The Burial at Thebes 

Finding the American foreign policy in Sophocles' Antigone

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What is it? Performed by the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company, The Burial at Thebes is a 21st-century retelling of Sophocles' Antigone by the Nobel Prize-winning poet and best-selling author Seamus Heaney. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus. She is the textbook heroine of Greek tragedy who must choose to either allow her beloved brother's body to be eaten by wild dogs or face the death penalty for honoring her brother, a traitor to the city of Thebes. There is no good outcome to this ancient story, and it's one of the reasons it continues to evoke pathos with present-day audiences.

Why see it? Heaney won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, but unlike most winners of the coveted global award, he has continued to make his mark on the world. His meaty and muscular translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, for instance, was a New York Times best seller, a surprise only to those who've never heard of Heaney's poetry. The Nottingham Playhouse last performed Thebes at Oxford University in 2005, but that was inside. For its Charleston engagement, the Playhouse will perform outside at the College of Charleston's Cistern. With updated costumery that hints at ancient attire, this revival en plein air might turn out to be very similar to the Antigone that Aristotle would have seen before writing Poetics.

Who should go? Antigone is still relevant to modern audiences because of its tantalizing hope for a resolution between two irreconcilable points of view: pragmatism, law, and order versus religion, passion, and the ties that bind. On the one hand is the Apollonian Creon willing to sacrifice family for the sake of social harmony. On the other is the Dionysian Antigone willing to kill herself rather than face the desecration of her brother. Heaney, in his translation, gives Creon long, measured sentences that reflect his power and duty while the poet gives Antigone quick, melodramatic lines that mirror her spirited passion.

Spoleto Festival USA • $30-$45 • 1 hour 15 min. • May 29, 30, 31, June 1, 2 at 8:30 p.m. • The Cistern, College of Charleston, 66 George St. • (843) 579-3100

Grudge Match: Finding the American foreign policy in Sophocles' Antigone

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When Lucy Pitman-Wallace was preparing to stage The Burial at Thebes for the first time, she watched hours of news footage about Hurricane Katrina.

As she observed corpses, rotting and bloated, floating in the murky flood waters that had devastated most of New Orleans in the late summer of 2005, Pitman-Wallace was reminded of the urge to honor the dead, of the obligations of the living.

Despite our knowing age, in which science and technology often challenge traditional notions of fidelity and duty, we still yearn to pay respects.

"We still feel the need to care for the dead according to established rituals," says Pitman-Wallace, director of the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company. "Modern audiences feel strongly about that."

It's this same yearning to memorialize the dead that drives Antigone, in Sophocles' tragedy by the same name, to defy the law in order to bury her brother, whom Creon, her uncle and King of Thebes, has branded a traitor.

The play is about life after the death of Oedipus, Antigone's father. His two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, are to rule in his stead on alternating years. When Eteocles refuses to yield power, Polynices wages a war in which both sons die in a dramatic duel. Once Creon is king, he judges that Eteocles receive a hero's burial while Polynices' body is to be left to scavenging vultures and wild dogs.

After she's arrested for performing a death ritual outside the city walls, Creon asks Antigone (in a 1949 translation by Robert Fitzgerald) if she were aware of Creon's edict, proclaimed that very day. Antigone, his niece, is indeed aware. Her reply is simply: "It was not God's proclamation."

The Burial at Thebes, staged by the Nottingham Players starting May 29 at the Cistern, dials into this implacable opposition — between obeying the laws of men and obeying the laws of God.

Translated by Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature, the play underscores human values that have been antipodes since Sophocles wrote it in 442 BC.

On the one hand, there is law, reason, and the pragmatic wisdom of age. That's Creon.

On the other, there is passion, ideology, and indomitable youth. That's Antigone.

"Antigone is drawn to the gods of the underworld while Creon worships gods of the upper air," Pitman-Wallace says. "In many ways, this is about opposing views of religion — of two different faiths and how you deal with the dead."

Underscoring the dialectical is Heaney's prosody. Antigone speaks lines that are a vine-ripened, three-beat pattern echoing the rhythms of Gaellic poetry. Her uncle speaks a classical iambic pentameter, evoking the measured cadences of the governing class. The Greek chorus, meanwhile, sings with a meaty and muscular Anglo-Saxon meter.

Burial is going to be done outside. The audience, Pitman-Wallace says, will face the front of the Cistern. It will be able to experience the play — featuring dancing, music and modern linen costumes that hint at ancient attire — much the way Aristotle did before devising his classic theory of tragedy in Poetics.

"If we did it inside, we'd be bumping into the walls," Pitman-Wallace says. "Some plays require special lighting and other technical concerns, but this play feels like a debate over moral issues and the Cistern feels like the town square."

It also feels like a play written for the here and now. Commissioned in 2004, Burial received its premiere in 2005. It was so successful (selling out numerous times over), Pitman-Wallace says, that her company revived it in 2007.

Part of that universal success, ironically, is its topicality. As Heaney translated the text, he thought about the Iraq War and the Bush administration's with-us-or-against-us view of international diplomacy. Critics have pointed out even the most oblique references to Bush's bring 'em-on brand of foreign policy.

"You'll hear a line or two referring to the 'un-Theban Theban,'" Pitman-Wallace says. "Engaged audiences will pick up on those cues, but it doesn't shove a point of view down anyone's throat. It just happens to be relevant to America, especially now that you're in the middle of a presidential election year."

Which is when she brings up something called "The Creon Test."

Though we think we know what makes our candidates tick, we don't really know who they are. We don't really know, because he (or she) hasn't been elected yet.

"Until a man has the test of office, and is proven in the exercise of power, he cannot be truly known for who he is," Pitman-Wallace says, quoting the script.

"Remember that it's Creon's first day in office," she says. "He hasn't been tested yet, but he will be. There are questions about what constitutes a rebel. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. How do you resolve this?"

You can't. That's why it's tragedy.

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