Sophocles, the great Greek playwright, not to be confused with Socrates, the great Greek philosopher (or Socrates, the Brazilian world cup star), was obviously enamoured with the story of Oedipus, the Theban king with serious family issues, and wrote three plays (that we know of) about the world’s first dysfunctional family over the course of his life. ‘King Oedipus’, ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ and ‘Antigone’ are three snapshots from the rambling saga of poor Oedipus and his rather unfortunate family, and provide a useful introduction to Greek theatre for the uninitiated among us (like me).
Having read Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’, which takes the Oedipal story as one of its main themes, I wanted to know a bit more about the classic story and learn a little of the setting of Greek drama. One of the things I was surprised to learn was that there was more than one variation on the tale and that it was a story from oral tradition which many playwrights saw fit to cover and adapt. These plays were also very different from our modern entertainment in the sense that nearly everyone knew the story before going to see the play; the interest was in seeing how the playwright (and actors) portrayed the characters in their rush towards a fate the audience knew was coming. This allowed the spectators (or listeners) to analyse the words of the characters in light of their later fates (alright, I admit this is probably obvious if you’re a big fan of classical theatre, but it was fairly new to me!).
So what about the story itself? Well, ‘King Oedipus’ concentrates on the discovery of the title character’s identity and the rather bloody consequences; you know what’s coming, but the way in which it is unfolded, and Oedipus’ enthusiastic promises to do nasty things to whoever killed his father (who would have thought it would turn out to be him…), make it poignantly tragic.
‘Oedipus at Colonus’ sees the now blind Oedipus seeking refuge in Colonus, near Athens, as he prepares to die. However, the gods aren’t finished with him yet, and as a result of a prophecy decreeing his importance to the success of future battles involving his home city of Thebes, he is sought by both his son/brother and uncle/brother-in-law (it’s best not to get bogged down with family issues where Oedipus is concerned). After Theseus, King of Athens, prevents the kidnapping of his daughters (sisters…), Oedipus is finally ready to die in a very ascension-like ending. I wonder if the writers of the Bible had seen this first…
‘Antigone’ tells of the fate of one of Oedipus’ daugh.. sis… (you know); anyway, in a scene reminiscent of ‘King Oedipus’ (which was actually written much later), she ignores her uncle’s command not to bury the body of her dead brother, and he fulfils his promise to put her to death, which brings on a lot more bloodshed and tragedy.
1 – Don’t ignore Greek gods; it never turns out well.
2 – Some family secrets are better left well alone.
3 – Never vow to put a criminal to death unless you’re absoulutely positively sure that the culprit is not one of your nearest and dearest (or yourself).
4 – It is much better to be part of the chorus in a Greek play than to have a named role.
5 – It may be a good idea to beware Greeks bearing gifts, but I would be more concerned about those who bring prophecies from the gods. If you ever see a blind old man with a message from Apollo, run away, and keep running until you cross the Greek border.
Now, I’m just going off to double- and triple-check my family tree…