Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
Catch this BBC Radio 3 drama this evening at 9pm if you can.
Christopher Eccleston stars in Sophocles’ great ‘Oedipus the King’.
It sounds like it might be quirky, but could be interesting.
First performed in ancient Athens way back in 429 BC, the story tracks the rise and traumatic and tragic fall of doomed Oedipus (famous to us from Freud’s Oedipus Complex).
It was written during the golden days of Athens’ democracy in a city where the philosophers Socrates and Plato were establishing our Western ways of thought and debate.
Sophocles’ theatre wasn’t just entertainment; performances were part of religious festivals, serving to bind together the citizens and promote a cultural connection and identity. For these were times that followed the routing of the expanding Persian empire and were performed while Athens dominated the poleis (independent city states) of the geographical region we now think of as Greece, the Aegean islands and the coastal colonies in modern Western Turkey. The search was on for who they were as the triumphant Athenians and as human beings and all that entails.
Imagine the play being performed in the open air, in the shadow of the Acropolis with its recent magnificent Parthenon.
Painted scenery was used for the very first time by Sophocles – imagine the freshness of seeing plays with a visual backdrop for the first time. This touch of realism would be quite a shock.
The dynamics were new too; yes, the actors were still all male, but Sophicles introduced a third actor in the scenes. Previously there were just two actors plus the chorus chanting their impassioned narrative. The third actor increased the interaction and conflict on stage, greatly heightening the atmosphere for the audience and the possibilities within the storyline.
That audience would have been very familiar with the myth of Oedipus. I won’t give spoilers here, but that concept would have been baffling to the ancient Greeks. It wasn’t the plot that mattered, it was how you tell the story, what ‘truths’ are revealed by the telling, what messages were given.
Poetic language was important and is interestingly very much played on in this evening’s radio drama – the novelty aspect would have been fascinating to the Greeks.
The dramatic irony was the thing – the audience know what’s going to happen but the characters on stage don’t, so we get to assess, judge even, and contemplate their responses to the events that unfold around them. How do we think we would respond in those situations?
The Greeks also acknowledged the power of fate; what can we do, indeed what should we do, when fate as it always did, steers your life.
Such involvement created the ‘catharsis’ that Aristotle later wrote about. Watching a play was a healing process; we become absorbed in the characters, we feel pity and fear for them, we share the horror and dread and urge them on or tense up as the inevitable tragedy unfolds.
It’s not so different to our enjoyment of a good film or play that takes you through the highs and lows, makes you laugh and makes you cry; how often do you hear ‘oh, I feel better for that!’ as theatre goers wipe a tear way as they leave the performance.
There are no laughs in Oedipus – this is Greek tragedy. But after a festival where three tragedies would have been performed, the Greek audience would get to watch a comedy or bawdy satyr play.
Listen this evening or on iPlayer and be transported back to the dawn of Western theatrical drama.
Available on iPlayer later too.