A hero in search of home, a classic story retold for today.
‘WHERE SHALL I FIND SANCTUARY?’
A Note from Tom Prewitt, Avant Bard Artistic and Executive Director
The Oedipus story has many meanings, but at its core lies the concept of home. Oedipus thought he had found his home — the place of his highest triumphs, of his greatest wealth and esteem — only to suffer the harshest fate and the most terrible fall from grace that the cruelest gods could devise. As Sophocles tells it, in the course of one, hubris-filled day, he tumbled from the heights of fortune to the depths of terrifying self-recognition, and in the process lost everything, including the place that he called home. Condemned to a life of wandering, accursed in the eyes of all who met him, he spent the rest of his days trying to find a place of shelter, a sanctuary where he could live and die in peace.
And this is where the real drama of The Gospel at Colonus begins — not so much in the story of Oedipus or the daughters who guide him through his years of darkness, but in the reactions of those he meets along the way. Some view him as a living reproach, a pariah to be scorned; others summon the generosity of spirit to welcome him and give him comfort. These great-hearted souls are the true heroes of the play. The real test of a culture, the play suggests, lies in how it treats the weakest and most vulnerable in its midst. As a great thinker long ago preached, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
For over 27 years Avant Bard has presented the best of world drama, in productions that challenge audiences to see the plays’ meaning and relevance in a new light. The musical you are about to see fits firmly in that tradition, combining elements of African American and Greek culture in a bracing mix that allows us to see this ancient tale with fresh eyes. The story of a blind, homeless old man and his family — scorned by many, but welcomed by a few — takes on new urgency, especially at a time when so many from all over the world, fleeing from the horrors of their past, seek shelter in our midst. Sophocles suggests that the test of our own or any other civilization lies in how we respond to the challenge of outsiders among us. Will we reject them out of fear or prejudice? Or will we, in the words of another great thinker, hearken to “the better angels of our nature,” and give them the sanctuary they long for, the home that we all deserve?
In a time of great strife and civil unrest, the answers to such questions may well determine whether our nation — conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal — can long endure.
WHY THE MYTH OF OEDIPUS CALLS TO US
A Note from Jennifer L. Nelson, the Original Director
Mythologies are timeless, finding their origins in the need to understand how both extraordinary and mundane behaviors influence temporal realities that may otherwise seem to be out of human control. Providing stories of success and failure, they give us models for our own aspirations and frailties. They offer stories of women and men who rise to meet daunting challenges, often — but not always — unaware of the inevitable perils that will accompany whatever choices are made. Dragons, giants, sorcerers, ogres, fire pits and angry gods are timeless symbols of what may be encountered on the hero’s journey. Yet our classic myths (and our daily lives) also demonstrate how we humans are oddly immune to warnings: we fail again and again to heed prophecies and danger signs. We set common sense aside for pleasure and self-aggrandizement. We believe it is the individual hero’s divine task to overcome challenges — including peril and fear — and we believe it is possible.
Oedipus is the figure in Greek mythology who was fated by the gods to kill his father, then marry and bear children with his mother. When adult Oedipus becomes aware of what he has done, he falls into despair, abandons his throne, puts out his own eyes, and sets out to roam blind and alone through the land, seeking the forgiveness of death. The play invites us to witness and share the king’s suffering from our contemporary perspective — perhaps to find our own sense of peace.
For me, theatre always has the potential to transform the viewer. It invites us to step out of our daily lives and through the gift of imagination, experience what it might be like to be someone else; what it’s like to be part of events we might not ever personally encounter. We might, for example, imagine what we might do under the same circumstances as Oedipus. Through such imaginative interaction, we not only are engaged and entertained but are also hopefully enlightened.
THE BACKSTORY OF THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS
Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. The Oracle at Delphi told Laius that any son born of his union to Jocasta would be their downfall, so upon Oedipus’ birth, they instructed a shepherd to dispose of the child. The shepherd instead brought the young Oedipus to the court of Corinth, where he was adopted by King Polybus and Queen Merope.
Upon learning that the king and queen were not his biological parents, Oedipus consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In order to protect his adoptive parents from this fate, Oedipus fled from Corinth.
On the way, he encountered a charioteer who, unbeknownst to Oedipus, was his biological father, Laius. Their quarrel escalated into a duel, which resulted in Laius’ death — and fulfillment of the first part of the oracle’s prophecy.
Oedipus next encountered the dreaded Sphinx, who besieged the city of Thebes and killed all travelers who failed to answer the riddle: “What goes on four legs in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening?” Oedipus quickly realized that the answer was man — who crawls as a baby, walks on two legs in midlife, and walks with a cane as an old man — and therefore vanquished the Sphinx and entered Thebes a hero. There, Creon rewarded Oedipus with the title of king, and gave him his sister, Jocasta, to be his wife — thus fulfilling the second part of the prophecy. Oedipus and Jocasta had four children: sons Eteocles and Polyneices and daughters Antigone and Ismene.
Sophocles’ classic tragedy Oedipus the King, the precursor to Oedipus at Colonus, opens as a plague overtakes Thebes. Oedipus sends Creon to the Oracle at Delphi for help, only to learn that Thebes has been cursed because Laius’ killer had not been brought to justice. Oedipus sends for the blind prophet Teiresias, who reluctantly admits that Oedipus himself murdered the former king and that he is unaware of his true parentage. After Jocasta recounts that she and Laius abandoned their son because of a prophecy, Oedipus realizes the horrifying truth, and Jocasta hangs herself. Oedipus takes a brooch from her gown and blinds himself. Creon and the citizens of Thebes banish Oedipus for his sins and the bad luck he has brought to the city, and he is forced to wander for the rest of his days with his daughter Antigone as his guide.
The musical The Gospel at Colonus is adapted from Sophocles’ classic tragedy Oedipus at Colonus. As our story begins, Oedipus arrives at Colonus seeking solace and sanctuary in his last days.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR OF OEDIPUS AT COLONUS
Sophocles (c. 496 – c. 406 BCE) was, along with Aeschylus and Euripides, one of Athens’ three great tragic playwrights. A respected public figure, musician, athlete, and actor, he won his first accolades as a writer at the Dionysian festival in 468; he went on to write 123 plays, none of which won below second place in competitions. Seven of these works survive in full, including Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, and Electra. He is widely credited with such theatrical innovations as introducing a third actor to the traditional two, expanding the chorus from 12 to 15 players, and replacing the trilogy form with self-contained tragedies — all allowing for more complex, character-driven dramas.