In 1911, when Gilbert Murray completed his translation of Oedipus the King, George Bernard Shaw wrote to him to suggest that it was time for a modern rewriting of Sophocles’ play. Shaw proposed that a “great poetic and psychological drama” would emerge if Oedipus, instead of blinding himself on his discovery that he has been married to his own mother, were to defiantly reject accusations that he had committed the ultimate outrage. He would reply, “‘Scandalous as it seems, I don’t feel like that at all.’ And a conflict with public opinion follows.”
After all, Shaw suggested, there is nothing odd in the desire to sleep with one’s mother: “I very seldom dream of my mother; but when I do, she is my wife as well as my mother.” In this, Shaw had the sanction of Oedipus’s own wife and mother, Jocasta, who tells him (in Robert Fagles’s translation of Sophocles): “Many a man before you,/in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed.” But dreams are one thing and actions quite another. Oedipus really kills his father and has four children with Jocasta, making him a brother to his own daughters. He defiles the natural order. He distorts time itself by becoming, in a sense, his own father.
As slogans go, “Oedipus is innocent” may therefore seem a hard sell. (The effects on the vocabulary of many rappers of ceasing to regard having sex with one’s mother as ignominious don’t bear thinking about.) Yet Shaw seems to have forgotten that his idea was not new. His radical modern play in which Oedipus shrugs off shame and challenges the revulsion of the citizens was actually written a very long time ago—by Sophocles himself.
Around twenty years after Oedipus the King and shortly before his own death, Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus. Here, the fallen king, now an old blind beggar, is granted a kind of apotheosis, gradually transformed from a human wretch to a supernatural power whose secret burial place will protect Athens against its enemies. And this Oedipus does indeed defy public opinion. Sophocles gives him a fierce speech in which he defines himself not as a great sinner but as a great sufferer. He points out that he acted all along in good faith and committed his horrible crimes against his will:
I am innocent! Pure in the eyes of the law,
blind, unknowing, I, I came to this!
What makes George Enescu’s opera Oedipe, just produced by the Royal Opera in London, arguably the greatest twentieth-century retelling of the…
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