DEPARTURES FROM SOPHOCLES’ OEDIPUS TYRANNOS CAN BE INSTRUCTIVE

George Anastaplo

I.

            The University of Chicago University Theatre staged an Oedipus twice-nightly, during the week of May 9, 2011, identifying it as “based on the play of Sophocles.” The actors, and evidently most of the staff (including the director), were college students. Numerous adaptations were made by the director, with the most far-reaching in consequence perhaps being the decision to stage various scenes throughout the Alumni House of the University (a large former fraternity house at Fifty-sixthth Street and Woodland Avenue). Not only did the cast move from place to place in the House, so did the audience. The changes in positions required repeated intermingling of cast and audience.

All this meant that members of the audience had changing views of the action during the performance. Indeed, they might even see and hear more or less of the action, depending on where they were from time to time. Thus, there was not made available for the entire audience a common experience. Of course, this could probably be said of most staged performances, with audience members “seeing” and “hearing” different things, depending on their background, talents, and experience. The considerable mobility of “stage” and audience, however, magnified typical differences among audience members on these occasions.

There were, for the eight parts in this play, only four actors. Thus, two of the actors had three parts each. This may have reflected what was done on the Greek stage (with the actors concealed behind masks). Was there, on that stage, ever any significance in the combination of parts that an actor might have?

II.

            The repeated rearrangements of actors and audience meant, if the play was to be “understood,” that the University Theatre audiences had to have from the outset a fairly good idea about how Sophocles had laid out the action. Perhaps the Greek tragedian himself also counted on his audience to have a general idea of the story about to be reconsidered. On the other hand, the ancient comedies drew on the “news” of the day, which the playwright would identify and illuminate.

What is gotten and what is lost by repeatedly rearranging stage and audience? Is it suggested thereby that is does not really matter if details are missed now and then, here and there? Perhaps this is what is to be expected as well when “live” audiences number in the thousands (as they did in Athens). Is spectacle relied on more in such circumstances as well as Choral interludes that can comment, in effect, on underlying issues?

The contribution that an audience can make to a performance is evident when a first-class orchestra performs before highly-disciplined auditors. The effect can be “electric”—and it must have been that way sometimes in Athens.

III.

            Adaptations in plays can be instructive. One might even notice better thereby what the original (superior) playwright had done. What he understood may be both missed and revealed by the adaptors. In the Oedipus of last week the changes in the text (from the Greek) were significant. Thus, Oedipus is emphatically spoken of (by himself as well as by others) as “king” and “royal.” There is little if any use of “tyrant” (and certainly not in the title of the play).

Oedipus is on exhibit from the outset as fairly confident (unlike, say, Seneca’s Oedipus). Sophocles’ Oedipus is especially respected by his citizen for what he had done to the Sphinx a generation before. The significance of that grim affliction is not examined, including why it had come to Thebes. Is “life” such that there are always unaccountable challenges (or “mysteries”) to be confronted?

This Oedipus began by speaking from a podium, close to part of the audiences. He appeared, on this occasion, more like a politician addressing a town-hall gathering. The intimacy of such a staging can affect the impression one makes, especially since the audience, too, has to “act,” at least in that it has to move around the house. One consequence of this is to dilute the effect of the Chorus, especially whenever it has to mingle with the audience for any rearrangement.

IV.

            Almost all of the actors were in dark formal wear, with Jocasta in vivid red. The other striking exception was Tiresias, who seemed to be more in costume, especially since he had a pronounced beak (which had the effect of a megaphone). There was here, even more then in the Sophoclean version, the impression of him as a reluctant outsider.

One can be reminded by the bizarre (that is, unaccountable) appearance of Tiresias that his presence in the Oedipus Tyrannos may have been Sophocles’ invention. Does he not fit in? He seems a bizarre element in the story, contributing little if anything to the plot as developed by Sophocles. Did Tiresias do little more than remind the audience of the old Theban story, thereby permitting them to “enjoy” how Oedipus does not “see” what “everyone” in the audience sees? The Tiresias revelations do lead to charges by Oedipus against Creon, but nothing really comes of that, except to reveal something of Oedipus’ troubling temperament. That is, the Tiresias encounter does show how Oedipus can act when challenged, suggesting the passions aroused in him, decades before, at the fatal Crossroads encounter.

