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The College of Arts Sciences

Students of ancient theater to stage 'Oedipus' Nov. 10-12

By: Daniel Aloi,  Cornell Chronicle
November 3, 2016

If you think you know Oedipus, you may be in for some surprises when students take on Sophocles’ Greek tragedy “Oedipus (Tyrannus)” next week at the Schwartz Center.

Translated into English and directed by Frederick Ahl, professor of classics and comparative literature, the play is presented by the Department of Classics and by students in Ahl’s Ancient Theater Performance course, who comprise the cast.

The production, Nov. 10-12 at 7 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre, is free and open to the public. Seating is limited; more seats are available for Thursday, Nov. 10, than the next two nights. To reserve tickets, contact Terry Hollenbeck at or 607-255-7471.

Ahl translated “Oedipus” seven years ago and revised it for this class to correct some mistakes, “not so much in the translation but in the editions of the Greek text that I used,” he said. “One of the problems with this play is that people have decided for about 150 years what it is supposed to mean. So they have gone back and revised the Greek text to mean that. … It’s an incredibly complex play that people have radically oversimplified.”

Ahl says his translation stays as faithful as possible to the original play and brings out some of its complexities.

“‘Oedipus’ is like an insane jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t fit into the picture,” he said. “What I’m trying to figure out is if Sophocles expects us – his audience – to see what’s going on. There are all sorts of weird things about this play.”

For example, when a drunk (whose identity is never investigated) calls Oedipus a bastard, he cross-examines his parents, not the drunk. “Are these responses those of a rational person?” Ahl asks. “His wife, Jocasta, thinks not. She claims that he is powered by what others say if they talk about things he fears.”

“Oedipus is infinitely suggestible,” Ahl adds, “and has a very dim memory.”

“The traditional view of Sophocles’ Oedipus makes him the one person exempt from Freud’s Oedipus complex,” he said. "If, in the 19th century, scholars had supported the view that he did secretly desire to kill his father and marry his mother, the play could not have been taught in schools.”

So scholars modified the original play over the years, he said, as they established its current canonical meaning. This production, he hopes, “will show that Oedipus is a great deal more complicated – everyone has his own reason for behaving as he or she does in this play and characters will emerge differently from their usual depiction.”

Ahl said the class includes several Chinese students.

“I’m interested in taking anyone into the play. And for many non-native speakers of English, this is their first experience of participating in a Western drama. And they are having a blast,” he said. “The acting is really amazingly good. We have some superb performers taking part; they’re chemistry or computer science majors as well as classics students. Many have not had any or much stage experience.”

The production also features “a Brazilian music called choro [‘cry’ or ‘lament’ in Portuguese] as background for parts of the chorus. It’s a music that evokes ancient Greek music, it’s very modal,” Ahl said.

The students are honing literary skills and knowledge as they work with the text, he said: “You get a different perspective on a play when you see it from the inside out. If you are a character who is talking to someone not giving you straight answers, you have to see it that way – and others watch this and they learn more about the play than they would in a seminar about the play.

“Once they have figured out how to read a Latin or Greek text in detail,” he added, “they have a real chance to enjoy it at a much deeper level.”

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.