Oedipus, but not a Rewriting
by Joseph Pearson
30 August 2021
For many years, the Epidauros Festival, with its setting in the most perfect theatre of the ancient world, encouraged the Schaubühne’s Thomas Ostermeier to work on a Greek classic. »I always refused«, the director tells me, »Because I don’t believe in the concept of destiny«.
It’s not surprising that a man whose work has been dedicated in the past years–in productions such as »Returning to Reims« and »A History of Violence« –to how individuals overcome limits such as class, gender, and heteronormativity, might baulk at the ancients’ theology. Ostermeier explains, »At the end of the day, every Greek play tells you not to cross borders. I could not deal with this cosmology, but the festival kept asking me to bring them a play. So, I asked Maja Zade«.
The German playwright, and long–time collaborator of Ostermeier, is sitting next to me in the offices of the Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin. Her chamber dramas, set in domestic settings (»abgrund«), or workplaces (»status quo«), capture the language of the everyday, but with an Attic clarity that the ancients would appreciate.
Zade tells me: »When Thomas suggested the classic, I thought: could this function as a psychological chamber play? Reading the Sophocles, consulting other sources, and swapping synopses, we realised we were both very interested in someone’s life completely collapsing from one moment to the next. We also found themes that resonate today«.
The result is a new work, Zade’s »oedipus«, in which the gods are absent.
But what happens to the plot structure and other dramatic elements when this major motor, the confrontation between man and the gods, is removed? What opportunities are there for a play when it exits Greek cosmology? These questions are linked with a fundamental task: what does it mean to make Oedipus contemporary? A play that is a close mapping of the Greek world onto the contemporary is unavoidably artificial since few of us live with the same beliefs as the ancient Athenians. We don’t have the same anthropology.
Ostermeier’s hesitation in staging the play in the first place, then, is not only a pre–condition for his collaboration, but also for staging an Oedipus that we can believe in.
If an audience member sits down in the ancient theatre of Epidauros for Zade’s premiere, looking for one »oedipus« to map directly onto the other, she will be (intentionally) disappointed. Maja Zade’s is not a rewriting of the Sophocles.
»I never attempted a réécriture«, Zade explains, » But there were elements from the original that I knew I would keep: that it would occur in one day, that the cast of central characters would be quite small. I thought of the motifs and themes that were interesting. Unavoidably, it became more complicated than my other plays because the plot of »Oedipus« is more complicated than other plays. And we also talked about the title: whether it should be called »oedipus« or not, but I thought it was a playful reference to the classic. I wouldn’t say it’s in dialogue with Sophocles. Instead, it’s inspired by it«.
And yet, the contemporary audience might still expect certain alignments with the classic. This joy was also shared by the ancients, who were familiar with the myths and alert to the variations particular to each tragedian. They experienced something delicious, for example, identifying the changes in Euripides’ retelling of Aeschylus’s »Oresteia« stories.
Zade tells me, »I would personally never come up with such an outrageous plot, about killing the father, about incest with the mother. You would think it’s completely far–fetched and melodramatic. But there was joy in the craft of it, of putting it together in a psychological way that you think is not preposterous. That was challenging, and fun–getting it to work«.
I suggest, »The audience enjoys this too. There is strangely a pleasure in watching the completion of a story that you know already–«
»Yes, you expect that there will be a great revelation. But how will you get there? Of course, it’s enjoyable to drop little hints in the text that the audience can appreciate but the characters don’t yet grasp«.
Thomas continues, »It’s not what is happening, it’s how it’s happening. That is the pleasure. To watch it unfold. My advice to the audience going to Epidauros: it’s good if you know the play. You can appreciate what Maja did with it, the changes, the nuances. There is a bigger joy if you know the myth«.
Despite this distancing from the classic, taken by playwright and director, there is a resonance between today and the 5th–century Athens of Sophocles.
Ancient cosmology is, of course, also a motor of suspense. It gives sense to the plot of these plays. There is the familiar structure of mere mortals lacking the perfect knowledge of the gods. In their shortcomings and hubris, they suffer for their scientific pretensions, their illusions of free will, for not accepting their lot. The audience anticipates reversal and nemesis. Fate’s punishment ultimately provides both a climax and a theological lesson, even if it is sometimes questioned by the more daring of the ancient playwrights.
This pattern is epitomised in what Aristotle dubbed the »most perfect tragedy«, Sophocles’s »Oedipus the King«, in which the hero famously becomes a detective, looking for the reasons why Thebes is beset by a terrible plague. Oedipus cannot fathom, despite all the evidence before him, that the detective and perpetrator are one: that »I… killed my father and married my mother infamously. Now I am godless and child of impurity, begetter in the same seed that created my wretched self. If there is any ill worse than ill, that is the lot of Oedipus« (l. 1357 ff.). Oedipus gores out his eyes, to atone symbolically for this blindness.
