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Ancient Palimpsests as Mnemotechnics: Conall Morrison’s Plays about the Middle East

Anastasia Remoundou. Qatar University. Qatar.

Ancient Palimpsests as Mnemotechnics: Conall Morrison’s Plays about the Middle East

Anastasia Remoundou. Qatar University. Qatar.

[…] Under that “tragic sentiment” there is the opposite of a “metaphysics of history” and of a “tragedy” (in the sense of fatalism and submission to destiny). Rather I feel here the condition of the question, of action and decision, of resistance against the fatal, against providence and teleology.

-Jacques Derrida, “Intellectual Courage: An Interview by Thomas Assheuer”

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.

-D.H.Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Collective consciousness is a spiritual reality.

-Maurice Halbwachs, “La doctrine d’Émile Durkheim.”

In line with Maurice Halbwach’s studies on mémoire collective and Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutical perspective on memoria, forgetting, and forgiving, this paper is concerned with both the genealogy and the historiography of memory in contemporary Irish drama through the prism of invented traditions, myth, heritage, or even post-memory. Based on a contested understanding of the modes of cultural memory, I revisit the work of Northern Irish director and playwright Conall Morrison seeking to discuss more the practice that the theory of memory as it is re-iterated through rewritings of Greek myths in an imaginative impasse around representing trauma, war, and conflict that establishes a framework for an outward, collective gaze towards the Middle East. For the past two decades, Morrison has applied the retelling of Greek drama as a frame of collective memory where West re-encounters East. His recent production of Shakespeare’s Richard II (2012) in Arabic with Ashtar Theatre Company based in Ramallah is significant no less because it replaced his adaptation of Sophokles’ Antigone, a play that back in 2003 was presented at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin. Morisson’s unflinchingly middle eastern aesthetic was transferred on the stage through violent images of an invading Israeli army on Palestinian territory, reflected in a series of mega-screen clips over the Dublin stage. In 2013, his Antigone was hosted at the Great Hall of Stormont, the Parliament Buildings in Belfast, this time as a community workshop entitled “Law Against Justice” in an attempt to renegotiate the legacy of the collective trauma of The Troubles in Ireland, north and south. Within the same context, in 2006 he wrote The Bacchae of Baghdad, set in Iraq and based on Euripides’ Bacchae. Addressing notions of mnemosyne, sites of anamnesis and its aesthetic, social, and political frameworks, this paper argues on the “how” of remembering in theatrical performance as a reawakening with a view to collectively re-member the wounds of violence and conflict that still haunt us transnationally.

From D.H. Lawrence’s epigrammatic modernist statement at the beginning of the twentieth century to Derrida’s astute exegesis of the tragic sentiment and the place it has in a postmodern global climate, tragedy makes a grand return. The contemporary adaptations of Antigone by Northern Irish writers, the late Nobel poet-laureate Seamus Heaney and director Conall Morrison, respectively, are insightful examples of a radical preoccupation with a kind of tragedy that knows no borders as the social construction of individual and collective memory; the focus here ceases to be of national proportions and begins to reflect on the impact of international political tragedies and “historical obscenities” (Paulin 2002) on diverse twenty-first century societies and audience members. Akin to Marianne McDonald’s contention that “the world we live in now is a tragedy”[1], both these versions move beyond a post-colonial protest and deal with the hauntology of war, conflict and terrorism, as a diagnosis of the post 9/11 attacks[2]. In fact, these are the Irish Antigones after 9/11[3]: Morrison’s Antigone (2003), thus, transfers the action in today’s Middle East in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes (2004) was written in direct response to George W. Bush’s[4] global war on terror and his ferocious attacks on Iraq[5]. The defensive US foreign policies in the Middle East naturally evoke the metaphor of colonial Britain as the oppressor and invader of Ireland. Cognizant of this context, yet, as I want to demonstrate, these versions assume a post-colonial critique (Wilmer 2007) that is much more varied and heterogeneous, transcending a mere reflection of national historical legacies between Britain and Ireland or of an anti-colonial project to “write back” to the Western classical canon. My reading of these plays, textually and contextually, rather, views the choice of Antigone as the ideological apparatus that redresses conventional notions of tragedy and memory, opposes a Eurocentric understanding of the terms, and reroutes its current employments to address radical political and ethical challenges in theatre making.

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[1] Quote from McDonald’s speech at a panel discussion at The Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College, Dublin, April 10, 2006, on “The Future of Ancient Greek Tragedy”. Other panel participants included Athol Fugard, Seamus Heaney, Conall Morrison, Marinna Carr, John Dillon, and Stephen Wilmer.

[2] In her review of the book Irish Writers Against War, ed. Conor Kostick, (2003), Anne Sinnot argues that the 9/11 tragedy, “it has been said, was an Irish tragedy that took place in America- most who died were Irish- born or of Irish descent”. See Anne Sinnot, “An offence to being human”, in Camden New Journal, Thursday 17th April 2003, accessed through .

[3] In response to the climate after 9/11, five playwrights were invited to take part in the Antigone Project in 2004. Each playwright created a one-act play as a version of Sophocles’ Antigone and the final project was developed by the theatre company Crossing Jamaica Avenue in collaboration with Chiori Miyagawa and Sabrina Peck. The diverse feminist contexts and settings in which Antigone was revisioned are revealing: a beach, the U.S. during the First World War, an archive, a village in Africa, and finally the underworld. The plays are Karen Hartman’s Hang Ten, Tanya Barfield’s Medallion, Antigone Arkhe by Caridad Svich, A Stone’s Throw by Lynn Nottage, and Chiori Miyagawa’s Red Again. See Martin (2009): 79-98.

[4] Heaney wrote his version at the time George W. Bush was in power as the President of the United States. Although the phrase “Global War on Terror” was first coined by Bush and other high-ranking US officials to denote a global military, political, legal, and ideological struggle against organizations designated as terrorist and regimes that were implicated in assisting these organizations, the term is not officially used by current President Barack Obama, who instead uses the euphemistic term “Overseas Contingency Operation”.

[5] It is significant to not here that Ireland has traditionally nurtured a close bond with America through emigration, but also through Bill Clinton’s instrumental intervention in working towards peace in the North. These works should not therefore be considered as propagandistic, anti-American pieces of literature, but as an intellectual opposition to US foreign policies. One such controversial issue inevitably inducing conflicting loyalties for the Irish, concerns America’s use of the Shannon airport for fueling during the Iraq war. See Wilmer (2007): 238.

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