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Les formes de l'excès dans la culture anglo-américaine

Claudine Raynaud

Dionysian Excess: Ancient Greek Tragedy in Modern Irish Masques

Marianne Mc Donald

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1Greek tragedy is not only the greatest tragedy that has ever been written, it is also topical for moderns. Its universality allows particular messages to be imprinted on it, including the imposition of the modern. Greek tragedy is a theatrical Rorschach, and we can learn a lot about national differences from the adaptations in various countries.

  • 1 See the useful review by Fiona Macintosh, Oct., 1992, 189-191. She drew this parallel also in "Tra (...)

2In the last ten years we have enjoyed in excess of ten versions of Greek tragedies in Ireland. The tragedies chosen are those which have to do with oppression and opposition to oppression, i. e., Antigone is done instead of Oedipus. These are by six Irish poets: Tom Paulin's The Riot Act (1984), based on Sophocles' Antigone; Seize the Fire (1989), based on Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound; Aidan Carl Mathews' Antigone (1984), and Trojan Women (1994); Brendan Kennelly's Antigone (1985), Medea (1991), and The Trojan Women (1993); Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy (1990), based on Sophocles' Philoctetes; Desmond Egan's Medea (1991) and Derek Mahon's The Bacchae (1991). This is not a new enterprise for the Irish, for instance, W. B. Yeats' work on Sophocles; Brian Friel often uses classical allusions in his plays; in 1977 he wrote Living Quarters: After Hippolytus. Irish involvement with the Greeks is not new, from early medieval Irish monks reading Greek, to the nineteenth century "celticizing" movement which was aligned with the Greeks.1

3We all know Ireland's history, showing the imprint of English imperialism to the point that the Irish Catholics themselves owned only 14 % of their land in 1703. It is particularly appropriate that the Irish use the high literature of civilization: Greek classics. The English in justifying their colonization felt it was ideologically necessary to construe the Irish as barbarians (Canny, 1973, 575-98). They drew the analogy that, just as the Romans civilized the British, they were carrying out their sacred duty to do the same for the Irish. The model of subjection they set up in Ireland (seizure of lands, and enslaving the indigenous to work the lands) they also applied to America and India and elsewhere. Now Irish writers use the very texts which are considered the epitome of civilization to assert their own drive for freedom and justice. Besides being inspirational, these texts are a refutation of the ideology which is still practiced today in British newspapers and literature. The Irish as civilized people are now demanding justified rights.

4These are some of the issues I want to address, besides the question of translation itself, which must by its very nature involve adaptation. The poetry of Greek tragedy is so rich and allusive that modern adapters must limit and focus its manifold meanings, at the same time supplementing them with their own. Poetry is excess itself, which condenses to contain. It is a personal distillation of reality in which the choices themselves provide insight into the poet's own philosophy and politics.

5The Greeks had a maxim, "Nothing in Excess." Only a people that understood excess would carve such a phrase on their temple at Delphi, which was the omphalos, or center of the world. Greek tragedy and comedy were the medium into which excess flowed. Aristotle talks about katharsis achieved through drama by means of the arousing and assuaging of the emotions of pity and fear: it was the release of destructive excess. The community came together on the occasions of the performance of Greek drama, defined their common heritage, and, it seems, recognized those elements which required excision. One theory of tragedy claims that if the people became involved in the political atrocities and excesses on stage, perhaps then they might not act them out in their dealings with each other.

6The Irish use the great power of Greek tragedy, not only for the expression of personal feelings, but the expression of all the people and their public concerns. All Greek tragedy deals with death, that face of the Medusa that petrifies life. Some Greek tragedy deals with freedom, its necessity, and the price one pays either to have it or not to have it. These are the main issues in the plays selected by the Irish poets. These Irish writers seem to be harnessing the energy of these works (the snakes of Medusa's hair) to inspire political and social change rather than maintain the status quo.

7Each in his own way addresses "the Irish question." What do people do when their country is occupied and exploited? How do they deal with the powerful when they have been systematically made weak for years? Ireland is England's Trojan Women, its Medea exploited by Jason, its Antigone, who still has a sense of justice. Then there is Heaney's Philoctetes that speaks of the reconciliation of enemies.