In Zade’s play, questions of power might not be between man and god. But there are conflicts more credible and familiar to contemporary audiences that drive the action forward and create tension. The detective work is still in action, but it concerns an ecological disaster, and the struggle is between two ways of dealing with the accident–differing forms of rule that are revealed during the investigation.
Zade explains, »I think the play is about power and how you govern. How you exercise your power and how men and women use it differently. Something I observed about the Sophocles is that Jocasta barely figures, except when she runs off and kills herself. It was important to me that it was also her story and that there was an equal number of men and women in the cast. That’s why there is Theresa and why I make a woman the boss«.
Thomas adds, »And, especially in the first two acts, Maja looks at another power struggle: the younger woke generation, represented by Oedipus, conflicts with the patriarchy, represented by an old family–led business, and managers who believe that the company comes before everything. It is what makes the play so vivid, relevant and surprising: there are many overlapping concepts of acting out power«.
Oedipus, as a representative of a principled, younger generation, is interested in truth and doing what is righteous–his flaw, one could argue. He comes up against the old guard–perhaps as a mapping of the struggle between Oedipus and Creon in the ancient play–because he relentlessly pursues the cause of the ecological accident. But the older generation looks for ways to cover up their misdoings.
An intriguing continuity with the old play is that those who look for truth are still defeated. But not by the gods anymore, but by a system of corporate governance that is outside of divine morality. In this sense, the old guard of business interests arguably resembles the gods, who themselves are outside morality and, with only a few exceptions, do what they please. In this way, the company’s moral position resonates with our contemporary global crises.
Zade says, »Without making it too obvious, the way these characters discuss running the company is also how political discussion works. How honest are you? How do you spin things? How do you run a country?«
The play revolves around an ecological accident, and so, by extension, how we are managing the planet. What longterm plan do we have when something pollutes the land? This phrase, »polluting the land«, is precisely the language of the Sophocles when he describes a pestilence gripping Thebes. In the end, it is Oedipus who is the cause - just as we all might consider our relationship to the daily, and distracted, incremental decimation of our natural environment.
There is something much sadder and more deterministic in this play than the Athenian original, in that the pestilence is a stain imprinted on the land that is not so easily removed. It’s almost indelible. In the ancient world, there was also hope that the gods might correct, or reverse, man’s follies. Nemesis can punish, but it can also save. Without this theology, no one is coming to help us.
Zade tells me, »We thought about what kind of ecological disasters might befall those running a large, successful company –«
Ostermeier continues, »The important thing was that there needed to be a connection between Oedipus’ actions and the ecological disaster. Knowing we wanted that, our possibilities were limited. We thought he could be part of nuclear catastrophe. We also considered a pandemic but found it difficult to imagine how it could be Oedipus’s responsibility. I am glad we did not go that route. We needed a more metaphorical solution, not an issue play about one–and–a–half years after Covid–19. That would be too banal«.
I ask, »Is there, nonetheless, a shadow of the Corona years over the production?«
Ostermeier replies, »Not only one-and-a-half years of Corona but everything linked to global crisis: the heat in the west coast, the 45 C temperatures experienced in Vancouver, the fires in Greece. Not only the floods we experienced in Germany, but also those in Bangladesh and China. All are manmade global catastrophes–«
»Even Covid–19 is spread by ourselves–« I say.
»Yes«, Thomas continues, »And this connects to my understanding of the »Oedipus« play. Let me tell you an anecdote. When the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris happened, on 13th November 2015, we were scheduled to perform director Romeo Castellucci’s production of »Oedipus the Tyrant« in Paris the next day. It was a Schaubühne production. Many in our company refused to go, out of fear. Others thought it was an important way to show solidarity with the Parisians. The intendant of the Théâtre de la Ville, where we performed, even stood up in front of the audience to defend Enlightenment values: we must perform even when we are in danger, even when there is terrorism«.
»Watching that play, I understood how I read »Oedipus«. The play is about a problem that puts a society in danger. You investigate the source of the problem and find out it’s yourself. This is my reading also of those terrorist attacks. All the Parisian terrorists grew up in Paris. They are part of our society. Not some extremists from Afghanistan. They are people expelled from our society. At the heart of the play are such problems, our divisions between rich and poor, migrants versus the documented, the ecological catastrophes we enable. So, when we go through a global pandemic, what is the appropriate story to put on stage? It’s not Camus’s »La Peste«. It’s »Oedipus«. It’s a play about where we are at the moment, because we are the problem –«
In this way, we return to the beginning of the discussion – how, now, we have no gods to blame.
by Maja Zade
Director: Thomas Ostermeier
Premiered on 19 September 2021Video