Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Oedipus Rex

I was surprised a the quality of dramatic tension in this play.  My memory recalled the play as a few spurts of melodrama in-between sprawling, dull chorus speeches.  I found it to be anything but.  I found it to be a startlingly good read.  I have a likely explanation for my memory of the play.  I read it earlier in life through the filter of a public high school English teacher, a job which seems to be to take a great work of literature, pull out its teeth, declaw it, chain it to a pole and let pit bulls attack it.  Or, in other words, a job meant to discourage readers.  I can give (and am giving) a personal testimony that so often I've found in re-reading the classics assigned in high school English, now being about double the age I was then, I find them to be surprisingly wonderful. 

But I was talking about Sophocles' gift for dramatic tension.  Certainly the argument with Creon, the scene with Teiresias, and certainly the ending are ripe with dramatic tension, but so is the beginning with the townsfolk and the bit with the shepherd in the middle.  In short, I thought it was a great story.  I was glued to the book right up to the end.  

Of course, we know the story.  That was part of the point of the Penguin Essential Classics in the first place: to verse one's self in the source material from which our culture draws so much of its narrative.  The great man needs to atone for a curse by catching the previous king's murderer.  He pronounces a grizzly curse on the murderer.  Turns out he was the murderer and also that the king was his father and that he not only married his mother but begot children through her.

If you've found my blog post to lift some egghead ideas for your World Literature paper, note the blind soothsayer and Oedipus' eventual state (also the comeuppance to Oedipus who abuses just about everyone he shares the stage with), the dramatic tension of Oedipus trying to latch on to a detail (the "many killers" theory) which would prove it wasn't really him when really he's beginning to suspect the truth.

You might write about human flaws, how everyone has them, and how they lead to our downfalls.  People like to read about other people's flaws.  It gives the illusion of distance and it is a clever backdoor way to stroke your teacher's ego.  So that's an easy A.

Sophocles isn't very forthcoming about solutions to human flaws.  Which people also like.

You might choose a topic like humankind's inability to avoid their own destiny, how we are fate's poppets tragically dancing at the end of strings until we are suddenly tossed aside like a misfit toy without warning.

But, if you are here to mine school paper material, also know that the sins of a plagiarist are far worse than the sins of Oedipus.  Stick around for our next book.  I'm pretty sure plagiarists end up in the 9th Ring.  

As if that weren't enough, I managed to completely gross Laurie out over dinner the other night when I described how Oedipus actually went about blinding himself.  It's yet another scene in classical theater where directors don't need any prodding to get as gruesome as they can with the gorier scenes.  I myself imagine going to a technical director and asking him to recreate blood mixed with vitreous humor and maybe devising a way to employ a retractable brooch pin.  If you have a gouging or a hanging or someone being chased by a bear in the script, you darn well make sure it happens onstage.  A quick Google image search of Oedipus will reveal that I am not abnormal.  At least not in this.

So, I hope all of you enjoyed the play as much as I did.  Just as with our next piece, there is more.  This is the first in a trilogy.  If you're curious, do be sure to check out Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.

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