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Taking One’s Bow: Performing Things in Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy

On tire la révérence: le jeu des choses dans The Cure at troy de Seamus Heaney
Kerry-Jane Wallart


A Cure at Troy est la traduction libre livrée par Seamus Heaney du Philoctète de Sophocle, et le poète irlandais y scrute la manière dont un arc, une simple chose, introduit et permet la tragédie. De chiffonnier, Philoctète devient ainsi le protagoniste d’une pièce qui garantit le retour à l’ordre. Cependant, la chose prolifère à tel point qu’elle devient le seul mot valable dans une langue qui a perdu toute validité, qui se fragmente et verse dans l’inarticulé. La chose récupère et restore le sens dans des passages où le geste, silencieux, ramène sur la scène la vision du monde.

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  • 1 However, Philoctetes is a play that stands out among the rest of the production of Sophocles that h (...)
  • 2 The opening sentence thus reads: “I would begin with the Greek word, omphalos, meaning the navel, a (...)

1As a playwright, Seamus Heaney has been freely and quite poetically translating plays from the Greeks; he has thus penned “versions”, as he calls them, of Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Antigone. Both texts undertake a discreet postcolonial disestablishment of classics, thwarting their original meaning and scope so as to echo the contemporary situation of the Northern Irish predicament.1 Indeed, Philoctetes is originally a play about the supremacy of patriotism and its necessary sacrifices (“It is a glorious addition to be reckoned the noblest of all the Greeks, and first to come to healing hands, and second to take Troy, the cause of so much mourning, and win the highest fame!” [Sophocles 1344–1347 393]), while under Heaney’s pen the very same plot becomes the occasion for a reflexion on man’s uncertain ontology as well as on the absurdity of orders come from high above (“And here we are, then, [. . .] Greeks with a job to do” [Heaney 1990, 3]). The story is well known: as the Greeks were sailing towards Troy, Philoctetes was marooned (“Only because I had been ordered to” says a very modern Odysseus in Heaney’s play [3]) because of a wounded foot and a curse set upon him by the gods. Ten years later, an oracle has it that without his miraculous bow and arrows inherited from no less than Heracles, the Greeks cannot prevail in Asia Minor. Odysseus then comes to steal the weapon in order to secure a Greek victory over Troy; knowing that a burnt child dreads fire, the famously cunning hero hires virtuous and inexperienced Neoptolemus to trick Philoctetes onto their boat, convincing him they will sail him back home. A castaway, an homo sacer, a dying man that will not be long to rest, Philoctetes slowly understands what awaits him. Nevertheless, in the second part of the play, he realizes not only that the only escape from his isolation is Troy but also that political expediency has to prevail over personal honesty, and he embarks. More than anything, in both “versions”, The Cure at Troy (1991) and The Burial at Thebes (2004), even as in the rest of Heaney’s poetry, man all but disappears behind a few things, his wretched tools, a bowl, a few rags, a cart, a bucket, or else a rope, such as the one with which Hemon eventually hangs himself. In the rural, miserable Northern Ireland in which Seamus Heaney grew up, things were few and far between, they were not commodities but rather, as essential as they could be in an ancient Greek world, and the parallel is drawn by the poet himself in “Mossbawn”, the opening text of Finders Keepers, one in which he compares the village well of his childhood to the omphalos, the mythical centre of the Greek world2 (Heaney 2002, 3). In both plays, things preside over the most essential forms of survival, they orchestrate life and death; such is of course the case of the famous bow, which Philoctetes uses to hunt and thus remain alive on his island.

  • 3 In this, Seamus Heaney may well be thinking of the passage in Ulysses (a character he has, after al (...)

