Prometheus, Medea and Antigone: Metaphors for Irish Rebellion and Social Change

by Steve Wilmer
Samuel Beckett Centre
Trinity College
Dublin 2
E-mail: swilmer@tcd.ie

Adaptations of Greek tragedy have not featured strongly on the Irish stage for most of this century.[1] Apart from Yeats' productions of Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus in the l920s, there have been few Irish productions of social significance or political impact, such as the French adaptations of the l940s by Sartre and Anouilh or the American versions of the l960s by the Living Theatre and the Performance Group. In the last twelve years, however, there has been a sudden rush to exploit this neglected material. Since l984 there have been at least three adaptations of Antigone, two of Medea, and two of The Trojan Women, as well as significant poetic versions of Prometheus Bound, The Bacchae, and Philoctetes by Irish writers.

Have the Irish writers simply followed a recent trend which was encouraged by the international productions of Peter Hall and Tony Harrison, Peter Stein, Heiner Müller, Ariane Mnouchkine, Tadashi Suzuki, Peter Sellars, et al., or has there been some crisis in Irish culture and society to which these Irish productions are responding? I wish to suggest that the sudden dramatic rediscovery of Greek tragedy in Ireland during the last decade reflects the profound social change in Ireland, and that writers are using Greek tragedy to comment on the transition.

The first point worth noting is that the Greek plays which Irish writers have chosen to adapt are those which emphasise a conflict between the individual and the state -- Antigone versus King Creon, Medea (the outsider) versus the royal family of Corinth (and here I am including Jason a member-by- marriage of the royal family) and Prometheus against Olympian Zeus. The focus on the individual versus a higher authority (whose right to impose moral codes on the individual is in question) seems to strike a significant chord in Irish society at the moment. Like Anouilh's Antigone, the Irish poets expose the self-conscious fictions of the state. The states are often shown to be vulnerable, relying on public confidence and police control for their continuation.

Antigone, Medea and Prometheus are all portrayed as victims of an unjust authority figure, and the Irish poets tend to emphasise and exaggerate the unfair treatment that they receive. Aidan Carl Matthews's Antigone, which is set in a police state that seems like a cross between Nazi Germany and a banana republic, portrays Haimon not as the sympathetic fiancé of Antigone, but as the obnoxious head of the secret police. (His name is changed from Haimon to Heman). Jason in Brendan Kennelly's version of Medea, unlike the original, appears to be totally in the wrong and arouses no sympathy from the audience. Likewise, Tom Paulin's version of Prometheus Bound (called Seize the Fire) depicts Zeus as the head of a modern-day dictatorship which could crumble and be overthrown by a military coup d'état at any moment. His henchman, Hermes, becomes a slick political negotiator who threatens Prometheus with horrid punishment unless he agrees to recant. Hermes promises:

There'll be a medal
and a post --
a very different type of post --
with a proper title too.
some name like that.

Prometheus refuses, saying:

They'd let me free
but freeze my mind.

Another feature common to these three versions of Antigone, Medea and Prometheus Bound is a strong plea by the playwrights for civil disobedience. In each case the protagonists are shown to be active transgressors rather than passive victims. Aidan Carl Matthews, for example, portrays Antigone as a timeless victim of injustice who plays out the role of dissident again and again. Mathews encourages the audience into thoughts of civil disobedience by having the characters goad them into action with phrases like 'This is none of your business' and 'You can do nothing'. In the l984 production of the play, copies of the Criminal Justice Bill (a particular piece of proposed government legislation that would infringe on Irish civil liberties) were distributed to the audience and read out during the interval.

It is perhaps worth noting that the three versions of Antigone were all written in l984, as if to suggest that the writers felt in that Orwellian year that Big Brother was indeed watching them and that Antigone could represent a role model for dissent. On the other hand, George Steiner has written:

Whenever, wherever, in the western legacy, we have found ourselves engaged in the confrontation of justice and of law, of the aura of the dead and the claims of the living, whenever, wherever, the hungry dreams of the young have collided with the realism of the ageing, we have found ourselves turning to words, images, sinews of argument, synecdoches, tropes, metaphors, out of the grammar of Antigone and Creon.[2]

In Paulin's play, Prometheus, chained but unrepentant, conspires to undermine the tyranny of Zeus and gain his own liberation by forcing Zeus to compromise and accommodate him. He is shown as a heroic figure who, despite being imprisoned and tortured, refuses to be silenced by higher authorities. Echoing the words of Martin Luther, who refused to recant his beliefs when they were declared heretical by Rome, Prometheus proclaims, 'Here I stand and here I will stand. I can't submit.' (In the television version of the play, the reference to Martin Luther was made more explicit with the last line changed to 'I can do no other.') Rather than a tragic figure who simply utters prophecies and complains about his fate, Prometheus continues to agitate for change despite being tied to a rock and is shown to make headway both with the daughters of Oceanus and with Io in his conspiracy to undermine Zeus. His last lines re-emphasise Paulin's implicit support for the individual battling against an oppressive state apparatus, and his optimism that social change is possible:

