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The Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus Paperback – January 3, 2000
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From the Back Cover
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Though heady, the plays also had an entertainment value. The Spring festival celebrating Dionysus provided an opportunity for playwrights such as Sophocles to compete and put on a performance for thousands of spectators. Tragedies usually ran in the morning and the more lighthearted comedies toward the end of the day.
Being tragedies, lighthearted these three Theban plays are not. They adhere to the Greek tradition of dramatizing the lives of a cursed family, but instead of the House of Atreus, we gain a jagged view of humanity’s affliction through the House of Oedipus.
The first play, Antigone, is actually the last chronologically. Oedipus is dead, yet the curse continues. Thebes has defeated an onslaught of Argosian warriors, led by Polynices, the exiled son of Oedipus. He was killed, along with his brother, Eteocles. Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and sister of both Polynices and Eteocles, wants to bury the body of Polynices, but her uncle and Theban King, Creon, threatens anyone who does so with death. I think you can see where things are headed…
Next comes Oedipus the King, the shining star of the three plays–the painting within the frame. Each piece has its own beauty, but we move back in time to that dreadful moment of discovery. It’s through Oedipus’ actions that we see an evolution in Greek theater. The plot builds perfectly according to Aristotle’s Poetics and is the cornerstone of many a modern story. Oedipus represents the everyman, marching forward, thinking destiny is within his control, only to discover that he is a mere puppet to fate.
A plague has struck Thebes and the only solution is to bring the killer of Thebes’ last king, Laius, to justice. Through plot twists and turns, Oedipus dedicates himself to finding the killer, only to discover that he is the killer, and that he has fulfilled a prophecy which he has tried to avoid all of his life. The truth is too much. His wife and mother, Jocasta, kills herself, and Oedipus gouges out his eyes, his one act of defiant free will.
Finally, we are presented with Oedipus at Colonus. Many years have passed and Oedipus has become a wanderer, guided by the loyal Antigone. He finds himself in the town of Colonus, just outside of Athens. The oracular prophecy makes its next move: Oedipus has arrived in the place where he must be buried. This play is an ode to Athens, and by being buried just outside the city, it will be protected for all time.
Thus ends the Theban trilogy. Similar to my Aeschylus readings, I picked up the Robert Fagles translation. Sophocles’ writing flows easier and is less dense than that of Aeschylus, so if you had a tough time with The Oresteia, you may find Sophocles to be more in your wheelhouse. From Freud to soap operas, you’ll certainly begin to understand the many references to this bit of dramatic history.
Actually, one of the issues concerning the presentation, or reading, of these three plays is their order. In terms of the chronology of the Oedipus story, "Oedipus the King" is the earliest, followed by "Oedipus at Colonus" and then, lastly, "Antigone" (the events of which take place after the death of Oedipus). But Sophocles did not write the plays in that order. Rather, he wrote "Antigone" first, around 441 B.C.; "Oedipus the King" about twelve years later; and "Oedipus at Colonus", shortly before he died in 406 B.C. Those responsible for this edition chose to place them in the order in which they were written.
The plays are popularly called the "Theban plays", because they all concern the city-state of Thebes during and after the reign of Oedipus. In them, Sophocles wrestles with some of the core concerns of human existence - especially, fate versus free will - in as dramatic and wrenching a fashion as any playwright, even Shakespeare. In addition, "Antigone" poses questions concerning the limits (if any) of a citizen's obedience or subservience to the state. "Oedipus the King" is saturated with irony, more so than any other play I can think of. It also presents, compellingly, the question "whether a mere man can know the truth". And "Oedipus at Colonus" deals with matters of death and the possibility of influencing life after death.
This translation of THE THREE THEBAN PLAYS is by Robert Fagles, who also is the translator of the most popular renditions of Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey". Fagles favors comprehension and flow over rigorous fidelity to the original ancient Greek. The text is sprinkled with modern English colloquialisms such as "rumor has it", "no napping on the job", and "far be it from me". The result is a more accessible translation, one that certainly has much to commend it to those who are reading these classic plays for the first and in all likelihood only time in their lives. For myself, having refreshed my knowledge of the plays after having first read them about forty years ago, I want to read them yet again in a translation that is closer to the original Greek.
What most distinguishes this particular Penguin Classics edition, even more so than the Fagles translation, are the four essays by Bernard Knox. First, there is an eighteen-page essay on "Greece and the Theater", which provides an excellent, not-overly-academic introduction to Sophocles, the Oedipus story, and Greek drama generally. Then, for each of the specific plays, Knox contributes a separate twenty-plus page introduction. These are somewhat more detailed and remind me more of a college text. Nevertheless, they too are worthwhile - EXCEPT, in my opinion, they would be more rewarding if read AFTER reading the play in question rather than BEFORE.
Top international reviews
I have so far only read Oedipus the King and the introduction to the play by Bernard Knox. Fagles' translation is very readable and engaging. It strikes the right tone and is abolutely my go-to version of this fantastic play. Bernard Knox's introduction was also an incredibly illuminating essay on the play, filled with facts and insights about drama, 5th century BC Athens, and some of the deepest philosphical dilemmas facing humankind. I can't wait to read the other two plays and their introductions. First rate.
Everybody should read some Ancient Greek work, the foundation of our western literature!