8Just as Anouilh and Brecht use Antigone to express their criticism of fascism, so the Irish harness Greek tragedy to carry on their peace talks — and war if need be: the Trojan Women were victims, as was Medea, but the latter fought back. As usual, it is in the stage's excesses that one can get the clearest picture of the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure.

9Paulin has pared down Sophocles' Antigone from 1353 lines to 1256 (Paulin, 1985). Many of the speeches are presented with the spareness of a Giacometti, who gave us skeletons of reality in his statues. Field Day Theatre first performed this play at the Guildhall, Derry, on September 19, 1984. It uses the language of the Irish North to place us in its modern locale, and the ideas expressed translate well into the issues which divided Derry. Field Day was established to give a Northern voice to divisive issues. Like Greek tragedy, Field Day would speak the unspeakable and show the invisible. The first play that Field Day performed after its founding in 1980, did just this: Brian Friel's Translations was performed in Derry and dealt with the loss of identity that came from the British renaming of Irish places. In Paulin's play the Northern accents shape the classical text, and particular joins universal. The theme is justice: who has power over whom? Is it the state that prevails? Do one's family and friends take precedence? Should the Irish accept British rule, or are there roots that are stronger in the family and the soil that must be protected? Does one sell one's soul to save one's life?

10Paulin's chorus moralize tersely about the punishment of the proud: "It teaches them. It teaches us" (63). In many ways Paulin's play is a terse bitter intellectual exercise in harnessing Greek tragedy to focus on issues that are still relevant. The religious issues are not emphasized, as they are in the Irish Catholic poets like Kennelly. The text is as spare as the Protestant creed and the decorations are few, but the message is fiery.

11Paulin sends off a fiery message in another context, in his Seize the Fire: A Version of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, using an older playwright than Sophocles. There are some that question the authorship of Aeschylus, but what we have here is a masterpiece, and a work of genius by any other name would read as well. Paulin begins his work with a quotation from Marx: "Prometheus is the foremost saint and martyr in the philosopher's calendar" (Paulin, 1990). He goes on to illustrate the point and marries Aeschylus to Marx; the marriage is uncomfortable at some points, powerful at others. The drama at least will never let you rest, and that is the mark of a good playwright (Paulin is part of the successful equation).

12Both the ancient and the modern play are paeans to liberty. Prometheus, purported to be the creator of man — and certainly the one who stole fire for man after Zeus took it to punish this audacious race. Prometheus is pictured as one who suffers for having followed his conscience. He is the hero who dared to choose in spite of the consequences.

13Prometheus thus is the freedom-fighter who opposes tyranny. Zeus is the overweening tyrant. Aeschylus' Kratos says that no one is free except Zeus (Pro. 50). Euripides in the Helen made a comparable claim for the barbarian tyrant, saying, "Among barbarians, all are slaves but one." Paulin transforms Zeus into the imperialist, the capitalist, who will use men as tools for his own self-aggrandizement. He is also England, devouring Ireland for its own pleasure. Prometheus stands for all who oppose this. "Seizing the Fire," is a metaphor for regaining one's country, by arms if necessary.

14It is a metaphor for gaining freedom not only from the tyranny of occupation, but the tyranny of dogma, and, of course — faithful to Marx — class. Prometheus calls himself one who loves man too much (Pro. 122). Paulin communicates the difference between Zeus the tyrant and Prometheus the democrat: "Zeus said Exterminate! /I said Miscegenate!" (Pro. 17, make love not war?). Power breeds hatred, or as Aeschylus has his Prometheus say, there is a disease in Tyranny that makes one distrust all one's friends," (Pro. 226-227). Paulin turns this into the graceful line: "Power, it clamps like a frost on those that get it" (19).

