The Three Theban Plays

“Laius,” she cried, and called her husband dead
Long, long ago; her thought was of that child
By him begot, the son by whom the sire
Was murdered and the mother left to breed
With her own seed, a monstrous progeny.
Then she bewailed the marriage bed whereon
Poor wretch, she had conceived a double brood,
Husband by husband, children by her child.” 

Oedipus Rex, Sophocles ( trans. Robert Fagles)

Note: There are spoilers in my post as I assume that even if people have not read the texts, they would know that all three plays being Greek tragedies, would end on a tragic note.

Thanks to Freud, everyone knows about the Oedipus complex which can be traced back to the myth of Oedipus, an age old tale about incest and patricide. I was always curious about the original story from where Freud got his inspiration to form his theory of psychoanalysis. Over the holidays, I read the three tragedies of Sophocles –Oedipus Rex ( also known as Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus The King), Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone- written in the 400s bce and referred to collectively as the Theban plays as they are all set in the city-state of Thebes and form a single storyline in spite of being written as three distinct plays. During my college years, I had studied Antigone in an English translation and I had also read the French adaptation by Jean Anouilh. I read the other two for the first time.

Though the plays are about the same characters, they were written at different times and were not intended to be a trilogy. In terms of their chronology, Oedipus Rex is the first, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. But Sophocles did not write them in that order. I am glad I read them not just for their importance in the western literary canon but also for the realization that the mythological Oedipus did not suffer from the complex named after him.

Oedipus Rex- The Oracle of Delphi reveals to the King Laius of Thebes that he will have a child who will kill him and sleep with his wife Jocasta, in effect his own mother. Fearing the prophecy, the King and Queen abandon their newborn son on a mountainside to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to  King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth who raise him as their own. When as a young man, Oedipus learns from an oracle that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother, he leaves his home in Corinth to avert the prophecy. He kills Laius in a scuffle on the crossroads not knowing that it was his father. Ironically he returns to the very place he was driven away from during his infancy. He is offered the city’s crown and queen after he solves the Sphinx’s riddle and liberates the people of Thebes from its hold.

When a plague ravages Thebes, the only solution to bring an end to it, according to the oracle, is to bring the murderer of Thebes’ last king, Laius, to justice. Oedipus resolves to find the killer only to discover that he himself is the unfortunate man. The unbearable truth leads to the suicide of his wife-mother and as for Oedipus, overcome by guilt, he gouges out his own eyes in desperation.

Oedipus’ story is tragic as he was not aware of what he was doing. He, in fact, did the right thing by running away from his city and parents to escape the prophecies of the oracle but his destiny caught up with him. So if the prophesies were intended to come true, was Oedipus responsible for his actions? If it was ordained from the moment of his birth itself that he would to kill his father and marry his mother, was there any way he could have escaped his fate?

Is his suffering self inflicted? Was his downfall due to hubris in wishing to subvert the will of the Gods? He was a noble king who wanted to help his people and remove the curse of the plague. His ‘hamartia’ or fatal error to borrow a term from Aristotle’s Poetics is his desire for knowledge and it is this quest for the truth that ends up being self destructive. The prophet Tiresias and the shepherd who saved him as a baby want him to abandon his quest for they know the truth already and know that it will have disastrous consequences. If he hadn’t urged the shepherd boy to answer his questions, and if he had listened to Jocasta’s pleas to drop his search for the truth, he would have perhaps lived in blissful ignorance. Or perhaps not. His fate would have caught up with him one way or the other.

As you can see, the mythological Oedipus did not suffer from the complex named after him. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, believed that the Oedipus complex was ‘Freud’s dream’. Freud believed that infantile impulses of desire for the opposite gender parent and jealousy towards the same gender parent remain active in our unconscious. However Oedipus was abandoned as as infant and consequently did not form an attachment with his mother during the phallic stage. Queen Merope is the woman who raised him during his childhood. Whether Freud’s theory in general is valid or not is a matter for another discussion, but it certainly does not hold water in the case of the character who inspired it as Oedipus was not a mama’s boy, but a mere marionette in the hands of fate.

