Imagine, for a moment, a world in which free will is non-existent, and your fate was pre-determined before your birth. You can try as hard as you can to escape fate, but you have no choice in the matter, and there is no way to escape your deastiny.
This is the terrifying world that Oedipus, King of Thebes, finds himself trapped in during “Oedipus the King,” the first segment in Sophocles’ classic trilogy of ancient Greek plays.
After realizing that he had unknowingly fulfilled the prophecy to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus gouges out his eyes in horror. “Oedipus at Colonus,” the second play of the trilogy, follows the cursed and blinded former king as he and his daughter, Antigone, seek refuge in the city of Athens.
As part of a cross-college production of the classic trilogy of plays (“Antigone” being the third of the bunch), the UNH Theatre Department put on three performances of “Oedipus at Colonus”; one Wednesday evening, another Thursday evening and the last on Sunday afternoon, during the weekend of Feb. 23 through Feb. 26.
The first thing that struck me about the play was the marvelous acting of UNH Theatre Professor David Richman as the title role. The fact that Richman is legally blind in real life only added to the realism of his performance. In the play, the former king now relies on his daughter, Antigone, for survival, and she helps him move around when needed.
Throughout the play, you can feel the love and compassion that Oedipus has for his two daughters, the only people left in his life at this point in time. Without them, the blinded and cursed Oedipus would most likely be dead, which adds a sweet spot to an otherwise unrelentingly hopeless and tragic play.
“Oedipus at Colonus” had many powerful themes interwoven throughout, but one was impossible to miss given the current state of international affairs: the topic of refugees. In the play, King Theseus of Athens proudly accepts Oedipus into his city, and later the chorus says, “As refugees, our new lives could begin.” The nature of the current administration’s policies towards refugees unfortunately makes the play just as timely in 2017 as it was when it was first written, if not more so. As Richman writes in the play’s pamphlet:
“It is virtually certain that the Athens of 401 B.C.E., the Athens in which this play was first performed, would not have made the refugee welcome. I leave readers of this note to ponder whether the United States in 2017 would welcome this tired, poor creature, this unlucky wanderer.”
The other main theme throughout “Oedipus at Colonus” is more universal and philosophical: the role of fate with regards to morality. The play presented a vision of a universe in which free will does not exist, and everything depends on the curses and blessings of the gods. As Oedipus himself says, “The Gods, settled before my birth all I was to do…But misery is not guilt!”
We are left wondering whether free will is just an illusion we maintain for sanity, and whether one can be guilty for what one doesn’t know or has no choice in the matter of.
For me, the most moving moment of the play occurs in the scene before Oedipus’s pre-determined death. Polynices, the son who cast his own father out of Thebes, has himself been exiled and plans to take Thebes back from his brother, Eteocles. He arrives hoping to receive Oedipus’s forgiveness, but the blind man refuses to even acknowledge his son’s existence at first. He turns away from his son to pretend he isn’t there, and even scratches at his own bloody face out of agony. When he finally speaks, the words that he utters contain nothing but contempt for Polynices. Oedipus never forgives his sons before his death, and this is perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in the play.
I think every student ought to see at least one classic play before they graduate. Viewing “Oedipus at Colonus”, twice nonetheless, made me realize that despite technological advances and vast differences in time periods and civilizations, the most basic problems we face, both as individuals and as a society, are never really resolved, and history often repeats itself in tragic ways. If we are never made to examine our mistakes and find a way to break this cycle, perhaps we are just as cursed and fated as poor King Oedipus.