The story’s the thing.

The three plays of the Oedipus Cycle at the Pearl Theatre tell a continuous story although Sophocles wrote them “out of order” over vast intervals of his life (~ 496-406 BCE): Antigone, which ends the cycle, when he was in his fifties, Oedipus the King, which starts it, in his sixties, and Oedipus at Colonus,just before he died.  Although they aren’t a true trilogy, the material was with him all his life and the Pearl Theatre gives us the opportunity to see them in narrative sequence, a stimulating experiment. The problem is that in this production the story’s the thing — instead of the play. Twenty five percent of the text has been eliminated, and with it, much of the poetry and meaning. Evidently this was done to make the three plays fit into a single theatrical evening. Also the somewhat lofty language of the translation collides with the fast trendy rhythms of the actors’ speech.

The First Cold Case

In Oedipus the King, the world’s first cold case mystery, Oedipus, ruling in Thebes, discovers that, in actions long past, he’s unknowingly committed two crimes: killed his father and married his birth mother, Jocasta. The revelation drives Jocasta to hang herself and Oedipus to thrust the broaches that held her gown in place into his eyes, blinding himself. The actors speak very fast and that, along with the abbreviated text, alters our apprehension of the mystery. Instead of the creeping invasion of terrible truths, we get a story that moves as fast as Law and Order and relies on shock value, climaxing when Oedipus emerges with blood streaking from his eyes onto his face and clothes, though not his chin as is described in the eyewitness account of his blinding (the Greeks kept the worst off-stage, relying on vivid, poetic descriptions).

Birth & Death

Oedipus at Colonus is the most ambiguous of the plays. Blind Oedipus, aided by his daughter Antigone, ends his long wanderings in exile at Colonus, near Athens. Colonus, where Sophocles himself was born is the site of Oedipus’ mysterious, magical death in a play written at the very end of the playwright’s life. The meaning of this bringing together of birth and death is suggestive but elusive, and Sophocles’ choral ode to the beauty of Colonus in the play, “…the noblest home on earth,” here given breathing space, can only be compared with the nostalgic aria of the beauties of Provence sung by Giorgio Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata. And these choruses, too, were sung in Sophocles’ day, to music now lost. The actors slow down for Oedipus at Colonus and sprigs of profound and beautiful poetry push through.  Sophocles asks a question here that’s barely come up before — and it’s a question with momentous implications for the future:  is a man guilty for crimes he commits unknowingly?  How exciting to see the aged playwright grappling tenaciously with moral issues of great resonance!

Even a winning general could be executed if he failed to retrieve the battle dead for burial

In Antigone, as in Oedipus the King, almost everything is minimized that doesn’t push the narrative, including the choruses. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, now ruling Thebes decrees that the body of Polyneices, Oedipus’ son and Antigone’s brother shall not be buried now that he’s been killed attacking Thebes. In obedience to the unwritten laws she holds sacred, Antigone defies Creon’s decree and ritually buries her brother.  It helps to know that for the Greeks proper burial was essential — victorious generals were executed for failing to retrieve for burial bodies of their men who died in battle. Antigone’s pious act leads to her passionate debate with Creon in which she defends “the immortal, unrecorded laws of God” against Creon’s defense of the laws of men and the state. Not surprisingly it takes them a while to say everything they have in their hearts about these most fundamental conflicting values. The confrontation between Antigone and Creon is the locus classicus for this conflict. During World War II Jean Anouilh adapted it to dramatize the fight between freedom and fascism.  But in the current presentation, the debate was over before I knew it.

A better solution would be to produce these plays in full — perhaps with time out for dinner as is sometimes done with long presentations.

COMING: The Grand Inquisitor at New York Theatre Workshop, dramatization from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment,  with consideration of “An Evening of Dostoevsky: The Grand Inquisitor” presented at 92StY November 10, 2008.