Saturday, December 7, 2013

Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles -- Comments and Advice

Comments from: Bernard Norcott-Mahany
Some thoughts on Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" for January's meeting (January 31), and some recommended translations:

Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus – stuff to keep in mind as you read the play.

I think an argument can be made for Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus as Sophocles’ greatest play. But it does not follow the pattern that Aristotle sets out in his Poetics as the ideal for tragedy (great man has a fall [peripeteia – “reversal”] because of some hamartia [usu. translated as “tragic flaw,” but may simply mean “mistake” – the literal meaning is “missing the mark”]). Oedipus has a great fall in the Oedipus Rex, but not here, where the story told is that of the heroicization of Oedipus (Oedipus recognized as a “hero” complete with shrine and sacred precinct). If the Oedipus Rex told the story of the fall of Oedipus from savior king of Thebes to blind beggar, this story takes that blind beggar and brings him into the society of the gods. And if that play is all about riddles (Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, “What goes on 4 legs at dawn, 2 legs at noon, and 3 at dusk?” – Answer is “man,” but spends the whole play trying to figure out two bigger riddles: “Who am I?” and “What is the nature of man’s existence?”, the answers not being pleasant or comforting), this play is all about mystery, for the blind Oedipus leaves this plane for the great beyond, blessed where he had been formerly cursed. 

Plot summary: The blind Oedipus, being led by his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, arrives at Colonus, an area of Athens, where he at first confronted by the Athenian citizens who make up the chorus. The Athenians are afraid of Oedipus and feel that he brings pollution to their land. But the great king, Theseus, is not one to turn away strangers, but welcomes Oedipus to Athens. Oedipus receives two embassies in Colonus, one from his son, Polynices, who is leading an expedition of Argives (Greeks from Argos in Southern Greece) against his city of Thebes, in hopes to get the crown he feels is rightly his. The other embassy is led by Creon, Oedipus’ brother in law and uncle on behalf of Thebes. Both ambassadors hope that Oedipus will join their cause, for oracles have suggested that Oedipus’ presence now brings blessings on whatever land or group hosts Oedipus. Creon even goes so far as to take Antigone and Ismene hostage in hopes of forcing Oedipus’ hand. Theseus rescues them and puts Creon and his forces to flight. And then the blind Oedipus leads Theseus to a cave which he enters. There is a bright light and Oedipus has disappeared, and the area of his “disappearance” becomes a shrine to the hero, Oedipus, and is seen as a blessing for Athens, who had welcomed Oedipus when he needed a friend. 

Other fun facts to know about the play: this was the last great Greek tragedy performed (of those which survive), performed in 401 BC when the city of Athens was in something of shambles, having lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta (in 404 BC). No longer a regional power, Athens was at a low point when this play was produced by Sophocles’ grandson (also named Sophocles). The older Sophocles, aged 90 when he wrote the play, died in 406 BC and never saw the play produced. There is a story that Sophocles’ sons brought him to court to have him declared non compos mentis in that last year of his life. Sophocles was quite wealthy and his sons were hoping to get control of that wealth. At the trial, Sophocles read a selection from the still incomplete Oedipus at Colonus as his only defense. 

The jury found overwhelmingly in his favor, so that the sons not only lost their bid to get his estate, but they had to pay a large fine to the city for bringing a frivolous lawsuit to court. I believe that the curse Oedipus levels at both his sons, Polynices and Eteocles, which is quite blistering and intense, was likely composed by Sophocles after the trial, and that Sophocles had his own sons in mind as the target of that venom. 

Of all the tragedians, Sophocles has the most “heroic” heroes, bigger than life figures, and uncompromising in their integrity (some would call them pig-headed). Sophocles himself was a man who had served Athens throughout his life in the political realm, and lived through Athens’ meteoric rise (after the War with the Persians, which ended in 479 BC) to its great fall (losing the Peloponnesian War to Sparta in 404 BC, and the oligarchy that took over Athens following that loss). Not only did Sophocles love his city, but he also loved his area, Colonus, where he lived his entire life. And so, at the end of that long life, after 80+ years of passing by that shrine to Oedipus, and hearing stories of Oedipus’ heroicization, he chose to return to that figure who towered in his own work (the Oedipus Rex was a very influential play – Aristotle singles it out as the epitome of Greek tragedy) one last time, to tell the story of a blessing, when the gods elevated a fallen man, and the city of Athens showed itself a gracious host, and the whole thing took place in Sophocles’ own neighborhood. 

I see this play as a story of redemption, of raising someone up out of the darkness. A lot of Greek literature focuses on downfall, how no one, no matter how lucky, is exempt from a terrible fall from grace and power. The chorus at the end of the Oedipus Rex spells this out – Look at Oedipus, a man thought the most fortunate of all who lived, now fallen. Here, at a moment that might have been Athens’ darkest, Sophocles chose instead to look into the light. 

If you get a chance, I’d recommend that you get a look at The Gospel at Colonus, an adaptation of the Oedipus at Colonus. The authors of that Broadway show from the mid-80s examine the Oedipus story through the lens of the African-American gospel experience. The chorus is now a gospel choir, and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama play Oedipus (that’s right – there are five [more than five actually] Oedipodes). Reflecting a tradition that looks to God’s mercy and light in times of worry and darkness, this production, I think, captures the beauty of Sophocles’ play. You should be able to find a DVD of the production at the library (KCPL and Johnson County, for sure, and JCCC). 

As to translations of the play: I would recommend the following 5 (there are other good translations available), that by Robert FitzGerald, that by Robert Fagles, that by D.A. Slavitt, that by Paul Roche, and that by E.F. Watling. If you can find the one by W.B. Yeats – that would be worth a read, as the greatest Irish poet tackling a story of human woe full of mystery – well, that’s an unbeatable combination. There is also a translation of the play by Richard Jebb online at

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