Setting the Oresteia in Northern Ireland

by Steve Wilmer
Samuel Beckett Centre
Trinity College
Dublin, Ireland

During the past twenty years, Greek tragedy has become an effective means for commenting on contemporary Irish society, north and south. With its archetypal characters and situations that are sufficiently removed in time and place, Greek tragedy has provided subtle (and not so subtle) metaphors for the current political situation. An approach common to several adaptations has been to use the Trojan war as a metaphor for the troubles in Northern Ireland. Tom Paulin's The Riot Act, Brendan Kennelly's The Trojan Women, Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy and other adaptations have created strong parallels between the ten-year war in Troy and the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland. In this paper I want to examine the image of the watchman in the Agamemnon and consider how it has been adapted by Thaddeus O'Sullivan into film, and by Seamus Heaney into poetry.

The film In the Border Country directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan in 1991 for Channel 4 television, focuses on internecine killing rather than any hope for peace. The main emphasis is on the theme of revenge that leads to one killing after another within the same family. The Agamemnon figure (played by Sean McGinley) is an IRA man whose family gets drawn into the conflict because of his actions. His wife played by Juliet Stevenson is quite pregnant and pleads for him not to leave her. Against her wishes, he departs for IRA activity and while he is away, she miscarries. Like Clytemnestra, she blames the death of their child on her husband and his war efforts and uses it as an excuse both to take a new lover (a neighbour named McGuire), and to have her husband killed. Her children, a daughter and son (like Electra and Orestes), are horrified by their mother's new relationship and her involvement in her husband's death. Like Electra, the daughter Morna (Electra becomes Morna instead of Mourning Becomes Electra) urges her brother to return to help her kill the neighbour. And the tragedy ends with the brother and sister also killing their mother. Thus O'Sullivan has transformed a Greek trilogy into a television play. However, it is not the trilogy of the Oresteia but the trilogy of Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers. Any positive denouement such as is implied in the Eumenides is avoided and the TV production ends on a note of despair and hopelessness, as Morna tries to understand whether she really meant to kill her mother or not.

The notion of the watchman in O'Sullivan's film takes on a much more sinister dimension than in Heaney's poetic approach. In In the Border Country, there is no watchman character who utters the speech from the palace roof as in Aeschylus' play, Agamemnon. But in a sense, everyone becomes a watchman or watchwoman. There is little sense of trust. Everyone suspects the actions of everyone else, and watches to see what they will do. Furthermore, by watching, the watcher becomes complicit in the action, either as an accomplice or as a witness. There is no innocent bystanding. If you observe a murder, you are immediately implicated in the action and must decide whether to report it or keep silent, to inform or conform, to support the action or take revenge. Even a little boy becomes involved when he watches his father brutally murdered by Hugh Athey (Agamemnon), and is immediately seen as a threat, a possible informant or avenger. As the IRA hitman (Hugh) approaches, the father sends his son away, and as Hugh prepares to shoot, the father yells: "Please wait. Don't shoot! The boy." The father tries to preserve the innocence of the next generation, but fails as his son observes his brutal murder and so becomes a likely avenger. Thus, the watchman in In the Border Country is an agent of destruction. Binoculars become a symbol of mistrust, suspicion and malevolence: observing carries the subtext of planning aggressive retaliatory action. Even the 'innocent' bystanding boy, immediately picks up a stone after his father is murdered and hurls it through the windscreen of the murderer's car.

At the beginning of the film, the 'border' of the title In the Border Country is evidenced not only by the border landscape of northern Ireland but also by two neighbouring farms, one owned by an IRA man and the other a Northern Irish Protestant. The two men observe one another from a distance, emphasising the geographical proximity but also the distance in political and religious affiliation. Hugh (the Agamemnon figure) observes his neighbour McGuire (Aegisthus) and teaches his son that it would be a good deed for the country to kill him. Likewise McGuire watches Hugh, waiting for an opportunity to dispose of him.

Helen and Paris also appear in the film as characters. Smith (Paris) is apparently a secret agent for the British army (another type of watchman). He observes Helen from afar and, on discovering that her husband is away, takes advantage of her. Helen says, "Have you decided to see what I look like close up? Do I know you? You're a spy." Helen and Paris have an affair, and he takes her away to a hotel:

Helen: Where are you taking me?

Paris: Where do you want to go?

Helen: Anywhere away from this hole.

