Oedipus at the Abbey

Anthony Roche


My title refers to the version of Sophocles? Oedipus the King by Yeats which was staged at Dublin?s Abbey Theatre in December 1926. The scope of this paper does not extend to a consideration of Yeats?s version of Oedipus at Colonus which was staged there eight years later. Its aim is to focus attention on the contexts political, cultural, dramatic in which Yeats?s Oedipus the King was written and staged in Ireland in the nineteen twenties. Yeats had originally planned to produce and stage a version much earlier, after the opening of Ireland?s national theatre in December 1904. I want to speculate briefly on how an Oedipus produced in the aftermath of the Irish Civil War might differ from an earlier version produced at a time of emergent, albeit contentious, nationalism. I will argue that Synge?s The Playboy of the Western World of 1907 may be seen as an Irish version of Oedipus, one in which the father-slaying is to the fore and the mother-incest suppressed. Finally, I will consider Yeats?s 1938 play, Purgatory, as a version of Oedipus translated into the Ireland of the late nineteen thirties and allowing Yeats to develop some of the implications of his rendering of Sophocles.

Although they outwardly preserved equanimity, Yeats and Synge probably had their greatest disagreement over the question of what kind of plays Ireland?s national theatre should be presenting. The debate surfaces in December 1906, the same year that Yeats is considering a possible Oedipus and the month before the premiere of Synge?s Playboy. Yeats has advanced the suggestion that, in addition to peasant plays, the Abbey should ?perform selections from foreign masterpieces? in order to ?widen its capacities of performance, appeal to different temperaments and multiply its chances of creating writers?. Synge disagreed vehemently, seeing the distinction of the Irish dramatic movement as residing in the ?creation of a new dramatic literature where the interest is in the novelty and power of the new work? rather than in a ?more and more perfect interpretation of works that are already received as classics?. In his Nobel Prize speech of 1923, Yeats invoked the ghost of Synge in saying that his mind had been changed on this subject by his fellow playwright?s argument. Interestingly, however, Synge exempted Oedipus from his barring order on ?foreign masterpieces? in the following terms:

We are right to do work like [Moliere?s] the ?Doctor? and [Sophocles?] Oedipus because they illuminate our work but for that reason only.

What illumination does Oedipus the King shed on arguably the greatest play the early Irish theatre movement produced, Synge?s Playboy of the Western World?

What provides the ground for comparison between the two plays is the prominence accorded to father-slaying. The greatest ambivalence attaches to Oedipus as public figure in this respect. On the one hand, he is the man who appeared at a providential moment some years earlier to rescue Thebes from the plague by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. He is asked to repeat that therapeutic function in the play?s present by seeking out the murderer of King Laius. On the other, when the murder is brought both to public consciousness and to full recollection by Oedipus, he paradoxically emerges as the source of the plague. Christy Mahon comes on virtually from the beginning as a man who slew his father and is acclaimed rather than reviled for his deed. But the terms of that father-slaying undergo complex and frequent renegotiation in the course of Synge?s play. And when Christy?s father makes his unexpected entrance and is identified in the flesh, the mood of the onstage audience shifts into a much more negative key. In both plays, the parricide is in the past and can only be approached through a verbal reenactment; each work dramatises a making present of that event and a consequent disruption of the present order by that act.

Synge?s play offers a proliferation of fathers. Before Old Mahon makes his belated and unexpected entrance, Pegeen Mike has had much to say on the score of her father, Michael James Flaherty, and his desire to be a pater absconditus who makes off to Kate Cassidy?s wake. In relation to Christy?s father-slaying, Pegeen remarks, ?I?d be afeard to do the likes of that?; she does not say she would not want to. But there is also a third father in the play, much invoked by Pegeen?s threatened fiance, Shawn Keogh, and that is the local priest, Father Reilly, who never appears directly onstage but whose presence os felt throughout. The most striking difference between Sophocles? Oedipus and Synge?s Playboy is that the former is a tragedy while the latter is predominantly a comedy. Synge could write tragedy when he wanted to; his Riders to the Sea has often been discussed in relation to Greek tragedy. In seeking for a critical reference to evaluate the experimental difference, I would refer to the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who write of what they call an ?exaggerated Oedipus? in the following terms:

Dramas and tragedies are written about [the revolt of the son against the father], yet in reality it is material for comedy.