2While adapting what became The Cure at Tro y, Heaney was also writing the poems which came to be published as a collection, in 1991, under the title of Seeing Things; more than one common theme is to be found in both texts, echoing from stage to verse and back again. The very expression of “seeing things”, both in common speech and in the collection, points to a world of fanciful illusions as well as the world of theatre, whose etymology is that of sight. In the poem which lends its title to the book, a trip out at sea recalls the carvings on a cathedral’s facade depicting the baptism of Christ, and then, in a third part, describes the near death by drowning of the poet’s father, long ago. A web of associations recalls the Yeatsian whirls and twirls and sends things back to where they belong, which is the mind of man, a world of imagination. Elsewhere, “thing” is used by Seamus Heaney to refer to poetry, as when he says of The Waste Land, “I heard the whole thing read aloud” (Heaney 2002, 35), or “Dylan Thomas’s records were as near as we seemed to get to the living thing” (Heaney 2002, 39).3 In both cases, the “thing” is not a wheel or a bucket, but rather poetry read aloud, performed. They are no realistic reminder of the existence of the world, but a symbol, which is, after all, its status on stage, where a chair is never a chair but the idea of a chair. Seamus Heaney lays the emphasis on such metatheatrical dimension of objects in the play, where taking one’s bow also seems to entail taking one’s bow, acknowledging the manifest presence of the audience. More precisely, the bow is, in Heaney’s play no less than in Sophocles’, the instrument of tragedy, the object of transgression, the reason why chaos irrupts on stage but also why order will be restored at the end. This paper wishes to examine the ways in which a thing is neither a mere prop nor a fanciful illusion in The Cure at Troy, but the symbol for human tragedy, the “signature” of theatre, a genre poised between the most visible and the most invisible, one where one “sees things”.

3At all times, things stand at both ends of the spectrum in The Cure at Troy: they are at once infinitely useful, a priceless possession, and worthless debris. Thus, they well embody the tragic essence of man, who is, in Greek theatre, both a noble and a fallen creature. While Philoctetes only appears on stage after a quarter of the play has elapsed, his belongings are long the only trace of a human presence on the island, representing a tragically scant humanity, brutally gone from kingly to “thingly”.

  • 4 A target, a term of archery which probably comes from the Old English “cloth patch”, and indeed, th (...)

There’s a pile of old leaves somebody has slept on.
And is that it? No other signs? That’s all?
No: wait. There’s a mug or something, very rough,
hagged out of a log. And bits of kindling.
All his earthly goods.
Aww! Look at this.
Aw! Rotten, rotten stuff. Bandage-rags.
Nothing but old dry pus and dirty clouts.4
That’s it. That him. (Heaney 1990, 5)

Such vagueness is not borrowed from Sophocles, who writes, as translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones:

Yes, a bed of leaves pressed down, as though for someone who camps there.
But is the rest bare, and is there nothing there beneath the roof?
Yes, a cup made from a single piece of wood, the work of a poor craftsman, and with it stones for making fire.
The treasures that you are describing must be his.
Ah, ah! Here is something else, the rags drying in the sun, stained with matter from some grievous sore!
Clearly this is the place where the man lives. (Sophocles 33–37 259–261)

4The clues to Philoctetes’s presence are as clear as precisely described, as it is emphasized by the presence at the end of two consecutive verses of the demonstrative form, tade (36) and tode (37), which is used in ancient Greek to refer to something or someone present. Conversely, Seamus Heaney stages a world in a state of dereliction where language itself is reduced to an ever diminished version of itself, to monosyllables and onomatopoeia, with an insistence on gutturals and a strongly stressed rhythm which distinctly recalls the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins, a major influence on Seamus Heaney. A sketchy one, the word “thing” soon becomes the only apt name, fast replacing more specific terms (“a mug or something”). When Philoctetes is robbed of his bow, and before he is convinced to leave for Troy, he plans suicide and asks the chorus for their help, begging, “Have you not a sword for me? Or an axe? / Or something?” (Heaney 1990, 63). Be they a bow or a few rags, things stand for man himself, the humiliated but worthy protagonist of this tragedy. They then easily replace him on stage.

