Greek theater was very different from what we call theater today. It was, first of all, part of a religious festival. To attend a performance of one of these plays was an act of worship, not entertainment or intellectual pastime. But it is difficult for us to even begin to understand this aspect of the Greek theater, because the religion in question was very different from modern religions. The god celebrated by the performances of these plays was Dionysus, a deity who lived in the wild and was known for his subversive revelry. The worship of Dionysus was associated with an ecstasy that bordered on madness. Dionysus, whose cult was that of drunkenness and sexuality, little resembles modern images of God.
A second way in which Greek theater was different from modern theater is in its cultural centrality: every citizen attended these plays. Greek plays were put on at annual festivals (at the beginning of spring, the season of Dionysus), often for as many as 15,000 spectators at once. They dazzled viewers with their special effects, singing, and dancing, as well as with their beautiful language. At the end of each year’s festivals, judges would vote to decide which playwright’s play was the best.
In these competitions, Sophocles was king. It is thought that he won the first prize at the Athenian festival eighteen times. Far from being a tortured artist working at the fringes of society, Sophocles was among the most popular and well-respected men of his day. Like most good Athenians, Sophocles was involved with the political and military affairs of Athenian democracy. He did stints as a city treasurer and as a naval officer, and throughout his life he was a close friend of the foremost statesman of the day, Pericles. At the same time, Sophocles wrote prolifically. He is believed to have authored 123 plays, only seven of which have survived.
Sophocles lived a long life, but not long enough to witness the downfall of his Athens. Toward the end of his life, Athens became entangled in a war with other city-states jealous of its prosperity and power, a war that would end the glorious century during which Sophocles lived. This political fall also marked an artistic fall, for the unique art of Greek theater began to fade and eventually died. Since then, we have had nothing like it. Nonetheless, we still try to read it, and we often misunderstand it by thinking of it in terms of the categories and assumptions of our own arts. Greek theater still needs to be read, but we must not forget that, because it is so alien to us, reading these plays calls not only for analysis, but also for imagination.
Antigone was probably the first of the three Theban plays that Sophocles wrote, although the events dramatized in it happen last. Antigone is one of the first heroines in literature, a woman who fights against a male power structure, exhibiting greater bravery than any of the men who scorn her. Antigone is not only a feminist play but a radical one as well, making rebellion against authority appear splendid and noble. If we think of Antigone as something merely ancient, we make the same error as the Nazi censors who allowed Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone to be performed, mistaking one of the most powerful texts of the French Resistance for something harmlessly academic.
The story of Oedipus was well known to Sophocles’ audience. Oedipus arrives at Thebes a stranger and finds the town under the curse of the Sphinx, who will not free the city unless her riddle is answered. Oedipus solves the riddle and, since the king has recently been murdered, becomes the king and marries the queen. In time, he comes to learn that he is actually a Theban, the king’s son, cast out of Thebes as a baby. He has killed his father and married his mother. Horrified, he blinds himself and leaves Thebes forever.
The story was not invented by Sophocles. Quite the opposite: the play’s most powerful effects often depend on the fact that the audience already knows the story. Since the first performance of Oedipus Rex, the story has fascinated critics just as it fascinated Sophocles. Aristotle used this play and its plot as the supreme example of tragedy. Sigmund Freud famously based his theory of the “Oedipal Complex” on this story, claiming that every boy has a latent desire to kill his father and sleep with his mother. The story of Oedipus has given birth to innumerable fascinating variations, but we should not forget that this play is one of the variations, not the original story itself.
Beginning with the arrival of Oedipus in Colonus after years of wandering, Oedipus at Colonus ends with Antigone setting off toward her own fate in Thebes. In and of itself, Oedipus at Colonus is not a tragedy; it hardly even has a plot in the normal sense of the word. Thought to have been written toward the end of Sophocles’ life and the conclusion of the Golden Age of Athens, Oedipus at Colonus, the last of the Oedipus plays, is a quiet and religious play, one that does not attempt the dramatic fireworks of the others. Written after Antigone, the play for which it might be seen as a kind of prequel, Oedipus at Colonus seems not to look forward to the suffering that envelops that play but back upon it, as though it has already been surmounted.