Heaney merges ancient and modern in 'Burial at Thebes'

​The space allotted in the paper didn't allow me to explore all that I wanted to with the Guthrie Theater's The Burial at Thebes, and a talk held Monday evening between the playwright Seamus Heaney and Guthrie artistic head Joe Dowling only helped to underscore some of my thoughts.

The piece turns on a mixture of ancient and the modern, made most explicit by pairing the ancient story with contemporary music crafted by J.D. Steele, most often sung by the five-actor chorus. There are other touches like this spread through the production, such as the opening, where the ritual of consigning the remains to a crypt include a modern-day military folding of a flag.

Heaney, in town over the weekend to see the premiere of the production, chatted with Joe Dowling Monday evening on the Burial at Thebes stage. The Irish Nobel Prize winner for literature (one of four from his country to earn the honor, joining William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Beckett -- not bad company at all) is famed as a poet, but has turned to the stage twice, both times tackling an ancient Greek play.

Heaney merges ancient and modern in 'Burial at Thebes'
Photo by Michael Brosilow

It's a natural turn for the poet and activist, who has used his work in the past to examine the divisions in his native land (he was born Roman Catholic in Northern Ireland and has lived in Dublin for decades) and the general political climate. Though he says he "never thought of [himself] as a political writer," the very issues that come up in his works have that kind of resonance.

That's clear throughout The Burial at Thebes. The story turns on Antigone's decision to defy Creon's dictate that her brother -- who has fought on the other side -- not be given any burial at all. While her defiance leads eventually to her death, Creon's defiance of the natural order eventually leads him to complete ruin.

Burial of the dead is present in every human culture, Heaney notes, and "burials and funerals to the Irish are big things." So Creon's transgression against the natural order becomes more and more defined as he refuses to listen to Antigone's pleas, the advice of the citizens, and even his own son, who is betrothed to Antigone. 

Heaney began work on the play in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and that time -- the "You're either with me or my enemy" attitude, especially -- comes clearly through in Creon. Again, while the actions and dialogue were written down at least 2,500 years ago, the play connects clearly with the modern day. That gives the staging's mixture of these elements additional weight. The story that we are watching may be ancient, but human beings haven't changed that much over the millennia. 

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