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  • Dramaturgical Criticism: A Case Study of The Gospel at Colonus
  • Alicia Kae Koger (bio)

In developing his concept for The Gospel at Colonus, director and librettist Lee Breuer seized upon the idea of recreating Sophocles’s classic tragedy Oedipus at Colonus in a contemporary setting. Breuer told an interviewer that he sought to create an “American Classicism” that would draw upon distinctive elements of American language and culture, rather than upon European models (51). He found in the black Pentecostal church service and its music a vehicle for various dramatic and theatrical elements of Sophocles’s drama, including the scapegoat who suffers for the greater good of his community, the theme of forgiveness and redemption in the next life, and choral participation in the unfolding story. Moreover, the fervent singing, dancing, and testifying that takes participants to the heights of religious ecstasy gives music a role in the overall cathartic effect. Working with composer Bob Telson and members of several well-established gospel ensembles, Breuer developed a modern-day adaptation of Sophocles’s tragedy of the blind and exiled Oedipus that he hoped would emulate the experience of theatregoers during the golden age of Greek tragedy.

As an audience member of the Goodman Theatre’s exhilarating 1990 production of The Gospel at Colonus, I was convinced that Breuer had thoroughly succeeded in his goal. However, the initial impact of the performance later gave way to questions about how the show actually worked in production, how the balance of an Afrocentric and European aesthetic had been achieved, and how a dramaturgical analysis might foster insights into this work for those interested in mounting future productions. Following the principles of “dramaturgical criticism” suggested by Richard Hornby in Script into Performance, I employed the tools and skills of a production dramaturg to analyze The Gospel at Colonus (63). This approach involved a study not only of the written text, but of the 1988 original cast recording, a videotape of the 1985 Philadelphia production, reviews, and critical articles on the production. Because comparison of the play with Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus revealed the centrality of music to Breuer’s adaptation, my research led to further study of the history and aesthetic of gospel music, as well as to attendance at a Pentecostal church service. 1 Most significantly, perhaps, I listened repeatedly [End Page 23] to Breuer and Telson’s songs, trying to hear what they told me about the musical itself.

A structural analysis of the verbal, spatial, and temporal patterns of the play lends itself particularly well to the critical analysis of musicals because the music itself provides a ready-made temporal pattern—its rhythm. And the music, in turn, provides the key to a richer understanding of Breuer and Telson’s creation. The structure of The Gospel at Colonus is notable for its layering, an effect derived directly from the gospel mode itself. Mellonee V. Burnim has described this characteristic complexity:

The structures of both the [Black Pentecostal] worship service and the gospel song have built-in mechanisms for moving subtly from the simple to the complex. Traditionally, Black church services begin with periods of devotional prayer, testimony, and congregational song; later, they move to the choir processional and the singing of special selections. They then culminate with the sermon. In this way, time is effectively manipulated to build intensity. Likewise, a gospel song itself moves from the simple to the complex by gradually adding layers of hand-claps, instrumental accompaniment, and/or solo voices.


In fact, each song in The Gospel in Colonus can be viewed as a microcosm of the whole, composed on the principle of layering Burnim describes. Most of the songs begin simply with a solo voice accompanied by one musical instrument. Layers of sound are then progressively added through choral harmony, the addition of instruments playing increasingly complex orchestrations, and the introduction of different rhythmic patterns through clapping and percussion. But the densely layered, cumulatively building sound in gospel songs also models the work’s broader structure. Broadly defined, the layers in The Gospel at Colonus derive from ancient Greek, Christian, and contemporary African American culture. Although these three cultures are by no means mutually...

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pp. 23-35
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