15In the Prometheus Bound, man is taught by Prometheus, and shown to be not only weak, but at the point of destruction, which was Zeus' original plan. Paulin's Prometheus prefigures the future, one shaped by Marx, in which a Titan can merge with the people and become a democrat. The weak ephemeral creatures of a day, as fragile as dreams (Pro. 547-550), nevertheless have the strength of their hopes and their honor. Prometheus and Paulin predict the downfall of the tyrant. The generic model derives strength from the particular: Ireland.

16Aidan Carl Mathews's Antigone: A Version has several political messages which are clearly stated from the beginning as the audience were handed copies of the Criminal Justice Bill at the first performance at Dublin's Project Arts Centre in 1984. This Bill gave the police more rights to arrest and keep prisoners with no charge. It is obvious that it represented a crisis in human rights and the Antigone reminds one that human beings can fight to maintain them. The text of this Bill was read at the end of the first act and during the intermission, so the lines between past and present, audience and stage, were blurred.

  • 2 Quotations are from an unpublished manuscript, Antigone, 1984.

17Mathews' Antigone is a quiet one, who lets others rant and rave about her, exercising their various forms of power. Her power is in her silent indictment, which she is able to put forward with her own life. We think of many of the hunger strikers in Ireland, who joined the "family" of others who gave their lives for Ireland. She makes her role explicit when she says, "I represent ordinariness... tens of thousands of faceless women. Women who stand in queues, and wait. And their waiting is more busy, more concentrated, than all the bustle of men" (36).2 She is a conscientious objector representing principles that include women. Mathews, as Kennelly, sounds a feminist note. Antigone merges, rather than differs: as she claimed in Sophocles, "I was born to love, not to hate" (Ant. 523). She also argues peace against Creon, who urges war. She tells Creon, "you can't fight violence with violence" (51). Antigone paints Ρ on walls, and for defacing the walls — and trying to stir memories, she will be executed. In this play one brother is called Peteocles and the other Polyneices, so when she writes P, only a guilty conscience would know that Polyneices was included. Antigone underlines the similarity and we hear the Marxist message, opposing the fascist, who must maintain difference as his raison d'être. As in all of these plays, freedom of speech or the suppression of words is an important issue. This is vital for the Catholic Irish, whose own speech, whether Gaelic or political, has so often been suppressed, rewritten, or distorted. Even political figures in Sinn Fein must have their real voices dubbed when they speak on public networks. Shackling the voice is well known in Ireland as a form of censorship.

  • 3 This quotation is from a letter written August 23, 1994 from Dublin.

18This play could be called Waiting for Antigone. The dialogue rambles on and only the character called "critic" discusses Antigone as presented by Sophocles. He anticipates the criticism that people will search in vain for the original. However, Aidan Mathews was not attempting an ordinary translation. When he speaks about both his Antigone and his Troiades he says, "I should explain that neither is, in any sense, a strict or even a lax translation. Instead, each reports the parent drama in a mixture of sign-language and interpreter's shorthand. This may seem a bit impertinent in someone whose own Greek is barefoot, but I grew up as a catholic Christian in a tradition which encouraged story-tellers to run amok among the scriptures; so perhaps I have a precedent for taking such liberties with the fifth gospel and with Troiades."3 He has written a version of Antigone which is faithful to the spirit of the original, added a dash of Beckett's despair, and come up with an impressive, entertaining, and provocative play.

19The final words of the play are "Go home. Go home. You can do nothing" (65). But the audience has just seen someone do something. And as the chorus said "Leave the thinking to the fuckin' audience. That's what they're paying to do" (10).

  • 4 All references are from the unpublished version which I was given by the author.

20Aidan Mathews' Trojans is not overtly about the Irish political experience, but much of Ireland colors the text. A preface tells us about the play: "As the fiftieth anniversary of the fall of Berlin draws near, in a Europe which copies the themes and the types of conflict that Euripides wrote about as an eye-witness to the Peloponnesian war, I have tried to follow the example of his Troiades by telling the tale of the secretaries of the Reich Chancellery in a way that would remember, or even reveal, its Greek beginnings. For my play Trojans is meant to be an original work not only in the conventional sense, but in the etymological, too: it will not come up smelling of roses unless it also comes up smelling of roots."4

21The gods have been secularized, and Poseidon is a submarine veteran — and Athene a demi-mondaine. Hecuba is the wife of a soldier, her daughter Cassandra a nun, and Andromache a war-widow who buried her own child, Hecuba's grandchild.

