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New Hibernia Review 9.3 (2005) 123-136
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Brendan Kennelly's Versions of Irish Tragedy
Camus asks, "What is a rebel?" and he answers, "A man who says no. . . . He is also a man who says yes as soon as he begins to think for himself. Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way, you are justified."1 For Camus, rebellion may lead to an equitable society. In The Rebel (1951) Camus went one step further than in his Myth of Sisyphus (1942), which located man squarely in an absurd universe. Camus called his final chapter of The Rebel "Beyond Nihilism" and in it he expands his earlier pessimistic view to encompass some creative change. Camus critically demolished the utopian dreams of Marxism, but substituted something in their place. He had a vision that just progress was possible only by an idealistic revolution that did not violate its own principles as it was established. Camus corrected Descartes' adage "I think therefore I am" to "I rebel therefore we exist" (R 216). Further he says, "In order to exist, man must rebel" (R 22). Seeing rebellion as both a social phenomenon and as an assertion of individual existence, Camus shares Karamazov's cry "If all are not saved, what good is the salvation of one only?" (R 107–8).
Camus admired the Greeks, who had a respect for nature and like them he considered himself a Mediterranean, since he was born in Algeria. He opposes Mediterranean thinking to Germanic thought, which for him is mainly Friedrich Nietzsche and the disastrous Hitler regime that sought to subdue nature rather than come to terms with it, as the Greeks did. Camus also saw literature and art as furthering the ends of rebellion, and in his chapter on "Rebellion and Art" he claims that "The procedure of beauty, which is to contest reality while endowing it with unity, is also the procedure of rebellion" (R 296). Irish literature well illustrates his claim.
In the twentieth century, there were written close to fifty Irish versions and translations of Greek tragedy in English and close to fifty more in Irish. Frank McGuinness notes that recently poets are turning to Greek tragedy: "I would say [End Page 123] that, if you want a specific reason for its emergence in the last twenty years with poets, not playwrights, but poets like Brendan Kennelly and Seamus Heaney, you're dealing with a poetic theatre, a theatre that doesn't shy away from passion, that doesn't shy away from politics."2 One can also speculate that this use of the Greeks reflects, in part, a need Irish writers have to express their feelings about the abuses of British occupation. This need is well reflected in a story that Camus tells to illustrate a point that applies to any people who have been forced to suffer by an occupying force:
If, finally, the conquerors succeed in moulding the world according to their laws, it will not prove that quality is king but that this world is hell. In this hell, the place of art will coincide with that of vanquished rebellion, a blind and empty hope in the pit of despair. Ernst Dwinger in his Siberian Diary mentions a German Lieutenant—for years a prisoner in a camp where cold and hunger were almost unbearable—who constructed himself a silent piano with wooden keys. In the most abject misery, perpetually surrounded by a ragged mob, he composed a strange music which was audible to him alone. And for us who have been thrown into hell, mysterious melodies and the torturing images of a vanquished beauty will always bring us, in the midst of crime and folly, the echo of that harmonious insurrection which bears witness, throughout the centuries, to the greatness of humanity.
Brendan Kennedy's Irish versions of three Greek tragedies celebrate the spirit of women in adverse circumstances. They become symbols of Ireland at the same time as they represent Greek heroines. They all...