 Ibid., p. 77.

8 Ibid., p. 25.

9 Ibid., p. 49.

10 Ibid., p. 57.

11 Ibid., p. 60.

12 Ibid., p. 78.

13 Ibid., p. 81.

14 George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy, London, Faber, 1961; repd. New York, OUP, 1980, p. 303-324.

15 T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose, London, Penguin, 1953, p. 84.

16 Ibid, p. 75-76.

17 The Cure at Troy, p. 5-6.

18 Ibid., p. 22.

19 Ibid., p. 6-8.

20 Ibid., p. 37.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid..

23 Ibid., p. 45.

24 Ibid., p. 77-78.

25 Ibid., p. 2.


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© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1991

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