First, there’s the sheer audacity: Dare Clubb has written a new Oedipus. Then there’s the brazen ambition: the play takes on the Big Questions–the meaning of fate, free will, love, sex, humanity, violence, responsibility. The dailies have slammed the play, alleging pretentiousness and prolixity. Let them keep their tidy little two-handers that skate on the surfaces of middle-class misunderstandings and marital mishaps. Bring on the pretentiousness, say I, the hubris to tackle subjects that can’t be contained in well-made domestic dramas. Give us more playwrights who aspire to language that reaches beyond psychobabbling chatter. The challenge of Clubb’s Oedipus is not that it lasts four hours, but that it thrusts us into a serious and deeply discomfiting investigation not only of what constitutes moral behavior, but of whether it’s even possible.
Owing as much to Woyzeck and Peer Gynt as to Sophocles’s tragic hero, Clubb’s Oedipus attempts a journey toward self-knowledge that he can’t fulfill. He fails not for want of effort–he pursues his fate like the most ardent fundamentalist called to holy war–but because his hell-bent struggle to find himself blinds him to the needs of others. In a disturbing twist away from the traditional myth, Clubb’s Oedipus hears the divine decree from Delphi early on, and then sets out deliberately to consummate it, insisting that it’s blasphemous to doubt the words of the gods. Quickly, his certainty breeds solipsism, an amoral absorption that contradicts its own claims to ethical necessity. The drama’s rebuke might as well be directed to the sweet psychological plays that the daily critics so prefer: how can one keep looking inward, this Oedipus demands, when the world is sucking us into its relentless downward spiral? How dare we stay preoccupied with personal narratives when humanity itself is in peril?
Clubb goes even further, for the tragedy here is that it’s precisely such preoccupation that imperils humanity in the first place. “I’m violent because my world is violent,” Oedipus tells his mother Io-Caste. “No, Oedipus,” she replies, “your world is violent because you are violent.”
This exchange comes late in the play. It’s a debate, really, between Io-Caste’s call to fellow feeling and Oedipus’s devotion to the deities, between a true ethical humanism and a vengeful vision of divine will. A debate, that is, resembling those currently being waged in Congress, on school boards, in violent Bible-and Koran-thumping campaigns all over the world. The scene evokes such conflicts not because it names them, but because the play has dramatized the contest so painfully and pointedly.
Clubb opens his Oedipus long before the hero’s encounter with the Sphinx outside Thebes, where Sophocles picks it up. In fact, he begins with a character seldom recognized in the story–Oedipus’s adoptive mother, Merope. Clubb drops us into the opening scene, its action already in progress, Merope in a full pitch of Phaedra-like despair: she admits to her confidant, Periboa, that she desires Oedipus. This startling reversal, along with the hurtling momentum of the action, allows Clubb to set forth some of the play’s central themes before they get rerouted into new complications. For instance, pacing the stage like a caged panther, Merope rails against men’s self-important commitment to concepts, “that harsh world of ideas, crammed with abstractions and calculations, that sick, paradoxical place inhabited only by criminals and philosophers, that vast waste where stupid truths take precedence over real feelings.” And the play’s first line–Periboa’s comment on Merope–is “You are not yourself.” This is the most tightly wound of the play’s three acts; like a taut bow, it catapults Oedipus into his disastrous search to discover what it even means to be oneself.
But if Oedipus outstrips Merope’s self-absorption, some of the men he meets as he slouches toward Thebes exceed his own indifference to others. In one of the most grim encounters, he stumbles upon a band of mercenaries for whom torture and murder have become a sport. Later, in the horrifying final scene, when two men hear a third report that this gang has sacked Thebes, one chides the other for asking for the gory details: “Do you think he’s speaking of a kind of entertainment?” And we are implicated in the rebuke–not because we’ve watched this highly formal, classical play as such, but because it’s how we watch the evening news.
To be sure, such philosophical dialogue requires actors with delicate skill, who know how to avoid the ponderousness that steers such lines toward the sententious or sophomoric. A few of the supporting actors don’t live up to the task. But as Merope, and later as the Sphinx, Frances McDormand deftly grounds the language with passion, while letting the startling images Clubb paints take shape sharply and swiftly. As Oedipus, Billy Crudup also balances delicately on the poetic shifts between high-flown fancies and earthly plaints.
Language itself is a subject in Clubb’s play. Naming and confessing and cursing and vowing–all inexorably call action into being. Clubb shows how cruel or even thoughtless words can slaughter and maim. And his bold, sprawling play shows, too, how words can create a universe of bleak beauty and depth.