(Elif Batuman’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 9/1; photo: In Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” staged via Zoom by Theater of War Productions, the city of Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic.Photograph Courtesy Theater of War Productions.)
A theatre company has spent years bringing catharsis to the traumatized. In the coronavirus era, that’s all of us.
In Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” staged via Zoom by Theater of War Productions, the city of Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic.
“Children of Thebes, why are you here?” Oscar Isaac asked. His face filled the monitor on my dining table. (It was my partner’s turn to use the desk.) We were a couple of months into lockdown, just past seven in the evening, and a few straggling cheers for essential workers came in through the window. Isaac was looking smoldery with a quarantine beard, a gold chain, an Airpod, and a black T-shirt. His display name was set to “Oedipus.”
Isaac was one of several famous actors performing Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” from their homes, in the first virtual performance by Theater of War Productions: a group that got its start in 2008, staging Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for U.S. military audiences and, beginning in 2009, on military installations around the world, including in Kuwait, Qatar, and Guantánamo Bay, with a focus on combat trauma. After each dramatic reading, a panel made up of people in active service, veterans, military spouses, and/or psychiatrists would describe how the play resonated with their experiences of war, before opening up the discussion to the audience. Since its founding, Theater of War Productions has addressed different kinds of trauma. It has produced Euripides’ “The Bacchae” in rural communities affected by the opioid crisis, “The Madness of Heracles” in neighborhoods afflicted by gun violence and gang wars, and Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” in prisons. “Antigone in Ferguson,” which focusses on crises between communities and law enforcement, was motivated by an analogy between Oedipus’ son’s unburied body and that of Michael Brown, left on the street for roughly four hours after Brown was killed by police; it was originally performed at Michael Brown’s high school.
Now, with trauma roving the globe more contagiously than ever, Theater of War Productions had traded its site-specific approach for Zoom. The app was configured in a way I hadn’t seen before. There were no buttons to change between gallery and speaker view, which alternated seemingly by themselves. You were in a “meeting,” but one you were powerless to control, proceeding by itself, with the inexorability of fate. There was no way to view the other audience members, and not even the group’s founder and director, Bryan Doerries, knew how numerous they were. Later, Zoom told him that it had been fifteen thousand. This is roughly the seating capacity of the theatre of Dionysus, where “Oedipus the King” is believed to have premièred, around 429 B.C. Those viewers, like us, were in the middle of a pandemic: in their case, the Plague of Athens.
The original audience would have known Oedipus’ story from Greek mythology: how an oracle had predicted that Laius, the king of Thebes, would be killed by his own son, who would then sleep with his mother; how the queen, Jocasta, gave birth to a boy, and Laius pierced and bound the child’s ankles, and ordered a shepherd to leave him on a mountainside. The shepherd took pity on the maimed baby, Oedipus (“swollen foot”), and gave him to a Corinthian servant, who handed him off to the king and queen of Corinth, who raised him as their son. Years later, Oedipus killed Laius at a crossroads, without knowing who he was. Then he saved Thebes from a Sphinx, became the king of Thebes, had four children with Jocasta, and lived happily for many years.
That’s where Sophocles picks up the story. Everyone would have known where things were headed—the truth would come out, and Oedipus would blind himself—but not how they would get there. How Sophocles got there was by drawing on contemporary events, on something that was in everyone’s mind, though it doesn’t appear in the original myth: a plague.
In the opening scene, Thebes is in the grip of a terrible epidemic. Oedipus’ subjects come to the palace, imploring him to save the city, describing the scene of pestilence and panic, the screaming and the corpses in the street. Something about the way Isaac voiced Oedipus’ response—“Children. I am sorry. I know”—made me feel a kind of longing. It was a degree of compassion conspicuous by its absence in the current Administration. I never think of myself as someone who wants or needs “leadership,” yet I found myself thinking, We would be better off with Oedipus. “I would be a weak leader if I did not follow the gods’ orders,” Isaac continued, subverting the masculine norm of never asking for advice. He had already sent for the best information out there, from the Delphic Oracle.