'Oedipus' across the ages

Production photographs of Oedipus by Steven Berkoff (After Sophocles) at the Liverpool Playhouse, Feb 2011

Helen Warner

In one re-imagining of “Oedipus the King,” the thought-to-be doomed lovebirds, destined to suffer a fate preordained by the gods, somehow live happily ever after.

Jocasta (renamed Jo) contemplates hanging herself, and Oedipus (now Eddie) ponders poking out his eyes. But instead of death and misery, the couple devises a grubby, Hollywoodesque scheme to make money on their epically dysfunctional story.

“Oedipus! The Musical,” a campy 1998 off-off-Broadway riff on Sophocles' tragedy, is just one of many retellings of the catastrophic tale, one of which — Steven Berkoff's more straightforward “Oedipus” — is being presented this year at Spoleto Festival USA.

“I thought it'd be funny to set 'Oedipus' in West Virginia and give it a happy ending,” said Bob Johnson, co-author of the musical. “It's your basic 'boy kills dad, meets mom and they fall in love, get married and live happily ever after' kind of show.”

Plus, a modern-day musical isn't that far removed from the ancient version, which was mostly sung.

“Oedipus,” now facing its 2,500th birthday, has been de-robed and unmasked since its debut at the Theater of Dionysus. The tragic hero has become an everyman, drastically removed from his noble status so that audiences can find a familiarity in the former king.

“Sociologically, we don't necessarily connect with kings and queens and blind seers, so we like to put them into characters that we recognize, which make it easier to connect to them,” said Susan Kattwinkel, associate professor of theater at the College of Charleston. “And the theme tends to stay the same.”

For example, Luis Alfaro's 2012 play “Oedipus El Rey” chronicled a Chicano ex-con who wants to become the leader of a Los Angeles gang. “El Rey” was going for familiarity, evoking empathy from the audience much like how Oedipus got sympathy from his loyal citizens, according to Kattwinkel.

The grandfather of tragedies, “Oedipus,” has transformed along with contemporary theater. In 1910, Max Reinhardt set it in a circus, using the arena to create a newfound intimacy between the audience and the actors. Reinhardt was fond of the open-air space, as it reflected Greek amphitheaters. And in Neil LaBute's one-man adaptation, “Wrecks,” the Oedipus character is well aware of his mother's identity when he marries her.

“Oedipus” has also been featured on the big screen. Tyrone Guthrie's 1957 film featured the actors in close-to-traditional robes and masks, while the 1968 movie “Oedipus the King,” featuring Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles, ditched the masks but stuck with the robes.

“We keep messing with 'Oedipus,'” Kattwinkel said, “but when we go back to the original, we still think it means the same thing.”

Josh Austin is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.