Social Buttons

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A 20th-century Everyman

Photo: Jane Hobson
By Tim Ashley

This article was originally published in the Edinburgh International Festival programme, where the Next Wave Festival presentation of Greek (Dec 5-9) premiered in 2017.

Sigmund Freud first posited the idea of the Oedipus complex in The Interpretation of Dreams, published in November 1899. In a move itself riddled with significance, however, he insisted that the date on the title-page be changed to 1900: psychoanalysis was to be a new science for a new century; Oedipal theory, in which a child’s first sexual and aggressive instincts are turned towards its mother and father respectively, rapidly emerged as its central tenet; and Oedipus himself, who unwittingly acted on impulses normally repressed out of moral revulsion, in consequence became a 20th-century Everyman.

Almost inevitably, the myth of Oedipus became the subject of a number of major 20th-century works in different artistic media, of which Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek (1988) remains arguably the most controversial. Yet though each work may be seen as being in some sense a response to Freud, his theories have been as much challenged as accepted: the two principal operatic treatments from the first half of the century — Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex (1927) and Enescu’s Oedipe (1936) — reveal an awareness of the wider issues surrounding the original legend and take the narrative into territory far removed from psychoanalysis.

Freud based his theory solely on King Oedipus, the most familiar of classical tragedies. Yet Sophocles’ play is by no means the only surviving treatment from antiquity, and, like every myth, that of Oedipus admits of variants. Parricide, incest, self-blinding, exile and an examination of the relationship between fate and reason form its essential elements, but there are also shifts in emphasis and narrative inconsistencies. The suicide of Oedipus’ wife and mother Jocasta is not common to all its versions, and in Statius’ Thebaid and The Phoenician Women of both Euripides and Seneca she remains alive to become a casualty of the war that breaks out between Oedipus’ sons Eteocles and Polynices. That Oedipus puts out his eyes with the pin of her brooch was Sophocles’ invention, albeit much imitated; elsewhere, even more horrifically perhaps, he gouges them out with his fingers.

Freud equated Oedipus’ self-mutilation with the mechanics of repression, but in classical antiquity self-blinding carried symbolic connotations of a turning away from the worldly towards enlightenment and self-transcendence. Sophocles’ last play, Oedipus at Colonus, finds his protagonist calmly confronting his own mortality in the awareness that acting unknowingly effectively absolves him from moral responsibility for his crimes. His death, at peace with the gods who tormented him, carries overtones of spiritual transfiguration, and the play’s closing scenes have been interpreted in Christian terms (notably by Simone Weil) as illustrating the intervention of divine grace at moments of individual suffering.

Oedipus rex and Oedipe adopt an essentially religious stance and are rooted in a personal experience of exile. The composition of Oedipus rex coincided both with Stravinsky’s realization that a return to Stalin’s Soviet Union would be impossible and with his decision to rejoin the Russian Orthodox church after a period of absence. In 1925 he mooted the idea to Jean Cocteau of a work in Latin on a universally familiar subject, whose original French libretto was accordingly translated by the theologian Jean Daniélou. A narration in the audience’s own language precedes each scene, introducing the crucial image of the trap prepared for the principal characters by ‘those sleepless deities who are always watching us from a world beyond death’. Oedipus rex’s dramaturgy has consequently been analysed in terms of Brechtian alienation effects that keep us at a distance while we watch the trap shut, though the music brutally exposes us to the emotions of those caught in it.

There are religious undertones, however. Daniélou’s Latin is that of the Vulgate Bible rather than the language of ancient Rome. ‘Lux facta est’, the climactic phrase at the moment of revelation, derives from the Book of Genesis where it indicates the momentous separation of light from darkness (‘And there was light’) at the moment of Creation. The score, with its alternation of narration, solos and choral responses, is modelled on Bach’s Passions and Handel’s oratorios and the influence of Verdi’s Requiem may be detected in its melodic contours. Stravinsky, significantly, regarded Symphony of Psalms (1930) as Oedipus rex’s logical successor and companion-piece.

