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First-Year Experience

2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes - Authors

by Prof. Michael Arnush, Classics

What constitutes authorship? If we start at the end, we have read Seamus Heaney's The Burial at Thebes, published in 2004 and presented at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in the same year. Heaney refers to his play in his Afterword as a translation (p.75) and in the title as a "version of Sophocles' Antigone." These are, of course, synonymous at one level, and so when we examine Heaney's text we know that beneath it lies Sophocles' original Greek. Most of us can't read Sophocles' poetry (but it's never too late to learn Greek!), and so we depend upon scholars and translators to render the original author's intent accurately - but that doesn't mean precisely. Colloquialisms, turns of phrases, and other modern nuances affect and infiltrate translations, and so we must understand the work and times of the translator in our effort to uncover the original play. See the essay on translation and the classics for more on this.

 The two essays presented here provide brief biographies of Sophocles and Seamus Heaney, respectively, and suggest certain motivations for each composition. We are much more certain of Heaney's motivation, for he characterizes his reasons for taking on Sophocles' 5th century tragedy (which he mistakenly assigns to the "fourth century BC" on pp. 75-75) specifically in the Afterword as motivated by the absence of an Antigone in the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats' translations for the Abbey Theatre of the Oedipus Tyrannos and Oedipus at Colonus, by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and by the similarities between Antigone and a character in an eighteenth-century Irish poem by Eibhlin Dhubh Ni Chonaill. For Sophocles, on the other hand, we need to consider, as with Heaney, both contemporary issues and the poetic past; however, we don't have Sophocles' statement of purpose as we do with Heaney. In addition to the comments in Sophocles' biography, look at the essays on Athens and mythology, which together provide the historical and mythological framework within which Sophocles wrote and perhaps some clues as to Sophocles' motives.