It is well known amongst literary critics that Irish literature, both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, has a long-running relationship with ancient Greek drama.  As W. H. Auden stated, “Each nation […] fashion[s] a classical Greece in its own image”.[1]  One of the clearest and best-known examples of this is Tom Paulin’s 1984 drama The Riot Act: A Version of Antigone by Sophocles, written for performance by the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry, Northern Ireland.  The play is one of four re-workings of the Antigone myth to be produced in Ireland in 1984, at the height of the Troubles, but is often cited as “the most modified and controversial Irish adaptation”[2] of Antigone.  It follows the story of a Antigone, the product of the incestuous relationship between her father Oedipus and his mother Jocasta.  Antigone buries her brother Polynices in the ancient Greek city of Thebes, even though it is against the law because he waged war against the state.  Despite attempts by her loved ones to persuade her to give up her cause, Antigone refuses to yield and Creon, the King of Thebes, sentences her to death by burial, which Antigone defiantly accepts. Although Paulin’s work follows the key points Sophocles’ plot quite closely, it is obvious that his version has relocated the action of the play to Ulster.  Paulin himself has said that Antigone is “a play that belonged in Ireland”[3] and that he used Ulster vernacular as much as possible in order to place the action there. [4]  Aside from the use of vernacular, one of the reasons which The Riot Act is so “Irish”, and therefore controversial in both political and literary circles, is because of its relationship with its audience.

Paulin brings the Irish audience into the action of the play through his impressive writing and stagecraft.  These features become evident when examining specific moments in The Riot Act, which are themselves particularly poignant due to their embodying of Kelly Younger’s argument that “Antigone the daughter attempts to appropriate the masculine power hitherto denied [to] the feminized and colonized Irish son”.[5] In performances of The Riot Act, the audience find themselves in a situation in which they are this feminised and colonised Irish son. Paulin crafts this relationship in a number of ways, such as through having chosen the Derry Guildhall as the venue for The Riot Act– very appropriate for a reincarnation of Sophocles’ Antigone due to its role as a headquarters for colonial British politicians – and through his writing of the roles of the Chorus, Creon, Antigone, Ismene, and Haemon, in addition to how the audience is implicated in this familial dynamic.  The audience becomes a part of the family of Oedipus, who fathered children with his own mother and killed his own father.  As I will go on to discuss, the act of patricide in the mythology of Oedipus became symbolic of Ireland breaking away from colonial British authority. Paulin was not the first Irish writer to connect the country’s history to the Oedipal family, and the story of Antigone in particular, but he is unique in setting the play so explicitly in Northern Ireland.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland were ignited following the 1960s Civil Rights movement and were, according to Bill McDonnell, “for both sides, the latest phase of historical forces set in motion by Elizabeth I and consolidated by the decisive Cromwellian campaigns of 1648-51”.[6] The Irish, as a group who were socially and economically outside of colonial powers, have essentially been subalterns, and “the first subalterns to recognize the symbiosis between political struggle and cultural renewal”.[7]  Since the start of the twentieth century, over twenty Irish writers have translated, adapted or produced their own versions of Greek tragedies[8] and classical translations and adaptations were particularly ubiquitous in the 1980s, with writers such as Seamus Heaney and Aidan Carl Mathews also rewriting them.[9]  However, as Colin Teevan says, “It is notable that […] in Ireland it is not to the obvious classics such as Oedipus or The Oresteia that writers have turned but to the stories concerning the marginalised”.[10]  Antigone is of course included in this category, and Field Day Theatre Company make this clear by using Basil Blackshaw’s pictorial depiction of a caged bird as the cover of the performance program for The Riot Act:

Kelly Younger claims that the reason why Oedipus is not utilised much by Irish writers is because “[f]or nearly eight-hundred years of English colonization, political patricide had proven impossible” in Ireland.[12]  As such, in each performance of an Oedipal tragedy in Ireland, the audience is considered as part of the narrative, part of the drama, part of the history because the story resonates with them so profoundly.

This brings us to the premier performance of The Riot Act in September 1984.  The first scene of the play contains some of its most compelling moments in terms of where Paulin situates the audience. The set is described in the opening stage direction as an “open space in front of the royal palace at Thebes.  The palace has three doors; the central door is the largest”.[13]  The stage directions do not detail the entrances of Antigone and Ismene, so it can reasonably be assumed that they are both on the stage from the very start, possibly while the audience take their seats before the play officially begins.  Before the dialogue commences, Antigone “looks over her shoulder quickly at the central door and takes Ismene by the arm for a moment”.[14]  As a result of this, the notion of being watched is explicitly established in the play from the outset.  Although Antigone does not look to the audience, by directing her gaze away from the playing space and showing that she is conscious of being watched, the notion of audience participation to comes to the fore.

