23An Oedipus for our Times? Yeatss Version of Sophocles Oedipus TyrannusFiona Macintosh
I N T RO D U C T I O N Between 2000 and 2003 numerous stories ran in The New York Times promising a rare theatrical gemAl Pacino as Oedipus. We learned that the acclaimed actress, Estelle Parsons, then working as director of the Actors Studio, was to direct a star-studded cast. Public readings took place in 2001 but there was in the end no full performance. This, however, was never interpreted as any kind of failure, nor indeed with much disappointment, because we always heard how it was the experience of working on the project that mattered more than any commercial realization: developing this Oedipus was valued for the fun of it, like working out in a gymnasium.1 This piece of luvviedom may seem like jetsam on the waves of theatre history. But it gathers in signicance when it emerges that the version chosen for this thespian work-out is one that began its life some hundred years previouslyYeatss Sophocles King Oedipus: A Version for the Modern Stage. Although not staged until 1926, and only rst published in 1928, the story of Yeatss version dates from the rst decade of the twentieth century and it continues to this day. The Yeats version has inspired at least one opera (Harry Partchs King Oedipusa Music-Dance Drama [premiered in 1952]);2 and it provided a potent vehicle for Laurence Oliviers celebrated tour de force, when he performed in an evening double-bill as Oedipus and Pu inThe New York Times, 3/2/2000. Partchs King Oedipus, using the Yeats version as libretto, was rst performed in 1952 at Mills College, Oakland. Partch had met Yeats in 1934 in Dublin, when he had already begun planning his opera. It was Yeatss writing on the union of words and music (e.g. Speaking to the Psaltery, E&I (1907), 1327 and more recently, the Preface to the 1928 published text of Yeatss King Oedipus) that impressed Partch. However, the Yeats estate did not grant Partch permission to release the recording of the 1952 premire, and so the 1954 recording used Parchs reworking of Jebbs translation instead. For details, see Grove (2001), s.v. Oedipus.2 1
An Oedipus for our Times?
Sheridans The Critic at the New Theatre in 1945. No less a theatrical triumph was the internationally renowned lm of Oedipus Rex (1956), directed by Tyrone Guthrie, which similarly used Yeatss version (indeed the Guthrie Theatre, Stratford, Ontario still treats Yeatss text as denitive, as a production there in 2005 demonstrates). When Michael Cacoyannis directed Oedipus Tyrannus in Dublin in 1973, it was again with the Yeats text, which provided him with his most intensive and productive training ground on which to develop his theories of Greek tragedy. And the Yeats version remains to this day the Oedipus of choice for most small-scale theatre companies who lack the resources to commission a new script.3 Whilst there has been serious work done on the manuscripts of the translation and some work on its inception,4 there has been no previous attempt to account for its extraordinarily wide-ranging production history nor its very considerable impact on twentieth-century tragic theory (especially via Francis Fergussons seminal Idea of a Theater , which draws upon it extensively). Indeed, since translations for the stage are rarely considered to have a shelf life in excess of ten years, this chapter seeks to explain what is unique to the Yeats translation, over and beyond the obvious claim that Yeats still matters. And this is a point worth pondering because there has only been one other subsequent Irish version of Oedipus TyrannusDerek Mahons Oedipus (2005). Mahons Oedipus is not just a very loose adaptation of Sophocles tragedyit conates both the Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonusit belongs (like Mahons Bacchae) to what one might term the parodic line of Irish Greek adaptation (in which one would put, of course, Synges The Playboy of the Western World, Joyces reworkings of myth, and much of OCasey).5 The absence of new serious Irish Oedipuses is a notable one, when there have been so many Irish adaptations of ancient plays generallythere is already need to update the extensive 2002 listing in McDonald and Waltons collection of essays, Amid Our Troubles: Irish Versions of Greek Tragedy, which with its titles debt to the Yeats version, itself forms part of the texts reception. In many ways this absence of other Irish Oedipuses is not unrelated to the broader question of what has happened to the gure of Oedipus post-Freud.3 In the 1973 production Cacoyannis made a number of changes to Yeatss text, notably restoring many cuts to the choruses with the help of the poet, Richard Murphy. A notable, more recent, Irish production which used the Yeats text was Gary Hyness Druid Theatre Company staging in Galway in 1987, with Maria Mullen as Oedipus. For full details of the productions mentioned here, see the APGRD database, edited and maintained by A. Wrigley, at . 4 See especially, Clark and McGuire (1989), but also Grab (1972), Dorn (1984), Arkins (1990), Liebregts (1993), Macintosh (1994). 5 For a good analysis of the parodic elements in Mahons Bacchae, see Perris (2007).