22Talthybius is a British army liaison officer with terminal politeness, doing nothing to save the women in his charge, but in fact, helping the victors victimize them. He has great rhetoric. He is an appropriate parallel for the British officers stationed in Northern Ireland.

23The language is idiomatic and there are word plays, and cute allusions: Athene says, "These home improvements would work wonders, ladies, for wonders are many and none is more wonderful than sham," (4) paraphrasing the famous line from Sophocles' Antigone: "Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man". Or, in a punning swipe at Christianity, Cassandra observes of Poseidon, when he says something pious, "You were a priest." He answers, "I was at sea." "She says, Same difference" (17). So also Cassandra, when she lifts a wine-bottle to her lips, and says "Let this chalice never pass from me" (40), recalling Christ's words without the negative. These Catholic asides locate the play securely in Ireland with wit joined to religion.

24In Mathews' Antigone and Trojans the Irish experience is there, but it melds with the victimization of races and women. Mathews has mythologized the women, in the way that Antigone is turned at the end into abstract hope, and in Trojans the women of the Reich stand for all women who suffer after a war. Mathews is effective in turning the particulars of history into the universale of philosophy. We cannot see Mathews' plays without questioning our role: the audience is urged to become activist.

  • 5 I shall refer to the unpublished version that I was given by the author.

25Kennelly's Antigone does many things that Sophocles' original did not do. The language is very different. Kennelly has expanded the 1353 lines in the original play to 1464 lines.5 The expansion illustrates a linguistic excess which is indicative of a typically Irish form of expression. In Ireland one uses words like music, to develop and enhance thought, as well as express the basic concepts; the prize is usually not given to laconic restraint. In addition Kennedy has created his own music, his own rhythms, repetitions of words and sounds compete with the occasional verse.

26Kennedy has cut, expanded and injected the human into the Sophoclean ideal. He has cut through certain complexities, and soundly rejected moral maxims, mythology and historical references. His play is one that is accessible to a modern ear, both in words and in content. Those who like Sophoclean subtlety — and that strange inaccessibility of time — may feel cheated, but a person in love with the magic of words will be delighted.

  • 6 Page references will be to this edition. Cf my article, "'A Bomb at the door": Kennelly's Medea, 1 (...)

27Brendan Kennelly's Medea is called a new version rather than a translation of Euripides' Medea (Kennelly, 19916). We find here many of the stylistic and intellectual themes of the Antigone, but the story and focus are different. Kennelly has claimed this is a play about rage, woman's rage. Euripides' play has 1,419 lines, and Kennelly's version 2,242. There was a lot of rage.

28Here we find not only the rage of woman towards man, but we find a parable of another rage; just as Jason exploited and victimized Medea, so did England exploit and victimize Ireland. Medea is the Aisling that hates and destroys. Medea gave everything to Jason, but he was unworthy: he lied and cheated. She killed her own children in vengeance, and Ireland is still killing her children in its agony of vengeance.

29Kennelly talks about betrayal as "the ripest crop in this land" (13). The betrayal is not only that of the enemy, but worse, the friend — the informer co-opted in the service of the enemy. It is also a man betrayed by a woman, or a woman by a man.

30Kennelly has made a paean to Medea. He asks at the end, "Is Medea's crime Medea's glory?" We know his answer is "Yes," grim truth that it is. It can also be Ireland's.

31Kennelly's Trojan Women (1993) is about suffering. Captive women are hauled off to slavery, and when they feel they can suffer nothing further than the loss of their country, they learn there is more: they can lose their lifeblood, their children. This is a story for Ireland. It is well understood there.

32There is optimism in the final image that compares Hecuba to a wave of the sea, using Yeats' famous phrase from "The Fiddler of Dooney":

A wave of the sea!
Natural and fearless!
That is what I want —
I want to live without fear
and I will, I will,
no matter where I happen to be,
Hecuba, a woman, Hecuba,
a natural, fearless wave of the sea (79).