Later in the scene when Antigone is encouraging Ismene to defy Creon with her and bury Polynices, she states: “we must put our own lives/(Pointing down)/right there on the line”.[15]  Like the initial stage direction of Antigone looking over her shoulder, the speech and the stage direction here both draw attention to a specific point within the performance space and so, since the space is occupied by both actors and audience, the audience’s sense of involvement within the play’s narrative is heightened. Paulin uses such references to the performance space at various points in The Riot Act, and so it is clear that he does not expect the audience to suspend their disbelief completely and imagine that they are in ancient Thebes, but rather to think about where they are watching the story unfold: in present day Derry.  There can be no doubt that the play is set within its contemporary context: The Troubles.

In light of this, when analysing The Riot Act, it is vital to consider the performance venue, Derry Guildhall.  In her book about Field Day, Carmen Szabo comments that Derry Guildhall is a “bleak, Victorian building” which “embodies the essence of the oppressive colonial structures, containing the Mayor’s parlour and the offices of the county council”.[16]  Any politically engaged audience member (and The Troubles have created many of them) would be conscious that, in Paulin’s play, Antigone’s rebellion in the face of authority was happening in a place that epitomised contemporary authority.  The wider setting of Derry must also be remembered, as it “became a defining feature of Field Day”[17] to associate themselves with one of the most highly contested areas of Northern Ireland during the Troubles.  Whereas critics such as Szabo believe that plays such as Paulin’s, which unapologetically place themselves within their contemporary Irish contexts to create “problems”,[18] it is in fact one of Paulin’s strengths that he utilises current politics to such profound effect. In doing this he engages with the original performances of Sophocles’ works, which were also “an aspect of the city’s political life”.[19]

This appreciation of the context and location of The Riot Act is crucial to a complete understanding of both the play’s power and the role of its audience. Seamus Deane, one of the founding directors of Field Day, argued that “the identity of a new theatre should be determined by its audience”[20] and as such, the audience of The Riot Act cannot be ignored: their role in the performance has to be examined.  At this stage, it is useful to return to Kelly Younger’s writing on the Irish relationship with Antigone and the Oedipal family to figure out why that way that Paulin uses the audience is so important.  Utilising Jacques Lacan’s notion of the nom du père, which attests that in the Oedipal family structure the intervening father is a spokesperson for a social law,[21] Younger writes that “By employing the Lacanian notion of the ‘Father as Law’, we see the inability of the Law to fully castrate the Irish subject”.[22] Hence, by acting out against Creon, Antigone rebels against the law, as Irish men have been unable to do against ruling British forces. Younger states that “the feminized Irish male identifies with Antigone’s masculinity complex – desiring it himself – but recognizes the futility and consequences of such resistance in the enduring colonial matrix” and “prefers to remain within that realm of narcissistic victimization”.[23] The result of assigning this Oedipal family structure to Ireland means that, when a version of Antigone is performed in Ireland, the audience is implicated in the action because its members are also members of the cursed Oedipal family: they are the colonised and feminised Irish son, because they are passive in bearing witness to Antigone’s boldness.

In light of this, there are many more instances in The Riot Act which are worthy of interrogation; one such instance involves the chorus.  In The Riot Act, Paulin has reduced the speeches of the chorus for reasons of brevity,[24] but the smaller role they play is nonetheless paramount.  The chorus of Greek tragedies is often believed to represent the community or “an emotional bridge between spectators and actors”.[25]  Paulin uses the chorus slightly differently.  When Creon enters for the first time in The Riot Act, “The chorus sit down in front of him and he addresses them, mostly looking over their heads”.[26]  Although it is not explicitly stated, it would make dramatic sense for the actor playing Creon to face the audience, so that when he looks over the chorus’ heads, he looks into the audience as he calls them “loyal citizens of Thebes”,[27]  and the audience would therefore be drawn onto the stage through their positioning for Creon’s public address.  They are put under pressure to “swiftly place [their friends] in the hands of the authorities”[28] in order to uphold the law in the state.  Because the audience are drawn onto the stage in this manner, Creon’s tyranny also rules over them, so in this scene their position as the passive Irish son is cemented.

Like the chorus, the audience witnesses Creon’s authoritarian rule without resisting it.  However, without a unifying cause to fight for, the audience is distanced from having a truly strong connection with the chorus.  The Chorus Leader states that “It’s as clear as the day is long that Polynices was in the wrong” and that “His brother [Eteocles …] was all for reason and this city”,[29] implying that they have no desire to rebel against Creon’s ruling for the sake of preserving peace in the city.  By contrast, the Irish audience would like to defy the forces of law, but has no choice but to observe passively as Antigone does so instead.

