The Cure at Troy

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Cover of the first edition published by Field Day)

The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes is a verse adaptation by Seamus Heaney of Sophocles' play Philoctetes. It was first published in 1991.[1] The story comes from one of the myths relating to the Trojan War. Heaney's version is well known for its lines:

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

The passage was quoted by Bill Clinton in his remarks to the community in Derry in 1995 during the Northern Ireland Peace Process,[2] and by Joe Biden at the memorial service for Sean Collier, a campus police officer who was killed in the line of duty during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.[3] In the opening chorus of the play, Heaney's translation emphasizes the role of poetry as "the voice of reality and justice"[4] in expressing "terrible events".[5]

At the beginning of the play, the protagonist Philoctetes has been abandoned on an island with a wound that would not heal. His suffering and exposure to the elements has made him animal-like, a quality he shares with other outcasts in Heaney's work, such as Sweeney.[6] He ultimately rejoins the war at Troy, which could not end without him.

At the time of its composition, Heaney saw themes of the Philoctetes as consonant with the contemporary political situation in South Africa, as the apartheid regime fell and Nelson Mandela was released from prison without a full-scale war. Heaney described Mandela's return as a similar overcoming of betrayal and a display of "the generosity of his coming back and helping with the city—helping the polis to get together again."[7]

Narratives relating to the Trojan War had attracted Heaney and other Irish poets, sometimes for its resonance with the Northern Ireland conflict. Heaney also reworked The Testament of Cresseid, and had drawn on the Oresteia of Aeschylus for his sequence of poems "Mycenae Lookout".[8]

The Cure at Troy was first performed in 1990 by the Field Day Theatre Company.[9]


  1. ^ Brendan Corcoran, "'Stalled in the Pre-articulate': Heaney, Poetry, and War," in The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 697.
  2. ^ Bill Clinton, "Remarks to the Community in Derry," 30 November 1995 [1], retrieved 6 September 2013.
  3. ^ Mark Memmott, "Boston Bombing Investigation: Wednesday's Developments," The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR, 24 April 2013, update at 1:20 p.m. ET, NPR blog, retrieved 26 April 2013.
  4. ^ The Cure at Troy, choral prologue, p. 2 in the 1991 edition of The Noonday Press of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  5. ^ Corcoran, "'Stalled in the Pre-articulate'," p. 700.
  6. ^ Conor McCarthy, Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry (D.S. Brewer, 2008), p. 137.
  7. ^ Corcoran, "'Stalled in the Pre-articulate'," p. 701.
  8. ^ McCarthy, Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry, p. 136.
  9. ^ McCarthy, Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry, p. 136.