The once lived a man named Oedipus Rex
You may have heard about his odd complex
His name appears in Freud’s Index ‘cause
He loved his Mother!
Tom Lehrer – Oedipus Rex
So runs one of the verses of Tom Lehrer’s hilarious take on Oedipus Rex. Lehrer was writing his song in the light of The Kinsey Report, the first serious examination and analysis of the sexual behaviour of the American male and female, which was published in the early 1950s. Freudian analysis, or psycho-analysis, was becoming increasingly popular in explaining certain human relationships. Freud used a number of classical Greek characters, such as Oedipus, to identify certain behavioural patterns, in this case between mother and son; another was the character of Electra in regard to hostile mother-daughter relationships. Whilst Oedipus and Electra are two very well-known yet very different characters from the classical Greek myths, nonetheless, they are today known (if they are known) through the plays written about them by Sophocles (c. 496-o6 BCE), after Aeschylus the second major classical Greek playwright.
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is the second play UK theatre critic Michael Billington lists in his 101 GREATEST PLAYS (2015). First performed in Athens around 429 BCE, as part of the annual festival and rituals honouring the demi-god of the theatre, Dionysus, it is the first in a trilogy of plays by Sophocles that is collectively known as The Theban Cycle and/or The Theban Plays. The others are Oedipus at Colonus (c. 406 BCE), and Antigone (c. 441 BCE). Whilst certainly constituting a ‘trilogy’ of plays favoured by the classical Greek theatre, nonetheless, as can be discerned by the attached dates the three plays were written and initially performed at vastly different times, and in a different order from how they are now subsequently regarded as a ‘trilogy’ of plays about the fall of the ancient Theban House of Laius.
Sophocles was not the only classical Greek playwright attracted to the stories associated with the House of Laius. Aeschylus had also written a trilogy of ‘Theban’ plays, of which sadly only his Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE) remains. Arguably Seven Against Thebes has had an even greater influence on world drama and cinema than Oedipus Rex, being the source of inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), and subsequently John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960); indeed it is genesis for any dramatic narrative that involves a group of people battling against a formidable enemy, such as Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna (c. 1612), J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), and Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998).
Michael Billington’s short essay on Oedipus Rex is terrific – honest, balanced, informative and enlightening. He begins with tackling the influence of Freud, placing it within an historical context. Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, in which appears for the first time the so-called ‘Oedipus Complex’, was published in 1901. This is well before the first English production of the play. I didn’t know that the play was not actually performed in the UK until 1912!!!? This was due to censorship and the Lord Chamberlain’s office; something that Shakespeare had to contend with.Billington correctly questions the extent of our actual depth and knowledge of the play considering the ‘modern’ performance history in English is relatively new (only 116 years). He draws attention to version by John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee in 1678 in which displays certain ‘reservations’ by Dryden and Lee in regard to the mother-son sexual relationship, quoting the character of Oedipus, ‘An unknown hand…still checked my forward joy’. (HoHo!).
I was particularly taken with his addressing the ‘Freud’ issue, emphasizing that it is just one aspect of this truly fascinating play. He quotes Freud – ‘It is the fate of all of us perhaps…to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so’. ‘Perhaps’ is a big perhaps, and ‘our dreams’ far from ‘convincing’. Billington brilliantly states that ‘danger in seeing the play as a Freudian textbook is two-fold. It underestimates the sublime intricacy of Sophocles plot, to which Aristotle paid due tribute. It also undermines the unresolved tensions, within in the play, between the power of fate and free will’; and ‘the brilliance of Sophocles’ play lies precisely in the extent to which it shows the hero exercising choices dependent on character. That is the source of its modernity rather the the embodiment of primal sexual urges’; and that the ‘key point of the play is ‘the tension between the pre-ordained and personal impulse is never ending’. I couldn’t agree more!
Billington openly admits that he was not completely won over by the play until he saw a performance by Ralph Fiennes in a 2008 production directed by Jonathan Kent ‘that finally unlocked the play’s complexity’. Billington concludes that based on this performance he ‘finally got to the heart of Sophocles’ play: one that shows, within an immaculate structure, that flawed characters are capable of huge suffering and that the belief in the workings of destiny does not exclude human responsibility’. Brilliant!