The role that Creon plays within The Riot Act is far less complex than the chorus.  Like the ideology-driven tyrant in Sophocles, Paulin’s Creon tries to appear as the face of diplomacy, only for his absolutism to betray him when he refuses to compromise, even at the request of Haemon. Paulin has written of how he “imagined Creon partly as a Northern Irish Secretary”,[30] using his press conference serve up clichés about doing “a great deal of listening”[31] which is later revealed to be a sinisterly empty promise with fatal consequences.  When he states that “public confidence and order are […] fully restored”[32] the audience is well aware of his complacency both in the play, because Antigone is about to bury Polynices, and in the context of The Troubles, which were at the height of their  violence when The Riot Act premiered.  He also evades questions with his “stonewall smile[33] and excessive use of rhetorical questions: “Didn’t he march with fire/to burn their shrines/and break the law?”[34]  Rhetorical questions in particular are used by Paulin to bring the sense of oppression into Creon’s speech: he is merely using rhetoric to talk and talk subsequently silencing anyone who opposes him . In the Oedipal family structure that Younger assigns to Ireland, Paulin’s Creon is clearly the Oedipal nom du père, the repressive force of British law from which Irish men cannot free themselves.  This begs the question: if Creon is the oppressor of the audience as well as the characters, why do the audience not identify with Antigone?

The reason why the audience cannot identify with Antigone is because, in their passive inactivity watching the drama, they are in the position of the feminised and colonised Irish son who cannot act in defiance of British rule, regardless of whether or not they want to.  They are emasculated by Antigone’s actions.  If Younger’s argument is applied to the audience of The Riot Act, the character with whom they most closely identify is in fact Ismene.  In the first scene, Ismene asks Antigone “Would you have me cry/for some great change/out there in nature?”[35] and points at the audience as she does so, as if the binary existence of oppressor and oppressed – of coloniser and colonised – is a perpetual fact of life.

It is no secret that Paulin views Ismene’s inaction with disdain. In re-writing Antigone, Paulin was partly responding directly to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s States of Ireland (1972) in which he argues that it was “Antigone’s free decision ‘and that alone, which precipitated the tragedy’”[36] in Sophocles. O’Brien links the character of Antigone to Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, one of Northern Ireland’s most prominent nationalists during the Civil Rights Movement, thus blaming the actions of figures like McAliskey for Northern Ireland’s Troubles.[37]  According to Paulin, O’Brien sides with Ismene, and “Ismene and O’Brien side with Creon”.[38] They are both representative of the Irish son “licking his own wounds”[39] because they passively accept Creon’s laws, knowing that they are not necessarily ethical. Paulin makes this clear when, at the end of the first scene of The Riot Act, Ismene exits “into the palace by one of the two side doors”,[40] and is thus implicitly associated with the forces of law in the state.

The feminised and colonised Irish son is also represented by Haemon, the character who correlates most to Oedipus in The Riot Act. However, rather than killing his father like Oedipus, Haemon becomes his own victim when he commits suicide inside Antigone’s tomb.[41]  Haemon attempts to persuade Creon to reverse his decision to sentence Antigone to death, but is unable to say explicitly that Creon is wrong.  He only manages to say that “there’s no one can be right/day in, day out”[42] and that “That’s no city/where one man only/holds all the power”.[43] Haemon knows that Creon’s decree is unjust, but because Creon is his father, he feels he cannot rebel against him: “If you weren’t my father, /I’d go tell all Thebes/what wrong you’ve done”.[44] Haemon therefore acts as an oppressed son, and the fact that Antigone, his fiancé, is able to rebel against Creon while he cannot, emasculates him. Haemon has less control over his relationship with Antigone than either Antigone or Creon. In willingly accepting her sentence, Antigone acquiesces to a life without Haemon and, as King of Thebes, Creon’s decision to sentence Antigone signals the end of Haemon’s relationship with her. Creon calls Antigone a “hard bitch” and refuses to let his son go near “it”[45] in a speech which emphasises both Antigone’s masculinity and Haemon’s lack of agency in the situation.  Haemon is the archetypal Irish son for whom, as Younger discusses, patricide – political or otherwise – is impossible. The audience is like Haemon because they are watching Antigone, a woman, defy authority whilst being unable to do so themselves.

In his study of Irish poets’ translations of Greek tragedies, Des O’Rawe states that “one might be forgiven for thinking that no (male) Irish poet’s oeuvre can any longer be considered complete without at least one published version of a Greek play”.[46]  O’Rawe’s point is intriguing considering the position of the colonised and feminised Irish son in The Riot Act. For Irish writers who translate Greek tragedies such as Paulin, writing is the act of resistance that the Irish son cannot carry out.  As I have previously mentioned, many critics believe that re-workings of the Greek tragedies which treat their contemporary political situations too explicitly have been criticised as lacking the artistry of playwrights such as Sophocles. For Paulin, he clearly feels his version of Antigone was left with no choice but to concern itself with the Troubles.  His contemporary David Williams thought that Paulin saw it as “one of the responsibilities of being a writer”[47] to speak out about contemporary politics and his position in relation to  them.  It is something that should be embraced when analysing The Riot Act, rather than accepted begrudgingly.  Through their writing, writers such as Paulin see their chance to be more of a defiant Antigone than a feminised, passive Haemon or a complicit Ismene.  Applying Kelly Younger’s ideas to The Riot Act reveals Paulin’s play as an important example of Ireland’s profound relationship with Greek tragedy.  The audience are implicitly related to the characters onstage and left in a position of passivity while Antigone triumphantly resists.


