Sunday, 22 March 2015

d8 Book Club: The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles

Boy, this was a long haul. I picked these up because the first play (Œdipus Rex) is well known and until I saw the book on a shelf in Waterstones I had not heard that there were two sequels. Any sort of script generally reads several times faster than a performance so I didn't think it would take too long to get through them. I was wrong.

Oedipus The King threw me off almost immediately by defying my expectations to the point where I had to stop and start again with a different attitude and it was this that prompted my post about history being 3D and real life being 2D.

We have a very complacent idea of our own understanding of Ancient Greece; because it runs through almost everything we consider even slightly culturally significant it seems as if there must be, in a sense, an awful lot of Ancient Greece in our world. But there isn't. Obviously there used to be an awful lot of it but 99.99% or more of it has gone, lost. Ancient Rome is slightly less eroded by the river of time, but not much.

The reality is that every word written by an ancient Greek that has survived to the present day would happily fit onto an antiquated CD-ROM from the 1990s. Even printed out the whole lot would probably not fill one of the 6 bookshelves I have in this small London flat. That's not a lot, really.

So this is our 3D view of Greek History: a huge collection of glass slides packed up and stored at ground zero in Hiroshima. From the fragments we've recovered after the Bomb, we have tried to imagine what the ancient world was like. The Greeks' own version at the time is what I called 2D - they have an idea of history only in the sense that they have heard that some things happened in the past; the grasp of how long in the past is beyond loose, it is hardly even a consideration whether a king did some famous thing 10 years ago or 300 years ago, and myths are likely to be regarded as factual accounts.

Nearer home, temporally speaking, we also have Sigmund Freud's use of the Oedipus name as a label for some of the incest fantasies that he projected onto his victims/patients. Foolishly, I assumed this would have some sort of connection with the mythological figure.

Oedipus the King

So on starting Oedipus the King I had some expectations: that Oedipus's destiny would be revealed through the story and that we, the audience, would sit in creeping horror as we realised that this man was out to kill his own father in order to take his place not only on the throne of Thebes but in the bed of his mother. This is not that play.

For a start this play assumes that the audience knows who Oedipus is and that they know that he was raised by strangers and has, at the opening of the play already unknowingly killed his father years ago and has married a woman (Jocasta) who he has no idea is his own natural birth mother.

Basically, the play is a retelling of a story that was probably so well known that today we would probably refer to Sophocles' "reboot" of the Oedipus story. Everyone in the audience knows these characters, they're just waiting to see what this writer can do with them that's new.

Well, actually, that's bollocks too. As I read around the subject a bit I started to realise that I had to ask more fundamental questions about what a play is for. I had, in fact, to ask "what has this to do with Dionysus?"

Aside from my more specific expectations, I realised that I had another more generalised and harder to spot expectation in that I assumed that, pretty well by definition, a play was for entertainment. I think I can safely say that these three plays have cured me of that modern notion!

Bearing in mind my analogy with the nuked slideshow, it seems to me that these plays were aimed at moral titillation with a leavening of moral instruction, all wrapped up in a sort of ill-defined homage to Dionysus, the god of wine and madness.

The Greeks seem to have loved being morally outraged. The Amazons are  a good example of this - "Women warriors!? How horrible! Tell us more! They cut their own breasts off! How absolutely awful! Don't stop..."

The Amazons feature in a range of stories which invariably end with the major female characters either dead or married and settled down. In other words, the horrible threat to the natural order has been overcome and everyone can sleep peacefully again. The Amazons are in fact in exactly the same category of "monster" that the Sphinx  is. The Sphinx doesn't make an appearance in Oedipus the King, by the way — she was seen off years before and only gets a mention.

The situation in the play is another example of the "natural order inversion" seen in the Amazons. Killing your father and marrying your mother is not the natural order of things, unless you're from the rougher parts of Strabane, so there's this little bit of immoral thrill which seems to have been the Greek version of Hammer Horror. But the moral titillation has to be accompanied by the moral instruction in the form of "The Gods Set Things Right". Thus, by the end, the killer (Oedipus) has been revealed and the horrible marriage dissolved (by Jocasta's suicide) and punishment meted out (Oedipus is blinded, albeit by his own hand). All is right with the world again. Yesss, well...

