Monday, January 3, 2011

Three Theban Plays

The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at ColonusThe Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The magisterial Robert Fagles presents this volume of the most powerful of Greek Tragedies: the Oedipus plays of Sophocles. His introduction to Greek tragedy is beautiful, and his introductions to each of the three plays are brilliantly luminous. Historical background is provided, and the notes throughout each play make the reading rewarding and rich, deepening the pleasure and the understanding of the reading of Greek drama. In most collections of Sophocles's Oedipus plays the three tragedies are presented in chronological order of the events described. Here Fagles presents the stories in their historical order of presentation; Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus.

Sophocles was by far the most acclaimed of the three tragedians in his time, notable for his introduction of the third actor onto the stage, thus taking much of the focus that belonged to the chorus and placing the heart of action on the characters. This makes him perhaps a more accessible tragedian than Aeschylus to an audience unfamiliar with Greek drama as these plays contain more action and dialogue.

The power of Sophocles can be more greatly appreciated with a little background on his time. Living in the "Golden Age" of Athens, Sophocles presented the familiar stories of the classical figures of Greek mythology in a manner that was highly relevant to his audience. This period of Greek enlightenment produced many new ideas, and one with perhaps the most impact was the rise of reason among the educated Athenians. As we see today in the early 21st century, there appeared to be a correlation between rising education and falling religiosity. In 5th century Athens the gods were dying.

We see hints at social commentary in the most famous of the three plays; Oedipus the King. Oedipus's wife/mother positively mocks the power of Fate as well as the deliverer of Apollonian prophecy; Tiresias. The chorus here pleads that the terrible prophecies come true else "Never again will I go reverent to Delphi". Oedipus calls Tiresias a "scheming quack", believing that he has been corrupted by the perceived usurper Creon. There can be no mistake that Sophocles was upholding the spiritual foundations of Attic civilization in the Theban plays, particularly in Oedipus the King.

One of the first things one must understand about Greek tragedy is that our attempt to understand it can never be fully completed. To the Greeks this was more than art or entertainment, the festival of Dionysus was a profoundly religious event that has no contemporary equivalent, thus these stories will always produce the effect of the alien upon us. There is the impression on reading Oedipus the King of a terrible tension between a horrible fate and the power of prophecy. We fear nothing more than the realization of Fates power, while needing its terrible force to affirm our order of the universe. This play was not held for naught by Aristotle to be the perfection of the form. It is as simple and beautiful on the surface as a placid Alpine lake, but underneath this lies the richest depth to explore. Oedipus the King is the masterpiece of Greek tragedy.

Antigone (like Aeschylus's Agamemnon) explores the unwritten laws of familial duty, and the steadfast (the chorus calls her mad) commitment to her principles and values in the face of death by the problematically portrayed Creon makes her perhaps the most heroic of the characters while simultaneously the most human. Her heroism is based upon love, and this love provides her with the strength to bear the terrible burden she carried along with her brother/father Oedipus.

Oedipus at Colonus is the swan song of Sophocles. It was performed only after his death, and it is a bittersweet tribute to the glory of Athens. Athens had by the time of the performance been brought to her knees in the Peloponnesian War. The tale of the final days of Oedipus echo the triumphs of Athenian achievements, and both go down to die in the knowledge of their immortality. Oedipus at Colonus reverberates through my mind with images of the empty, decaying ruins, victims to Time the conqueror once filled with the songs of the Dionysian festivals.

This is literature that humbles us, leaving us with a sense of awe. Eternal testimonies to the power of genius, Greek tragedy is our legacy and our cultural wealth.

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