In the essay Billington references a number of productions, particularly Max Reinhardt’s ‘ground-breaking 1912 production’, and Laurence Olivier’s performance in 1945.
I was a bit surprised, however, that he made only a relatively fleeting reference to Tyrone Guthrie’s production at Stratford Ontario, Canada, and Minneapolis in the USA. Billington is a bit of an expert and admirer of Guthrie, as evident in his ‘A-Z of Modern Drama: G is for Tyrone Guthrie‘ for The Guardian. Whilst not negating Billington’s excellent short essay on Oedipus Rex, I wish to add my own experience of Oedipus Rex, which involves two great 20th Century theatre artists – Tyrone Guthrie and Christopher Fettes.
TYRONE GUTHRIE: Oedipus Rex – The Old Tote Theatre, Sydney 1970
I was first introduced to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex when still a schoolboy. The eminent UK theatre director, Sir TYRONE GUTHRIE, came to Australia in 1970 to direct a production of Oedipus Rex with Sydney’s Old Tote Theatre Company.
Guthrie had directed a land-mark and ground-breaking Oedipus at Stratford, Ontario, Canada, in 1957, and the Sydney version was essentially a re-working of this production, but with Australian actors, designer, and technical crew. Ron Haddrick played Oedipus and Ruth Cracknell played Jocasta. This was one of my very first experiences of professional theatre and I can still vividly recall it – or parts of it. Staged in the Sir John Clancy auditorium in the middle of the University of NSW campus, it was massive, with all the characteristics of Guthrie’s particular ‘epic’ style. Everything was big – the masks, the costumes, the theatre space – everything. It was not, however, well received; one critic wondering why this play was even being done in the first place. Be that as it may, nonetheless, I do vividly remember the way Ruth Cracknell as Jocasta left the stage after realizing that Oedipus was her son; I also remember Ron Falk as the sharmantic soothsayer, Tiresias, who was dressed like a huge bird (a seagull?) and behaved accordingly, complementing the knowledge that Tiresias lived with birds. Sadly, Cracknell and Falk (as well as others) are no longer with us; Ron Haddrick, however, is still alive and I hope his memories of performing Oedipus in this production have been recorded for the National Archives.
It is a great shame that most young Australian actors, directors, and theatre professionals are unaware of Tyrone Guthrie’s considerable importance and influence in regard to contemporary Australian theatre. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s he was on a government sponsored panel that concentrated on the future of Australian theatre. This is too much a subject to deal with here, nonetheless – despite concerns for how we collectively spoke at the time (Aussie ‘strine?), and an insistence that Australian actors receive a training in ‘classical’ theatre in the UK, it was Guthrie who called for a National Australian Theatre to be established. This didn’t happen. It was, however, partly due to Guthrie that the respective State theatre companies were established, as well as the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). Furthermore, Guthrie had a major influence on one of the most important contemporary Australian actor-director’s – JOHN BELL. in the early 1960s John Bell and Anna Volska worked with Guthrie in the UK. Returning to Australia they worked as professional actors with the Old Tote Theatre Company and others as well as establishing the Nimrod Theatre (later Belvoir Street Theatre). Again – as a young schoolboy and theatre addict I was witness to all of this (thank you Mum and Dad). Looking back I can see how much Guthrie influenced what Nimrod and Belvoir Street did in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in regard to ‘classical’ drama. I don’t necessarily mean in regard to interpretation and style but in regard to the use and design of the actual space – open and multi-purpose (like Shakespeare-Burbage’s Globe Theatre, and the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, USA. Guthrie’s influence is perhaps most discernible when the Bell’s (Anna being John’s wife) established THE BELL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY. The first season included Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice – and was staged in a tent. Again – it is the use of theatrical space, including the actor-audience relationship, that shows Guthrie’s influence. The company subsequently went from strength to strength, mainly due to the artistic leadership of John Bell. Furthermore, The Bell Shakespeare Company is Australia’s only national touring theatre company, so in a way the Bell’s have established what Tyrone Guthrie envisonaged – a National Australian Theatre Company (sort of).
Needless to add as must be relatively obvious that I am a great fan of the Bell’s,and extremely influenced by their acting and artistic vision, leadership and production. Thank you.
