Vice President Joe Biden is a long time fan of Seamus Heaney’s unforgettable verse play The Cure at Troy. It’s a work he has quoted from heart throughout the course of his vice presidency, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Based on Sophocles’ Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy explores the challenge of finding a way to go on when you no longer have the will or the heart to. It’s a work that explores how to endure unendurable pain, and forgive unforgivable trespasses, twin experiences that Biden has had more than his share of.
Like all Greek dramas, it also has a great deal to say to our own anxious time, and so it’s no wonder it speaks so directly to the vice president.
The play is set on a remote shoreline close to the enormous shattered head of a fallen statue, inside of which the forgotten Philoctetes now lives, both himself and the statue images of faded grandeur.
Some audience members saw the predicament of Ulster unionism contained in those dual images. Left behind, abandoned to fend for themselves and only reluctantly approached when their abandoners needed something from them, the predicament looked more than a little familiar to the play’s premiere audiences in 1990.
This metaphorical familiarity was further underlined by Philoctetes’ accent (as originally played by Des McAleer) because he spoke in the no surrender, not-an-inch strident tones of mid-Ulster.
As The Cure at Troy progressed we learned that that enormous fallen statue, broken though it was, was the thing that gave Philoctetes’ life meaning, because it contained an echo of the past that defined and sustained him.
The tragedy of his situation was self-evident. Tethered to a lost past and unable or unwilling to embrace what has come to replace it, Philoctetes’ instead rages and roars and rejects all comers.
In the play Philoctetes is a once famed archer whose arrows never miss, and now after years have passed his skill is needed once again to help end the war at Troy.
But understandably, before he commits to any campaign, he wants a reckoning with the former comrades who abandoned him to his lonely fate.
The sound of his mid-Ulster fury was electrifying, referencing Ian Paisley and behind that Edward Carson. That sound contained anger and defiance and inexpressible sorrow.
I was in the Guildhall in Derry for the premiere of this play in 1990, and I have never forgotten it. Outside on the streets the Troubles were still raging, and so the unhealed wound that is this play was still open in the heads and hearts of the people watching it.
The peacemaker John Hume attended the performance that night, as did Martin McGuinness and some of most prominent unionist leaders in the city. All of them were addressed and in a way implicated by the poet, although he insisted the play had no overt political context.
“Every poem is a momentary stay against the confusion of the world,” wrote Robert Frost once.
That was the sense that guided The Cure at Troy. It can be hard now to remember how hopeless the political situation was in 1990, how far from any kind of settlement or lasting peace.
One way to read the play’s conclusion is that political reconciliation is better path than the endless nursing of an old wound. Yes, it’s a bloody business, and yes, it’s piecemeal and provisional, but peace is always and everywhere better than war.
In Northern Ireland the nursing of the old grudge still often overtakes the needs of the present, with predictable and disastrous results, as has happened again this week with the collapse of the assembly at Stormont.
But Biden has always understood the cost to yourself and others of carrying a festering wound around with you. In a real sense the story of his life and the example he has set us is in his ability to find a path forward when that path seems to have run out.
Rather than give the hard word and harden the heart Biden, like Philoctetes, set aside his own grudges to offer a cure to his country. It’s a remarkable example that contrasts sharply with the vindictive Twitter fueled administration that will shortly take his place.
It takes a man of substance to understand Heaney’s metaphor and his challenge and act on them. Biden did because he could see himself – and all men and women – in Heaney’s broken hero. Irish poetry was the both balm and the call to arms he needed.
Here is Obama and Biden's last speeches together where they both quote Irish poets: