When Oedipus at Colonus Met Gospel

A scene from The Gospel at Colonus. Photo: Courtesy of the Onassis Foundation

NEW YORK – The Public Theater, in collaboration with the Onassis Foundation, presents the work of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson, The Gospel at Colonus, September 4-9 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

The National Herald spoke with Bob Telson about the legend of Oedipus, about the history behind the creation of the show, but about how the ancient Greek theater remains relevant to a modern audience.

The Myth of Oedipus

The story of Oedipus is pretty much known to us all. The mighty King Oedipus, wife of Queen Jocasta and father of four children, lives a charmed life until a plague afflicts the inhabitants of Thebes. As king, he decides to investigate the cause of the misfortune to learn from Delphi’s oracle that the illness of divine origin fell on his city as a punishment for the unseemly and unpunished murder of the previous King of Thebes, Laius. Through the persistence of Oedipus, solving the mystery and punishing the culprits, it is revealed that Laius’ killer is none other than himself. But the bad news does not stop there. We soon learn that Laius was not only the former king of Thebes but also father of Oedipus, and the husband of Jocasta, who is also Oedipus’ mother. The children they share together are his children and his half-siblings. Oedipus, the victim of the divine trial, discovers that he has inadvertently fulfilled the old prophecy. He has committed the sins of patricide and incest. In a moment of unbearable psychological pain, he blinds himself and wanders as a beggar with his daughters Ismene and Antigone to Colonus, a suburb of Athens, where he dies.

The Origin of Gospel

“The great success of Lee’s idea was to place Sophocles’ work in the function of a 50-year-old African-American church, and to use a real priest to do the sermon,” Telson told TNH.

He is the black priest who narrates the story and gives us the moral lesson of Sophocles’ tragedy. “The fact that Lee chooses this particular tragedy is of great importance, rather than choosing any other. Sophocles himself was towards the end of his life when he wrote it, and the very story itself relies heavily on the idea of atonement, forgiveness, and a happy death. Ideas governing Christian faith,” Telson noted.

Bob Telson studied the classical writers at school, like most, and feels that with this particular musical, they managed to combine two very significant cultures.

Although with a different cultural background himself, he was introduced as a young man to black music, going to the Pentecostal Churches. It does not sound strange when he tells us that when they decided to rewrite Sophocles’ story, the purpose was not to make the ancient writer understandable to a western audience, but to help the public to feel its meaning in depth. “Unfortunately, in the modern world there is no possibility of having a meaningful spiritual experience. So, not only, I went to the Pentecostal Black Churches in search of such an experience but I was playing an organ in a church in Alabama. The whole idea was, not only to make Sophocles more accessible, but also the churches of black Americans more accessible. This is also amazing in this production.”

The relationship between ancient drama and function

One cannot ignore the analogy between the theater and the mystery of liturgy. For ancient Greek audiences the theatrical performances did not have the secularism that the theater has for us today. Instead, it was part of the summer festival of Dionysus worship. The purpose of tragedy, comedy, or satirical drama was to bring the viewers into an experiential journey for the sake of cleansing. The actors literally used the ethos of the audience, which, after the end of the performances, was wiser and morally upgraded according to the ethical framework of the era. For Lee Brewer, there is an obvious analogy between the cathartic liturgy of ancient drama and the gospel phenomenon in the ecclesiastical liturgy. Additionally, the idea of inevitable misfortune and the necessity of passion as a means of atonement is something that we later find in the Christian religion.

“For me, the simple message of the life story of Oedipus is, live your life to the end with joy without doing anything which you will regret. Oedipus remains a sympathetic character, but has committed a series of very serious sins during his life, with which he must reconcile himself.”

The style of music

Asked about the style of Gospel at Colonus, he explains that the performance is in no way the style of a function that the audience sees, quietly and observes. On the contrary, participation, singing and applause are encouraged at all stages of the performance. “In the five-hundred-year-old churches, people sing along with the choir, laugh freely and respond to the priests, whether they agree or disagree. Everyone is involved and it is this experience that we also wanted the audience to have.”

“For me specific words and situations through Sophocles’ text suggest completely different musical styles. So you can have a song inspired by the 1940s sung by the choir, or ‘Live where you can,’ which has a very modern melody. After the second half of the show I hear, blues and songs that express my love for the R & B. I like being able to get the audience with me on a musical journey. As one watches the show, all the gospel history and all its different facets pass through.”

When asked which song is the most expressive of the musical, he told TNH without hesitation that it is “Live where you can” and explained why. “My father, a person I deified, left my life the time I started working on Gospel. It was tragic, but also a relief, because death ended an inconvenience. When I wrote it, I was thinking of my father.”

A message of optimism

And here lies the paradox of both the work of Sophocles that first appeared in Athens in 401 BC and of The Gospel at Colonus by Brewer and Telson. Despite his torturing discomfort, the result of fate or even the personal choices of the protagonist of both works, there is optimism. Through the darkness of guilt, of shame, and of disgrace, Oedipus has conquered a new stature similar to that of holiness. This is what the inhabitants of Colonus understand, when they give him asylum from the Thebans, who ask him to come back to die outside the city walls. Because the new superpower of Oedipus, given by the Gods, is to bring fortune and prosperity to the city, which will accept him with humanity and give him a peaceful and dignified death in his deep old age.

“Within the churches of the black Americans, there is a thread that unites them all, the notion of pride, regardless of the problems that exist in the world.”

When asked how the Greek audience should approach the show, he said, “The lesson that the tragedy teaches us diffuses in both worlds, the polytheistic ancient Greek one and the modern monotheistic. It would be good to come with an open mind. I hope it plays refreshingly and as a surprise, but above all they enjoy the music.”