Monday, August 23, 2010

Fooled by the Imagery

Once again, the London Telegraph seems to have bungled one of their arts reports; and, since this time it involves one of the most memorable stage productions I have ever seen, it feels as if a personal ox is being gored. This time the offending party is critic Charles Spencer, sent to cover the revival of The Gospel at Colonus at the Edinburgh Festival. I remember when this work was first performed in its entirety as part of an early Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I had no idea what to expect. Entering the theater felt more like entering a church in which a gospel service of massive proportions was about to be delivered, but the program book said that the text was taken from Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus. That it was, and what ensued was the most passionately ecstatic execution of Greek drama I have ever encountered. A later performance in Philadelphia was broadcast on PBS and become one of the most watched personal videotapes in our collection, as well as one of the first to be copied to DVD. To this day, both my wife and I continue to have conversations in which the question, "You never heard of Gospel at Colonus?," arises. So when the reports started appearing in the British press about a revival of this show at the Edinburgh Festival, I read each one as soon as it popped up in my Google Reader.

I cannot fault Spencer for his enthusiasm over the production. I am really glad to see that the show still has the same impact, even if Morgan Freeman is no longer in the cast to "lead the service." However, one of Spencer's paragraphs left me wondering just how closely he was paying attention to the stage:

There are obvious objections. The ancient Greek view of the gods and the afterlife could hardly be more different from the Christian vision. In Greek legend, the gods are cruel and death a welcome end to suffering. For Christians, God is love, and heaven the reward for faith. Turning the story of Oedipus into a parable about salvation is about as far from Sophocles’s original vision as it is possible to imagine.

This observation is based on a misrepresentation so gross that I wonder whether or not Spencer got the point of the whole affair. I suppose one could say that the logical flaw is that he found something that looked like a duck and quacked like a duck and took it to be a duck without any question. The Gospel at Colonus, like any work of art, can be many things to many people; but calling it "a parable about salvation" is basically to assume that, because everything on stage looks like a gospel choir and sings like a gospel choir, the show must be about Christian gospel.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Lee Breuer's understanding of and respect for Sophocles' text is never less than of the highest priority. Thus Christian "news" about salvation never invades the text, nor does it emerge through the dramatization. Indeed, Sophocles' references to the Greek pantheon are minimal and reflect the sophistication of a later Greek age that had learned to accept that their Gods were just metaphors for natural phenomena, many of which happened to be quite cruel. If there is any Christian theology in Breuer's setting, it is the portrayal of Oedipus carrying a heavy burden of sin; but the resolution involves not salvation through the Christian faith but simply Oedipus' reconciliation with his own flawed humanity, however horrifying those flaws may have been.

So was Spencer confused by all of the Christian imagery? Apparently he was, but was Breuer deliberately trying to confuse his audience? I doubt it. I have always felt that, because Greek theater was highly ritualistic, Breuer was seeking out a form a ritual that would reach the audience more viscerally than yet another experiment in modern dance. His choice of a ritual conceived with the intention of delivering "good news" was entirely apposite, because the resolution of Oedipus at Colonus is, indeed, "good news." He finds his reconciliation and with it his "welcome end to suffering." When the Messenger comes to report his death, the Chorus (which Breuer represents as a single boy) asks, "By God's grace, was his death a painless one?" Lest one think this is too "Christian," my own University of Chicago Press edition has the following translation by David Grene:

How was it? By God's chance and painlessly
the poor man ended?

In both translations the noun "God" has nothing to do with either the Old or New Testaments but is simply an abstraction of any Olympian deity. Oedipus dies peacefully, because, in spite of the unpredictable fortunes (products of "grace" or "chance") of the natural world, he accepts himself as human in spite of his misfortunes. This is a "gospel" unto itself, as worthy of the spirit of fine gospel singing as any New Testament text. Breuer was not trying to confuse; he was just delivering the "good news" from a different source.

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