That's why I stole
that restless, bursting,
tight germ of fire,
and chucked its flames
like a splatter of raw paint
against his state.
They seized the running trails
and ran with them,
every mind fizzing like resin --
racing, dancing, leaping free,
jumping up into the sky,
and nudging deep
into the ocean's bottom.
Every mind was a splinter
of sharp, pure fire
that needled him [Zeus]
and made him rock
uneasy on his throne.
See Zeus, shaken
as these new lights burn
and melt his walls.
Let Prometheus go out
and become one
with the democratic light!

In this speech it becomes increasingly clear that Prometheus's gift of fire to mankind is a metaphor for free speech, free thought and free will. In the frontispiece to the published text, Paulin quotes Marx: 'Prometheus is the foremost saint and martyr in the philosopher's calendar.' But Paulin's Prometheus is not a passive martyr. He is not a Camusian absurd figure like Sisyphus who suffers fruitlessly. He is more a Sartrian existentialist who forces those around him (the daughters of Oceanos and Io) to make political choices, to become engaged in the political struggle. Furthermore, Prometheus will force the nature of the state to change to incorporate his own beliefs:

I'll hold his state
in these bound hands--
he'll have to free me
else he'll fall
like his own father.

Medea, of course, is a more problematic figure because it is more difficult to present her acts of vengeance as legitimate forms of civil disobedience; she is, after all, a murderer of her own children. Nevertheless, Brendan Kennelly attempts to create sympathy for her extreme actions, particularly in the last lines where the chorus sums up:

That is the end of the story
and yet I wonder, and will always wonder --
Is Medea's crime Medea's glory

Similarly, Brendan Kennelly's version of The Trojan Women highlights the brutalising and inhumane treatment by the Greek conquerors of their subjects, and shows Hecuba as a self-empowering creature who aims to master her situation and gain the upper hand in a war of the sexes. Contemplating a future as Odysseus's bedfellow, she muses:

What does he see? What does he think he sees?
What does he know of me
when he shrinks back into himself, alone
like a snail shrivelling at my touch,
a man shrivelled with fulfilment,
puny with success, a worm limp with victory, alone?
may I not open or close my eyes,
relishing the part of me that he can never reach, that no man living
can ever reach?
I have a power no man can ever touch.
Although a man may fall asleep at my side, snoring in fulfilment,
fat with vanity,
he'll never dream there is a sea between us.

Echoing lines from his own version of Medea, Kennelly allows Hecuba to glory in her own rage: 'I can look at the rage and hatred in my heart and know them for what they are --hatred and rage. Mine!' In a final call to arms as she exits to meet her male captor and master, Odysseus, Hecuba concludes, 'The war is over. The war begins for me.'

Kennelly seems to have generalised the individual plight of Hecuba to the battle of the sexes and to every marriage. He seems to suggest that within any marriage the woman must empower herself rather than allow herself to be dominated. Males are constant aggressors who have to be conquered by women seeking their own freedom and trying to avoid the trap of submission. At the same time, on a metaphorical level, he calls attention to the troubles in Northern Ireland and the need for Ireland to break free from British imperialism. Echoing the female image of Ireland that has been used by Yeats and other Irish writers (e.g. the Shan van Vocht who fights for liberation), Kennelly equates women's liberation with Ireland's liberation.

What sort of ideological shift is occurring that impels Irish writers to use Greek tragedy as a metaphor? Several years ago in Belfast I saw a performance of a play by the women's theatre company Charabanc called Somewhere Over the Balcony. The play was set in the Divis (high-rise low-income) flats in the middle of Belfast in which the female residents were trying to lead a normal life while the army tanks moved through the streets and military helicopters circled overhead. The atmosphere in the play exhibited a good-hearted struggle to survive in a situation close to a military siege. The frustration at the inability to lead a normal life was re-emphasised by the fact that from inside the theatre in Belfast where the performance was taking place I could hear the sound of armoured vehicles in the streets and helicopters overhead. The theatre was attempting to entertain and at the same time indirectly protest against the grim reality of what was going on outside.

