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Cultures collide in Heaney’s ‘Burial at Thebes’

Molly Griffin | Friday, March 31, 2006

Two distant cultures – Irish and Ancient Greek – are brought together in the performance of “The Burial at Thebes.” The play is Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy “Antigone,” and the production combines these two distinct influences.

The production is sponsored by the Irish Studies department and the classics department. The shows this weekend are set for Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Philbin Studio Theatre.

“The play is appropriate for this University because it has a strong connection with Irish culture,” director Andrew Faulkner said. “Notre Dame has a strong Classics department and a strong Irish Studies department and the play bridges between the Irish and the classical.”

The play centers around Creon (Sean Sweany), who represents the traditional and rigid values of the state. A conflict arises when Antigone (Meg Trucano) disobeys an edict Creon issues regarding the burial of her brother, who died fighting against their state. Sweany is a Scene writer for The Observer.

The Irish and Greek elements emerge in the production in diverse ways. Immediately noticeable are the costumes – some are distinctly Greek, some distinctly Irish and others a combination. Antigone’s white chiton is distinctly Greek, while Haemon (Andrew Hayes) sports a costume with Irish designs. On the other hand, Antigone’s sister Ismene (Jennifer Melillo) wears a colorful costume that melds Greek and Irish influences.

Several of the actors in the play speak with an Irish lilt, which very overtly adds an Irish bent to the play. Heaney’s translation of the play adds some English idioms to the Greek tragedy, which also adds to the melding of the two cultures in the production.

“This production of ‘A Burial at Thebes’ is unique because it tells a story, which at heart is ancient Greek tragedy, with an Irish taste to it,” Jim Schneider (Messenger) said. “The elder characters in the play use an Irish accent, but the younger ones work with a toned down American accent. This difference helps build the tension between old and new, the traditional and the untraditional.”

Another interesting facet of the production is the presence of the chorus. The chorus is an integral part of any Greek play, and they play a central role in the progress of the play. In “The Burial at Thebes,” the chorus, composed of three women – Marisa Behan, Maureen Mullen and Elizabeth Rogalski – who sing, dance and speak throughout the play. Their unaccompanied singing, dancing and singing add a unique dimension to the play as a whole.

While classical Greek tragedy is thousands of years old, the themes that are presented are still a part of our culture today, Behan – the chorus leader – said.

In particular, the themes present in “Antigone” and the translation of the story presented in “The Burial at Thebes,” still resonate with the present day.

“Seamus Heaney – who wrote/translated ‘Antigone’ into ‘Burial at Thebes’ – saw the story as a sort of political allegory, where King Creon’s ‘for us or against us’ mentality resembles President Bush’s rhetoric concerning the war in Iraq” Gavin McDowell (Guard) stated.

“However, I’ve always read the play on a religious level – as a story about what happens when civil authority refuses to submit to divine authority.”

The play can be read on multiple levels, and the combination of cultural influences, particularly in Heaney’s version of the play, makes it especially open to varied interpretations.

While the play deals with serious issues like politics, religion, family and duty, it manages to evoke emotions while still being entertaining. The unique combination of Irish and Greek influences seen in this production add to the play and make it especially appealing to the Irish – in this case, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

“I think that Notre Dame audiences will particularly resonate with the Irish bits of the production, but hopefully they can be persuaded into thinking of the ‘Antigone’ story while being simultaneously entertained,” Meg Trucano (Antigone) said.

“The Burial at Thebes” updates a classic story with a production that celebrates its diverse influences. The combination of Irish and Greek elements, while different, comes together in an exciting way in this performance.