"The first shall be last and the last shall be first" said Jesus, but he was quoting Dionysus. Inversions of fortune seem to have been the core of Dionysus's "message" and it's easy to see the connection with wine which causes the supposedly natural social order to disintegrate as the King gets more and more pissed with his servants. But the notion has a slightly more philosophical depth to it than simply observing that drunks have no dignity.

In his Histories, Herodotus tells the story of Croesus (a by-name for wealth and possibly genuinely the introducer of the idea of coinage to the western world) who has one of the Seven Wise Men of the ancient greek world around for tea one day and basically gives him the tuppenny tour of his house and asks "don't you wish you were as rich as me?" to which Solon (for it is he) replies, "I'll let you know when you're dead; until then the evidence is not all in".

Now Herodotus was writing in about 440 B.C. and the story is set about 120 years earlier (although Herodotus probably didn't know that). We have no way of knowing if the story is true - Croesus and Solon did exist but whether they even met is probably beyond a definite answer either way - but it does seem clear that Herodotus was simply re-telling a well-known story which had been around for a while.

Sophocles was a contemporary of Herodotus and the same Dionysian message runs through all three of the plays in this collection: Don't say "my life is great" or "my life has been wasted" until it's over.

In the first play, the great king Oedipus, saviour of the city loses almost everything - his parents, his wife, his eyesight - and is left to wander as a beggar aided by his two daughters (who are also his sisters, of course). In the second play, the beggar Oedipus is redeemed and actually ascends to heaven leaving behind an empty tomb. Finally, in Antigone, the new King of Thebes - Oedipus's former friend Creon - is in turn brought down and loses everything because of his persecution of Oedipus's daughters. The only constant is change and these plays are carrying at their cores a religious message.

So, with all that context in place, we're back to the play; how is it? Well, not good, I would say.

All this structural context eliminates any real drama in the modern sense. The characters are mostly clockwork automatons we find wound up at the start of the play, and they clunk through their parts in a fairly unconvincing way. Sophocles starts us off with the natural order upset and we simply watch as it rights itself.

For the modern reader, the thing that I think is most obviously missing is any sense of Justice. None of the events that unfold are really Oedipus's fault. The worst thing he is guilty of from a modern point of view is that he killed an arrogant old man on the road one day when the latter set his bodyguards on Oedipus for basically not treating him with the respect he deserved as king of Thebes - a position he neglected to inform Oedipus of. That event happened years before the play started and was not itself the initial cause of what came afterwards.

The real prime mover for the play comes from Delphi (perhaps an example of Pascal's wager gone wrong?*) and the issuing of a pair of prophecies by the Oracle - the first one to Jocasta and her then-husband Laius that Laius would one day be killed by his own son.

So, Jocasta sends her baby son to be "exposed" in the countryside, left outside to die. But the shepherd tasked with this can't do it and instead gives the baby to a friend and eventually the baby Oedipus ends up being adopted by the king of Corinth (as you do). The prince of Corinth is then "warned" in turn by another message from the Oracle that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He packs his bags and leaves Corinth, vowing to stay away as long as his father and mother live. On the road, he meets an arrogant old man and his servants and in the resulting fracas he kills the old man. Some years later, he marries the queen of Thebes who has finally admitted that her long-lost husband must be dead.

So what we have here is a classic "Judge Child" situation - the only cause of the events is the prophecy that they would happen. The evil of what follows is directly attributable to the Oracle and, through her, he deities Apollo and Zeus.

Yet the play actually criticises Jocasta for her impious declaration that the Oracle's decrees can be undone (as she believes she has managed by the murder of her own son) and there is almost a perverse pleasure taken in showing how completely caught in the Oracle's net Jocasta in particular is.

There's a hint of awareness in the plays of this passive-aggressive nature of divination in the form of the old man Tiresias, a blind seer who arrives early on in both Oedipus the King and Antigone where he plays out almost the same scene. Tiresias is a master of the art of telling the future. The problem is, he's also a dickhead who keeps all the important information to himself until it's no longer any use to anyone. And then he get's pissed off if anyone points out how utterly useless he is because of this trait. In the first play, it is Oedipus who tells him to get lost, and in the third one it is Creon but Tiresias is only really doing, in small, what the Oracle at Delphi is doing when she issues information which is quite literally worse than useless.