Working from a postFreudian, modernist perspective, they seek to find a way out of the Oedipal impasse, which simply returns the subject to the position where the father is ?hated, accused and declared to be guilty?. This is the position Christy still occupies at the end of Act Two, where he wishes ?that the Lord God would send a high wave to wash him [his father] from the world?. But a reconfiguring occurs when Old Mahon and Christy square off in Act Three, first against each other, then against the Mayo villagers, whereby the son is brought to admit a measure of sympathy and degree of understanding for the father ?who demands only that the son submit because he himself is in submission to a dominant order?. In order to work out a mode of escape for both from this shared impasse, Oedipus has to be enlarged to the point of absurdity, comedy?, as Synge does through his play?s frequent and elaborate mood swings. The father, in Christy?s earlier speeches to Pegeen, is aggrandised and projected onto the map of the world, in Deleuze and Guattari?s terms ?exaggerated to the point of absurdity?: ?he?d sons and daughters walking all great states and territories of the world?. The son and father?s comic compact as they depart is to be ?telling stories of the villainy of Mayo? and the forces they saw ranged against them there, exposed by their repeated dramatic enactment of the slaying.

But there is a residue of tragedy in Synge?s Playboy and it associates itself with the figure and fate of woman in the play. I am thinking in part of Pegeen Mike?s final cry ?O my grief, I?ve lost him surely, I?ve lost the only Playboy of the Western World? and the tragic recognition of lost possibilities it represents. But I am also thinking of the other half of the Oedipal equation the sleeping with the mother and of its suppression in Synge?s play. Because if the world of the Playboy is overburdened with fathers, it seems remarkably bereft of mothers. Neither Christy Mahon nor Pegeen Mike have or refer to a mother. The sole verbal trace of the incest taboo occurs in one of the reasons adduced by Christy for killing his father, whom he claims has sought to marry him to the Widow Casey: ? ?I won?t wed her,? says I, ?when all know she did suckle me for six weeks when I came into the world.? ? Listening to his story is the play?s other major character, the Widow Quin, who has not only killed her husband but buried her children. The association of widowhood links her with the Widow Casey as a potential mother-figure against whom the incest taboo operates, even as or especially as she seeks to represent herself as a fit mate for Christy. Maternity is threatening throughout the play and frequently generates some of its most grotesque images, such as Pegeen?s description of the Widow Quin ?rearing a black ram at her breast?. But why are Christy and Pegeen sundered when no incest taboo can be said to operate between them? The traditional ending of romantic comedy, which has been gestured at throughout, is refused; the two young lovers do not come together, the society remains unrenewed and untransformed.

The idea of staging Oedipus the King at the Abbey had its origins when Yeats learned on his 1903 reading tour of the United States that the tragedy had been performed at Notre Dame University:

That play was forbidden by the English censorship on the ground of its immorality; Oedipus commits incest; but if a Catholic university could perform it in America my own theatre could perform it in Ireland. Ireland has no censorship, and a successful performance might make her proud of her freedom.

In the event, the Abbey tested the anomaly that the English Lord Chamberlain?s writ to license, control and censor plays did not run in Ireland by deciding to stage in 1909, not Oedipus, but Shaw?s The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet. And as Fiona Macintosh has shown, the eventual licensing of Gilbert Murray?s translation of Sophocles? tragedy in 1910 led to Reinhardt?s London production in January 1912. But she overlooks the point that in the course of the nineteen twenties and the establishing of the Irish Free State, the need to assert artistic freedom in a repressive Irish climate which in 1929 would pass a Censorship of Publications Act remained no less an imperative. The tonalities of a 1905 Oedipus would have been very different from that which emerged twenty years later. I can only speculate that in 1905 Yeats would have made much especially after his 1903 reading of Nietzsche of Oedipus?s futile efforts to disavow the irrational; and that in an Irish context he would have stressed the theme of cultural amnesia which is so central a concern of 1902?s Cathleen ni Houlihan.