33We see woman as force of nature. Kennelly's play is a seething indictment of man's cruelty. It is a fitting conclusion to his trilogy. He endorses women and he endorses Ireland: woe to the man or country that would enslave either. Who can enslave the waves of the sea?

34Seamus Heaney artfully crafted The Cure at Troy after Sophocles' Philoctetes is a play somewhat different from the other versions of Greek tragedy that we have investigated so far (Heaney, 1990). This is one that proceeds from and ends in optimism. It is a version that truly urges and believes, and hopes for peaceful change.

35Heaney's optimism shows at the end in a speech that Philoctetes delivers, which is not in Sophocles, but is in modern Ireland:

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.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

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 (77).

  • 7 We can note here some parallels with the use of sea-change, and also the forgiveness urged by Pros (...)

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.7

36The sufferings on both sides are alluded to: the hunger-striker is a republican imprisoned by the British or Unionists, who dies in protest. The police widow is mourning her dead husband who supported the unionist regime. The hope is for a peaceful settlement, and a cure to the wound of hate.

37In a letter, Seamus Heaney was kind enough to afford a glimpse at what led him to do this play in the way he did:

Edmund Wilson's essay, "The Wound and the Bow," and "a fascination with the conflict between the integrity of the personal bond and the exactions of the group's demands for loyalty. A sense that the pride in the wound is stronger than the desire for a cure. A sympathy with that reluctance to shed the haughtiness of the hurt spirit for the humdrum and Caritas of renewal. The intoxication of defiance over the civic, sober path of adjustment. None of the above quite rationalized at the time, of course. A liking for the play's reach into order, the way it is less prone to massage and indulge people's taste for the bloody and the barbarians, the way its politics are unthematic. All that... I do believe, though, that there's a fashion for the dionysiac which connives with rather than sets in proper proportion the passionate, ungoverned, self-willed, inured by psycho-babble, culture-of-narcissism, victim-pride, kind of daimon that is rampant at the moment. I sort of liked the golden mean talk of Heracles at the end of the play (The Cure at Troy, that is)."

38Heracles advocates:

Go, with your bow. Conclude the sore
And cruel stalemate of our war.
Win by fair combat. But know to shun
Reprisal killings when that's done.

Then take just spoils and sail at last
Out of the bad dream of your past.

But when the city's being sacked
Preserve the shrines. Show gods respect.
Reverence for the gods survives
Our individual mortal lives (79).

39Divinities obviously talk in verse. One also thinks of the way the churches were treated when the Republic of Ireland was established. Large Protestant churches dotted the countryside, but the Catholics allowed them to stand and remain Protestant. The Greeks as a whole hardly had wounds, or grudging memories, except for Helen's being kidnapped by Paris. As many noted, this was a good excuse to conduct a raid which had tempted the Greeks for years. The history of the Trojan War differs from the history of Ireland, but they meet symbolically in this story of Philoctetes' wound. It is clear that Heaney is in favor of a cure, and he uses Greek tragedy to distance and yet make familiar the major issues of conflict.

40The final chorus signals optimism:

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 love

  • 8 I owe this observation about the half rhyme with "leave" to Tom Paulin who was kind enough to poin (...)

41It is interesting "love" does not rhyme with anything, or perhaps it is a half-true rhyme with "leave" and "believe" in the fourth stanza.8 Love is based on leaving the obsession with the wound and belief is in walking away from the past and towards the future. The chorus, true to its function as a mediator between god and man, speaks somewhat in verse (we remember that Heracles, the divine, spoke only in rhyme). But love itself is a rhyme with the wish for peace. We recall the Irish flag which has been interpreted as green for the Catholics, orange for the Protestants and white for love. Heaney has written a play of hope.