Last year I saw Vincent Woods's At the Black Pig's Dyke (performed by the Galway-based Druid theatre company), which is set on the borderland between northern and southern Ireland and recalls the history of violence as well as intermarriage between Protestant and Catholic in the area. The cast told me that when they performed the play in Derry (a border city), the performance was interrupted on the second or third night by two members of the audience who jumped on stage and parodied what they had seen the night before. The actors were terrified, not knowing whether they were going to be attacked, and retreated until the usurpers finished their satire and departed, allowing the actors to complete the performance.

In recounting the incident the actors indicated their surprise that members of an audience would come back a second time to a performance they had seen and obviously not liked in order to upstage it. More surprising still, the satirists, they said, had clearly studied the play and taken the trouble to rehearse and perfect their own counter-performance. The actors were bemused by the power of the theatre to energise members of the audience into such a pre-meditated act of protest.

The incident echoed the riots that occurred earlier in the century when the Abbey Theatre staged Synge's The Playboy of the Western World and O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. At that time the nationalist audience took offence at critical images of themselves and deliberately tried to prevent them from being shown. Far from spontaneous events, these riots were perpetrated by members of the audience who cared passionately about the nationalist struggle and wanted to see positive images of themselves on the stage. Rather than staying away from the theatre because they didn't like the plays, members of the audience returned night after night to protest. It would have been cheaper to picket the theatre outside, but they wanted to bring their protest into the theatre itself. They wanted their protest to become part of the theatre event, that is to say part of the performance. Thus their protests were again a kind of counter-performance.

The theatre provides a forum for protest in Ireland, and Greek tragedy has been used as a metaphor to reflect on the lack of freedom in the states, both north and south. Greek tragedy provides universal situations and archetypal characters that are sufficiently removed in time and place so as to enable subtle (and not so subtle) metaphors for the current political situation. Greek protagonists who have stood up to the state and taken action against the injustices imposed on them are attractive role-models for a beleaguered and oppressed people who are aware that their civil liberties have been severely curtailed. Ireland is at a point of transition. Writers in the south are wrestling with pluralistic values in opposition to the doctrinaire approach of the clergy. Writers in the north are hoping for a democratic post-colonial state while the province still remains under British military control.

The Irish poets have altered the balance in Greek tragedy. No longer are the plays more or less equally weighted between the state and the individual. The writers have swung the scales of justice to the side of the individual. Aristotle suggested that Greek tragedy evoked feelings of fear and pity from the audience. But rather than a passive response of fear and pity, recent Irish playwrights expect political engagement from their audience. They seem to be suggesting that social change is necessary, and that new attitudes are needed to solve old problems. Paulin's Prometheus is an agent of change. In an oblique reference to the religious war in Northern Ireland, he calls for a pluralistic approach to accommodate the various factions and bring about social harmony. In response to the chorus leader who admonishes him:

you cross all boundaries,
break every rule.
Neither god nor human,
no race nor tribe nor class
can hold you ever.

Prometheus responds:

Zeus said exterminate
I said miscegenate.

Rather than supporting the extreme positions of Unionist or Catholic nationalist that have plagued Ireland for so long, the Irish poets seem to be looking for a way of accommodating various viewpoints in a new state. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney called his adaptation of Philoctetes, 'The Cure at Troy' [emphasis added]. Through his choice of another Greek tragedy which highlights the conflict between the state and the individual, Heaney bore witness to the deep divisions within the country when he wrote:

No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

And at the same time he tried to respond to the sufferings of the different communities:

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints in the funeral home.

Nevertheless, Heaney was looking for a cure.[3] After twenty-five years of terrorist activities followed by a ceasefire that lasted only eighteen months, what is the future for Northern Ireland? The Greek tragedies have been used by Irish poets not so much to express tragedy as to express hope -- a hope that comes out of years of tragedy. At the same time the Greek tragedies contain a warning -- that pride, inflexibility, intransigence and extreme actions will only lead to more suffering. The dominant emotion expressed by many of the Irish poets is that of hope for social change, for a change of attitudes and for real peace in Northern Ireland. This is perhaps best summed up by Seamus Heaney in The Cure at Troy:

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a life-time
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.


[1] A longer version of this paper is being published in Proceedings of the VIII Forum on Ancient Greek Drama (held at Delphi in l995).

[2] George Steiner, Antigones, Oxford University Press, l984, p.138.

[3] Marianne McDonald in her paper 'Colonialism and Greek Tragedy: The Irish Experience' which she delivered at the APA conference in l995,suggests that, although The Cure at Troy makes a positive statement at the end, the play focuses 'on the wound, rather than the cure'.

Steve Wilmer
E-mail: swilmer@tcd.ie

(Steve Wilmer has been enjoying a sabbatical as Visiting Professor at Stanford University.)