Written over two thousand years ago, OEDIPUS REX continues to be adapted and reimagined in a variety of contexts and mediums. In this blog post, the third in a series of four posts, learn more about adaptations of Sophocles’ play for the screen, as well as how these reimagined approaches address the enduring themes in this famous Greek tragedy.
From stage to album, Oedipus Rex reigns supreme as a frequently adapted source of creative work. However, Oedipus’ domain does not end there, as his story has been adapted for the silver screen as well.
In Italy in 1967, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s dramatic and renowned version of Oedipus Rex, entitled Edipo Re, was released, quickly gaining worldwide recognition. Pasolini narrows in on the plot with Freudian intensity as he explores the relationship between Jocasta and Oedipus. With an anachronistic prologue in 20th century Italy, it is implied that Laius abuses Oedipus because he is overcome with maddening jealousy toward his son for “stealing [his] wife’s love.” The film then cuts to an entirely different setting and time frame, jumping right into the play by showing an infant Oedipus being abandoned in the desert. The plot then closely follows Sophocles’ text, but does include some autobiographical bias on Pasolini’s part. In an interview with Oswald Sack, Pasolini said the aforementioned prologue was “a fairly particular evocation of [his] early childhood.” Why did Pasolini address elements of his private familial relationships within his presentation of this Greek tragedy? Was it simply the human desire to find oneself in a creative outlet? After all, audiences often identify with fictional characters and superimpose their own bias from experiences on their interpretation of a work. Possible answers point again to the reason the play endures. As the film trailer’s narrator says, this play is a “tragedy of today, yesterday, and tomorrow” as Oedipus is “a man both ancient and modern” in his struggles. Viewers can identify with the idea of folly as they commiserate over the shared agony of retrospection and feelings of helplessness when fighting against powerful, ineffable forces.
Furthermore, Oedipo Alcalde (also known as Oedipus Mayor), the screenplay which was first written by Gabriel García Marquez, is another noteworthy adaptation of the play. It completely recontextualizes the work, transposing it into war-torn Colombia of the late 20th century. Oedipus is cast into the role of an embattled and weary mayor who is desperate to mediate peace between the fighting guerilla groups and Colombian army. Oedipus can be adapted to fit any time period so the themes are pertinent to a specific audience while still maintaining its age-old appeal. This property, as well as its continued power to enthrall audiences and tantalize the creative mind, serves as a testament to the true versatility and relevance of Sophocles’ play.
Beyond its literary and historical value as one of Sophocles’ few surviving plays, the question remains: why continue to perform and adapt the original play within any capacity? Oedipus Rex presents audiences with the lingering and insistent doubts that hover in the margins of daily life. In the wake of each choice lies the burning question of whether it was an act of free will or preordained folly. An intriguing aspect of the play is that all the prophecy-fulfilling action has taken place, leaving Oedipus condemned without possibility of salvation. Oedipus must grapple with the confounding reality of predetermined fate, helpless from the offset as he is forced to look back on choices already made. The excruciating agony of retrospect is such an integral aspect of conscious and unconscious human experience that viewers cannot help but commiserate with Oedipus. The play itself becomes an inevitable force, reinforcing this motif of inescapability. Thus, audiences are inevitably drawn into this enduring exploration of fate and free will. The act of viewing Oedipus’ struggles adopts an almost voyeuristic, masochistic quality because people are enraptured by their shared folly. Audiences use the play as an outlet to contemplate the nature of their own choices. The concept of predetermination is both chilling and tantalizing as the possibility of escaping fate shrinks with the rising, and inevitably confirmed, fears of the titular character. Oedipus not only reminds the viewers of the price of folly, but also asks them to question the nature of that folly in the first place. In doing so, the tragedy and its titular character remain an enduring mark of Sophocles’ continued influence on modern culture with the undeniable humanity of his characters.
On stage November 7 – December 8, 2019, Oedipus Rex is the first powerful installment in Court’s Oedipus Trilogy, which continues in May 2020 with The Gospel at Colonus, and concludes with Antigone in the fall of 2020. The trilogy lays bare the themes of fate, redemption, and justice in Sophocles’ works, dynamically engaging audiences with how these themes bridge cultures, cities, and communities.