The New Translation of Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ by Irish Poet Seamus Heaney

Ensemble of Antigone by Sophocles
Ensemble of Antigone by Sophocles, translated by Seamus Heaney, directed by Alexander Harrington, in a production at Clemson University that was preparatory to the upcoming production at La MaMa E.T.C. Photo by Kimberly Van Ness.

The translation is faithful to its source, varied in its verse forms, with a markedly Irish diction and abundant use of the contemporary idiom of power politics. Harrington, whose productions are known for their mastery of stage oratory, is placing great stress of the ritual elements of “Antigone,” blending the script with a musical score by Carman Moore and choreography by Claire Pavlich.

Born in County Derry, Northern Ireland in 1939, Seamus Heaney is the author of many noted works including an acclaimed translation of “Beowulf,” the poetry collection “North,” and an adaptation of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” titled “The Cure at Troy.” The Burial at Thebes” was commissioned in 2004 as part of the centenary celebration of the Abbey Theatre in Ireland and inspired, in part, by the War in Iraq. Heaney wrote in the Guardian in 2005, “Early in 2003 we were watching a leader, a Creon figure if ever there was one: a law and order bossman trying to boss the nations of the world into uncritical agreement with his edicts in much the same way as Creon tries to boss the Chorus of compliant Thebans into conformity with his. With the White House and the Pentagon in cahoots, determined to bring the rest of us into line over Iraq, the passion and protest of an Antigone were all of a sudden as vital as oxygen masks.”

Harrington, upon becoming an Assistant Professor of Theater at Clemson University in 2005, was assigned to direct the play in the university’s thousand-seat Brooks Theatre, where he utilized the entire space. He asked composer Carman Moore, with whom he had previously collaborated, to write a score for the choruses and asked Clemson student Claire Pavlich to choreograph them. Its success prompted him to bring the production north. For La MaMa, Mr. Harrington will scale down the epic Clemson production to a more intimate version, focusing on bringing the extraordinary music and choreography of Mr. Moore and Ms. Pavlich to New York audiences.

In 1997, Mr. Harrington reversed the stage in La MaMa’s Annex Theater for his production of “Agamemnon.” For this production, he will reverse the stage again, placing the audience on the stage of the First Floor Theater and the action on the seating risers.

Harrington says he has been inspired toward ritualistic theater by the work of Ellen Stewart, Andrei Serban, Elizabeth Swados, and La MaMa’s Great Jones Rep in such productions as “Fragments of a Trilogy,” “Mythos Oedipus” and “Seven.” He made his debut at La MaMa in 1997 with Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon.” In 1999, he founded The Eleventh Hour Theatre Company, which presented its inaugural production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” at La MaMa. The Eleventh Hour is a regular guest company at La MaMa, having presented Mr. Harrington’s productions of “Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2” in 2001 and “The Brothers Karamazov, Part II” in 2004. His other directing credits include “Richard II” (The Eleventh Hour at HERE), “In The Shadow of a Dream” (The Fresh Fruit Festival), “Lion Taming in Miami and Other Views of Life” (Medicine Show), “Antigone” (The Culture Project), “Linguish” (N. Y. International Fringe Festival), “The Family Hour” (the Actors Studio), “Twelfth Night” (The Eclectic Co.), and “Billy Budd” (Westbeth Theatre Center & Circle in the Square Downtown). Mr. Harrington is also a teacher at H.B. Studios.

Sophocles’ play tells how Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, gives her brother, the traitor Polyneices, a form of ritual burial (she scatters his corpse with dust) against the explicit instructions of her uncle, King Creon, and the advice of her sister, Ismene, even though she knows that the consequence will be her death. She thereby initiates a grimly tragic process: not only does Antigone die, hanging herself when Creon, in retribution, buries her alive in a cave, but Creon’s son Haemon, who is betrothed to Antigone, also kills himself out of grief, as does Creon’s wife, Eurydice. Creon, eventually convinced by the prophet Tiresias and the play’s chorus of elders, does relent – too late – but Antigone is intransigent, despite a striking moment of self-doubt before her incarceration.

The play dramatizes a deadly struggle between principle and pragmatism, freedom and tyranny, individuality and mass pressure, conscience and coercion. Heaney saw direct parallels to our time, likening Antigone’s situation to being on the wrong side of the war on terror. One of his notes on the play says, ”Just as Creon forced the citizens of Thebes into an either/or situation in relation to Antigone, the Bush administration in the White House was using the same tactic to forward its argument for war on Iraq.” When Heaney’s adaptation appeared, some critics–notably Gary Wills in The New York Times–felt that it was a too black-and-white picture, blaming Creon wholeheartedly and bleaching out the Sophoclean ambiguities to make a metaphorical indictment of the American president. Wills wrote, “There are good reasons for opposing the invasion of Iraq, but none that Sophocles can provide.”

Harrington promises that his realization will present a much more balanced argument, although slightly tipped toward Antigone. Harrington loves Heaney’s poetry but Heaney’s approach is more didactic than his own approach to political theater. As an artist, Harrington strongly believes that great art does not propagandize one point of view but shows that all choices are difficult. He hopes he is strengthening Heaney’s point of view by having Antigone engage with a Creon who is a worthy opponent, rather than a straw-man.

How would his father, a famous democratic socialist, writer and activist, regard his choices with this play? Alec insists that Michael would agree with him. “He always recognized that people with different points of view could be people of good will. He was a friend of Bill Buckley and he knew that moral people could disagree. While you have your principles, it doesn’t mean the other guy is a bastard.”

Music by Carman Moore borrows from many different styles, including classical opera, New Orleans jazz, hip-hop and world music. The choral passages are set to music in which the lyrics are performed as a combination of song and chant. Occasionally, they exchange sung dialogues with the principals: there are two choral dialogues in which Creon and Antigone have passages that are sung.

Moore has commissions and performances to his credit by such world-class ensembles as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Dayton Opera Company and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He was Master Composer and Co-Director of the American Dance Festival’s Young Choreographers and Composers Residency Program from 1986 to 1995, during which he created scores for Alvin Ailey, Garth Fagan, Anna Sokolow, Jacques D’Amboise, Cleo Parker Robinson, Mark Dendy, Donald Byrd, Ruby Shang, Michiyo Sato, and Sarah Pearson/Patrik. He has taught at the Yale University Graduate School of Music, Queens and Brooklyn Colleges, Carnegie-Mellon University, La Guardia College, Manhattanville College and New School University.

Choreographer Claire Pavlich is making her New York debut. She is a prodigy and BA candidate in Performing Arts at Clemson University, where she switched to a Performing Arts major from a Genetics major. She has written an honors thesis on color psychology and lighting design. She worked as an Assistant Lighting Designer at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and interned at the Spoleto Festival USA and The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

The cast includes Jessica Crandall as Antigone, Frank Anderson as Creon, Louise Flory as Ismene, John McCarthy as Haemon, Janice Bishop as Tiresias and Liz Frost as The Messenger. The chorus members are Jason Adamo, Rebecca Austin, Judith F. Bradshaw, Maija Lisa Currie, Sarah Ecton-Luttrell, Erik Gratton, Carrie Anne James, Christopher Keogh, Liz Sanders, Randi Sobol and Jason Weiss.

“Antigone” will be presented by La MaMa E.T.C. from January 25 – February 11, 2007 at the First Floor Theatre, 74A East Fourth Street. It’ll run Thursday through Sunday at 8:00 pm plus Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets cost $18 and are available at the box office (212) 475-7710 or online at

Jonathan Slaff
Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.