The Stratford Festival’s “Oedipus Rex” opens Thursday, July 16.
The production is directed by Daniel Brooks and features Yanna
McIntosh, Gord Rand, Nigel Bennett and Christopher Morris.
All photos below by David HouSophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” considered to be among the greatest surviving examples of Classical Greek drama, maintains an enduring hold on scholars, readers, and audiences alike. Nearly 2,500 years after it debuted in 427 BC – where it placed second at the City Dionysia Festival – modern audiences continue to grapple with the dark, challenging, and unrelenting questions that Sophocles poses. These questions surround the nature of fate, the illusion of control, the importance of truth, and moral guilt.
Today, productions of “Oedipus Rex” serve as a dark mirror, reflecting modern societal, political, and cultural conditions in order to examine and critique them. Over time, the mirror has remained the same while the reflections speak to each production’s individual historical moment.
Oedipus in the Classical Greek Context
“Oedipus Rex” is the chronological starting point to Sophocles’ “Theban Cycle” of plays, which also includes “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone.” The Theban Cycle follows the story of the rise and fall of Oedipus, King of Thebes, and the long lasting repercussions of his actions.
The audiences of Classical Greece would have been very familiar with Oedipus’ story and would have clearly understood the consequences of the characters’ choices and actions throughout the play.
Sophocles was not the only Classical Greek playwright interested in the myths of Oedipus. Playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides also penned adaptations of the myths for the stage. Sadly, these plays, while mentioned in surviving texts, have been lost.
Sophocles’ enduring impact
So why do we, living thousands of years after Sophocles, still find his “Oedipus Rex” so compelling? Not only is it a brilliant work on par with some of the best dramas that survive from the ancient world, but it raises themes that refuse to be relegated to historical obscurity.
Sophocles identifies and utilizes human concerns and fears that continue to plague us to this day, albeit, through a different lens.
Our culture is steeped in our faith in the power of human management over all aspects of life, from disease, to the environment, to crime, etc. The story of Oedipus provides a foil to the belief that a man is in control of everything. It makes a mockery of this fantasy and exposes the notion of total control as an illusion.
The story of a man who does all he can to avoid his fate and thereby fulfills it seems to tap into our modern anxieties.
Specifically, it resonates with modern society’s fear of loss of control. For the modern individual, this fear extends into all aspects of life, including everyday, trivial events. We live in a culture where forgetting one’s smartphone triggers a sense of disconnection and alienation, not to mention powerlessness.
By presenting a decent man’s dark and hideously inescapable fate, the play keys into our modern fear of loss of control in a way that is terrifyingly relatable. This is a challenging mirror to behold and the reflections are not comforting ones.
Ancient themes in modern times
What else can we discern from our dark Oedipal reflections?
Certainly, the concepts of moral guilt and the search for the truth play central roles in “Oedipus Rex.” In a society that is still reeling from the implications of Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing and several countries’ rushed, vague governmental anti-terror legislation, “Oedipus Rex” raises questions concerning the need for truth and forces the audience to question the nature of moral guilt and responsibility.
The actions of Tiresias and Jocasta force the audience to consider whether the truth should always be revealed to those whom it would destroy. Will the truth find a way to reveal itself in time?
Obscured knowledge plays such a key role in this play, and Sophocles greatly enjoys utilizing the trope of sight and blindness. The blind prophet Tiresias can see the truth, whereas Oedipus refuses to acknowledge the truth while he can see. He is driven mad by his wilful blindness and he physically blinds himself as part of his eventual revelation. What are our eyes open to, and what do we deliberately block from our own sight? Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” warns us of the dubious security we find in denial.
Of course, sexuality and our own fears surrounding sexual taboos also play a key role in the story of Oedipus, most obviously illustrated in Sigmund Freud’s “Oedipus Complex.” The unknowing Oedipus fulfills his fate by killing his biological father on the road, only to unwittingly marry his biological mother and ascend to the kingship of Thebes.
The play revolves around the notion of divine retribution due to sexual impurity. In so doing, it also addresses the fear of plague, which is just as powerful now as it was in Ancient Greece. The societal fixation on epidemics such as SARS, AIDS, and MERS, and the yearly frenzy surrounding the spread of Influenza prove that ours is a society terrified by disease.
“Oedipus Rex” presents the audience with the prospect of a terrible plague brought about through divine retribution for the moral and sexual pollution of Thebes, no matter how unintentionally this impurity may have come about.
An Unforgiving Reflection
Whether Sophocles could have imagined that his works would continue to fascinate and challenge audiences over two millennia after their composition is impossible to know, but one thing is certain: “Oedipus Rex” has continued to transfix audiences due to the adaptability and universality of the themes and questions it raises. In the darkness of the ill-fated Oedipus’ plight, we see ourselves. As we stare back at an unforgiving reflection of our own anxieties and fears, “Oedipus Rex” remains an unrelenting piece of theatre.
In its final line, it offers this counsel: “count no mortal happy till he has passed the final limit of his life secure from pain.”
If you are looking to experience one of the finest surviving tragedies of Classical Greece, The Stratford Festival’s “Oedipus Rex” runs through to September 18th at the
Tom Patterson Theatre.
If you’ve seen the show please leave your comments or read the professional reviews at Stratford Festival Reviews “Oedipus Rex”.
By Robert H. Porter