OEDIPUS REX: Tragedy in Drama and Dance
Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles, tells the story of a man from Thebes who kills his father and marries his mother despite valiant efforts to escape this horrible fate. The play is a Greek tragedy in which fate is predestined and controlled absolutely by greater forces. Oedipus, our protagonist, was doomed by Apollo’s oracle to commit sins of murder and incest from his birth:
And to Laius and his wife Jocasta a son was born.
Before even a name had been give to this infant…
His life was clouded with the presage if disaster…
He was destined one day to kill his father,
And to become his own mother’s husband. (23)
The story is a struggle between Oedipus and his destiny as he attempts to flee from the path that had been placed before him. He leaves Corinth, the home of his adopted parents, to thwart the predicted events from occurring, but in doing so walks closer to the very fate he is trying to avoid. Three terms of tragedy reflect the tragic irony and imminent destiny that is the core of a classical tragedy. The devastation of a hero obliviously trapped in the hands of the gods can be explained through the terms hubris, irony of fate, and catastrophe. These elements present in the script are also found in Martha Graham’s modern expressionist ballet, Night Journey, which expresses the play from Jocasta’s point of view.
Hubris is the fatal flaw of pride that gives Oedipus the bravery to fight the oracle’s prophecy but also blinds him from seeing the truth, therefore eventually leading to his downfall. Oedipus’ pride in defying the gods creates false assurance of his success in evading his fate, and this security allows Oedipus to seek his identity with confidence. Despite warnings from Teresias, Creon and his own mother, Oedipus continues his search, ignoring and insulting those who are essentially trying to protect him. Because of his pride, he fails to understand the intent of their warnings and assumes other reasons for their guarded behaviour:
(To Creon): “Have you the face to stand before my door,
Proved plotter against my life, thief of my crown?” (40)
(Regarding Jocasta): “Go, someone; fetch the shepherd. Leave the lady
To enjoy her pride of birth.” (55)
Oedipus accuses Creon of plotting to steal his throne and dismisses Jocasta as an arrogant noble, scared of discovering her husband as slave-born. In the ballet, Oedipus’ superiority is presented as he climbs the steps made by the sculptures to stand magnificently at the summit. His high status of king is established when he stands above Jocasta, putting his leg over her shoulder, and by the draping robe that displays a powerful stature. The dramatic length and folds that serve this purpose ironically also represents Oedipus’ tangled situation as he pulls and wraps the circular fabric around his arms to find the material overwhelmingly twisted. His difficulty in collecting the infinite fabric of the robe that represents his royalty is also a foreshadowing of a dark, underlying secret. Ultimately, the flaw of pride in Oedipus’ character causes his insistence in proving the stars wrong as well as his ignorance in refusing to realize the truth, until it is too late.
The fact that Oedipus is completely unaware of the implications of his search and that other characters, the chorus, and the audience or reader comprehend more of his fate than he creates irony. After determining that capturing Laius’ murderer would absolve the nation, Oedipus states the punishment that awaits him:
No matter who he may be, he is forbidden
Shelter or intercourse with any man
In all this country over which I rule…
Expelled from every house, unclean, accursed,
In accordance with the Pythian oracle. (32)
Pronouncing this sentence of banishment, Oedipus seals his own future; he enforces the will of the gods yet he himself is the one who defies them. By capturing his enemy, he unknowingly captures himself. In Night Journey, irony of fate is found in the use of a prop that symbolizes the relationship between the king and queen, and its curse. In slow and precise movements, Oedipus and Jocasta use a rope to entwine themselves in poses of affection and sensuality, signifying their union in marriage. In contrast to their dance is chaos presented simultaneously in the music and the choreography of the corps, or chorus. The women jump to crashing chords, perform series of sharp rolls and contractions, and cover their eyes as if to shield themselves from the horror of the contemporary pas de deux. The interlacing rope is an interpretation of another relationship: that of mother and child, connected by an umbilical cord. This same cord is later the tool used to commit Jocasta’s suicide; the double bond between her and Oedipus proved fatal. When perceived differently from reality, certain actions and situations gain significance as they can cause a change of fortune and reversal of fate when the truth is revealed.
The weakness of pride and dramatic irony in both play and ballet lead to the catastrophe, the devastating defeat of the hero. In fighting destiny, Oedipus ends up completing it. This unconscious self-condemnation is also performed by the character Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. The two protagonists possessed hubris, were influenced by supernatural forces, and believed in their abilities to change their fates – Oedipus denies the oracle’s prophecy while Macbeth follows the witches’ predictions. However, despite these similarities, their circumstances differ: Macbeth deliberately chooses to commit murder against his conscience but Oedipus has no idea of the true consequences of his actions. While Macbeth is therefore responsible for his terrible conclusion, in a Classical tragedy, the hero is powerless and will meet his destiny regardless of his choices. With no chance of exonerating himself, Oedipus accepts his misfortune and in a final act of desperation punishes himself to a most awful death, destroying his own eyes to forever wander the earth.
Where is there any beauty for me to see?
Where loveliness of sight and sound? Away!
Lead me quickly away
Out of this land. I am lost,
Hated of gods, no man so damned. (63)
The classical tragedy of Oedipus Rex portrays the impossible battle between man and his destiny. Time is inevitable, and so is the fate that with all certainty will be fulfilled. In Night Journey, Teresias, the blind prophet, is the last character to be seen, crossing the stage with his staff. The steady pounding of his stick demands authority in the complete silence following Jocasta’s death. It is the last, echoing sound, symbolizing the advance of time, sealing of the prophecy, and continuing power of fate.
Published from June 14, 2012.
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