5In The Cure at Troy, things and men share a similar fate, and characters are bound to turn into the elemental, paralyzed, merely material world shown on stage, they are “fixated [. . .] like polished stones” (Heaney 1990, 1); Philoctetes is ready to bargain his humanity to the point where he asks Neoptolemus to throw him in the fire, and keep the bow. Hardly a hero any longer, he knows himself to be primarily a rag-and-bone man (“Out scavenging, likely, / Poking for things to eat” [5]). His tatters make him less than a thing as the chorus pronounces: “His trail was blood and matter” (38), and Philoctetes later adds: “You made light of everything, / The reeks and roars and the whole mess of me” (47). After all, Heaney has added a volcano to Sophocles’ setting, with lava, the most unformed matter of all, lurking at the back of the action. All this is a postmodern and possibly ironical twist of the belief that man is “the measure of all things”, as Sophocles wrote in Antigone, famously describing the ancient Greek worldview. The bow shares a similar, ambiguous fate in this tragic play; it is a daily tool, the only one left, but also, and the whole plot hinges around this, a mythical weapon. The main protagonist of the play, Philoctetes, is the crucial object of a generalized reification, reduced as he is to a cankered foot, a few arrows and a bow, needing only a few essential things, as he says it himself.

Is there anything here you really need?
                                                                  Only one thing.
Not much, but still essential. (35)

6No purple prose for Philoctetes. The evacuation of verbs and the reduction of syntax mimic here the bareness of this stage. If Philoctetes’ world boils down to a few dirty rags that hardly deserve a name, it is probably important to note that this stage is not an original one, but on the contrary, the extreme reduction of the civilized way of living he once knew. He is cruelly aware of this: “the only thing / They left me was a bundle of old rags” (18). He talks about an “afterlife”, and feels “like the last man left alive” (13). Tragic temporality has set in, one where the future is an illusion and the past is programmatic of the whole action. Such fatality is reinforced in the play by the fact that the action takes place outside the city, the magic circle of the community. The Cure at Troy introduces a displaced theatre, a stage in exile, a slippery place where things might well have lost their name because they dwell outside the polis. The play appears as a mere and belated postlude to the drama that has taken place in the community, and which is the abandoning of Philoctetes on his island.

7In a world where things and men are almost indistinguishable from one another, and where neither boasts a very enviable fate, one is reminded of the crucial pronouncement at the hollow centre of twentieth century Irish literature, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (Yeats’ “The Second Coming”). Such a quotation is helpful on two counts: it introduces modernity, a universe in which objects have become unnameable things since the loss of a macrocosm, but it also belongs to a very Irish familiarity with a violent world where, indeed, a weapon might be worth more than a human life, it pertains to a humanity used to war and to the reversal of all orders which it introduces. It is no wonder that Seamus Heaney, being Northern Irish, should have felt compelled by the power of this fable, one dealing with the centrality and violence of arms: the plays finds echoes in the Irish context.

  • 5 But we’re in a maze. We’re strangers and this place is strange. We’re on shifting sand. It is all s (...)

8The foregrounding of derisory props, and notably of a weapon, in the play goes hand in hand with an attempt to blur out the outlines of stage and action, to describe a waste land which could well be a battle field long after the battle. The Isle of Lemnos, where Philoctetes has been marooned, appears in the play as an unmarked landscape, a strange place (as the chorus is keen on remarking),5 and the plot which unfolds is anything but clear, with Odysseus’s wiles and disguises and Neoptolemus’s hesitations piling upon one another. Aesthetic representation and theatrical performance are called into question, so much so that Philoctetes describes the stage as something which would hardly attract the eye (“This island is a nowhere. Nobody / Would ever put in here. There’s nothing. / Nothing to attract a lookout’s eye”), laying an emphasis on negations which culminates with the anadiplosis of “nothing”.