Of course, one can be reminded of a critical question, never developed in Sophocles’ version:     Why did not Tiresias, knowing what he did, try to do more in order to help Oedipus or, at least, Thebes? It was seen that Tiresias is not as public-spirited as Oedipus seems to be. Indeed, we must wonder, what is for Tiresias the Good? And what does that suggest about the purveyors of oracles, if not also about the divinities they are believed to serve? We recall, by the way, that Sophocles’ Jocasta does not say who had provided Laius (and Jocasta?) the ominous prediction that had led to their attempt to kill the infant Oedipus.

V.

            The most inventive treatment of the story in this student production may have been what was done with the distressingly revealing encounter of the two former herdsmen, one a Corinthian, the other a Theban. Something of a homosexual relation, in those tents long ago, is recalled by the Corinthian as he tried to jog the memory of his Theban counterpart. This sort of invention can titillate a youthful audience, as can the recourse to vulgar language throughout the performance (somewhat in the manner of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata).

One can sense here something of the deterioration in our audiences today, even for the more serious plays. One consequence of such dubious “enlivening” of the encounter of the two former herdsmen is that it makes it harder for the audience to see that Jocasta “catches on” to what has happened, leading her (at least in Sophocles’ version) to desperate efforts to save Oedipus from the awful incest revelation that she anticipates.

The observer today, upon reflecting on the Corinthian’s mission to Thebes, may be moved to notice as well that it is odd that Oedipus can now be summoned to return to rule in his “native” city after a generation of unexplained absence. This may suggest how much more secure an eccentric “king” is than even a public-spirited “tyrant.”

VI.

            A desperate Jocasta leaves the stage, never to be seen again by the audience. It is, from the University Theatre staging, far from clear what happens off-stage. News does come of her death, but much more had been made earlier in this production of the Oedipus/Creon flare-up.

Indeed, Oedipus’ self-blinding happens somewhat later (in this production) than the announcement of the suicide of Jocasta. That blinding is done out on the lawn of Alumni House, to be witnessed by the indoors audience crowding around the windows opened for this purpose. Oedipus can then come in fiercely with bloodied eyes, before retreating (with the rest of the cast) to another part of the House, if not even upstairs. (There is not, therefore, the extended concluding scene [provided by Sophocles] with Creon, Oedipus and his daughters.)

The way the staging is done makes it hard to leave the impression that Oedipus had blinded himself with Jocasta’s brooches. Indeed, one may even be moved to notice, by what is not presented in this version, that it can be suggested by Sophocles that, in effect, Jocasta blinded Oedipus. When, we can then wonder, did her blinding of Oedipus begin?

VII.

            One can be reminded, upon encountering once again the Oedipus story, that there is never an explanation, even in Sophocles’ version, of why Oedipus had the fate he did. (Perhaps the Greek audience sensed it had something to do with the failings of Laius.) Even so, one may not get the impression (even across millennia) that his fate is simply meaningless, especially since divinities are somehow involved. That all this had to happen suggests that there has been something purposive at work here.

But, as I have indicated, the way this play was staged last week did not encourage reflection—and there was not that reliance upon the Chorus that provided the audience extended pauses in the action that permitted the more thoughtful observers to wonder. And, as I have also indicated, the University Theatre staging of the play was such that it was very much a matter of chance what any particular member of the audience was exposed to and left with.

It happened as well that the production of this play followed immediately upon the Annual Scavenger Hunt at the University of Chicago. Was the mobilization of the audience somehow in the spirit of that spectacular Hunt? I myself could be reminded of the elements one personally chances to bring to a particular play when I recalled, while following this adventure around the House, that it had been in the basement of that very building (when it was a Fraternity House in which a friend of ours lived) that our sturdy dining-room table had been built a half-century ago. I could even wonder how this accidental recollection affected my experience on this occasion. All this makes even more impressive what an inspired playwright can do in fashioning, for quite diverse audiences, something that endures as a challenging inquiry into How Things Are.

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