Oedipus Rex is a Greek tragedy play written and directed by Sophocles who lived many centuries ago. The play is a classic master piece of Greek talent in theatre and drama and has generously contributed to modern forms of theatrical arts. The play revolves around the tragic fate of Oedipus as a result of a prophetic oracle that was made long before he was born stating that he would kill his father and marry his mother.
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King Laius in an attempt to shield himself from the effects of the prophetic oracle, orders his wife queen Jocasta to kill their new born son. Jocasta afraid to do so gives the child to one of her servants to take him to the mountains so that he could die of exposure. However, this is not to be as the baby ends up being parented by Polybus and Merope. At one time, Oedipus learns that Polybus and Merope are not his real parents and therefore seeking to establish the truth, he visits an oracle where he learns of his doomed fate; that he will live to kill his father and marry his mother.
In an attempt to run away from this tragic fate, he deserts Corinth vowing never to comeback. While on his way he meets and kills a stranger after a brief quarrel over who had the right passage of way at a place where three roads met. Unaware to him is the fact that he has just murdered his real father. Shortly afterwards, Oedipus becomes the king of Thebes and marries Jocasta after freeing the people of Thebes from the Sphinx. Finally, the fateful prophecy has been fulfilled. Oedipus comes to learn of this much later after a plague which seeks to avenge the death of king Laius traces its source to Oedipus as the murder. The play begins with the people of Thebes seeking the assistance of the king to find an end to the plague and ends by Oedipus’s realization of the fulfillment of the tragic prophecy which he has been running away from all along.
Brecht in his Epic theatre advocated for a style of theatre that was anti Aristotelian. By this, he meant that theatre should catapult the audience with the willingness and readiness to help and also replace the elements of fear with a desire to find out the cause. However, the characters in this play depict a different scenario from what was advocated by Brecht. The mood of the audience is overwhelmed with pity for Oedipus who is a victim of a tragic prophecy. Although, Oedipus is making a spirited effort to avoid the fateful crimes he was doomed to commit, he ends up finding himself caught up in the very snare. By running away from fate he finds himself running towards fate.
Pity is derived from the fact that Oedipus is a victim of fate and no matter how hard he tries to avoid committing the crimes, fate will still have his way over his. In this play, the fateful predicaments that befall Oedipus are meant to make the audience experience an outpouring of emotions of pity and fear therefore generating catharsis. This is in line with Aristotle’s notion that ‘pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves” (Poetics XIII). Oedipus is a character who is faced with insurmountable and gigantic challenges which he himself acknowledges in the course of the play when he says “What grief can crown this grief? It’s mine alone, my destiny – I am Oedipus!” (Sophocles 242).
These words resonate beyond acknowledging the insurmountable nature of the misfortunes facing him to challenging the audience to reckon with the fact that none seated among them faced such a gigantic fateful predicament. This is the point in the play were the emotions of the audience are stretched to their maximum therefore leaving them with an excruciating feeling of pity, fear and helplessness. Here the Brecht’s readiness to help is totally replaced with the ‘helplessness to help’ and therefore the only thing the audience can do in this case scenario is to have pity for the characters involved. A dark somber mood engulfs the play from start to finish leaving the audience with feelings of empathy and catharsis which is a clear contradiction to Brecht’s alienation effect which sort to create emotional detachment on the part of the audience.
The aim of this technique was to alienated, estrange or disconnect the audience from the emotions exhibited by the actors in order to force them to reason and mentally question the social similarities of the situations and circumstances that were being highlighted on the stage by the actors. Brecht intended that alienation effect will jolt the audience to reason and ask questions that would be instrumental in resolving and taking responsibility to amend the social injustices that were clearly being reflected on the play. His argument was that theatre was not just meant to entertain but also to create enlightenment which will stimulate social responsibility and change. To achieve alienation effect, Brecht highlighted the need for breaking illusion or’ suspension of disbelief’ which were byproducts of realism leading to heightened emotions on the part of the audience. Simple techniques could be used to achieve this, for example, the lights used on the stage should be clearly visible to the audience so that it remains as a constant reminder to the audiences that they are actually watching a play and not an actual occurrence of real time events.
