Everyday clichés come under fire

There was a slightly uncomfortable collision between figurative and literal speech in this paper earlier this week. On Tuesday, the caption to a photograph of British troops in Iraq explained that the soldiers it depicted had "come under fire", near Basra, while the opening sentence of the adjacent article reported that Tony Blair "came under fire in the Commons... yesterday". By accident, I guess, a familiar cliché of parliamentary journalism had been reconnected to its origins and the result was a galvanic jolt. For anyone with political reasons to contrast the risks the Prime Minister took in going to war and the risks troops are taking as a result, this would surely have had an ironic force - indeed, it was almost poetic in its understated rebuke to the hyperbole of bullet- free engagements. It was a reminder that even the most enervated phrases can still have a kick in them - if the light happens to fall on them in the right way. But it also reminded me of a recent trip to the theatre, and a rather more puzzling encounter with faded metaphor.

The play was The Burial at Thebes, Seamus Heaney's new translation of Antigone, which runs at the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, until the end of this month. In prospect this was something of a treat. Heaney is a great poet and Antigone itself could probably be said to have acquired Irish citizenship by now, given the number of pointed adaptations of the play that Irish writers have produced. What would Heaney make of it, and what, in particular, would he make of it now, when its themes of individual conscience and state power have taken on a rather urgent force? It was soon clear that he wasn't going to dodge contemporary reference: within a few minutes Antigone is quoting King Creon as saying "Whoever isn't for us/ Is against us in this case", a deliberate echo of President Bush's stark characterisation of the "war on terror". A little later, the Chorus pointedly evoke recent events, with their account of the recent attack on Thebes, in which "the enemy came swooping,/ Like an eagle screaming down the sky,/ Hoping to set fire to the seven towers."

But it was also soon clear that this was a text with an astonishing number of clichés in it - by which I mean the copper coinage of daily speech. "The walls in there have ears", says Antigone, as she tries to enlist her sister, Ismene, to help her bury the body of their brother. "We have entered calmer waters", says Creon, as he makes his decree to the chorus of citizens. "I was over a barrel", says the Guard, who reluctantly has to tell the King that his orders have been disobeyed. In fact, reading through the text, I identified more than 60 of these verbal offcuts - the sort of thing most of us use, thoughtlessly, all the time, but which you don't expect to see in lines written by a Nobel laureate. Or at least not unless they've been recharged in some way - just as that news report was recharged by the photograph next to it. And since Heaney is a great poet (and the play contains some thrilling poetry) the first instinct was to look for a poetic explanation. Perhaps, I thought, the clichés were evidence of character. The guard's speech, for instance, is a patchwork of shop-worn images that may well match his slightly comic "Everyman" persona in the play. It's clear, too, that Heaney sees some of his clichés have a concealed edge. "There. You have hit home", says Antigone when it's suggested her tragedy flows from her father's crimes, and a standard formula for accuracy takes on a dynastic and domestic aptness.

But how, then, to explain the way some clichés are repeated by several characters, without any obvious dramatic significance? Both the Chorus and Creon use the phrase "beyond the pale" (a highly charged cliché in any Irish theatre), and yet neither prod it into life. Both Antigone and the Chorus use "head held high" as an image of pride, but in neither case does it carry any vivifying undertone. And, in some cases, two clichés seem to have melted into one in the general muddle. "Even the wildest horses come to heel", says Creon at one point. To heel? Do they fetch sticks too? And what about "the whole crew must close ranks"? Isn't it soldiers who do that, and wouldn't that actually be disastrous on a ship in trouble? Perhaps this is a Theban equivalent for the American President's notorious Bush-isms. But, if so, it threatens to convert a great tragedy into a simplistic lampoon. Heaney once praised a fellow Nobel prize-winner, Joseph Brodsky, for his poetic "subversion of cliché". All too often in The Burial at Thebes you can't avoid the feeling that it's the clichés doing the subverting - and not the poet.