Fresco depicting Oedipus killing his father Laius, dating back to the second century A.D, the Roman dynasty. At The Egyptian Museum of Cairo

Oedipus at Colonus– The least well known play in the trilogy has a calmer and more meditative tone. The exiled and blind Oedipus is reduced to a life of wandering with his daughter Antigone by his side. They arrive at the town of Colonus, close to Athens and are at first viewed with distrust by the citizens and the members comprising the Chorus who know about Oedipus’ past but King Theseus offers them his unconditional support. The oracles had also prophesied that Oedipus would die in a place sacred to the Furies.

Meanwhile his daughter Ismene arrives and informs him that his two sons are fighting for control of Thebes. Polynices has been banished by his younger brother Eteocles but has raised an army in Argos and is preparing to attack Thebes. In a dramatic twist of fate, the leaders of Thebes want Oedipus back because they believe his presence would bless the city. Spurned in the past, he is sought after now. Oedipus refuses as he is still upset with his sons for not having prevented his exile. Creon, his brother -in-law and the King of Thebes, forcibly tries to take Antigone and Ismene as hostages but King Thesus comes to their rescue. Oedipus dies and is buried at Colonus and his tomb protects the people of Athens and brings them good fortune thereafter as predicted by the Oracle.

This play is Important as it is Oedipus’ chance to defend himself and restore his tarnished reputation. He is finally granted dignity in death. Oedipus knows he killed his father unknowingly in self-defense and that he unwittingly slept with his mother. Whereas he was consumed with guilt and shame before, he feels indignation now at the way he was unfairly treated. He is despondent but refrains from self- flagellation. He has forgiven himself and is forgiven by others. He has become a more humble person and the relationship between the old feeble man and his devoted daughters is very touching. When Oedipus had his sight, he was in the dark because he didn’t know the truth about his life. Interestingly, when Oedipus becomes blind, his vision opens up and he finally acquires wisdom.

Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust, Oedipus at Colonus (1788)

Antigone- Both Eteocles and Polyneices are dead. The former gets a proper burial but the latter is considered a traitor by Creon and is refused a burial. Antigone tries to convince her sister to help her defy Creon’s edict and bury the body. Ismene agrees with her sister’s views but cannot muster up the courage to act and remains passive. Antigone is now completely on her own but still as steadfastly dedicated to her cause and gives her brother the burial he deserves. Creon and Antigone resemble each other in that they are both headstrong and unflinchingly devoted to their principles. After all they have the same blood coursing through their veins. She is imprisoned and sentenced to be buried alive but the Chorus, Teiresias and Creon’s son Haemon who is Antigone’s fiancé, plead with Creon to release her. He eventually has a change of heart but it is too late. Antigone has hanged herself and her heartbroken fiancé follows her in death which results in his mother Eurydice taking her life too, leaving Creon bereft and defeated. The ending though heartbreaking is befitting of a Greek tragedy. What else could we expect for the entire accursed bloodline of Oedipus?

Antigone giving burial to Polynices, Sébastien Louis Guillaume Norblin de la Gourdaine, 19th century, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris

Antigone is my favorite play of the trilogy for two reasons. Firstly, it raises questions that are still relevant today in depicting the conflict between the individual and the state. She commits an act of civil disobedience in defying the edict of the King, analogous to the clash between authoritarianism and democracy we encounter in current times. The second reason I liked the play is that it is way ahead of its time in its feminist undertones. In refusing to kowtow to the wishes of an unjust man, Antigone rejects the traditional role of women. Ancient Greece was a patriarchal society where women were considered inferior and not consulted in matters of law or politics. Antigone stands up against tyranny in support of her moral obligations. No doubt her act is motivated by her filial love and loyalty to the men of the family, but by refusing to let herself be dominated by a man, she challenges the gender power dynamic. Interestingly, the play is named after her and not after Creon, the King.

 The main theme underlying all three plays is that of destiny and how we have to succumb to its inexorable ways. Even if you attempt to avoid the prophecies, your actions end up causing them to come about and they become what we refer to as self-fulfilling prophecies. So then we have to ask ourselves if everything is preordained, can we be fully responsible for our actions? And what is even the point of life and living if you pay a heavy price for exercising your free will?

I think the purpose of the plays was to emphasize that life is full of suffering and grief over which we have no control and all we can do is to cope with the cards dealt to us. You cannot control your fate but you can control how you respond to it. The plays were performed at the spring festival In Dionysus and were intended to be cathartic – to be a collective experience of shared grief which fostered compassion in the audience and enabled the release of their own emotions from the safe distance of their seats. The effect is the same on modern readers. The plays enhance our understanding of the human condition and of human nature and evoke the quality of empathy.

If ever we have a bad day, all we have to do is to think about poor ill-fated Oedipus and thank our stars!


What Cyrano de Bergerac Has Taught Me About Love!


A captivating classic which has withstood the test of time, Cyrano de Bergerac is manna for my romantic soul. The play set in Paris in 1640 during the reigns of Louis the 13th and Louis the 14th, but written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand is loosely based on a real person named Cyrano de Bergerac embellished freely in fiction. It has resulted in various adaptations on screen and on stage and it has never failed to tug at my heartstrings in any of its avatars. I recently saw the filmed version of the Comédie Française production which was aired in theaters across the US for just one show on the same day and at the same hour. I also read the original play in French and its translation in English last month and thought that a Valentine’s Day post on this story would be a fitting tribute to its creator for if there’s anything that can warm the most cynical of hearts, it’s this beautiful but heartrending love story.

Gérard Depardieu and Anne Brochet in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s 1990 film, “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

Cyrano de Bergerac was written in alexandrine verses. The French language lends itself beautifully to the poetic form and it’s difficult to capture the cadence and rhythm in English. If you must read a translation, stay away from the online public domain one which is quite awful. Also, do yourself a favor and watch the opulent 1990 production of Cyrano with Gérard Depardieu who gives a magnificent performance. He was born to play the part. To me Gérard Depardieu IS Cyrano.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a flamboyant, funny, witty, proud, short-tempered, courageous, brash and sentimental cadet of Gascony well versed in music, science, philosophy, literature and warfare. He has a penchant for poetry.  He is a larger than life character- a tad over the top and theatrical with a touch of Romeo and a shade of Don Quixote-the epitome of chivalry vanquishing enemies with ease- in short, a force to be reckoned with. This acclaimed swordsman and ingenious wordsmith sounds perfect, doesn’t he? Not quite for he has an enormous nose which makes him the butt of ridicule and is the bane of his existence. This phenomenally prominent proboscis also prevents him from declaring his love for his cousin Roxanne as he fears her rejection.

The fair Roxanne is in love with the handsome Christian de Neuvillette, a cadet in Cyrano’s own regiment who reciprocates her feelings but lacks the eloquence to woo her. So Cyrano becomes Christian’s voice and expresses his ardent love for Roxanne through the letters he pens under his name. The two team up together with their respective qualities of beauty and wit to seduce Roxanne. The balcony scene where Christian serenades Roxanne with Cyrano’s words displays Cyrano’s poetic prowess. Here’s an exquisite description of a kiss:

A kiss, when all said and done, what is it? An oath taken at close quarters, a more precise  promise, a confession that wishes to be confirmed, A rosy circle around the ‘o’ of the verb ‘to love’; It’s a secret which takes the lips for the ear, A moment of infinity buzzing like a bee, A communion with a flowery taste, A way of breathing in a little of the heart and tasting a little of the soul along the edges of the lips.

Un baiser, mais à tout prendre, qu’est-ce?
Un serment fait d’un peu plus près, une promesse
Plus précise, un aveu qui veut se confirmer,
Un point rose qu’on met sur l’i du verbe aimer;
C’est un secret qui prend la bouche pour oreille,
Un instant d’infini qui fait un bruit d’abeille,
Une communion ayant un goût de fleur,
Une façon d’un peu se respirer le coeur,
Et d’un peu se goûter, au bord des lèvres, l’âme!

There is a third character, Comte de Guiche who is also in love with Roxanne and who tries to thwarts their attempts. In the end, the resourceful Roxanne outwits the Comte and succeeds in marrying Christian. Right after the wedding, Christian has to leave for the front even before their marriage has been consummated. Cyrano promises Roxane that Christian will write to her and he risks his life everyday by crossing enemy lines to deliver the letters he has penned himself under Christian’s name. Roxanne falls in love with the soul of the poet and declares to the troubled Christian that even if he were to turn ugly she would love him for his poetic ingenuity. Christian is willing to give up Roxanne on this discovery but fate has other plans for this love triangle.