9Still, things matter on this stage; they are even central in the plot, the performance would not be taking place without them. The plot revolves around the need for Odysseus and Neoptolemus to steal the bow and kidnap Philoctetes to achieve victory. The bow is clearly the object of transgression, the way in which tragedy invades the stage: “I want to take it but I don’t want to / Go beyond the bounds of what is allowed” (Heaney 1990, 36). Of all of Sophocles’ plays, Philoctetes is the one which most illustrates the need for things in the theatre. Accordingly, Heaney’s text unfolds the theme of the resilience of matter, in keeping with Philoctetes’ remark, “I’m still here” (17). Characters do not cease to wonder at things, including themselves, still being there:
     There was nothing left to do
But turn round for home (22)
The state I’m in, I know I’m the last thing
A crew would want on board (26)
                     You can stow me anywhere.
[. . .]
Wherever I’m the least bother to the men.
[. . .]
But my predicament
     Was the last thing on their minds. (27)
     All I’ve left is a wound (61)
     But, friends, still, friends, there is one last thing. (63)

10Of all these things that remain on stage after it has been hollowed out, there ranks that of the body of man, or, if the worst came to the worst, of his corpse. In recurrent bouts of self-pity, Philoctetes projects such an image onto the stage, a man turned thing, but still there, declaring, “I’m gone out of mind now like a man that’s dead” (56; my emphasis); “I’ll soon be tainted meat / For scavengers to pick at” (61). Tragedy self-consciously appears as that genre which examines the moment when man becomes a thing, an empty corpse.

11More than anything, the evacuation of “proper” objects, the signs of civilization, allows the stage to fall prey to sounds as mysterious as those in The Tempest, liminally and minimally occupying the space, resisting annihilation. Philoctetes is thus described:

Out in the open always,
Behaving like a savage.
Nothing but squeals and laments.
Nothing left but his instincts.
Howling wild like a wolf. (13)

Again, nominal sentences and monosyllables track that moment when language dissolves into meaninglessness, mere sounds. Philoctetes then says of life on his island:

                     Nothing there except
The beat of the waves and the beat of my raw wound. (18)

12The play explores what cries are left after almost all is gone, it stages the resistance of matter in the face of disaster and disappearance. More than anything, matter, be it a bow, a rag or the body of an actor, serve as constant reminders that something is at stake on this stage, that however minimally, a few things are still making sense and provoking (“voicing forth”, literally) a tragedy.

  • 6 It goes on: the guard who comes to announce that Polyneices has been covered by earth says, careful (...)

13If things and language are linked, in the play, by Philoctetes’ very opening lines: “Do the friendly human thing and speak” (15), one still starts writing about things when words fail us, when we are at a loss as to how to name the world. A few cries are often the only thing left on stage in The Cure at Troy, before Philoctetes relents and order is restored. Meanwhile, “thing” is a term often used to designate the plot, the action, the cunning and unnameable plan connived by Odysseus to trick Philoctetes. Mentions thereof pile up: “The thing is different now entirely” (4). “Can you not face the thing?” (49); “He’s reneging on doing the right thing” (51); “Change things back again” (52); “My aim has always been to get things done. My main concern is to keep things moving on” (57); “The thing’s / Ruined if you start shilly-shallying” (58), “I did a wrong thing and I have to right it” (64), “I did this whole thing your way” (65), “And I’m not leaving till the thing’s put right” (65), “Doing the right thing” (67), “You were right / When you said you did a wrong thing here” (68), “Things are different now” (69), “What’s the shame in working for a good thing?” (74). The “thing”, then, is no longer a bundle of rags but rather the entire performance. Hence the deictic that is often to be found before it: “This thing comes over me” (41). In the other play translated and adapted by Heaney, The Burial at Thebes, after listing out the downfalls undergone by their family, and referring to the deaths of their brothers and the ban edicted by Creon on the burial of Polyneices, Ismene says, “And now this last thing happens” (Heaney 2004, 9). It is the rest cast out from the series, the last element grappling with its own disappearance, it is also the most obscene, unfair, unthinkable, ungraspable one; it can bear no other name than that of “thing”. Further down, Ismene uses the same word to describe what must never be done, the transgression that Antigone plans to commit: “This thing cannot be done” (Heaney 2004, 12).6 The word “thing” does not mark a failure but proves a capacity to say what there is no other word to designate. It signals the unnameable tragic transgression.

