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oedipus at colonus

3 june 2013

The Oedipus at Colonus is an austere but not unmoving play. Many of its concerns are pretty alien to us, 2,500 years later: who cares now whether Athens used to have a fine reputation as a protector of suppliants? But most of us can care whether an old man, more sinned against than sinning (to hear him tell it) can be allowed to die in peace.

As in the better-known Oedipus the King and Antigone, Creon – Oedipus's brother-in-law, and, unfortunately, his uncle – is the villain. Taken across all three plays (he's slightly different in each one), Creon is an interesting study in somebody who manages to be utterly unsympathetic while basically trying to do the right thing, and often even succeeding.

At the end of Oedipus the King, the newly blind Oedipus had left Thebes on the arm of his daughter Antigone. In Colonus, he claims to have changed his mind, returned to the city, sought exile – only to be banished by Creon. Now Creon wants him back; the city is fixing to come under siege from Oedipus's son Polynices and the Six Others Against Thebes, and Oedipus is a sort of good-luck charm, at least on the principle that you don't want somebody as notorious as him to be in your enemies' camp. But Oedipus doesn't want to go back. He hates Creon, he hates his two rival sons no matter what side of the Theban wall they're fighting on (Eteocles stays loyal to Creon). Oedipus basically hates everybody. Except Antigone, and except his new pal Theseus, who is the play's stand-up guy. After you've stood up to the Minotaur, a few whiny Thebans are less than no problem.

So there's the plot, pared-down like those of many Greek tragedies: Creon wants Oedipus to return to Thebes; Oedipus wants Theseus to protect him. Theseus is king of Athens, and Colonus is a sort of sacred suburb where people go to be protected by him. Everybody wrangles and complains. And Oedipus really does come across as whiny. Everything was somebody else's fault; everything was the fault of Fate. (A theme that runs through Greek literature like ribbons of caramel through a pint of Ben & Jerry's: you cannot avoid Fate, and even the choices you make end up aligning with fate, no matter which way you make them.)

The play's action comes down to a staring contest between Creon and Theseus, which is like pitting a 40ish CPA against Chuck Norris. Creon goes home without his mascot, to a city that will be consumed by the struggles that are the backdrop to the (much earlier-written) play Antigone. And Oedipus dies, a bit more happily than King Lear would, but under circumstances at least as awful. Let one of those handy Messengers, in Nicholas Rudall's 2001 translation, describe it:

The only man alive who could tell how Oedipus died was Theseus.
It was not lightning bearing god's fire that took him away.
Nor was there a hurricane rushing in from the sea in that his last moment on earth.
No, it was an escort sent from the gods—or perhaps the black depths of the dead world below opened in love for him.
For he was taken from us with no sounds of mourning. (73)
If Rudall's translation seems spare and unlyrical, it's because he's devised it expressly for stage performance. Not that stage dialogue is inherently unpoetic, but that he's trying to give American actors natural-sounding words, in a register neither too colloquial nor too inflated. It's perhaps a prosaic translation, but there's nothing wrong with prose as a dramatic medium. Richard C. Jebb put the same lines this way in 1899, a translation still alive in the Perseus Digital Library:
But by what fate Oedipus perished, no man can tell, except Theseus alone. It was no fiery thunderbolt of the god that removed him, nor any rising of whirlwind from the sea; it was either an escort from the gods, or else the dark world of the dead kindly split open to receive him. The man passed away without lamentation.
That's actually pretty evergreen for a 114-year-old translation. Like Rudall's, it draws little attention to itself, and tries to throw the strange, stark shadows of the play into high contrast.

Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by Nicholas Rudall. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.