Partly as a result of Tiresias's too-late revelations, Oedipus and Jocasta start to unravel the mystery of what is going on but the final nail in the coffin comes when a messenger arrives from Corinth who seeks out Oedipus to inform him that he is now King of Corinth too, now that the man Oedipus thought was his natural father has died. By an amazing stroke of luck, the messenger knows all about the fact that Oedipus was adopted and can trace back the story to the shepherd who took him from Jocasta and could not leave him to die. When the shepherd arrives, Jocasta knows the game is up and takes an early bath, leaving Oedipus to learn the truth and poke his own eyes out in shock prior to taking up the life of a wandering beggar. The end.

As a religious tale of misery and you-must-not-doubt-the-gods it's on a par with the story of Lot and his daughters - morally repugnant with a lacing of incest and a complete disregard for justice. As drama, it assumes a complete lack of any sense of tension insofar that the audience knows what's going on from the start.

As a social mirror, it's interesting because of the message that it is selling which, one presumes, is a message that the audience wanted to buy. The "last shall be first; and the first last" message is an easy sell when life is unequal and social mobility tough—if you have decent hopes of moving up the ladder then revolutionary change isn't terribly interesting. But if social change is rare, then you can sell a lot more tickets this way. There's a lot of poor people to sell to than rich, and the poor will always be interested in dreams of the big time.

Were the priests and other rulers cynical enough to see this as a way to keep the rabble happy so that they enjoyed life in the lap of luxury, in much the same way as modern day politicians view cheap consumer goods? It's not obvious from reading these plays, although there is perhaps an interesting note connected with the second play.

Great painting; shit play
Oedipus at Colonus
Colonus was a small town just outside of Athens and just so happens to be the hometown of Sophocles. Does this mean that the writer had Democratic sympathies? Does that tell us something about the suffering of the great and the good in these three plays? No idea; I've only read these plays and I don't really have any insight into the man except that he seemed to know what the market wanted. But it's a thought.

Colonus is the weakest of the three plays, although it's not a strong field. It mostly consists of a creaking post-factual rationalisation of why Athens once won a battle against Thebes in the nearby fields.

The overarching theme of don't-count-your-chickens continues here with the crippled Oedipus the focus of a rivalry between his old adopted city of Thebes and the nearby Athens due to a prophecy that a great battle will be won by the city where he is buried. A fairly odd prophecy, but that's all the plot we get.

To say that this is badly written would be to take understatement to new heights. Nothing in it rings remotely true or seems rooted in real human experience. It's just another paint-by-numbers morality play without even the benefit of the first play's human drama of unknown incest being revealed. Oedipus arrives, sits down in a grove sacred to the Erinyes, the locals send for the king of Athens (Theseus - whether this is the Theseus or not I don't know, nor did I much care) then Creon arrives and demands Oedipus come back with him, Oedipus refuses, Theseus says he will protect Oedipus, and then one of Oedipus's sons arrives and tries to get him to go back to Thebes; Oedipus refuses. Blah blah blah.

Eventually something interesting does happen, however, just before the end. There is a clap of thunder and Oedipus announces, apropos of nothing, that it is Zeus's call for him to enter Hades. Furthermore, he is guided to the spot where his tomb will be (i.e., the spot in Sophocles's time which was supposed to be Oedipus's tomb) and apparently (it's not 100% clear) vanishes into the ground to leave an empty "tomb". The connections between Jesus and Dionysus have been talked about (and often overstated) in many places but this particular image is something I so strongly associate with Christianity that I was a bit surprised to find it here in what is basically a Dionysian tale of how those brought low can find themselves with the greatest gifts by the grace of the gods. So at least something worthwhile happened.

Back to the action: everyone cries. The end, and good riddance.

The copy I have (see first illustration) states that these three plays can not be treated as a strict trilogy in the modern sense and this is clearest in the first two plays. The Creon of Oedipus Rex is not the Creon of Colonus. In the former play, Creon is the noble friend who is unjustly maligned by Oedipus who accuses him of putting the toss-pot Tiresias up to utter his dire post-facto predictions of woe and horror. At the end of Rex, Creon begs Oedipus to stay in Thebes and be looked after but Oedipus, overcome by shame, refuses and departs. In Colonus the back-story is revised and Creon instead had thrown Oedipus out after his shame had died down a bit. This Creon is a greedy arrogant man wholly unrelated in character to the previous one. Oedipus's sons, too, are now firmly cast in the villain mould whereas before they were more ambiguous and shady off-stage characters with no firm leanings.