14Moreover, increasingly in the play, language is falling apart, becoming a thing itself, veering into agrammaticality:

I’m on my knees to you, look, and me not fit
To move hardly.
[. . .]
And my father too.
                                 So long ago, my father.
But I am afraid, not any more. (Heaney 1990, 27)

15Once more negation is at the centre of rhetorical devices, including, here, dysfunctional syntax. One can also read or hear, “What bad is this man” (Heaney 1990, 31); “I’d sooner its forked tongue any day than his” (34); Neoptolemus, in his turn, takes his cue from Philoctetes, becomes confused and starts uttering childish babble: “I’m all throughother” (48). All these passages transcribe the harrowed world of Greek tragedy into colloquial speech, as well as they testify to the banality of life and man, in warfare or otherwise: “Odysseus this and that!” (7). Here, as in Sophocles, Heaney develops the idea according to which words are made clear only to trap and trick men, and Odysseus threatens Neoptolemus thus: “I shall go and tell this story to the whole army, which will punish you” (Sophocles 1257–1258 383). Heaney’s translation reads: “Right! What I’ve seen and heard here, I’ll report / You won’t get off with this. I’m going back / To outline all the charges / You were right/ When you said you did a wrong thing here” (Heaney 1990, 68). While longer Heaney’s text is also vaguer, a distinct sign throughout the text of his attempt to blur the Greek context and to delve his reader in a post-apocalyptic world where responsibilities are unclear, allowing cowards to hide between supposed orders and necessities. There are no oppressors and no oppressed in The Cure at Troy, but an ontological indecision that is characteristic of modern warfare and atrocities:

Heroes. Victims. Gods and human beings.
All throwing shapes, every one of them
Convinced he’s in the right, all of them glad
To repeat themselves and their every last mistake,
No matter what. (1)

16Remarkable in this last quotation is the collision and collusion of language (“repeat themselves”) and ethics (“and their every last mistake”).

17More than anything, such language points to its own materiality, to its “shapes”, to its sounds, to its referent over its reference, to the word rather than to the thing, although the word, in this case, becomes, itself, a thing. Seamus Heaney expands on his early fascination for the matter of language, its “thingness”:

What was a mosscheeper, anyway, if not the soft, malicious sound the word itself made, a siren of collapsing sibilants coaxing you out towards bog pools lidded with innocent grass, quicksands and quagmires? They were all there and spreading out over a low, birch-screened apron of land towards the shores of Lough Beg.
[. . .]
I was getting my first sense of crafting words and for one reason or another, words as bearers of history and mystery began to invite me. Maybe it began very early when my mother used to recite lists of affixes and suffixes, and Latin roots, with their English meanings, rhymes that formed part of their schooling in the early part of the century. Maybe it began with the exotic listing on the wireless dial: Stuttgart, Leipzig, Oslo, Hilversum. Maybe it was stirred by the beautiful sprung rhythms of the old BBC weather forecast: Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Shetland, Faroes, Finisterre; or with the gorgeous and inane phraseology of the catechism; or with the litany of the Blessed Virgin that was part of the enforced poetry in our household: Tower of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted. None of these things were consciously savoured at the time but I think the fact that I still recall them with ease, and can delight in them as verbal music, means that they were bedding in the ear with a kind of linguistic hardcore that could be built on some day. (4 and 18; my emphasis)

18In the case of The Cure at Troy, the very act of translating from one tongue to another makes the author sensitive, one presumes, to a conception of literature as impure, derivative, it turns the text into a contingent matter that may evolve according to time and place.