The protracted genesis of Oedipe, which occupied Enescu from 1910 to 1931, reflects the rootlessness of a life spent shuttling between Paris and his native Romania in pursuit of a career divided between composition and performance as a violin virtuoso. The trigger was again King Oedipus, which Enescu saw at the Comédie-Française in 1909: he later claimed he wrote the opera to exorcise the memory of the screams emitted offstage by the leading actor at the moment of blinding. In contrast to Stravinsky’s conciseness, however, the work expansively examines Oedipus’ life from birth to death, encompassing his teenage years in Corinth, his murder of his father Laius and his encounter with the Sphinx, as well as material drawn from Sophocles’ two plays. Edmond Fleg’s libretto is an eclectic mythological synthesis, theosophical in stance, and suggesting familiarity with Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Textual digressions permit allusions to the myths of Orpheus, Hercules and Adonis, in which suffering is comparably viewed as a prelude to spiritual experience. The opera opens with Oedipus receiving a symbolic baptism after his birth and closes with an unseen chorus singing Christ’s benediction of the pure in heart.

Cocteau’s text for Stravinsky, meanwhile, formed the starting-point for his own 1934 play La machine infernale (‘The Infernal Machine’), which reconfigures the Oedipus myth in contemporary — even post-modernist — terms. An expanded version of the opera’s narration precedes each act, and ‘Lux facta est’ is literally translated back into French as ‘Lumière est faite’, as the truth dawns on Oedipus. The characters, however, have been robbed of their mythological splendour and nobility: the play has been described as ‘a Freudian joke’ and its tone is bitter and ironic. Cocteau’s Oedipus, arrogant, naive and longing to be cosseted, is so dim that the Sphinx — a Symbolist femme fatale, sick of falling in love with each of her victims before killing him — has to give him the answer to her riddle before he asks for it, in order to ensure the fulfilment of his destiny. Jocasta is a faded beauty, terrified of her encroaching age, haunted by the loss of her son and anxious to find solace with a younger lover.

A more unsettling interpretation may be found in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1967 film Edipo Re, which has its roots in Pasolini’s antagonistic relationship with his own father, an officer in Mussolini’s army. It opens with a prologue, set in the 1930s, which dramatizes the latter’s increasing resentment of his wife’s affection for their son. The father’s frightful attack on the child triggers the main mythological narrative, starkly shot in north Africa. The autobiographical overtones, together with the protracted encounter between Franco Citti’s Oedipus and Luciano Bartoli’s Laius — in a vast open space where each could simply walk past the other — has led some to assume the film’s principal subject is parricide rather than incest: that is by no means true, since a series of increasingly desperate and explicit couplings between Citti and Silvana Mangano’s Jocasta punctuate the successive revelations of the past. At the close, Pasolini returns to the present, as Oedipal conflicts are sublimated in love, spirituality and art: the blinded hero, now an itinerant flautist, is guided through the streets and factories of Bologna by a figure simply called Angiolo (‘angel’), played by Pasolini’s own lover Ninetto Davoli.

Greek, with its scatological language, its angry depiction of the plagues of inequality and tawdry monetarism that stalk Thatcher’s Britain, and provocative juxtaposition of classical music and punk, still has claims to being the most subversive of 20th-century treatments, but it was written in full awareness of the tradition at which it batters. ‘Greek’, Steven Berkoff remarks in the preface to his play, ‘came to me via Sophocles, trickling its way down the millennia until it reached the unimaginable wastelands of Tufnell Park’, and, whether by accident or design, both play and opera embrace and recall intervening variations on the myth’s material. Turnage’s Sphinx Women, like Cocteau’s femme fatale, are bored by the havoc they let loose. As in Edipo Re, tensions are resolved in a demand for love, the lyrical expression of which forms some of the score’s most striking moments. At the opera’s close, Eddy, in language that obliquely recalls Oedipus at Colonus, accepts his destiny while insisting that ignorance absolves him of responsibility for his actions. Yet his conscious decision to reject Oedipal blinding and continue his sexual relationship with his Wife/Mother finally, if troublingly, subverts both Sophocles and Freud: it is here, ultimately, that the work’s true iconoclasm lies.

© Tim Ashley
Tim Ashley is a music critic for the Guardian and author of a biography of Richard Strauss. This article was jointly commissioned by Edinburgh International Festival and Scottish Opera for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017 programme.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.