After some decades of unparalleled prominence on the stage in the rst part of the twentieth century, Oedipus has gone on to experience a new form of ostracism in the last forty or so years: the ignominy of being linked with imperialism, and the repressive and oppressive powers of the bourgeois state by his anti-Freudian adversaries in France (notably by Deleuze and Guattari (1983) ). If Oedipus continues to enjoy a place in the repertoire, it is often only secured by making him more East End than West End (as in Berkos Greek (1980) ); more representative of a minority than a majority voice (in, say, the post-colonial reworking of Ola Rotimi, The Gods are Not to Blame (1968), or the African-American version of Rita Dove, Darker Face of the Earth (1994) ). Other interesting changes have been the tendency to nd in Oedipus a more sentient than cerebral man (as in Pasolinis lm, Edipo Re (1967)); or perhaps even to make Oedipus into a woman (as with Gary Hyness 1997 Druid Theatre Companys production and the Cambridge Oedipus of 2004, directed by Annie Casteldine); or, as with Martha Grahams pioneering ballet, Night Journey (1945), it is by radically rewriting the Sophoclean text in order to allow the mother gure, Jocasta, to come centre stage.6 If Oedipus has largely taken to the wings in the second half of the twentieth century, it becomes all the more pertinent to ponder the survival of Yeatss text. By combining close textual evaluation of Yeatss version together with an account of its performance reception and its position within the history of ideas, we will perhaps begin to see how this quintessentially Modernist Oedipus, in deance of the odds, has managed to persist and to endure within a much more cynical postmodern world.
T H E G E N E S I S O F T H E T E XT ( 1 9 0 4 1 9 1 2 ) That the Irish national theatre movement from the end of the nineteenth century onwards should have had a history that involved Greek drama is not surprising: the performance history of Greek drama since the 1880s in Britain had been driven by Irish expertise and enthusiasm. Oscar Wilde claimed, perhaps with only a grain of truth, that he had been involved in the pioneering ancient Greek production of the Agamemnon in 1880 at Balliol College, Oxford.7 Yeats, with rather more veracity, looked back to the play, Helena inFor some of these new Oedipuses, see Macintosh (2004) and (2007). Ellmann (1987), 1012. This claim seems, however, unlikely (see Hall and Macintosh (2005), 4523).7 6
An Oedipus for our Times?
Troas by the Irish doctor/playwright, John Todhunter (performed at Henglers Circus in 1886 in the rst Greek-inspired theatre space in London) as a turning point in theatre history.8 When the Abbey Theatre opened, just a few months after the Barker-Vedrenne management took over at the Royal Court in London in early 1904, the repertoires of both theatres very often ran in tandem.9 These two theatres were leading the way in the New Drama in the English-speaking world, and the New Drama was very much allied to the Greeks. The repertoire of the Court included Euripides in Murrays translations; and very soon it was felt that the repertoire at the Abbey should include Greek plays, as Synge said, in order to throw light upon their own work.10 Whilst it was understood that in the Abbeys rst season, at least, Irish plays upon Irish themes should provide the subject matter, there was never any sense that the Greek corpus was alien. Yeats had written to Gilbert Murray in 1903 about his plans for the Theatre of Beauty, suggesting an Oedipus be played with Murrays Hippolytus.11 Since the comparative studies by Celtic scholars in the last part of the nineteenth century had suggested that the gures of Irish mythology had their Greek counterparts (Deirdre was the Irish Helen; Cuchulain, both a Heracles and an Achilles), close theatrical associations in the minds of playwrights and spectators were inevitable. Lady Gregory had a serious interest in comparative folklore, to which she introduced Yeats; and Synge had actually attended lectures by the leading authority on Celticism, Henri dArbois de Jubainville at the Collge de France in Paris, where the connections made between the Celts and the Greeks were systematic and thorough.12 But it wasnt just the content of Greek tragedies that was of interest; as with the 1880s revivals, it was their form that made them important models for the Abbey playwrights. Just as the Symbolists in Paris