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NA217712 - SOPHOCLES: Oedipus the King (Unabridged)
Oedipus the King
This play belongs to a theatrical tradition two thousand years older than the world of Shakespeare. Its author, Sophocles, was born in 497 B.C., five years before the battle of Marathon; and as a fifteen-year-old youth he led the chorus, which celebrated the naval victory of Salamis over the Persians. He was one of three great ancient Greek tragedians, all near contemporaries. The eldest, Aeschylus, actually fought in the battle of Salamis in 482, while the youngest, Euripides, was born in that same year.
Sophocles enjoyed a far from tragic career at the height of Athenian prosperity, and died at the age of ninety, shortly before Athens fell to a league of other Greek states. Oedipus the King was probably composed in about 429 B.C. and is one of 123 plays that Sophocles is known to have written — though only seven have survived in their entirety.
Ancient Greek tragedy expresses a questioning and even skeptical
sensibility that is rooted in a polytheistic religious outlook. It arose out of sacred dances and songs performed before an audience by a chorus. At some point an unfolding narrative developed out of these, and eventually a single actor — an individual voice — was heard. When Aeschylus added a second speaking voice, the drama was born. And when Sophocles added a third actor, the chorus was relegated to the role of a commentator rather than a participant in the action.
The chorus therefore represents a kind of audience within the play itself, one that directs and expands our emotional response to the action with interludes of lyrical reflection. However, it still plays an important part within the drama, as it expresses the hopes and fears of the larger community in which the central characters interact. In this respect it provides a religious backdrop to the drama, placing the specific events within a broader context of community and religious laws.
For the Greeks, religion was a question for the community more than for the individual. So this religious context does not have very much in common with our own world-view, which tends to be either secular or monotheistic, and is a consideration for the individual alone. In the age of Sophocles, the whole community built up a protective relationship with the realm of the unknowable, in the form of prayers and sacrifices to the gods. This relationship underpins all of Greek drama. And it is through the chorus that this relationship is mainly expressed.
On this religious foundation is constructed an intense psychological thriller of daring acuity, hailed as a classic even in ancient times. Aristotle saw it as the very model of tragic drama. On the most obvious level, its taut plot unfolds with swift and relentless power. Much of its pressure is generated by the ‘Oedipal’ nature of the impulses it lays bare, but it takes us far beyond Freud. Oedipus the King is an exploration of the nature of the self, of human freedom and human knowledge.
These themes are held in place by means of a device, called ‘tragic irony’, which is a particular trademark of Sophocles as a playwright. Tragic irony hinges on the fact that the story of Oedipus, even in Sophocles’ day, was ancient myth. It is about a man who is told that he is fated to murder his father and marry his mother; in trying to avoid this prophesy, he actually fulfills it. The original audience was already very familiar with the outlines of this story. And this enabled Sophocles to load almost every line with an extra layer of unconscious meaning — even a certain metaphysical texture — for an alert audience to appreciate.
The play describes a man’s gradual discovery of the truth about his past. This truth is available to him from the moment he steps through the gates of Thebes, and discovers that the city has recently lost its king. But he chooses, for fifteen years, to make no inquiries at all about how his predecessor on the throne has died. The reason can only be that he already knows at some level the whole truth of what he himself has done. As he uncovers the truth, he is uncovering his own self-deception.
In the play, Oedipus the man is given a glimpse of his own myth, which he has struggled all his life not to have to embrace. Of course, the question with regard to the prophecy he is given (in modern science-fiction terms, the time-traveler from the future), is whether the future already exists or not. It is a question we naturally feel ambivalent about. We want meaning, a sense of myth, a feeling that our life is leading somewhere, that it is connected to a larger pattern (envisaged here as some kind of divine purpose) but we also want to feel that we can forge that destiny ourselves.
The audience, like the oracle, knows where the life of Oedipus is leading, and that his very will to be free of that conclusion is going to take him there. And the terror we feel is also for ourselves. For us too, perhaps, all our efforts to find fulfillment are simply bringing us step by step to some terrible fate. All his life Oedipus asserts his freedom of action, but he becomes truly free only in his search for self-knowledge, which ends with the destruction of that self.
Sophocles’ intentions with this play must pass not only through the
interpretations of the actors and the director, but also through the altogether more grievous process of translation into modern English. This version has been set in unresolved — that is, relatively strict — blank verse, in an attempt to match the mainly iambic rhythm of the Greek. Generations of English translators of Sophocles have put their shoulders to the iambic pentameter, and no modernist translator has offered any convincing reason for abandoning this tradition. I have thereby been able to distinguish the choral odes by some very simple and clearly heard changes of meter, including some free verse.
