Play Reading in English - The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney


HK English Speaking Union
  • Mon 21-08-2017 7:15 PM - 2 h


Free admission


This month's play is a contemporary verse drama adaptation by the great Irish poet and dramatist Seamus Heaney of the final play in the Theban Trilogy written by Ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles around 441 BC. The play has often been used as an allegory of acts of civic disobedience on ethical grounds by people in modern times, notably Jean Anouilh's Antigone written and produced seemingly as a classical drama, but in essence implying a call to resistance against an tyrannical occupying power, in this case Nazi Germany's occupation of France. The play contains many variations of the Greek original, Heaney adding Irish idiom and expanding the involvement of some characters such as the Guard, just as Anouilh did in his version. Relevant to the time of its writing, Heaney also adds in "Bushisms", referencing George W. Bush and his approach to leadership, drawing a parallel between him and the character of Creon.


Heaney uses English verse in his contemporary version, just as Sophocles used Classical Greek verse in his original. In other respects the lot follows a very similar trajectory: Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus King of Thebes in Greece, learns that her two brothers Polyneices and Etocles have killed each other fighting on different sides of a war. Creon , Antigone's uncle and newly appointed King of Thebes, buries Etocles, who fought on the Theban side of the war, hailing him as a great hero. He refuses to bury Polyneices, proclaiming that any who attempt to defy his wishes will be made an example of, on the grounds that he was a 'traitor' fighting on the opposing side in the war. The play opens with Antigone and her sister Ismene discussing what action to take in response to Creon's new law against the burial of their brother. Antigone is reactive, arguing that Creon is breaching Divine Law by denying burial to Polyneices. Despite Ismene's pleading, Antigone heads off alone to enact the burial writs both for her own glory and for the preservation of her brother's soul.


The play is relevant to any situation where an individual or place is being threatened and bullied into submission by a repressive and infinitely greater power, be it personal or political. It is fundamentally about the right to self-determination in one's actions and the ultimate refusal to collaborate with coercive power. It strikes me as relevant to a great number of personal, social and political contexts right now. Tang Shu Wing Theatre Studio performed their Chinese language version of Antigone in Beijing last year and the play has often been performed in various adaptations. Textually, though Heaney's version is exceptionally powerful and will provide the basis for a fascinating play reading. 


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