19That said, the performance shows every sign of sacrificing proper language to resort to the spectacular, and the few sounds that are still there are fast superseded by sight, a sense which will solve the conundrum and save Philoctetes:

Obviously now we could steal away with the bow.
That would be easy. But easy and meaningless. No.
It’s to this wounded man the triumph has to be due.
He has earned it. the oracle said it. I see it all now.
Without him the cause will be shamed and our victory hollow. (46)
You’re making me see things in such brilliant light
I can’t bear it. (73)
Start seeing things (74)

20The outcome of the tragic plot, which guarantees the reintegration of the hero within the community, is dependent on a vision and indeed, it is not before Philoctetes sees Hercules that he agrees to embark to Troy. If Heaney borrows this from Sophocles, the latter used, for the staging of his play, what came to be known, in Latin, as the deus ex machina, a device lowering a fake god onto the stage, and one which well illustrates the unexpected proximity of the low and the sublime, of the god and the thing, in the theatrical practice. There runs, in this play where little happens, gestures suggesting rituality and intimating that the action is all but an illusion.

NEOPTOLEMUS moves, PHILOCTETES reaches, the body language and handling of the bow suggest that their original mutual rite of exchange will now be repeated. It is a slightly somnambulant movement, which ODYSSEUS interrupts. (53)
PHILOCTETES repeats some part of his original rite of departure. Perhaps he raises both arms, perhaps prostrates himself. A silence then, music perhaps also. Then an eerie, soundless (at first) flash and flame; mountain-rumble far off; an air of danger, settling into a kind of threatened, pre-thunder stillness. Darker stage, a kind of purpled twilight. (76)
The full thunderclap and eruption-effects occur. Then a lingering, wavering aftermath of half-light. Brilliant spots find PHILOCTETES and CHORUS. PHILOCTETES (Crying out)
                   I saw him in the fire.
                     was shining in the air.
I heard the voice of Hercules in my head.
CHORUS (Ritually clamant, as HERCULES)
I have opened the closed road. . . (78)
It’s as if a thing I knew and had forgotten
Came back completely clear. I can see
The cure at Troy.
(In a sort of daze, on all fours perhaps, or clasping an upright support; knocked out, flattened) (80)

21The thing is ultimately what one can see; it is, in The Cure at Tro y, “this thing”, visible on stage, an exhibition, a show bidding farewell to language and clearing the path for the ritual of tragedy. Seamus Heaney has authored a play which, on a number of counts, makes the invisible visible, and vice versa.

22The Old English etymology of thing is, as it were, “a meeting”, “an assembly”, such as the one theatre creates, for example. In The Cure at Tro y, things are not trinkets fallen out of use, or whose use is trivial; they are the stuff out of which rituals are made. Only they allow the unfolding of a postmodern tragedy which foregrounds its own malfunctions, but which attempts, still, to outline the possibility of a return to order, as well as its representation. Here, one might ponder the fascination among Irish poets for the Greeks: already, Yeats had translated and adapted two plays by Sophocles for the Abbey Theatre. Then, between 1984 and 1994, there have been no less than ten adaptations of Greek tragedy by six major Irish poets: Tom Paulin’s The Riot Act (1984), based on Sophocles’ Antigone (for the Field Day Theatre Company); Seize the Fire (1989), based on Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound; Aidan Carl Mathews’ Antigone (1984), and Trojans (1994) based on Euripides’ Trojan Women; Brendan Kennelly has penned an Antigone (1985), a Medea (1991), and The Trojan Women (1993); Desmond Egan has simply translated Medea (1991); and there is Derek Mahon’s The Bacchae (1991). All deal, one is led to believe, with the Irish question, weaving modern heartache into ancient tragedy; they erect a theatre full of shadows and the voice of ghosts. Seamus Heaney’s play tells of hope and the possible mediation of both concreteness and dream, writing a play in which no one, neither savage Philoctetes, nor immature and sometimes even cowardly Neoptolemus, nor even tricky Odysseus, has to shoulder the blame in order for order to be restored. His admittedly ramshackle tragedy is no mere literary form, but an actual rite transiting through a few forlorn things, the rags, the bow, the body, a puppet-like god, and the very stage.

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De Romilly, Jacqueline, “L’Actualité intellectuelle du ve siècle” in Tragédies grecques au fil des ans, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007 (2nd ed.), 97–109.

