Thursday, 30 October 2008

'You are who you are seeking to find': Anagnorisis and gradual revelation

So, I saw Oedipus by Sophocles in a new version by Frank McGuinness at the National Theatre last weekend. It is an excellent production (see a couple of positive reviews HERE and HERE, and a much less convinced one HERE). There's a great little video 'trailer' for the production currently accessible through the National Theatre website that concisely conveys the studied starkness of this version. The weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth is performed, mostly, in austere dark suits and white shirts; Frank McGuinness's text is similarly sleek and contemporary.

What struck me about the play (a version of Oedipus the King, rather than of Oedipus at Colonus), which I had never seen performed before, was that the central revelation is gradual for Oedipus. The Wikipedia article on the play successfully conveys the stages of it; here is its summary of the plot:

The play begins years after Oedipus has taken the throne of Thebes. The Theban chorus cries out to him for salvation from the plague sent by the gods in response to Laius's murder. Oedipus searches for the murderer, unaware that he himself is the murderer.

The blind prophet Teiresias is called upon to aid the search, but, after his warning against following through with it, Oedipus oppugns him as the murderer, even though he is blind and aged. In response, an angry Teiresias tells Oedipus that he is looking for himself ['You are who you are seeking to find' in McGuinness's text], causing the king to become enraged in incredulity. He then accuses the prophet of conspiring with Creon, Jocasta's brother, to overthrow him.

Oedipus calls for one of Laius's former servants, the only surviving witness of the murder, who fled the city when Oedipus became king in order to avoid being the one to reveal the truth. Soon a messenger from Corinth arrives to inform the king of the death of Polybus, whom Oedipus still believes to be his real father. At this point, the messenger informs him that he was in fact adopted and that his true parentage is unknown. In the subsequent discussions between Oedipus, Jocasta, the servant and the messenger, the second-mentioned surmises the truth and runs away in shame.

Oedipus remains stubborn and incredulous until a second messenger arrives with the shepherd, who reveals that Oedipus himself was the child abandoned by Laius. He realises what he is [my emphasis], and leaves in a rage. An attendant then breaks the news that Jocasta has hanged herself. On discovering her body, Oedipus gouges out his eyes with the golden brooches on her dress.

The play ends with Oedipus entrusting his children to Creon and declaring his intent to live in exile. Although he initially begs for the company of his children, Creon refuses, and Oedipus is exiled alone. The theme can perhaps be summarized with a line spoken by Tiresias: "Wisdom is a dreadful thing when it bringeth no profit unto its possessor" (Sophocles). In the denouement, the chorus narrates his tragic history.

The final stage of the play's revelation ('He realises what he is') is all the more powerful for the (live) audience precisely, it seems to me, because we do not share this as the moment of our revelation; we can see what Oedipus 'is' long before him. Instead, the power of this terrible anagnorisis lies in the audience's final apprehension of the extent of Oedipus's blindness up until the encounter with the shepherd, a blindness later made literal; and our understanding that the tragedy consists of the impossibility of living with the knowledge he finally allows to sink in. In this play, it isn't the case at all that it is always darkest before the dawning. This is an ending which is possibly all the more tragic for a contemporary audience, standing, as it does, completely in contradiction to one of the self-evident truths of our reality-TV/DNA testing culture: that self-knowledge, self-seeking, is desirable at all costs. At the end of the play as he is driven out of Thebes, Oedipus is not remotely legible as a 'bowed but better' man (less arrogant, less ignorant), but as a human destroyed, a kind of monster. His complex is very devastatingly resolved in an abject non-identity.

McGuinness gave an interview about his work on the play for The Guardian in which he also speaks very movingly about his childhood:
"Of course we know about Freud, we know about the cliché that Oedipus marries his mother and the rest of it. Obviously it is a very primitive taboo that is taken apart in the play. But I find that when you are tackling a great play, something has to come at you, when you think you know the thing backwards but you don't."

"And with this play I feel it is about how you deal with the loss of your father, the threat of your father. I had an astonishing experience when I was working on Oedipus. My father died 11 years ago and my mother about 10 months before. I have spent the past decade dealing with her death; the death I hadn't really dealt with was my father's. And when it came to tackling the scene where Oedipus calls for his children and says goodbye to them, this dreadful shock came over me and I started to see my father with incredible clarity."

"I'm not saying he manifested himself in front of me, but I think I had some tremendous buried grief and sorrow and fear, and it came to the fore. And that's when it struck me how primitive and powerful and basic this play is. You do have to confront the reality of the fact that you have a father, and your father will die. Oedipus killed his father. I'm not saying you'll go out and do it, but the very fact that you survive, the very fact of your existence, is a testament to your father's death."

"Oedipus the King puts us through the death of its principal character's father repeatedly and relentlessly, in different forms: we are told about the death of Laius, the former king; and we are told about the death of Oedipus's adoptive father, Polybus, whom he loved. Then comes the appalling wrench of Oedipus's discovery that he is a parricide, that not only did he kill Laius, but Laius was his father."

Finally, the blinded Oedipus, about to be exiled from Thebes, in one of the most touching scenes in all of theatre, bids his children goodbye: "He has sentenced them to a terrible life," says McGuinness, "and he is killing them in a way, just as he killed his father. It is the stringency of the writing, the plotting, the sheer skill: how much had we forgotten until Shakespeare came along? There's a ruthlessness there in the Greeks - an absolute pitilessness. And sometimes you need to stand before that kind of judgment, where there's no mercy."

The 'revelation' of this interview for me was that McGuinness, brought up in smalltown Northern Ireland in the 50s and 60s, is gay, and that this (along with his educational ambitions) was a hugely difficult matter for him, as it can be for so many of us, in his relationship with his parents ('I couldn't tell [my mother] I was gay for a long time, for instance. Though I knew - when I was very young."). It also helps, perhaps, to explain the particular power of the climax of his version of Oedipus's tragic cycle of revelation and denial of the always already-known and, especially, of the play's truly terrible understanding of human abjection.