Heaney’s play The Burial at Thebes is a version of the Greek tragedy Antigone by the Athenian dramatist Sophocles (c496-406 BCE). According to Heaney it is not a translation but a version as he was “looking for meaning not language” (Heaney, 2009, CDA5937, The Burial at Thebes - Interviews). This is in keeping with the commissioning of the play to celebrate 100 years of the Abbey theatre in 2004 as the founders, W.B Yeats and Lady Gregory, were Irish “cultural nationalists” (Hardwick, 2008, p193) . The change in title from the traditional Antigone to The Burial at Thebes moves the emphasis away from the characters to the “controversial question of the burial of a prince, who was regarded as a turncoat” (Theocharis, 2009, CDA5937, The Burial at Thebes - Interviews) enabling Heaney to intertwine the tradition Greek ideology with Irish nationalism.
The chorus in Greek tragedy is defined as a group of people who often participate in and comment on the dramatic action, emphasising traditional moral and social attitudes and providing commentary (Moohan, 2008). In Greek theatre they also provided a more practical role, entertaining the audience during the play with songs and dance and allowing the performers to change. Most performers performed two or more roles known as doubling. In The Burial at Thebes the director, John Theocharis (2009), states that the chorus also adds dramatic tension and suspense whilst creating subjective and objective voices that underpin the context of the play.
In looking at the contribution that the chorus makes this essay will look at the various functions of the chorus - their role as a commentator, participating in and commenting on the dramatic action and how they present traditional moral and social values.
Heaney (2004) uses the chorus to introduce the main characters, Antigone, Haemon and Creon. They comment on the character and behaviour of these characters as well as their motivations. King Creon is portrayed as a “new king...right for this moment” (Heaney, 2004, p9) suggesting a rational moral man whereas Antigone is introduced as an irrational and emotional “child of Doom” (Heaney, 2004, p17) and throughout the play these characteristics are played out and reversed by the end. The reason the chorus comments on the characters in this way is to enable the audience to follow the story and surrounding mythology. The commentary is not only passive but also leading and Platoistic in nature. In the debate between Haemon and Creon, the chorus states that “you should take good note of Creon of Haemon’s words and he of yours. Both of you say sound things” (Heaney, 2004, p32). This leading comment gives the both the audience and the characters permission to reflect on the arguments raised by both sides. This leading commentary is not the only way in which the chorus contributes to the play.
The Chorus comments on the dramatic action. They are the voice of rationality, of the common man and warn of forthcoming...