It's hard to know what audiences would have made of this. Today, we take this sort of minor character reworking as part of the process whereby a new writer looks again at an old subject. To see it in the same author is jarring, but if Oedipus at Colonus smells of anything it is of "contractual obligation". This is a piece churned out for a quick buck if I ever saw one, and characterisation is discarded in favour of getting through the page count in a hurry.

The third play is the middle one in terms of quality. It centres on Oedipus's daughter Antigone's attempts to arrange for a decent burial for her dead brother Polynices who we had last seen being a dickhead in Colonus where Oedipus roundly berated him as a hypocrite and a liar. Be that as it may, he's still Antigone's brother and when Creon (now played by Dick Dastardly in full panto-mode) decrees that Polynices (who has led a failed attempt to overthrow Creon) should be left out for the vultures to eat, she vows to give him the minimal rites even if it means her own death.

[BTW: there is another sister—Ismene—who does nothing in any of the plays and I can only assume was needed to allow some theatrical patron's daughter to get a credit on her CV.]

So the plot unfolds, this time with the virtue of some actual human motivation at the centre. A sub-plot appears to spoil this somewhat in the form of Haemon, Creon's son. Haemon was going to marry Antigone and is upset when his dad sentences her to death.

The problem is that it's not at all clear from the text whether Antigone has even heard of Haemon. She certainly gives no indication that anyone had told her that she was going to marry anyone. She does a bit of soliloquyfying about all the things she won't be able to do when she's dead and getting married is one of them but she never specifically says that marrying Haemon is something she was expecting to do.

Antigone is locked alive up in a tomb to starve and Creon goes about his business when who should appear but old no-eyes himself, Tiresias. Tiresias proceeds to point out that Creon is doomed, doomed I tell you, if he doesn't allow Polynices a proper burial. Creon points out that, if this is the case, then Tiresias is a right twat and should have mentioned that earlier, like during the several days while the whole thing played out, for example. Tiresias rebuts this by saying that he doesn't write this stuff and shuffles back off to his cottage in the countryside - "Donetellin".

Creon rushes off to release Antigone and discovers that she has hung herself (in a cave - not easy, but she's a bright girl and managed it) and the play starts to transform from a load of clockwork people into something resembling an attempt to portray real regret and guilt. As the gods shit all over Creon, Haemon commits suicide, leading Creon's wife to kill herself too, he realises too late that his pride has cost him everything and Sophocles manages to convey this in a text which is actually quite moving in places.

There's a strange sort of meta-play here in that Creon's lamentation about what has happened seems almost to put the playwrite in the place of the gods; the character has suffered at the hands of an unyielding plot rather than through the acts of unyielding gods and I was reminded of Pharoh in Exodus who wanted to let the Jews go but was prevented from exercising his free will by the unexpected and unreasonable intercession of Jehovah's Jedi-mind-tricks. The mental state of these characters paints them  in the end as victims of some outside force rather than as pure villains and in a strange way that makes them more human, sometimes more human than the heroes.

It's always tricky rating a play by how it reads. Plays are not supposed to be read, they're supposed to be watched. And Greek plays with their masks and particularly their choruses are very unusual visual experiences compared to, say, Death of a Salesman. But it's hard to see Oedipus at Colonus as anything other than a pile of crap whacked out by a writer under some sort of deadline pressure no matter how much leeway we give Sophocles.

The other two plays have some elements which even today are interesting or affecting but their fundamental nature as religious morality tales constrains the characters and plots in ways that make it hard to express any truth about how life is and we're left with expressions of why life is instead — because the gods decree that it should be so. In a world where that "why" is no longer even remotely acceptable, that doesn't leave very much for the modern reader.

The scores reflect my view of the plays as entertainment not as historical artefacts or even as illustrations of Ancient Greek beliefs. I would be quite keen to watch a production of Oedipus the King; I don't think I'd bother with either of the others.

d8 score: 3/1/2

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