42Derek Mahon's Bacchae: After Euripides is a delightful play which is as faithful to Euripides as it is original. When we first meet Dionysus, our sympathy is with him. His worship has been neglected and his mother slandered. Dionysus says rather coyly, "I'm afraid I've driven those aunties round the bend," (12), referring to his mother Semele's sisters. He adds that they are not the only ones, "but virtually the whole feminine population rock 'n' roll." Dionysus speaks like a rather hip charismatic leader from the sixties. He describes miracles, his birth by lightning, and Hera's fiery revenge ("the jealous bitch") and the effects are conveyed by suggestive terms like "Whoosh!" and "Pow!" It sounds a bit like a comic strip (11). Dionysus could be a member of The Commitments. Dionysus gradually shows his true self, and finally appears "in an immense bull-mask reaching to his knees," (58) after he has exacted a punishment far more devastating than the crime of slander. He has Agave, his mother's sister, slay her own son Pentheus, the king of the city. The whole play tells of Dionysus' seduction of Pentheus. Pentheus denies Dionysus, not only in the city, but inside himself. The god is imprisoned, and breaks out of his prison by shattering it; he is also revealed INSIDE Pentheus, and Pentheus, like the palace, is shattered, dismembered at the hands of his mother and aunts, and women from the city. Dionysus destroys from within: his power cannot be denied.

  • 9 See my article about this chorus, "Vengeance is Mine, 11. 877-81: Philia Gone Awry in the Chorus o (...)

43This parable is suitable for Ireland. Dionysus can be regarded as a force of nature, the force of a people who reclaim their rights, a people who reclaim a land that has been taken from them. The reclamation can be violent. There is a chorus in the Bacchae in which the Asian Bacchants describe the pleasure of holding one's hand over the head of a conquered foe (Ba. 877-81)9:

What pleases best, what grand
gift can the gods bestow
more than the conquering hand over the fallen foe?
It's still the same old story,
a fight for love and glory,
and every heart admits that this is so!
(41-42, 62).

44Not only is this cited at the place that Euripides included it, but it concludes Mahon's play.

45Irish musical influences are noted: Teiresias says that they will "go to the famous céilí," (15) and Agave when she mourns is said "to keen." The music varies in this play, "from a reflective mode to hard rock, according to the mood of the moment" (13), but Mahon does not want it to overwhelm the words of the chorus.

46The Catholic God peaks out behind the pagan gods, and Dionysus gains resonance by juxtaposition with Christ. Euripides speaks of the gods as powerful, and Mahon extends the image to include faith, tradition, truth and nature:

Gods move at their own pace
ignoring earthly hours,
when proud minds race
in search of godly powers
the gods provide correction
to the vain man who tries
to replace faith with action,
tradition with vanities.
Truth as old as the hills,
derived from very nature,
rules the world and rules
the life of every creature (41-42, 62).

47This verse also concludes the play, preceding the one just cited above, beginning, "What pleases best." Religion here, as it did the Crusades, sanctions a Holy War. Dionysus is also associated with Christ, with his title, "Lord of the dance," (47). We remember the popular Irish song, "Lord of the Dance," describing Christ coming to earth to save mankind and lead them in the dance of salvation.

48Mahon has written an impressive version of the Bacchae. One wants poets of each age to translate poets of the past. One also wants the concerns of the modern to come across by means of the tools provided from the past.

49We return to our original question. Why Greek tragedy in Ireland now? The answers have become clear in our analysis of the texts, original and adapted. Attic tragedy developed as a forum for discussing what it meant to be Greek — the privileges, the obligations, the sorrows; the relations with the gods, to history, to foreigners. It is more than this, however, in these plays, the particular is enhanced by the universal. The suffering of one person and one country becomes the suffering of all people.

50Six Irish poets have written ten plays based on Greek tragedy. All but one (Desmond Egan, who achieved only a rather colorless translation) obviously weave in political concerns, and even Egan, by his choice of play (Medea), cannot ignore the politics that it implies. Heaney urges restraint, and by his optimism is perhaps closest to the Greeks as interpreted by those who believe that tragedy urged catharsis, social restraint and conformity to a salutary ideal. There are those who see tragedy in a bleaker light; George Steiner, for example, sees it as rehearsing our own deaths and the world's entropy. Kennelly and Mahon stress Euripides' passion, and one thrills to their endorsement of passionate commitment, tragic though the outcome may be. Some poets seem to urge restraint, and avoidance of the horrors that have just been seen on stage; others, whereas they may not advocate imitation, stress the nobility of the passion depicted. It is a measure of the Irish civilization, that it, like the Greek, completely integrates art into society and politics, that it is a true polis where all important issues are defined in serious art as well as in the forums of power.