[1] Colin Teevan, “Northern Ireland: Our Troy? Recent versions of Greek tragedies by Irish writers”, Modern Drama, Vol. 41.1, (1998), 77-89: 77

[2] Kelly Younger, “Irish Antigones: Burying the Colonial Symptom”,Colloquy II (2006), 148-162: 155

[3] Tom Paulin, “Antigone”, Amid Our Troubles: Irish versions of Greek Tragedy, ed. Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton, (London: Methuen, 2007), 166

[4] Ibid: 167

[5] Kelly Younger, “Irish Antigones: Burying the Colonial Symptom”, Colloquy II (2006), 148-162: 156

[6] Bill McDonnell. Theatres of the Troubles: Theatre, Resistance and Liberation in Ireland. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008): 12

[7] Ibid: 4

[8] Kelly Younger, “Irish Antigones: Burying the Colonial Symptom”, Colloquy II (2006), 148-162: 148

[9] Seamus Heaney, The Burial at Thebes: Sophocles’ Antigone. (London: Faber and Faber, 2004)

[10] Colin Teevan. “Northern Ireland: Our Troy? Recent versions of Greek tragedies by Irish writers”. Modern Drama 41.1 (1998): 80

[11] Basil Blackshaw. The Riot Act/High Time cover art. The Riot Act by Tom Paulin. Derry Guildhall, Northern Ireland. 19th September 1984

[12] Younger, Kelly. “Irish Antigones: Burying the Colonial Symptom”. Colloquy II (2006): 149

[13] Paulin, Tom. The Riot Act: a version of Sophocles’ Antigone. (London: Faber and Faber, 1985):9

[14] Ibid. 9

[15] Ibid. 10

[16] Szabo, Carmen. “Clearing the Ground”: The Field Day Theatre Company and the Construction of Irish Identities. (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007): 8

[17] Richtarik, Marilynn. “The Field Day Theatre Company”. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Irish Drama. ed. Shaun Richards. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 192

[18] Szabo, Carmen. “Clearing the Ground”: The Field Day Theatre Company and the Construction of Irish Identities. (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007): 173

[19] Knox, Bernard. “Greece and the Theater”. The Three Theban Plays. Sophocles. (London: Penguin, 1984): 21

[20] Szabo, Carmen. “Clearing the Ground”: The Field Day Theatre Company and the Construction of Irish Identities. (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007): 10

[21] Matthew Sharpe. “Jacques Lacan”. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[22] Younger, Kelly. “Irish Antigones: Burying the Colonial Symptom”. Colloquy II (2006): 156

[23] Ibid. 157

[24] Paulin, Tom. “Antigone”. Amid Our Troubles: Irish versions of Greek Tragedy. ed. McDonald, Marianne and Walton, J. Michael. (London: Methuen, 2007): 167

[25] Knox, Bernard. “Greece and the Theater”. The Three Theban Plays. Sophocles. (London: Penguin, 1984): 20

[26] Ibid. 15

[27] Ibid. 15

[28] Ibid. 16

[29] Ibid. 15

[30] Paulin, Tom. “Antigone”. Amid Our Troubles: Irish versions of Greek Tragedy. ed. McDonald, Marianne and Walton, J. Michael. (London: Methuen, 2007): 167

[31] Ibid. 16

[32] Ibid. 15

[33] Ibid. 17

[34] Ibid. 21

[35] Ibid. 12

[36] O’Brien, Conor Cruise, States of Ireland, (London: Hutchinson, 1972)

[37] Tom Paulin, “Antigone”, Amid Our Troubles: Irish versions of Greek Tragedy. ed. McDonald, Marianne and Walton, J. Michael. (London: Methuen, 2007): 166-7

[38] Ibid. 166

[39] Younger, Kelly. “Irish Antigones: Burying the Colonial Symptom”. Colloquy II (2006): 157

[40] Ibid. 14

[41] Ibid. 59

[42] Ibid. 38

[43] Ibid. 40

[44] Ibid. 42

[45] Ibid. 34

[46] Des O’Rawe, “(Mis)Translating Tragedy: Irish Poets and Greek Plays”(1999).

[47] Nicholas Wroe, “Literature’s loose cannon”, The Guardian 23rd March 2002.