What Cyrano de Bergerac has taught me about love:

Love is courage. If you love someone, say it. What is the worst that can happen? You’ll be rejected and it won’t be the end of the world. Besides, there is a possibility that the person may reciprocate your feelings. Give love a chance in spite of your feelings of inadequacy and in spite of your flaws, real or perceived. A love that expresses itself so eloquently is also a love that is tongue-tied! Poor Cyrano! When he finally summons the courage to reveal his feelings, fate denies him the opportunity when Christian is killed during the siege of Arras. Why did he remain silent for fourteen years after Christian’s death? Perhaps sometimes the courageous thing to do is to be quiet and love from the shadows. And if Cyrano had confessed his love for Roxanne, then we wouldn’t have had such a tragically beautiful love story and imbibed the other important lessons about love.

Love goes beyond appearances. While Cyrano exemplifies inner beauty, Christian with his dashing looks represents outer beauty. But isn’t Cyrano’s ability to craft words as superficial as Christian’s good looks? It seems that physical attractiveness and intellectual abilities are the traits cherished by the protagonists at the beginning of the play. Roxanne falls initially for Christian purely for his looks. And both men seek her out for her external beauty. Ironically, Cyrano himself who is so self-conscious about his deformity can’t help falling for a charming woman. Roxanne is not only a very beautiful woman but is also a ‘precieuse’ – an intellectual  woman with a refined literary taste. Roxanne falls in love with Christian’s looks and Cyrano’s wit but it’s only towards the end that she has a glimpse into the beautiful soul of the man and realizes that his integrity, honor and adherence to moral standards are what constitute his inner beauty. In fact the story is a reworking of The Beauty and the Beast and Cyrano himself refers to the fairy tale but he points out the painful fact that unlike the tale where the prince’s ugliness evaporates, his remains the same.

Love is loyal. Roxanne’s plight is as pitiable as Cyrano’s. In spite of being one of the most beautiful and sophisticated women in Paris, she loves no other and lives a life of a recluse in a convent, faithful to the memory of her deceased love. As darkness envelops the evening while Cyrano, in the throes of death, reads Christian’s letters out aloud, Roxanne realizes that he is reading from memory and the truth dawns on her. Her true love has always been right under her nose. ( I just couldn’t resist the pun! ) The realization that the mind and soul she was in love with belonged to Cyrano, leads her to this heartrending lament that always makes me dissolve into tears: I have loved but one man in my life and I’ve lost him twice.(“Je n’aimais qu’un seul être et je le perds deux fois!” ) Alas! Love is lost and love is found only to be lost again.

Another scene that never fails to bring a lump in my throat is when Cyrano describes his loneliness at never knowing a woman’s love :

I had never known a woman’s love.
Even my mother did not find me handsome:
I had no sister; and, later as a man,
I feared the mistress who would mock at me.
But at least I have had your friendship–thanks to you
A woman’s charm has crossed my path.

J’ignorais la douceur féminine. Ma mère
Ne m’a pas trouvé beau. Je n’ai pas eu de soeur.
Plus tard, j’ai redouté l’amante à l’oeil moqueur.
Je vous dois d’avoir eu, tout au moins, une amie.
Grâce à vous une robe a passé dans ma vie. 

Love is selfless. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from the play is that true love has no expectations and places no demands. Cyrano’s love for Roxanne is so deep that he is willing to encourage her romance with another man for her happiness. It’s also admirable that he was a good friend to Christian and helped him even after the latter mocked him for his grotesque deformity. His love is so pure and noble that even after Christian dies, he wants to preserve the image Roxanne has of him in her mind, albeit a false one. The closest we come to this ideal is the unconditional love a parent has for a child. It’s far more difficult to be self-sacrificing in a romantic relationship. And that’s definitely something we can learn from Cyrano. If you love someone truly you’ll care more about their happiness than your own. Cyrano has given up a lot but not his integrity. In the end, the swashbuckling poet leaves the world with what has always stayed with him-his panache. (Panache, incidentally, was a word introduced in the English language with the popularity of the play.)

In this modern age of casual encounters and fleeting relationships, one would think that this epic tale would be outdated but it has endured through the ages for Cyrano’s story is one we have all lived. We all hope that someone would love us like Cyrano and there’s also a little bit of Cyrano in all of us, n’est-ce pas, pining from afar for an unattainable love?

* The translations are all mine.