[August 10, 1962] Eyes on Oedipus (Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex)

[I am pleased to present an unusual piece from our fan-turned-columnist, Vicki Lucas. It covers one of the oldest fantasies, as presented by one of the newest musical artists. As we all have had a Classical education (do you remember your Latin declensions?) this review of a modern interpretation of Oedipus should be right up your alley…]

by Victoria Lucas

“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Frederick Douglass 8/3/1857

Those of you who have read my previous columns may remember that I have strange tastes in music (hallucinating music as a tactile object when I heard a totally new form) and that I have a somewhat political slant on some things (my participation in a lie-in and my feminist musings last time).  The above remark of the former slave Frederick Douglass is relevant to some music I’ve been listening to—and its composer.

Last year I was surprised and delighted to hear relatively modern music on television and see Igor Stravinsky’s 1927 oratorio Oedipus Rex. So when I returned from Stanford, I checked out of the library the 1952 record of Stravinsky conducting, with Jean Cocteau as narrator. I’ve been listening to it over and over. Stravinsky is best known for Rite of Spring, a ballet with a throbbing beat that caused a riot at its premiere in 1913, but this music is very different.

And then I heard about Stravinsky’s return this year to Russia for the first time since 1914. On this same trip he conducted concerts in South Africa. I found out that Stravinsky appears also to have politics. He will not drink Russian vodka but asks for Polish, saying that Russia did terrible things to the Poles (a slant on Stalin, perhaps?). In South Africa in May he did not know that he had been scheduled to appear before whites only, and when asked if he would like to appear before a mixed audience he replied, “I would like to appear before human beings, that’s all.” He asked to give a free concert to those the South Africans call Bantu (blacks), and was allowed to do so.

So I started thinking about politics in Oedipus Rex. Not just by Stravinsky. The literary original was a play by Sophocles first performed about 430 BC. There was also a play by another ancient Greek playwright, Euripides (best known for Medea), but the script did not survive; there are fragments. Also, Stravinsky asked Jean Cocteau (best known for his film Beauty and the Beast) to write the libretto. That took three tries that may not survive, but which may have been reworked into Cocteau’s 1928 play. And there was the Catholic cardinal Jean Daniélou, a seminarian at the time, who translated Cocteau’s libretto (with Stravinsky’s corrections) into Latin, Stravinsky’s chosen language.

Everyone knows about Oedipus: Freud’s Oedipus Complex presented as Everyman’s desire to kill his father and marry his mother.  However, the real story is ancient. Sophocles’ original Greek title of his play was “Oedipus Tyrannos,” but it is commonly known by its Latin title. The word “tyrant” is more accurate when it comes to Oedipus — an unconstitutional monarch accepted by popular acclamation.

You also probably know the story, but briefly it is this: Oedipus was born to a king and his wife but under a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The royal couple gave the baby away to kill it, but it was given to and adopted by another couple. When Oedipus is old enough, he consults the oracle, who tells him the same prophecy, whereupon he leaves his adoptive home, unwittingly encounters his father and kills him. On his way he finds the Sphinx, whose riddle he solves, thereby saving a city from starvation. He is acclaimed king and by custom marries the old king’s widow. The dramatic works start at the point where a new crisis forces Oedipus to consider his past, revealing that the prophecy was true and making it necessary for him to leave his throne.

Stravinsky’s piece was written as a short opera.  The library recording is an oratorio–music with minimal staging and costumes.  As in the premiere in Paris, the narration on this recording is in French and the libretto in Latin.

The idea of using Latin was something that captured Stravinsky’s imagination because, in 1925, his native “Russian, the exiled language of my heart, had become musically impracticable, and French, German, and Italian were temperamentally alien.” Stravinsky felt uprooted (“déraciné”) from his native Russia because war and revolution had made his return impossible by destroying his family home and fortune. Thinking about Latin, he realized he could probably use its “monumental character” to create the “still life” he wanted. He also found it compatible in “scansion” (rhythm) with his music.

So he wrote to Jean Cocteau, whose remake of the Sophocles play Antigone he admired. But when Stravinsky finally felt he could use the third draft he also entrusted the Latin translation to Cocteau, who knew a 20-year-old seminarian. So someone my age translated Cocteau’s work into “Ciceronian Latin” (not medieval in pronunciation). And he apparently did it with the original Greek in hand or in mind, because the Latin approximates Sophocles rather well, at least where I could see the Greek compared with English.

What are the differences between Stravinsky’s oratorio, Cocteau’s play, Sophocles’ play, and fragments of a play by Euripides? Stravinsky’s and Cocteau’s work is based on Sophocles’ play, so there are more subtle differences among those three. Euripides is another matter entirely.

For one thing, in Euripides’ play there is no plague. In Sophocles’, Thebes is under siege by a plague. As it happens, there was a plague in Athens (Sophocles’ home theater) at the time Sophocles wrote. Was this the first time that a play was set somewhere else to avoid accusations of political criticism? If so, it certainly wasn’t the last. (Shakespeare used the device a number of times in the sensitive Elizabethan political climate in which one could easily find oneself beheaded.) Apart from the plague, Athens was under siege by Sparta in this second year of the Peloponnesian War.