I have tried to be true to the meaning of each word in its context, while at the same time conveying that meaning with an immediately clear and resonant impact. I have adopted modern, idiomatic English, but I hope that the underlying sense of the meter allows for the language to shift smoothly into a more complex, less naturalistic mode of expression, where the dramatic context calls for it. Again, the choruses should still be recognizable by a more richly metaphorical and formal language as well as by their tone.
Clearly, between all these aims, together with the demands of the meter, there has to be some give and take. One’s hope is that any clangors that this process throws up, does not interrupt, even for the scholarly listener, the sublime progress of Sophocles’ masterpiece to its terrifying and piteous.
Notes by Duncan Steen.
Oedipus . . . . . . . . . . . . . Michael Sheen
Jocasta . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nichola McAuliffe
Priest . . . . . . . . . . . . . Edward de Souza
Creon . . . . . . . . . . . . . Adam Kotz
A Messenger from Corinth . . . . . . . . . . . . . Neville Jason
A Shepherd . . . . . . . . . . . . . Bruce Alexander
Tiresias/Narrator . . . . . . . . . . . . . John Moffatt
A Messenger from the Palace. . . . . . . . . . . . Jonathan Keeble
Head Chorus . . . . . . . . . . . . . Heathcote Williams
Strophe . . . . . . . . . . . . . Bruce Alexander & Laura Brattan
Antistroph . . . . . . . . . . . . . Karen Archer & Jonathan Keeble
About the Readers
As one of the most gifted of the younger generation of British actors, MICHAEL SHEEN has been seen widely on stage and screen. His memorable performance in the title role of Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company was preceded by appearances in contemporary plays, including Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, Pinter’s Moonlight and The Homecoming. The title roles in Peer Gynt and Romeo and Juliet are also in his repertoire. Among his film work is Wilde, Mary Reilly and Othello. He is increasingly active as a director (The Dresser, Badfinger). Since he left RADA, Sheen has recorded extensively and has also directed Romeo and Juliet for Naxos AudioBooks.
EDWARD DE SOUZA has played leading roles in over a dozen West End plays and in several seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford, at the Old Vic and the National Theatre. His film credits include The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Spy Who Loved Me.
ADAM KOTZ has worked extensively in leading roles with, in particular, The Royal National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl Theatre Company. Plays include Racing Demon, Measure for Measure, and A Family Affair. Television and film work includes Band of Gold, Touching Evil and Shot Through The Heart.
JOHN MOFFATT’s distinguished theater career encompasses two hundred roles across the UK, forty-two major London productions and two Broadway appearances. He played Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park, appeared in Ingmar Bergman’s production of Hedda Gabler and in Married Love directed by Joan Plowright. Film credits include Prick Up Your Ears, and he has been seen on UK television in productions as varied as Love in a Cold Climate and Maigret.
NEVILLE JASON trained at RADA where he was awarded the Diction Prize by Sir John Gielgud. He has worked with the English Stage Co., the Old Vic Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as in films, television productions and musicals. This popular reader on Naxos AudioBooks can also be frequently heard on radio.
BRUCE ALEXANDER is best known as Superintendent Mullett in A Touch of Frost and has appeared in many other television shows such as Berkeley Square, Casualty and Peak Practice. He has also played major roles in the theater, notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is a director of ACTER, which annually tours Shakespeare to US campuses.
HEATHCOTE WILLIAMS, poet, playwright and actor, has made a significant contribution to many fields. He is best known for his extended poems on environmental subjects: Whale Nation, Falling for a Dolphin, Sacred Elephant and Autogeddon. His plays have also won acclaim, notably AC/DC produced at London’s Royal Court, and Hancock’s Last Half Hour. As an actor, he has been equally versatile — taking memorable roles in Orlando, Wish You Were Here, and Derek Jarman’s The Tempest, in which he played Prospero. Whale Nation and Sacred Elephant are available on Naxos AudioBooks, read by Heathcote Williams.
JONATHAN KEEBLE trained at the Central school of Speech and Drama. Theater includes Coventry, Liverpool, Lancaster, West Yorkshire Playhouse, and a season at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. He has featured in over 150 radio plays for the BBC and is an established voice actor.
KAREN ARCHER has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Nicholas Nickleby and as Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan, as well as across the UK in plays such as Ghosts, She Stoops to Conquer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her television appearances include The Chief, Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Casualty and Chancer and she has been seen in the films The Secret Garden and Forever Young.
LAURA BRATTAN trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She has appeared in the films Crime Time and Tomorrow Never Dies. Her many
television credits include Casualty, The Bill, Wycliffe, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Melissa, Five Children and Touching Evil.
NICHOLA McAULIFFE is a wonderfully talented and versatile actress. She starred starred in seven series of the hugely popular Surgical Spirit for Granada Television. Numerous theater credits include several West End runs. She was awarded a Laurence Olivier Award for her role in Kiss Me Kate for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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