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The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles' Antigone Paperback – Bargain Price, October 13, 2005
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*Starred Review* There are many translations of Sophocles' Antigone but few with the understated power and spare beauty of Irish Nobel laureate Heaney's version. He has given the play a new title, The Burial at Thebes, that recalls both Antigone's punishment--to be walled up in a cave-- and the crime for which she is punished. He remains faithful to the letter and the spirit of the play, following the structure of Sophocles' fine storytelling beat-by-beat even as he finds words to make this classic story of conflict between an inflexible autocrat and an intransigent rebel legible to modern readers. Reading Heaney's achievement, it is hard not to think of the ongoing eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye debacle unfolding in Iraq. Written in a muscular but lively style, the translation, like Heaney's best poetry, finds music in the language of the streets and reveals the raw, primal power in the most carefully constructed rhetorical tropes. This is hardly surprising. In 1990 Heaney wrote The Cure at Troy, a translation of Sophocles' Philoctetes, for the Irish Field Day theater company, and met with great critical acclaim. His fine, new translation makes one wish he would don a translator's hat more often. Jack Helbig
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Heaney has created something imperishable and great that is stainless--stainless, because its force as poetry makes it untouchable by the claw of literalism: it lives singly, as an English language poem." --James Wood, The Guardian
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Top Customer Reviews
Now comes an outstanding "translation" of Sophocles's Antigone--"The Burial at Thebes." I first came across this work in excerpted form in Tin House (a literary journal--one of the best actually). This book far exceeds what Mr. Heaney did with Beowulf.
Yet the crickets are chirping.
It is incomprehensible to me as to why this deeply abiding and thoughtful little book has not blown away the sales and notoriety of the Beowulf volume. Whereas Heaney's Beowulf was clearly a labor of deep interest to the translator--a skillfull and intriguing update of the language for the 21st century, The Burial at Thebes is just as clearly a work of love on behalf of the author...I mean translator--a satirical, lyrical, and prophetic work of the highest order that speaks directly to our world today.
I could not put this play--this hymn to all that we are as humans, this song of our identity as individuals--not mere components of a state--down.
Antigone's early question/indictment of her sister's complacency rings out like a bell against the twin idols of false patriotism and corporate globalisation:
"Are we sister, sister, brother
Or coward, coward, traitor?"
What follows is a heroic tragedy. Not heoric in the way the Iliad or the Odyssey are (weapons, war, dust, funeral pyres and great feasts of blood), but heroic in the greatest sense (to know who you are and what is truly worth dying for).
Homer and much of the rest of the world sing of war. Sophocles, and his interpreter Heaney, sing of another kind of war--the war of being human in the deepest, richest, and often most tragic, yet inspiring way.
I give "The Burial at Thebes" my highest recommendation.
(If you are interested in a great traditional translation to have as a complement to Heaney's, you cannot go wrong with Robert Fagles's translation of the theban plays in the Penguin Classics series).
Hmm. There is no question that the language Heaney uses here is plain. It is possible to see his three-beat lines and his five-beat pentameter and his Beowulf-style 4-beat alliterative lines in the reading. What I don't see is poetry -- I don't actually even see much verse. The language seems neutral rather than charged. Poetry can use common words, but needs to cause shivers -- not in every line, but often enough that the reader keeps alert for more electricity. The various verse lines he uses are rather weakly distinctive: the forms hover around their ideals without touching them enough to keep a listener on track.
I saw the play performed by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater company on September 18, 2005. It played somewhat better than it read (e.g. the initial byplay between Antigone and Ismene, and that between Creon and Haemon). Still, though, having read it, I was listening carefully (hopefully?) for the beat of the verse -- or at least the feel of the verse. In fact, though the actors did a good job and did, as I think, justice to the text, it seemed rather flat.
Perhaps I disagree with the "plain" style. I think Sophocles was a powerful poet whose language rang with hard beauty and allusive power. He must have been. Perhaps, though, all this happened in the songs that the chorus, and sometimes the principals, sang. For another quarrel I have with this version is that it does not give any indications of choral parts -- strophe and antistrophe -- so even in principle it is not singable. What is more, this is a rather loose rendering of Sophocles play (a "version"), which does not really depart from the drama, but makes it more spare of expression. This comes at the expense of some of the specifically Greek elements, such as constant specific references to Zeus. Yet it is still a classical Greek play, just less of one. Moreover, there were no notes on the text, while there were at least a few puzzling parts that should have been noted, as well as the choral parts. But who knows -- maybe the Abbey Theatre made more of it than I can!
While some purists may complain about its looseness causing readers to lose so much of the original language, connotatively and detonatively, I suggest that some of the more literal translations cause many readers to miss more than they keep because their language is so opaque.
Whatever poetry may be lost in this version, I think, is made up for by the uncovering of the dramatic text.