restricted access 4. Reenvisioning the Hero
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160 four Reenvisioning the Hero American Oedipus The overmastering fates that broke men and women upon the wheels of torture that destiny might be fulfilled are far away from us; the gods that lived and cast deep shadows over men’s lives are turned to stone. The helpful human being who pays his way through the world finds it hard to imagine the creature kicking helpless in the traps of the gods. —New York Herald, February 4, 1882 King Oedipus certainly carries more woe to the square inch than anybody else that ever walked the stage, and it is woe of the very worst kind—without any basis of justice, without desert, without motivation, without solace, without hope. —New York Tribune, January 31, 1882 These two reviews of the 1882 professional version of the Harvard Oedipus Tyrannus (hereafter OT) discussed in chapter 1.1 typically assume a tension between oedipus as an innocent victim of the gods and the ideal American citizen, who optimistically struggles to earn his or her way in the world and to be rewarded for virtue and hard work. Sophocles’ hero in fact aggressively insists on discovering a fundamental civic pollution/his own human identity, reinterpreting his fate, and taking an extravagant and brutal responsibility for his unwitting crimes. American democracy has often preferred to look forward, or perhaps, like the chorus at OT’s conclusion, not to look at terrible truths at all—though Sophocles’ chorus does not in the end avert its gaze from oedipus. Freud’s insistence that Oedipus is compelling to its audience because the incestuous and parricidal hero has lived out humanity ’s (more specifically, men’s) own unconscious wishes (to kill the father and possess the mother) has sometimes compounded the problems posed by oedipus for a reluctant American audience. yet paradoxically, despite this fundamental resistance to what was typically understood to be Sophocles’ tragic vision, U.S. theater has preserved a significant , continuing, and evolving engagement with oedipus. The intransigent hero Reenvisioning the Hero 161 unjustly trapped by an incomprehensible, divinely constructed fate gradually assumed more dimensions as the democratic yet potentially tyrannical and hubristic leader, the unwitting cause of new kinds of pollution, the child deliberately abandoned by his parents, the partner of a wife/mother who developed increasing dramatic interest in her own right. Sophocles’ play sets up oedipus as a traditional scapegoat figure only to deny his departure to exile or death promised in the play’s early scenes (as well as affirmed in later plays, such as Oedipus at Colonus); the play separates him from his children and shuts him in his palace. yet OT’s final scene apparently offers him a new sense of identity/authority through his selfdestruction .1 To the chorus’s horror, oedipus thinks he has chosen the right selfpunishment for a fate that Apollo’s oracle predicted; he survives to confront that destiny and seems far more certain what it should entail than Thebes’ new leader, Creon. U.S. productions have taken particular advantage of the play’s perhaps puzzling (given the emphasis on the plague-ridden city in early scenes) move from a public to a more personal focus but have often revised the ending (or even the beginning) to serve new interpretations of oedipus’s story and its implications for his family and social world. As discussed earlier, Americans have been generally reluctant to invest resources in major productions of Greek tragedy on the professional, as opposed to the university, stage. Flamboyant female characters like Electra and Medea (see the introduction and chapter 5) periodically emerge as attractive vehicles for actresses , including many from abroad. Greek male heroes, however, like orestes and Pentheus, have at certain historical moments such as the 1960s–1970s been (like Electra) more attractive for their split psyches than for their leadership and public personas.2 The exception is Oedipus Tyrannus, which from its unusually public nineteenth-century debut has attracted regular substantial native productions , especially from the 1970s on, sometimes in combination with Oedipus at Colonus (hereafter OC) and Antigone. Despite a residual nineteenth-century reluctance on the part of critics to expose oedipus’s unwitting parricide and incest on the public stage (see chapter 1.1), OT was viewed from the start as the most stageworthy Greek tragedy, owing in no small part to its reputation in Aristotle’s Poetics as the perfectly structured Greek tragedy, and to the additional luster of a plot that resonated with both Freudian theory and detective...


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