The shocking relevance to today of a legend about a noble city that welcomed an accursed stranger
By Maegan Clearwood, Resident Dramaturg
Avant Bard is bringing to life an ages-old story of a sanctuary city at a moment in which America’s own sanctuary cities are under attack. The Gospel at Colonus—the transcendent musical by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson—is an adaptation of Sophocles’ ancient play Oedipus at Colonus, using African American musical traditions to underscore the catharsis and joy of the final chapter of Oedipus’ journey.
The result is an astoundingly timeless story of universal themes, as Sophocles questions society’s basic ability to care for the individual, no matter how small or afraid, in times of unrest.
Breuer and Telson follow the same plot as Sophocles: the now-blind Oedipus, exiled from Thebes after fulfilling a tragic prophecy, wanders into Colonus with his daughter, Antigone. Colonus—a sacred grove guarded by the Furies just outside the walls of Athens—is teeming with life, a land that is described in the musical as one “Where leaves and berries throng / and wine-dark ivy climbs the bough.” It is the perfect refuge for the weary and desperate Oedipus and Antigone, but the wanderers are not immediately welcomed with open arms. First, there is the almost knee-jerk skepticism from the chorus (or choir, in Gospel’s case) of residents, who viciously interrogate this poor and ailing stranger:
Who is this man?
What is his name?
Where does he come from?
What is his race?
This instinct—to distrust anything or anyone whose presence seems to threaten the status quo—resonates centuries forward, but it is especially interesting when examined through a historical lens. Athens took pride in its reputation as a sanctuary to refugees, and a popular reading of the play sees it as a celebration of the city’s generosity and compassion. Although there is no evidence that Oedipus at Colonus was based on any specific moment in history, Sophocles wrote the play as the great city of Athens was on the verge of destruction. Colonus was considered a sacred, transitory space, and Athens’ precarious political situation perhaps explains why, in Sophocles’ story, its citizens react to Oedipus in a manner contradictory to their city’s promises of sanctuary: Oedipus’ mere presence in this hallowed space violates their sense of security.
Oedipus tries to elicit sympathy from the choir in the song “A Voice Foretold,” asking merely for a place for his soul to find rest: “Where the pain unending ends for me, where shall I find sanctuary?” It is a simple, desperate plea, but is met with no sympathy from the members of the choir, who have just learned of Oedipus’ accursed past.
Ultimately, it is the leader of this community, Theseus, who has the voice and power to determine the fate of this exiled king. Theseus recalls his own past as a refugee, using empathy as a reason to give this former king sanctuary. As he declares in Gospel:
I feel sorry for him. I too was an exile. Therefore no wanderer shall come to me, as he has done, and be denied.
In Sophocles’ original text, Theseus goes further, telling Oedipus that “I’m also mortal, like you, with no greater assurance than you that I’ll be alive tomorrow…. I’ll settle him in our land with the rights of a citizen.” His appeal for empathy dictates his decision, leading to widespread compassion on the part of his followers.
Today the tension between fear of the unknown and entreaties for empathy is at the forefront of the political climate. As Americans unite in protest against recent anti-refugee policies—hundreds of thousands in our very own backyard—the strange dichotomy of our national ideals are thrust into the spotlight: as long as we have been a country of immigrants and diversity, we have also been one of fear and rejection.
A 2015 Slate article cites this phenomenon as dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, when political upheaval and famine brought the first major wave of immigrants to American shores. The subsequent “Know-Nothing Movement,” which called for “the sending back of all foreign paupers,” eventually fizzled out, but only marked the beginning of a centuries-long pattern that continues to this day: refugees seek American sanctuary; nativist Americans claim that these foreigners are uprooting their country’s ideals (or bringing with them dangerous ideologies or practices); and eventually, this new immigrant population establishes itself as a valuable part of America’s vast and diverse history.
There are few Americans whose history does not trace back to one of these movements, but the pattern continues, winding its way from hate speech and violence against refugee communities all the way to the White House.
He has asked for grace! And offers no small favour in return. As I value this, I shall not refuse this man’s desire.
Theseus’ words about Oedipus are no far cry from chants heard lately in streets and airports across our country:
No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here.
Maegan Clearwood is a dramaturg, teaching artist, and arts journalist who has served as the Director of Audience Engagement at Avant Bard, Literary Associate at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and Dramaturgy Apprentice at the Olney Theatre Center. Selected dramaturgy credits include: TAME., A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Holiday Memories (Avant Bard); Lizzie: The Musical (Pinky Swear Productions) A Bid to Save the World (Rorschach Theatre); Static (Source Festival); World Builders (Forum Theatre); I and You, The Piano Lesson, The Tempest, Colossal (Olney Theatre Center). As a critic and columnist, her work has appeared in On Stage Blog, HowlRound, and DC Theater Scene. BA in Drama and English from Washington College.