Helen's husband also becomes a watchman, first looking for the departed Helen, and then observing her and her lover from afar. In addition to the principal characters, there is also an unnamed watcher for the IRA, identified as the messenger, who observes and brings news of Helen's defection. Likewise Hugh's daughter and son (the Electra and Orestes characters) become watchers, observing the actions of their mother, their father and the neighbour. By observing, they become progressively more involved in the tragedy, to the extent that they eventually become perpetrators. Far from creating a sense of redemption or, as in the Eumenides, the hope for a new political solution, O'Sullivan's film only shows the sea of violence that gradually drowns everyone. By living on the border, watching each other and becoming involved in the saga of revenge, the characters help to perpetuate the tragedy that separates the two communities of Northern Ireland.

Not only are the principal and peripheral characters watchmen, but also the viewer of the film becomes a kind of watchman whom, it seems, O'Sullivan hopes to implicate in the events. The opening shot is from the outside of Hugh's house towards the open window of his bedroom. As the camera zooms in and moves into the house, the viewer is drawn inside the bedroom and becomes a close observer of the action, becoming aware that Hugh is sleeping next to his gun and his wife is heavily pregnant and in danger of losing her baby. The viewer continues to watch an appalling series of violent acts. Thus, the camera implicates the viewer in the action of the piece and turns him/her into a witness rather than an innocent bystander, witnessing the events in the North, which, although fictional, parallel the facts of life of living on the border.

By contrast with O'Sullivan's In the Border Country, Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Agamemnon projects a more hopeful stance. Heaney published The Spirit Level, a book of poetry that won the Whitbread award in 1996, in which he included a series of five poems entitled "Mycenae Lookout". In these poems, Heaney takes the position of the watchman on top of Agamemnon's palace as his vantage point, waiting and watching for years for the war to end. The troubles in Northern Ireland that have lasted for half of Heaney's life, resonate in his descriptions of the ten-year war between the Greeks and Trojans, emphasised by anachronistic images of cattle trucks and abattoirs. The first section of "Mycenae Lookout", which he titles "The Watchman's War", begins with the watchman lamenting the long years of violence and killing:

Some people wept, and not for sorrow — joy
That the king had armed and upped and sailed for Troy,
But inside me like struck sound in a gong
That killing-fest, the life-warp and world-wrong
It brought to pass, still augured and endured.
I'd dream of blood in bright webs in a ford,
Of bodies raining down like tattered meat
On top of me asleep — and me the lookout
The queen's command had posted and forgotten,
The blind spot her farsightedness relied on. (29)

Heaney positions himself in the five poems not only as an observer and commentator but also as a prophet of the destructive effects of war and of the future possibilities of victorious routing and victimisation of the enemy:

I balanced between destiny and dread
And saw it coming, clouds bloodshot with the red
Of victory fires, the raw wound of that dawn
Igniting and erupting, bearing down
Like lava on a fleeing population... (30)

Heaney also takes sympathy on a fellow social observer and prophetess, Cassandra, who is caught up in the war and resembles many of the people of Northern Ireland who become unwilling participants and victims. Like O'Sullivan, he reflects that it is impossible to remain innocent in a war, even for her:

No such thing
as innocent
bystanding. (30)

Cassandra, while being able to see into the future, is tormented with the curse that no one will listen to her, and her impotence as a marginalised spokesperson for her society, warning against forthcoming violence parallels the position of Heaney, the watchman and social commentator.

Heaney expresses his frustration in the poem that violence renders speech impotent and irrelevant. The war in Northern Ireland has undermined democracy and free speech. Heaney has not been free to say what he thinks for fear of reprisal. The watchman's statement that "Our war stalled in the pre-articulate" (33) seems equally applicable to his time of writing when talking had gone on for years but had had limited effect as the gun continued to hold words at bay. Heaney further emphasises the point by expanding on the Greek proverbial expression which Aeschylus's watchman uses to imply that he is keeping silent: "the ox is on my tongue". Heaney's watchman emphasises his self-regulated silence by elaborating and modernising this image:

And then the ox would lurch against the gong
And deaden it and I would feel my tongue
Like the dropped gangplank of a cattle truck,
Trampled and rattled, running piss and muck,
All swimmy-trembly as the lick of fire,
A victory beacon in an abattoir... (29)

There is amidst this elaborate imagery a note of regret, that Heaney has been forced by the violent sectarian society to govern his tongue — what Seamus Deane, in another context, has called "typically Heaneyesque... the old familiar shadowboxing, saying and not saying...eloquently dumb, dumbly eloquent." (Deane 7)

In addition to Cassandra, Heaney as the watchman identifies with Atlas who holds up the world, brooding silently and watching over it as its protector. To the watchman on the palace roof who sits motionless, staring for hours, Atlas is a kind of supreme watchman — the "watchmen's patron":

The ox's ton of dumb
inertia stood, head-down
and motionless as a herm.
Atlas, watchmen's patron,
would come into my mind,
the only other one
up at all hours, ox-bowed
under his yoke of cloud
out there at the world's end. (35)

There is a sense in "Mycenae Lookout" that although the watchman is at home at the palace, he is at the same time a kind of outsider who does not approve of what is happening beneath the roof of the palace — the court intrigues, the love affair between Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and the plotting against Agamemnon. And he blames himself for failing to alert Agamemnon to the danger when he returns home.

