Features Guest Column Published 17 January 2014

Retold Classics

Jeremy Kingston on the passion for meddling and his new version of Oedipus.

Jeremy Kingston

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

H G Wells wrote these arresting words and they contain a mighty truth.  We are meddlers all, and the passion for meddling extends even to altering an author’s completed work.  The Austrian emperor is ridiculed as a philistine for telling Mozart after a performance, “Too many notes, Herr Mozart.”  But in truth many are the creations that benefit from thoughtful alteration.  I cannot recall a performance of Hamlet that included the two Norwegian ambassadors, Cornelius and Voltimand, to whom Shakespeare gives a single speech and sends them away to appear no more.  Directors of the play leave them out and do the same with whatever else hinders pace and contributes little or nothing.  Too many words, Mr S.

There is no need to be unhappy about this. Fashion changes and expectations with it.  We have become quicker on the uptake. When a character in a movie sets out to visit someone else we no longer have to be shown him opening a door, leaving a house, driving a car along a street, parking outside another house and ringing the doorbell. If nothing important is to happen on the journey we take the stages of it for granted.

In my version of the Sophocles tragedy commonly known, bizarrely, by its Latin name, Oedipus Rex, I have followed the order of events but shortened passages, cut repetitions and, most significantly, altered the moral (such as it is) that closes the drama.

What governed my choices for a stage production, necessarily different from the precision of an academic text, has been the need to make an audience understand what is going on. References to the figures of Greek mythology I firmly pruned, along with the numerous supplementary titles of the Olympian gods. The three recent translations I consulted (knowing no more Ancient Greek than the words of the Kyrie) show different ways to open the play. In the 1997 Loeb edition by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Oedipus addresses the suppliants gathered in front of the palace: “Children, latest to be reared from the stock of Cadmus”.  This is evidently the accurate translation, but the reference to the mythical founder of Thebes is an inessential detail for a modern audience. Robert Fagles in the 1982 Penguin Classics leaves Cadmus out and starts off – “Oh my children, the new blood of ancient Thebes”, and the 2001 Drama Classics edition by the much-missed Kenneth McLeish is briefer still: “Thebans. My people. Children.”

The current Tristan Bates Theatre production, of which my Oedipus the King is the first half of a double-bill, could afford no crowd of suppliants and the play opens with their priestly spokesman alone at an altar. Oedipus comes on and plunges straight into the matter that gets the drama going: “I have heard such sounds of grief rising / from the city, terrible grief, / and the signs of it are everywhere …”

Occasionally, though not often, I altered the sense of the original or cut a passage entirely. At the close of Kreon’s great speech declaring his innocence of Oedipus’s crazed accusations he says (according to Loeb), “time alone reveals the just man, but the traitor you can learn to know in a single day.” I left this out because I don’t think it true, and though Sophocles may have wished to suggest Kreon’s own fateful self-confidence this doesn’t seem the place to do so.

I have also altered the tone of the Chorus’s closing speech, with its gloomy message that we should call no man happy till he’s dead – lines that are thought not to be by Sophocles.  There are two reasons for this change.

Where Sophocles increased the Chorus from twelve to fifteen, I have reduced it to two, initially for reasons of finance, but it led me to introduce what the Greek Chorus may never have done and show them differing as to how they should respond to what is going on. I made one of them conservative and matronly (she is played by an actress), the other young and questioning, and while they share the same respect for the gods, are similarly fearful when Jocasta blasphemes, and filled with joy when Oedipus appears to have emerged from danger, the younger one cannot bring himself to endorse the pessimistic conclusion.  “… faintly I sense a different way,” he begins, before being smashed into silence by his companion’s brisk “Obey!”

This change came about because the second half of the double-bill is the revival of a play written (and produced at the King’s Head, Islington) long before its director, Robert Gillespie, suggested I try my hand at a version of the Sophocles.  In this earlier play, Oedipus at the Crossroads, I imagine an encounter between Oedipus and his father “where three roads cross” at which they discover each other’s identity. King Laius is a conservative type and will not kill the son destined to kill him because this will prove the Delphic Oracle false; Oedipus, being the questioning, rebellious type, will not kill his father because this will prove the Oracle true.  So how will the myth be fulfilled?

The character of the younger member of the Chorus – who I call Citizens – hints at that of the Oedipus of Crossroads, and the doubt he expresses at the end of the first play is a link to the second.

As for the language, I allow the Citizens to go into raptures when they think their king might be semi-divine – “Citizens, we are led by grandeur!” – and hail the various gods who might possibly be his father.  But elsewhere I keep a mostly conversational style, though it is a conversation that allows outbursts of rage, coarse abuse, panic and mockery. Where the Loeb makes an irate Oedipus talk of Kreon sending a “villainous prophet” because he wishes to keep his own tongue “altogether clean”, I try to give the lines a livelier feel –

“His mouthpiece is that stinking prophet.
Your brother wants to keep himself Lord Squeaky Clean.
The prophet prophesied some prophetical prophecy.
I killed the king and therefore
down I must come.”

The terrible trap steadily closing upon Oedipus is a plot that takes care of itself. I have worked to make my version stay with that terror while the voices speak the everyday language of today.

Oedipus Retold is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 8th February.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

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