Northern Ireland and the Trojan War

TO spend any time at all in Ireland is to wonder how this little island has carved out such a place for itself in literature, out of all proportion to population. And it's not just the literary giants of times past who loom large on the scene. Contemporary wordsmiths are hard at work, filling the bookshops and the stages with their output.

One is tempted to speak of a highly efficient literary sector: The raw materials of daily life are worked into plays and novels the way a skilled artisan fashions a piece of jewelry from precious metal, with very little waste.

The paint may be peeling and the upholstery a bit frayed at the theater, but the connections between real life and the stage seem close. Culture is accessible; go to a play and you are likely to encounter the author standing in the lobby chatting with friends during the intermission.

Ireland is a small, homogeneous society with a handful of major themes running through it, and a high degree of consensus on what the issues are, even if there isn't unanimity on how to resolve them.

And yet Irish writers - like all writers, really - must reach beyond the idiosyncrasies of their own society to speak to a larger world.

Of course, the most fully realized particular can be the most universal. Think of Odysseus, or his Dublin counterpart, Leopold Bloom, the central character of Joyce's mock-epic novel, ``Ulysses'': Everyman as hero.

But literary works that are too narrowly based on local-interest themes, too parochial, don't travel well. Just as Ireland's manufacturers are most successful when they produce to world standards - because their own domestic market is so small - so the clearest triumphs of Irish writers have come when they have reached out to a larger world while remaining rooted in the particulars of their own time and place.

This is what Seamus Heaney has achieved in his new play, ``The Cure at Troy.'' A retelling of the story of Sophocles' ``Philoctetes,'' the play speaks to the sectarian strife of Northern Ireland but more importantly, to all those who would define themselves in turns of their past hurts instead of rising to the challenges of the moment.

To refresh memories for a moment: On the way to Troy, Philoctetes, suffering from a maladorous snakebite that has failed to heal, was abandoned - for years - on the desert island of Lemnos by Odysseus and his men: The stench of the wound and the agonized cries of Philoctetes made him unbearable to have aboard ship.

But Philoctetes is an archer with a magical bow and arrows that never miss their mark. And the fates had decreed, according to legend, that he and his bow would be instrumental in the Greek victory in the Trojan war.

As the play opens, Odysseus and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, have returned to Lemnos to persuade Philoctetes to come with them to Troy, to achieve the victory so long in coming. Odysseus realizes, of course, that he has reason to be careful of the archer's invincible bow, and so hides and lets Neoptolemus do the talking at first. Indeed, Philoctetes is so enraged at his abandonment by Odysseus that at one point it seems he would rather rot on Lemnos than leave if he must leave with Odysseus.

And yet there is another prophecy for Philoctetes: He will be cured when he can forget his grievance and devote his divine gifts to the service of his own people. In the end, he is persuaded to make the journey to Troy, for his own cure as well as his role in the victory over the Trojans.

``Hope for a sea change beyond revenge,'' the chorus encourages him - and the audience - at the end of the play.

And suddenly the connection between the Trojan war and ``the troubles'' of Northern Ireland is clear. The point is made explicitly in only a few phrases in the mouths of the chorus: ``hunger strikers'' or ``policemen's widows.'' Then we realize that the troubles are likely to be in the back, at least, of everyone's mind. They are one of those issues that connect this little island.

But the need to transcend individual grievance, however justifiable, for the sake of a better future is evident around the world. Think of the newly democratizing nations of Eastern Europe, particularly those cobbled together from different ethnic groups with such histories of strife among them. Think of the Middle East. And hope for peace.

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