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Staging Oedipus

It should be noted that the corpus of Senecan tragedy survives only in medieval manuscripts that do not contain any stage directions. There are no indications as to how or where they may have been produced. Consequently, the presentation of any Senecan tragedy must rely on a few wall paintings, some inference from bare texts, and the director’s intuition. 

When the Department of Theatre at Haifa University in Israel sponsored a production of this play and invited me as a Fulbright Fellow to stage it in May, 2005, I chose to set the play in a post-holocaust future. It seemed to me that this far distant world would create enough separation from a contemporary audience, so that the heightened language would be accepted as indigenous to that culture. Audiences used to seeing post-apocalyptic films could relate to the concept of vast destruction, and they could relate to the plague as reflective of our own time. This concept also seemed consistent with Seneca’s own era, in that he lived during that period when many apocalyptic texts circulated throughout Rome. Imminent devastation was the directorial metaphor, inspired by the real and perennial threat of a sudden nuclear attack, and consistent with Seneca’s theme of impending doom.

The setting was an underground Royal bunker complete with decontamination chamber, temporarily protecting its inhabitants from the encroaching new holocaust. Characters who came and went also wore protective masks and gear to show that the outside air was contaminated. All had recondite facial and body tattoos and some body-piercing; the king had a shaved head recalling the concentration camp prisoners of World War II. Most Royalty sported crimson, blue or magenta hair, wore clothes made of luminous, metallic-looking plastics, and carried laser weapons instead of swords. The underground Royal bunker echoed those places in our history where ordinary citizens stock-piled provisions and voluntarily shut themselves in not to be seen again until the plague ran its course. It was to look like a futuristic bomb shelter that had been converted from an ancient catacomb, as if Oedipus and his retinue were symbolically buried alive. It represented my vision of a stone fortress in hell. The vault is in contrast to, yet a reminder of the confinement of hoards of people in our annals who were locked in their houses against their will by local orders of quarantine, not only to perish because of the disease, but also for lack of food, water, and decent hygiene. Sadly, those who did break out, often spread the plague even further. From a directorial point of view, the concept was to use the known past as an unsettling harbinger of things to come, and to use the intimacy of the Haifa University Theatre to make the audience feel like inhabitants of this underground fortress whenever Chorus addressed them.

Whether a production of this play is seen as a futuristic piece, or an historical recreation, presenting it as an example of a more introspective Oedipus in an apocalyptic drama, will separate it from Greek tragedy. Seneca’s Oedipus is not a pallid imitation of Sophocles. It represents a vision of the world present during the age within which Seneca lived. Judaic/Christian apocalyptic literature initially appeared around 250 B.C., and continued into the early centuries A.D. Its eschatological symbols run through both the Old Testament and the New Testament from the book of Daniel to the book of Revelations, offering comfort and the promise of salvation for the faithful in times of crisis, persecution, famine, war, and plague. Apocalyptic themes express hope for a world replete with evil, which God will one day destroy, setting the stage for exultation, prosperity, and justice to reign in the new millennium. Seneca, in Epistle CII, 28, reflects this view when he says, "someday the secrets of heaven will be revealed to us, and all our ignorant darkness will be dispelled by glorious light." I’ve chosen to end Oedipus with that image, because it is as relevant to our age as it was to his.