The plague and the siege by the Sphinx (rather than Sparta) figure largely in both Sophocles and Stravinsky. The current (430 BC) head of Athens was also a tyrant, Cleon. He was described by contemporaries as a “demagogue,” and three years later (427 BC) his opinion of what should happen to a city in the Athenian empire whose people had revolted and were put down was to kill all the men and enslave all the women and children. Fortunately, at the last moment someone rescinded that order.

The fictional plague of Thebes figures large in Stravinsky’s work as motivation. Early on the chorus repeats “serva nos” (save us), three notes forming a tritone, which, along with descending and ascending thirds, create a repeating musical theme of threes in the oratorio. It was at a particular type of crossroads that Sophocles has Oedipus kill his father King Laius–a trivium (three roads coming together). Stravinsky was taken with the concept of the trivium and won’t let us forget it while those thirds and tritones are played.

Stravinsky’s Oedipus is less affected by the pleas of the chorus than Sophocles’ tyrant. Instead of telling the chorus he feels their pain (as in Sophocles), he says, “I, the brightest Oedipus, will save you.” He promises to search for the killer of Laius after his brother-in-law Creon brings news that an oracle has decreed that the plague will not leave the city until the death of Laius is “avenged.” He tells Creon that it is unlikely they will find the perpetrator of such an old crime and, once again calling himself “the brightest,” boasts of solving the riddle of the Sphinx and says he will solve this too. The Latin for what he promises to do is “eruam,” which has three syllables and is an uncommon word for “search,” but it matches the Greek word Sophocles used, which is more like “root out,” and Stravinsky repeats those three syllables.

Cocteau’s introduction to his own play states: “It is not a piece of theater that you are going to see. It is a torture, a famous cause, a trial.” This is particularly true of Cocteau’s version of the tale, in which Oedipus is on trial but doesn’t see it that way.

Oedipus’ behavior is consistent in the three scripts:

  • Oedipus won’t take advice and sabotages every effort to spare him the fate he pursues and finally faces. If he had followed Jocasta or Creon inside and had private conversations, perhaps that would have led to his leaving the city and never being exposed. Perhaps this would have placated the gods, given that leaving office and living as a pauper would have been punishment, maybe even punishment enough given his sense of entitlement. But it wouldn’t have satisfied his sense of drama.
  • He attacks Tiresias when that prophet is trying to save him. Oedipus threatens Tiresias instead of taking his advice, unnecessarily provoking him into a public disclosure.
  • He attacks his brother-in-law when that worthy tries to calm him down, accusing him of being in a plot with Tiresias.
  • He even dismisses Jocasta’s increasingly desperate efforts to get him to shut up and go inside. When he learns that he was picked up by a shepherd who delivered him to a childless couple who raised him, he chooses to believe that he might be the son of mythical creatures or gods. When Jocasta gives up and “flees” (Cocteau’s version), he opines that she is ashamed of the possibility that he was the son of a slave.
  • Finally he interviews the shepherd who took him to his adoptive father. He says (Cocteau) “I order you to tell me everything. If you are stubborn, I will have you tortured.” When the shepherd pleads with him, Oedipus calls out, “Bind him!”

At every turn, Oedipus refuses to see the truth. Then he blinds himself when he does see it, still not wanting to see what is plainly before him—that he has been the ruin of his wife and children as well as himself. (At least this is true in the three scripts we have; Euripides has Jocasta accompany him to exile, and in that version he does not blind himself. Sophocles and then Stravinsky are harder on him, and Cocteau hardest of all.)

Why did Oedipus attack his father and his father’s retinue in the first place? This is never settled in the Stravinsky script. In both Sophocles’ and Cocteau’s version it happens because: (Sophocles) “They ordered me out of the way”; (Sophocles and Cocteau, Cocteau’s words translated by me) “They jostled me, I hit … I killed!” What a temper this man has! He threatens everyone around him but his wife, and even her he accuses of being haughty and unmotherly.

The chorus’ reaction to Oedipus’ downfall is interesting: they see him off, no longer pleading with him to save them, but telling him they loved him (a Latin past tense that indicates the action went on for a time but is now over). They have no regrets for making him their tyrant, but of course now he has to go. This is all matter of fact, lacking Oedipus’ flair for drama.

So what did Sophocles mean to say about the politics of Athens in the time of plague and the tyrant Cleon? We may never know unless we unearth more documents from that time, but were there those who believed that a solution to Athens’ plague might lie in a change of leadership? Or were there those who thought that the government was as bad as the plague that had killed its last lawful leader? I look forward to more archeological findings, but in the meantime we can speculate about whether Stravinsky (and perhaps Cocteau) was saying something about Stalin and other dictators of their youth, and further about the similarities between Sophocles’ demagogue and living men today.