Heaney, Seamus, The Cure at Troy, (1990), New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991.

Heaney, Seamus, Seeing Things, London: Faber, 1991.

Heaney, Seamus, Finders Keepers, London: Faber, 2002.

Heaney, Seamus, The Burial at Thebes, London: Faber, 2004.

Sophocles, Philoctetes in Plays II, ed. and trans. by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Cambridge: Harvard UP “Loeb Classical Library”, 1994, 253–407.

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1 However, Philoctetes is a play that stands out among the rest of the production of Sophocles that has survived the centuries to reach us; indeed, it strongly echoes contemporary debates around the origin of intelligence triggered by the apparition in Athens of the sophists. For more details, see Jacqueline de Romilly, “L’Actualité intellectuelle du Vème siècle” in Tragédies grecques au fil des ans, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007 (second edition), 97-109, and Peter Rose, “Sophocles’ Philoctetes and the Teaching of the Sophists”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 80 (1976), 49-105. Jacqueline de Romilly thus writes: “Il y a, dans le début et à tous les moments importants de la pièce, une grande insistance verbale sur cette “nature”, qui s’oppose aux ordres et aux avis donnés par Ulysse. […] Or, ce mot nous renvoie tout droit à l’actualité intellectuelle du moment. Dans cette société aristocratique, la vertu et l’excellence sont innées. On les possède ou par le hasard de la naissance ou plus souvent par l’hérédité. Mais voici que surgissent les sophistes. Or, ils estiment, eux, que l’intelligence s’acquiert.”

2 The opening sentence thus reads: “I would begin with the Greek word, omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music of somebody pumping water at the pump outside our back door”.

3 In this, Seamus Heaney may well be thinking of the passage in Ulysses (a character he has, after all, also borrowed from Joyce for the purpose of The Cure at Troy), the opening of Proteus, which reads, “Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot”.

4 A target, a term of archery which probably comes from the Old English “cloth patch”, and indeed, the world on this stage is reduced to a setting that is “patched” together, for better or worse.

5 But we’re in a maze. We’re strangers and this place is strange. We’re on shifting sand. It is all sea-change. Clear one minute. Next minute, haze. (Heaney 1990, 12)

6 It goes on: the guard who comes to announce that Polyneices has been covered by earth says, carefully and cowardly, “I didn’t do the thing, I didn’t see who did it and so, in fairness, I shouldn’t be blamed for it” (Heaney 2004, 19). Then, the same guard says, when bringing in a guilty Antigone: “But every now and then / The thing you’d hardly let yourself imagine / Actually happens” (Heaney 2004, 26). He thus tells of Antigone committing the crime of burying her brother: “She poured the water three times from her urn, / Taking care to do the whole thing right, / And showed no signs of panic when we trapped her, / Denied no thing she was accused of doing” (Heaney 2004, 28). Creon talks about the crime in similar fashion: “Ismene is involved in this thing too” (Heaney 2004, 31). Antigone justifies herself: “I never did a nobler thing than bury / My brother Polyneices” (Heaney 2004, 32). Later, to Haemon, Creon speechifies: “Failure of rule / Is the most destructive thing” (Heaney 2004, 42). Haemon pleads in his turn: “When you hear things you’d rather not be hearing / You get worked up” (Heaney 2004, 43). As for Tiresias, he tells of his preternatural powers thus: “I know things once I sit in that stone chair” (Heaney 2004, 57). Then, the messenger speaks thus to Eurydice, when he discloses death of Heamon and Antigone, and the despair of Creon, her husband: “I can tell you the whole thing, ma’am” (Heaney 2004, 67). After the suicide of the same Eurydice, it is left to Creon to call for self-destruction: “I am nothing now. / Forget me. Treat me as nothing” (Heaney 2004, 73).

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Kerry-Jane Wallart, « Taking One’s Bow: Performing Things in Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 14 mars 2019, consulté le 01 décembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Kerry-Jane Wallart

Université Paris 9-Dauphine

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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