‘SCAPEGOAT’ RITUAL: Oedipus Rex
Whilst a student at the Drama Centre, London, in the late-1970s I again locked horns with Oedipus Rex. Indeed, it was the play I had chosen as part of my audition/interview for the Director’s course, and I remember getting grilled by Christopher Fettes. I must have done OK, however, as I was accepted. During the 1st Year of Drama Centre, Oedipus Rex was one of the set classical plays chosen by Christopher for his ‘Analysis’ classes with the 1st Year actors and directors. I don’t recall very much about any actual presentation, but I do remember being inspired and enlightened, as well as amazed, at Christopher’s techniques of analysis, things that I continue to practice to this day.
Christopher focused us on the ritualistic function and importance of the play within the fertility festival devoted to Dionysus. This was an approach and interpretation very influenced by Francis Ferguson’s The Idea of the Theatre, as well as Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, particularly Brook’s chapter on ‘Holy Theatre’. It also concentrated on Aristotle’s Poetics, especially so as Aristotle makes frequent reference to Oedipus Rex in his identification of the form, structure and purpose of classical tragedy. Aristotle established that the cathartic release of ‘pity and terror’ was the essential function and purpose of tragedy. Christopher Fettes, however, demanded that we go further than acknowledging this and that the play was a part of a fertility ritual. What exactly was this fertility ritual? Solving this led to the discovering of what the play was about, and the precise cathartic release of a specific emotional and psychological human condition and need, which would not only explain the continued popularity of the play but also open up its inter-connection to the universal web of other dramatic works, stories and myths. In the case of Oedipus Rex it was a SCAPEGOAT RITUAL.
The need to scapegoat others, for either an individual or a group to be blamed and take on the sins and guilt of a community is part of the human condition. It is not a particularly attractive part, nonetheless, we all do it, have done, and will continue to do it. Oedipus, as King of Thebes, takes on the responsibility to find out the murderer of the previous king, King Laius, and thus rid Thebes of the pollutant that has brought plague to the city. What he does not know, but will be reveal at a tragic cost, is that he is the actual pollutant – he is the killer. At the end of the play, Oedipus accepts his fate and is subsequently ostracized by the community.
This is just one aspect of Oedipus Rex. It is, however, a crucial element – the taking on the sins of a community, being the scapegoat. It links to other narratives and characters, as well as persons and groups; such as Jesus Christ as well as John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). It focuses this particularly part of the Dionysus fertility festival involving drama and an audience; it is hoped that the community who experiences this play is subsequently purged of the need and desire to scapegoat for the benefit of the community.
As Christopher Fettes emphasized what is happening to Thebes that warrants this task and need to find a scapegoat is the plague; in this case – ‘The Red Death’. Christopher took us through various acting and directing exercises associated with the dramatic action of the opening of the play, the actual entry of the Chorus, before anyone has actually spoken. Luckily for me, I was aware through studying Ancient History at Sydney Grammar School that the issue of plague dominated Athens around the time Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex. There is an actual and quite graphic account of Athens in the grip of this devastating plague in Thucydides The Peloponnesian War, the main historical source and record of the epic war between Athens (and her allies) and Sparta 431-404 BCE. This was very much Sophocles throwing a ‘mirror up to nature’.
There are many other elements to Oedipus Rex; e.g. the ‘tragic flaw’, the issue of ‘fate’, and the symbolism of sight and blindness. It is remarkable and fascinating that this particular play from the classical Greek canon has attracted so much commentary throughout the ages, from Aristotle to Coleridge, Billington and beyond. Coleridge regarded as amongst the three most perfectly plotted narratives in literature; the others being Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610). It can also be seen as the first ‘Detective Story’, with Oedipus being both detective and criminal. Furthermore, its world-wide performance history is extraordinary as it is massive, with many great actors and directors, as well as designers attracted to the imaginative power and depth of this tragedy; this includes Max Reinhardt, Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Read it – or even better see it – if you can; it is relatively clear to me that Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is like how Harold Bloom describes Shakespeare’s Hamlet – that it is a conundrum, and that each era in time and each community in which it is performed comes up its own unique interpretation in line with a specific historical and social context.
NEXT – #3. Helen by Euripides (c. 480-407 BCE).