It’s Pandemonium and Plague!

As I work on and think about Oedipus the King and my musical adaptation Bloody King Oedipus!, I continually come to new understanding of the original play and how it works. It's truly one of the richest pieces of theatre I've encountered, and it somehow feels surprisingly contemporary. I've been reading a really wonderful book called Searching for Oedipus: How I Found Meaning in an Ancient Master­piece, by Ken Glazer, which has given me some amazing insights into this material.

I had the fun of interviewing Glazer for my Stage Grok podcast, which you can listen to here.

One thing that has really struck me -- I realize that King Oedipus and Queen Jocasta are a lot like today's Trump supporters. There's something really terrible they sort of know but can't possibly bring themselves to admit, because the cost of admitting it seems just too high.

In the case of Trump supporters, they largely voted for him because he's a "bad boy," and those voters believed Washington need to be "shaken up." Be careful what you wish for. Now they have to watch one outrage after another, one corruption and cover-up after another, one embarrassment after another. But if they admit that Trump really is as incompetent, as amoral, and as ignorant as he is, then they have to admit that they were conned by a decidedly amateurish and transparent con man.

Likewise, in the Oedipus story, it seems mind-boggling that Oedipus and Jocasta could hear this parade of evidence, yet still cling to their fragile constructed reality. You might wonder why it takes them so long to finally put the pieces together and understand the big picture. The cost of that understanding is massive -- literally life-destroying.

They have an incentive of epic proportions for cowering behind their confirmation bias. So much rides on maintaining the reality they've constructed, yet that reality becomes less and less stable with each scene, like a high-stakes game of Jenga.

Another thing I've noticed -- almost all the "important" action of the story takes place offstage and the characters tell us about it. That's supposed to be a Big Theatre No-No. (Even though Shakespeare did it a lot.) But the deeper I get into the work, the more clearly I see that the most important action does not take place offstage. In fact, the most important action of the story is the revealing and reacting to the stories of the offstage action. The show isn't about those offstage events; it's about the truth coming out at last and the consequences that brings. It's about what Oedipus does with the information he gets.

Almost the entire action of the play is storytelling. And significantly, the audience is always ahead of the characters. We always know more than they do. And as we move forward in time in the present, we move backward in time in the past, with each story set earlier than the last. The first story (the Thebans explaining their current plight) is set in the present moment. The next story (Creon's trip to the Oracle) is in the immediate past. Then we go back to Oedipus beating the Sphinx, then back to Laius' murder, going all the way back literally to Oedipus' birth. Or as Glazer puts it, "As we move through the play, we travel further and further into the past."

It repeatedly blows my mind that Sophocles wrote this play around 429 BC!

Oedipus the King (and Bloody King Oedipus!) parallels, in certain ways, a modern murder mystery (which wouldn't be invented for centuries). Oedipus collects witnesses and clues throughout the whole story, to get at an elusive truth. But the mystery shifts. Glazer writes, "With Oedipus Rex, Sophocles both invented the detective genre and bent it at the same time, presenting a sophisticated twist on the detective format we've since come to know so well."

At first, the mystery we're following is Who Killed King Laius? But about halfway through, the mystery shifts to the question of Who is Oedipus and Where Did He Come From? We almost forgot about Laius' murder for a while -- along with the plague and misfortune that was originally the entire focus of the investigation. As Glazer writes, "The play is no longer about the killing of an old king; it's about the attempted murder of a newborn prince many years earlier."

I don't know why it astounds me to find so many elements of modern playwriting in this play. Maybe it's partly because Sophocles was writing about two thousand years before Shakespeare took pen to page. And yet, these are rich, complex, contradictory, deeply human characters. And the play is full of meaningful images whose meaning often comes clear only at the end of the show, like the dozens of references to (literal and metaphorical) seeing and blindness.

There's also the issue of feet. The famous Riddle of the Sphinx, which only Oedipus can solve, is all about feet. We find out late in the play that Oedipus' name means "swollen foot" -- though some scholars argue a better translation is "know foot." Though he can solve the Sphinx's riddle, he can't seem to solve his own, which also comes down to feet.

There are also father figures everywhere in the play, not incidentally including Oedipus' adopted father King Polybus and his real father, King Laius, who sent Oedipus to be murdered but who ended up murdered by Oedipus instead. But most of the other main characters are father figures as well. Glazer writes, "Each is old enough to be Oedipus's father and each performs a specifically paternal fucntion in Oedipus's life: Tiresias fosters Oedipus's pyschic good, by having kept the truth a secret; Creon his political good, by allowing him to rule; the Corinthian messenger his social good, by having brought him to the king and queen of Corinth; and the Theban shepherd his biological good, by saving him from death as an infant."

What makes the play seem even more modern is something Glazer noticed: "The progression of the play from Teiresias through Creon and the Corinthian messenger to the Theban shepherd represents in effect a voyage back in time, a 'recovery of increasingly earlier and therefore more deeply buried memories, exactly as in a psychoanalysis.'"