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The actors also need to put costumes such as masks which will keep probing the audience to remind them that this is just a play. If the same techniques are employed in the cotemporary staging of the Oedipus Rex, they will effectively yield emotional detachment to characters in the play and therefore create anti realism and anti illusion on the part of the audience. This will effectively ensure that the audience is constantly involved in a mental evaluation process which effectively critiques the events being staged on the play with an aim of implementing social change and revolution. The audience will be able to ask themselves questions like, why is this happening to Oedipus? If he would have accepted fate and acted differently would the events in his tragedy unfolded differently? How does this case scenario apply to me? Could I be doing the same?
On the other hand Sophocles creates Oedipus as a character who is not in a position to help bring a solution to a social problem but rather as an object for the audience to purge or derive heightened emotions and therefore help them manage to live with the existing social tensions they face on a daily basis. The idea is to make the audience realize that there are others who face bigger and more complex situations and therefore they should accept their social misery as less challenging. The misery portrayed by Oedipus is grave to the point that a scene enriched with violent spectacle will be unnecessary to heighten the emotions of the audience.
This approach is witnessed towards the tail end of the play when the audience is spared from being shown Jocasta hanging herself and Oedipus gouging his eyes out. Instead a messenger narrates to the audience the occurrences which have taken place inside the palace. “but you are spared the worst, you never had to watch… I saw it all, and with all the memory that’s in me you will learn what that poor woman [Jocasta] suffered” (Sophocles 236). The audience is therefore left to imagine the scene in their minds and deal with the emotions that follow. As highlighted above, Brecht’s Epic theatre has a different approach which emphasizes on emotion-lacking theatre which catapults the audience to take action.
Using techniques suggested by Brecht the heightened emotions can be dissipated through contradicting the impressions made by the different elements in the play in order to create a contrasting mood which will generate conflict in the audience’s mind to compel them to try resolve and reconcile the contrasts. This will ensure that emotions of the audience do not build up throughout the play but rather the audience is involved in a continuous mental process of analyzing the play. For example, the lighting in the play should not be made to convey a somber mood but rather totally contrast this aspect; similarly the music should also achieve a contrasting role which will de-energize the emotions of the audience. In addition, music can also be used as a breaking point of scenes which tend to generate emotional flare up.
For example, at the scene where Oedipus suddenly comes to full realization of the tragic fulfillment of the prophetic oracle, music can suddenly be ejected in to contrast the expected mood therefore creating an anticlimax to the unfolding events. In this way Brecht advocates for juxtaposing two contradicting moods thereby generating mental conflict on the audience and catapulting them to reason and take action rather than maintain the social status quo. In supporting this view of detaching the emotions of the audience from the play, Brecht suggests that there response should be to say,” that’s not the way — that’s extraordinary, hardly believable — It’s got to stop — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary” (Brecht on Theatre 71).
In Epic theatre, Brecht advocated for plays to be didactic that is, they should have a direct moral teaching or lesson to the audience and not merely serve for the pleasure of entertainment. The moral lesson can be addressing a political or an economic injustice in the society. Analyzing Oedipus Rex alongside these lines, we are at pains to establish the moral teaching that this play has to its audience apart from making them realize the inevitability of fate. Didacticism can be brought out through contrasting the characters.
The plot of the play is rigid and concentrated on one centre of action continuously rising in momentum to reach the climax which is the realization by Oedipus that he has actually fulfilled the fateful prophecy which he has been running away from. Brecht on the other hand advocates for a plot that is mainly narrative. According to Aristotle, the stage of the play should be done in such a way that it casts as much realism and illusion as possible. This means that the recreation of the palace and the temple should give a depiction of reality. The audience should believe they are watching the actual site of the events.
However, Brecht is of a different view, the stage should be less from reality and employ other features such as making use of masks and puppetry. Other artistic features which will achieve anti realism and anti illusion like leaving the machinery used in the play to be in full view of the audience will also aid in serving the same purpose. In addition, characters can carry placards and signs to alert the audience about what to expect in the next scene.
Oedipus Rex is a powerful play which has endured the passage of time to establish itself as one of the major achievements of Greek drama. A cotemporary presentation of this play by utilizing theories suggested by Brecht in Epic theatre can revolutionize its contribution to the modern society by helping to highlight the tragedies of today as opposed to those of the yester years. By giving Oedipus Rex a modern setting, we will be making it relevant to address today’s social and political injustices. The play will therefore serve to entertain as well as to enlighten the audience on various issues affecting society as a whole and catapult them to take action and redeem the situations affecting society.
Brecht, Bertolt. 1949. “A Short Organum for the Theatre” Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. London: Methuen. p.179-205.
Willett, John. 1964. “Note”. In Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic by Bertolt Brecht. London: Methuen.