The Oedipus Plays
from what we call theater today. It was, first of all, part of a religious festival. To attend
a performance of one of these plays was an act of worship, not entertainment or intellectual pastime. But it is difficult
for us to even begin to understand this aspect of the Greek theater, because the religion in question was very
different from modern religions. The god celebrated by the performances of these plays was Dionysus, a deity who
lived in the wild and was known for his subversive revelry. The worship of Dionysus was associated with an ecstasy
that bordered on madness. Dionysus, whose cult was that of drunkenness and sexuality, little resembles modern
images of God.
A second way in which Greek theater was different from modern theater is in its cultural centrality: every citizen
attended these plays. Greek plays were put on at annual festivals (at the beginning of spring, the season of
Dionysus), often for as many as 15,000 spectators at once. They dazzled viewers with their special effects, singing,
and dancing, as well as with their beautiful language. At the end of each year’s festivals, judges would vote to decide
which playwright’s play was the best.
In these competitions, Sophocles was king. It is thought that he won the first prize at the Athenian festival eighteen
times. Far from being a tortured artist working at the fringes of society, Sophocles was among the most popular and
well-respected men of his day. Like most good Athenians, Sophocles was involved with the political and military
affairs of Athenian democracy. He did stints as a city treasurer and as a naval officer, and throughout his life he was a
close friend of the foremost statesman of the day, Pericles. At the same time, Sophocles wrote prolifically. He is
believed to have authored 123 plays, only seven of which have survived.
Sophocles lived a long life, but not long enough to witness the downfall of his Athens. Toward the end of his life,
Athens became entangled in a war with other city-states jealous of its prosperity and power, a war that would end the
glorious century during which Sophocles lived. This political fall also marked an artistic fall, for the unique art of Greek
theater began to fade and eventually died. Since then, we have had nothing like it. Nonetheless, we still try to read it,
and we often misunderstand it by thinking of it in terms of the categories and assumptions of our own arts. Greek
theater still needs to be read, but we must not forget that, because it is so alien to us, reading these plays calls not
only for analysis, but also for imagination.
Oedipus the King
The story of Oedipus was well known to Sophocles’ audience. Oedipus arrives at Thebes a stranger and finds the
town under the curse of the Sphinx, who will not free the city unless her riddle is answered. Oedipus solves the riddle
and, since the king has recently been murdered, becomes the king and marries the queen. In time, he comes to learn