Like the watchman in "Mycenae Lookout", Heaney is also a kind of outsider. He chose to leave Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles in the 1970s. Following a threat by loyalist terrorists after a television appearance, he moved his young family to County Wicklow outside Dublin where he took up residence as a poet in internal exile. (Perhaps in his representation of Cassandra, there were personal echoes for him relating to his quick exit and the terror that paramilitaries would "do it to her there and then".) In an earlier work, "Exposure", he wrote of being an "inner émigré" in Wicklow, looking towards the north (where his brother still lives in County Derry on the family farm):

I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre. (Selected Poems 91)

There is a strong resonance in "Mycenae Lookout" of Heaney peering from his isolated vantage point in Wicklow or more recently from his Dublin home in Sandymount, honour-bound to keep peering over the city of Dublin, at the distant hills, for signs of war beyond the border and finally for a signal (such as a cease-fire) that the war has ended. In "Mycenae Lookout", the watchman compares himself to a sheepdog, again evoking an image of a kind of protector or watchful presence:

For all the world a sheepdog stretched in grass,
Exposed to what I knew, still honour-bound
To concentrate attention out beyond the city
and the border, on that line
Where the blaze would leap the hills when Troy had fallen. (29)

In his earlier work such as "The Toome Road", Heaney has described the impact of the war on his quiet pastoral life. He recalls his dismay at the sight of armoured cars on a quiet country road that disturb the peace but nevertheless cannot shake the centre of his universe — his "omphalos". (Selected Poems 96)

Likewise, in "Mycenae Lookout", Heaney seems to record in a deeply personal way how the sight of delicate flowers across the countryside makes him more conscious of wasted lives in wartime, as he conjures up scenes of desolation and senseless violence:

The little violets' heads bowed on their stems,
The pre-dawn gossamers, all dew and scrim
And star-lace, it was more through them
I felt the beating of the huge time-wound
We lived inside. (34)

Nevertheless, despite the pollution and degradation of war, Heaney, as in his adaptation of Sophocles' Philoctetes, entitled The Cure of Troy, seems to find a cause for hope. Like the watchman / prophet, he is able to peer through the gloom and doom and spot a light ahead. Rather than victory which calls up for Heaney images of revenge and destruction, "Mycenae Lookout" ends on a note of redemption. Like The Cure at Troy which warns the audience to "shun reprisal killings when that's done" and ends with water images in the final lines of the chorus —

Now it's high watermark
And floodtide in the heart
And time to go. (80)

— "Mycenae Lookout" finishes with a vision of "fresh water," a physical and spiritual cleansing. And again modern images bring what is ostensibly a commentary on the Trojan War up to date in scenes of peace-time bathing with:

fresh water
in the bountiful round mouths of iron pumps
and gushing taps. (37)

Men who have been used to violence take risks in this cleansing exercise, and try out new roles in a peaceful society:

deeper in themselves for having been there,
like discharged soldiers testing the safe ground. (37)

In conclusion, the two images of the watchman — the sinister and implicated observer in O'Sullivan's film and the benevolent and distanced visionary of Heaney's poems — seem worlds apart, and of course reflect the times in which they were each produced — O'Sullivan's during the dark days of the troubles and Heaney's during the peace initiative. But as the dialogue in the Northern Ireland peace process reaches another critical stage asa result of the recent election success of the DUP, both types of watchman seem appropriate metaphors for the current political situation. We as watchmen seem to be looking down a long road with a fork in it. One fork leads to reconciliation while the other to years of continuing violence. And the implication in O'Sullivan's film of the spectator as not only a witness but also an agent in the northern troubles seems as relevant now as when it was first screened.

Steve Wilmer

Works Cited
Deane, Seamus. "The Politics of the Poetics."Sunday Tribune 8 Oct. 1995: 7

Heaney, Seamus. The Cure at Troy. London: Faber, 1990.

---. The Government of the Tongue. London: Faber, 1989.

---. Lecture at Trinity College Dublin. 2 March 1995.

---. New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber, 1990

---. The Spirit Level. London: Faber, 1996.