The great dramas of life

By Tony Bates in The Irish Times 19/02/2008

Mind Moves: Life rarely goes accordingly to plan. Events that disturb and shock us can erupt violently in our lives when we least expect them. A phone call or a knock on the door can bring news that shakes us to the core and changes everything we have hitherto taken for granted in our lives, writes Tony Bates .

We live in a world where we are fed messages that everything will be okay, if we eat the right food, have the right health plan, drive the safest car, and make the right financial decisions.

And then, often in spite of us doing all the "right" things, life throws us a curve ball and plunges us into confusion. Why did this have to happen to me? Why didn't I see it coming? Could I have acted differently and spared myself and those I love this terrible pain?

The more we have been seduced by the myth that our life can and should be lived on the crest of a wave, the greater the shock we experience when some unexpected tragedy occurs. Our art, our fables and our collective mythologies are the means we have constructed to prepare each generation for the unexpected and to portray the different ways we can respond.

In the face of a crisis there is the path that leads to transformation and deep learning about ourselves or the path that simply makes the whole business worse than it already is.

The Greek tragedies are perhaps the finest and most enduring stories about the human condition. They are the meditation of the Athenian people on what it takes to become a human being. They recognise that life is not merely lived through us; we have to live our life, and to do this we have to discover some core principles with which to guide us in the choices we make.

Our lives as individuals and as a society unfold according to the choices we make. The Greeks also understood that it is in the face of disorder, chaos and suffering that the possibilities for us to find our lives or to lose the plot come into sharp focus.

Antigone is perhaps the finest example of Greek tragedy and the one that is most beautifully crafted and most easily accessible. The final contribution of Sophocles in his Oedipus trilogy, it highlights the plight of an innocent victim, in this case Antigone, a woman who is plunged into a tragic dilemma, partly due to the mess passed down from earlier generations and partly due to the obstinate, rigid behaviour of her king, Creon.

Her brother, son of Oedipus, has been killed. Because he fought "on the wrong side", Creon denies him the right to be buried. Antigone is advised to obey by everyone around her, but she feels in her heart that there is a "higher law" that she must obey.

She buries him not once but twice in the play. The price of freedom for her may be death, but for the Greeks, if that's what it takes to find wisdom, so be it. The alternative is to live according to the dictates of a totalitarian state that oppress the humans who live under it.

I had the privilege to sit with the performers who will be staging this play in Bray next week. Twenty-six young people from the performing arts class in the Bray Institute of Further Education talked about the issues that this play had brought up for them.

Suicide, loss, family misfortune, all fundamental to the impact of the play, resonated for many of these young people in their own lives. The richness of Antigone afforded us all the opportunity to explore these themes in a safe way.

The conversation that ensued over two hours was as fine an example of youth mental health in action as any I have experienced. Clearly the material they were being asked to bring to life on stage challenged these actors.

What had perhaps been felt but never expressed in their personal lives would now find its way onto the stage, within the structure of this drama and with tremendous support between them as a troupe.

The performance next week will not be something they are merely putting on to meet the requirements of a performing arts course. It will be one where every one of these actors will be present on stage, dramatising issues that have as much resonance and meaning for them in their personal lives as they had for the Greeks.

This will be a rare opportunity to experience drama that will undoubtedly touch the moral and psychological challenges faced by the audience in their lives as much as it has the actors.

Antigone will be performed at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray (bookings: 01-2724030) from February 26th-29th.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong - The National Centre for Youth Mental Health ( Contact:

© 2008 The Irish Times


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