Oedipus at Colonus (King’s College production and subsequent rereading)

After seeing King’s College do this in Greek last week I thought I’d read this, for the first time in 30 years. Quite different from what I’d remembered, and from what I’d told the kids on the train, and, strangely, from what I’d picked up at the KCL production itself: as a play, much more dramatic, and in terms of plot much more focused on Thebes.

As I read the first few scenes I got that feeling I get nowadays reading parts of the Iliad that there’s more going on, that there are more layers of irony, of winking, than the bare text and its conventional interpretations suggest; by losing the gestures and inflections of performance, whether bardic or theatrical, we lose so hugely much. What I was suspecting was that Oedipus and his daughters were perpetrating a scam on Theseus, as Medea does to his father Aegeus, pretending to be refugees from Thebes, faking the threat from Creon, in order to get protection from Athens. I imagined a Trojan Horse / Sinon scenario, with little clues, like Ismene’s arrival on an “Aetnaean horse”: “horse” for Troy, and “Aetnaean” as a hint at Athens’ defeat in Sicily in 413. But once we get into the climactic three-actor bit between Oedipus, Creon and Theseus, Oedipus’ respect for and dependance on Theseus are clearly genuine and uncynical.

Once he’s got Theseus’ protection, proved by the king’s material intervention in rescuing his daughters, Sophocles does the usual dramatist’s trick of shifting our sympathies: until now we’d felt for the exiled and persecuted Oedipus, but from where Theseus Socratically introduces the arrival of Polyneices (“But I’d like your advice about something which just happened on my way here, a small matter, but puzzling”) we cringe at his excessive anger, as, in true tragic fool style, he curses his sons to mutual slaughter. The Chorus and Antigone both warn him against excessive θυμός, but fail to stop him. So far so clear, and parallel in its furious rejection of rhetoric to Achilleus in Book 9 of the Iliad, but Sophocles introduces to this archetype a new discussion of death: note what the Chorus say between Oedipus’ reluctant agreement to see Polyneices and the actual meeting where he curses his sons:

Not to be born at all
Is best, far best that can befall,
Next best, when born, with least delay
To trace the backward way.

In cursing his sons to an early death he is, according to this, conferring a blessing. And from here on the play is a meditation on death: Polyneices and Eteocles’ from their father’s curse, and then Oedipus’ own. The play is a famous posthumous prize-winner for Sophocles, and he was born in Colonus, so there has to be a large element of Tempest-style personal adieu. This is framed as a twist on the end of the Iliad: there, Priam asks for, receives, and buries Hektor’s body; here attempts to have the blessing on their soil of Oedipus’ tomb fail, as he’s removed bodily by the gods. [Though we are told that Oedipus’ death at this place will result in an Athenian defeat of the Thebans at Colonus.]
And the play ends, as the Iliad, with a let down from sublimity: as in the epic the Trojans set guards against a possible Achaean treacherous attack, so Oedipus’ daughters, in brilliantly conveyed loss and confusion, want to hurry to Thebes, in what we know to be a doomed attempt to prevent their brothers killing each other, and the consequent terrible events of Sophocles’ alleged first play, Antigone: things, depressingly, come full circle.

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