Oedipus – the beginning(s)

Quite why I started it, I’m not sure.

Even before Freud had got hold of it, Oedipus was a mythic story variously told, though Sophocles’ version is the best-known. I have a memory of Philip Saville’s film, which stars Christopher Plummer, on TV. I thought it must have been in my teens, but Sheldon Hall – tireless investigator into films on TV (amongst other things) – informs me it was on BBC2 on 23 October 1983.


I’ve always loved Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio, which I’ve seen various times including a horrendous production at ENO, infuriatingly coupled to a brilliant Bluebeard’s Castle.

Strav Oed

Then, a while back, Eureka released Pasolini’s 1967 film on DVD, so I saw that again for the first time for ages (I think I missed that broadcast – 12 February 1977 – thanks Sheldon!)

MoC_OEDIPUS_REX_300dpi_Press2 (Large)

Maybe it was around the same time that I saw Julian Anderson’s opera Thebans at ENO, over-optimistically crushing the entire trilogy into a single evening and, though filled with lovely orchestral colour, a bit dull vocally.

For some reason, the character of the Shepherd began to interest me. He knew more than anyone and, though carrying out instructions, might have reason to struggle with his actions and their repercussions.

So, with no particular idea of where it was going, I started sketching a dialogue between him and Oedipus. I’m not sure what came next, but since the King was interrogating one witness (in a sense, the only one), it seemed logical that he would go on to see Tiresias to gather more information. And so the format of Oedipus’ investigation developed.

Deliberately, I didn’t go back to any of those earlier versions. The details of the plot were less interesting than the basic premise, so I started there to see where the story would go of its own accord. In the event, one very major plot change came up; something that I would probably never have thought of had I had any previous version in front of me.

That was probably the moment when I thought I had something. Though I was grabbing time as and when I could, writing on buses, the tube or when had a few minutes spare, the writing sometimes went so well that it was more like taking dictation: I was simply listening to two people talking. So when Oedipus and Jocasta made that decision, it was as much as shock to me as (hopefully) it will be to the audience. But it had developed organically out of their conversation, so will be a shock, but a credible one.

I also ditched Jocasta’s brother Creon and Oedipus’children. I could have used the former and the struggle over the throne to intensify Oedipus’paranoia, but it seemed to give the story too much narrow politics, while the children seemed like a distraction from the single line I wanted to explore.

Along with Oedipus’ encounters with the Shepherd and Tiresias, there would be intense discussions between the King and Queen, making more dialogues.

At that point, the idea developed to make the play just that: a series of dialogues, though the opening Prelude is a monologue by a shabby citizen. That meant Oedipus could be mounted with just two actors: one playing Oedipus and one the other five roles (the Citizen, Jocasta, the Shepherd, Tiresias and Judge). The opportunity to play male, female and hermaphrodite characters might appeal to some actors. But what began as an option is now my preferred idea for presentation.

It went through various formats: at one point I struggled to create a pyramidal form of three acts each of three scenes, but that brought lots of trouble and barely any benefit. The five-act version (loosely based on Freytag’s exposition; rising action; climax; falling action, and dénouement) helped formulate the narrative better but eventually it too was cast aside as it encouraged me to fill the structure with superfluous scenes. Having said which, five acts are still detectable in the final version. Getting rid of those wasted scenes and other trims of various lengths helped bring the running time down from 100+ minutes to something like 75. I finally settled on seven scenes, played straight-through though there’s a small break (not an interval) during which a critical event takes place off-stage.

It was around this point that it began to dawn on me that I’d finally completed a play (after a couple of abandoned attempts) and that that sort of implied trying to get it produced…