Another thing that makes it feel more contemporary is the ambiguous and ironic relationship these characters have with religion, morality, the oracles, etc. Morality and piety are up for debate here. Glazer writes:
But the most ironic, and to me the most interesting, of all these scenarios is the one in which a prophecy that something terrible will happen is fulfilled by the very steps taken to keep it from happening. Now, usually, when you predict that something bad will happen, you do so to try to prevent it; the prediction is in the form of "If you don't do such and such or stop doing such and such, this or that will happen." Sometimes the prediction is taken to heart and disaster averted. As Yuval Noah Harari puts it in his book Homo Deus, "What's the point of making predictions if they cannot change anything?" Sometimes the prediction is ignored and disaster ensues, as when a smoker ignores cancer warnings or the Trojans ignore Cassandra's predictions of doom. In the latter situation, the problem is a failure to take the gloomy warning seriously. But sometimes the prophecy comes true precisely because it was taken seriously; paradoxically, the recipient would have been better off ignoring it altogether: That's the self-fulfilling prophecy, and Oedipus Rex provides us with not just one but two of the greatest examples of it. In fact, the examples are so vivid that the great twentieth-century philosopher of science Karl Popper ( 1902-1994) invoked Oedipus when he analyzed the phenomenon of the selffulfilling prophecy, calling it the "Oedipus effect."

We like to think irony is a modern device. I often talk about how American culture became fiercely ironic in the 1960s. But irony goes waaay back. Glazer writes about the play's title:
If you were to look at multiple translations of Oedipus Rex, you might be puzzled by a curious thing about them: In some translations, the play is called Oedipus Rex; in others it's called Oedipus Tyrannus. Why the different names? What's the difference?

I, too, was puzzled at first. When I looked into it, I learned that, actually, there was an important distinction in ancient Greece between a ruler who was a "tyrannus" ("tyrant") and one who was a "rex." "Tyrannus" means "tyrant," though not in the modern sense of a bad, autocratic ruler; it simply refers to a ruler who acquired power through his own actions, possibly but not necessarily through the use of violence. A "rex," a king, on the other hand, is a hereditary ruler.

But that's more than just interesting trivia. Oedipus thinks he's a Tyrannus, but he's really a Rex. And the difference between those two is the entire story. As Glazer puts it, "In a sense, he learned he was legitimate and illegitimate at the same time."

Another reason the play feels modern is inherent in classical tragedy. Glazer writes:
After Aristotle, the most influential thinker on tragedy was probably [philosopher Georg] Hegel. I've always found Hegel almost impossible to understand, but his theory of tragedy is actually comprehensible, and it isn't bad. His big idea about tragedy is that it's about conflict, not between right and wrong but between right and right. The best and highest form of tragedy, for Hegel, is one in which the protagonists are in conflict but each one is right in his own way, or at least there's no clear right or wrong.

That makes everything more complex, more ambiguous, more modern. Back in 429 BC, no less! Glazer goes on:
Nietzsche, has also played a big role in the debate about the meaning of tragedy (his first major publication was a work titled The Birth of Tragedy). Like Hegel, he thought conflict is at the heart of tragedy, but for Nietzsche the conflict was between two forces: the wild, untamed force of nature (which he called "Dionysian," after the god of pleasure and drunken merriment) and the force of careful thought and reason (called "Apollonian," after the god of reason and light). In Nietzsche's view, Greek life and Greek drama were far more Dionysian -- in a word, wild -- than was acknowledged by his contemporaries, who held that ancient Greece was all "sweetness and light."

According to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy represents the thrilling clash and combination of these two forces, the Dionysian in the form of the chorus and the Apollonian in the form of dialogue among the characters.

It's easy for us to stay a safe, ironic distance from this ancient story of prophecies and oracles. But how many people today still take the Bible literally, and literally believe in the Book of Revelation? Which is nothing but a bunch of prophecies, much more bizarre than the prophecies we hear from Tiresias or the Delphic Oracle.

We might even go so far as to call the outspoken Queen Jocasta anti-religious, or even atheistic, since she calls bullshit on the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi (and by extension, all prophecies and all oracles). Again, that feels very modern to me. She sings in Bloody King Oedipus!:
What oracles predicted
Often ends up self-inflicted;
Don’t believe a fucking thing.

It has been such a blast getting to know the original play and working on my Gilbert & Sullivan adaptation of it. And like I told Ken Glazer when I interviewed him, I feel like I've joined this secret club of people who know and love Oedipus the King. It's a cool club.

It will be interesting to see how my musical version is received and understood by people who don't know the original play at all. The reading will be very helpful for me, in seeing what the audience does and doesn't get, if they seem to get lost at all, do they get engaged in the emotions, etc.

So come join us! Our public reading of Bloody King Oedipus! is Monday night, January 6 at the Marcelle Theater in the Grand Center Arts District. Click here for more info.

Long Live the Musical!