51Words are violence because words are hope. Words also can shape the future, and since they have been used long enough against Ireland, perhaps now Ireland can reclaim them as its own weapons. Greece's passion is Ireland's, and change is in order. The new peace accords show the transition from guns to words, and we can all be hopeful. An informed future can be modelled on lessons from the past.

  • 10 I owe sincerest thanks to George Huxley, Francis Lovett, Thomas MacCary, Bridget McDonald, Thomas (...)

52Excess has taken many forms, sometimes more lines, sometimes imagery which spills over the ideas, Aristophanic language overflowing into Euripides, sometimes modern concerns added to the past ones, sometimes a modern god being added to the ancient ones, sometimes simply rhyme added to the ancient metrical verse. Excess is the gap between the original play and the modern adaptation: it allows a space to be filled with aspirations for freedom. The greatest excess is two poets instead of one, and in most of the cases we have just seen, the marriage is happy.10



Canny, Nicholas P., 1973. "The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America," William and Mary Quarterly, 30. 4, Oct, 575-98.

Heaney, Seamus, 1990. The Cure at Troy: After 'Philoctetes' by Sophocles. Lawrençe Hill, Derry: Field Day.

Kennely, Brendan, 1991. Euripides' Medea: A New Version. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books.

---- 1993. Euripides' The Trojan Women: A New Version. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books.

Paulin, Tom, 1985. The Riot Act: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone. London, Boston: Faber and Faber.

---- 1990. Seize the Fire: A Version of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. London: Faber and Faber.


1 See the useful review by Fiona Macintosh, Oct., 1992, 189-191. She drew this parallel also in "Tragic Last Words: The Big Speech and the Lament in Ancient Greek and Modern Irish Tragic Drama," the paper for "Tragedy and 'the Tragic'", July 23, 1993, King's College London. In her review article, she tells of Henri d'Arbois de Jubainville's claim that "the sagas of the Irish heroic period were the product of a society at the same stage of development as the Greeks and Trojans in the Homeric epics... the rich epic tradition in Irish literature (as had been the case in fifth-century Athens) would form the basis upon which the next literary stage — the dramatic one — was to be founded." She also makes the national connection, starting with Yeats saying that "in the Yeatsian schema Ireland is Greece suffering at the hands of inferior but more powerful neighbors," (189). She tells the interesting anecdote that Ireland was the first to play Oedipus Rex, in defiance of the Lord Chamberlain's banning of it from the London stage.

2 Quotations are from an unpublished manuscript, Antigone, 1984.

3 This quotation is from a letter written August 23, 1994 from Dublin.

4 All references are from the unpublished version which I was given by the author.

5 I shall refer to the unpublished version that I was given by the author.

6 Page references will be to this edition. Cf my article, "'A Bomb at the door": Kennelly's Medea, 1992," 1993, 129-37.

7 We can note here some parallels with the use of sea-change, and also the forgiveness urged by Prospero, likewise a victim left on an island in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Ariel sang to Ferdinand about his father Alonso, saying he "doth suffer a sea-change," (l.ii.400). Prospero says to Ariel:
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier mov'd than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'against my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance (V.i.21-28).

8 I owe this observation about the half rhyme with "leave" to Tom Paulin who was kind enough to point it out.

9 See my article about this chorus, "Vengeance is Mine, 11. 877-81: Philia Gone Awry in the Chorus of Euripides'Bacchae", 1989, 170-87.

10 I owe sincerest thanks to George Huxley, Francis Lovett, Thomas MacCary, Bridget McDonald, Thomas Rosenmeyer, and the poets themselves, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Derek Mahon, Aidan Mathews and Tom Paulin, for their gracious help.


University of California, San Diego

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1996

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