But the Oedipus of 1926 is emphatically a post Civil War play. Yeats, as critics have shown, adheres largely to Jebb?s translation, while modernising its obvious archaisms. But a single world can set a context; and none more so than ?troubles?, one of the most potent in the Irish political lexicon. Creon uses the term to describe the plague in Thebes when he says of Oedipus: ?Does he think he has suffered wrong from me in these present troubles?? And in almost a Brechtian way Yeats?s version thrusts the lengthy exchange between Oedipus and Creon, which can seem but a displaced outlet of Oedipus? growing paranoia, into a loaded political exchange between two wily adversaries, one of whom thinks he has been denied power. Their exchange is fuelled by recriminations over the slaying of King Laius in terms that shadow the Irish Civil War:

Have you a face so brazen that you come to my house you, the proved assassin of its master the certain robber of my crown?

And when Jocasta intervenes, she does so in an atmosphere which the Chorus describes as half ?blind suspicion bred of talk? and ?the rest the wounds left by injustice.? Yeats adds at least one layer of deValera-like irony to Creon?s bland assurances that he does not wish to rule, even though his relation to Jocasta gives him equal claim to Oedipus. The theme of cultural memory emerges most strongly, as one would expect of Yeats, through the figure of Teiresias, whose speeches fuse politics and prophecy in a language reminiscent of Irish ballads: ?one day a mother?s curse and father?s curse alike shall drive you from this land.? The connection between physical blindness and prophetic insight had already featured importantly in plays by both Yeats and Synge. In The Cat and the Moon, produced in the same year as his Oedipus, Yeats brings a blind man and a lame man to a saint?s shrine to be cured; the blind man chooses to have literal sight which only confirms his worst suspicions of his fellow man while the lame man prefers to be blessed and to dance, which secondarily cures his lameness. In Synge?s treatment of the same theme in 1905?s The Well of the Saints, he chose to have his blind people reject the cure the second time around and defend their choice of how they view the world in terms of individual rights. All of these issues would have gained renewed focus in the political conditions of the nineteen twenties, so Yeats?s decision to stage The Cat and Moon and its parable of blindness in the same year as Oedipus is not coincidental.

In Yeats?s portrayal of Oedipus himself, there is as Brian Arkins has noted a stronger vein of heroism than in Sophocles. His opening claim ?How can I, being the man I am, being King Oedipus, do other than all I know?? clearly echoes the famous lines from Yeats?s poem ?No Second Troy? describing Maud Gonne as a second Helen:

Why, what could she have done, being what she is?

Was there another Troy for her to burn?

In his public debates with the Chorus and with Teiresias, the father-slaying is uppermost in Oedipus? mind. But in the prophecy which he has been granted and which has caused him to flee, the fear of incest is predominant:

That I should live in incest with my mother, and beget a brood that men should shudder to look upon; that I should be my father?s murderer.

What haunts this play, as it does Yeat?s own free version of it in 1938?s Purgatory, is a concern with the failure to reproduce, as the Priest?s opening remarks make explicit:

A blight has fallen upon the fruitful blossoms of the land, a blight upon flock and field and upon the marriage bed - plague ravages the city.

The pollution or ?defilement? associated with the slaying of the ruler is repeatedly recast into familial terms by the language of the play.

It is in Yeats?s Purgatory that the Oedipal marriage-bed and the site of the father-slaying are folded one on top of the other. The play comes at the close of the most politically contentious decade of Yeats?s career, and near the end of his life. It was publicly staged at the Abbey in August 1938 and in taking a curtain at its close Yeats made his last appearance on the stage of the theatre he had helped to found. It is the most Oedipal of his original plays. In it, an Old Man visits the scene of a burnt out Big House with his sixteen-year-old son; two wanderers of the road, they seem condemned to wander as if waiting for Godot, or at least for Samuel Beckett. They are Pirandellian, two characters in search of an author; if much has been said of Yeats?s admiration of Mussolini in the nineteen thirties, less has been made of his admiration of Pirandello as ?alone of living dramatists to have unexhausted, important material?. The Old Man witnesses, or claims he does, a vision of the night on which he was conceived - as his highbred mother awaits in her bedroom the arrival of the drunken groom who will impregnate her. The Old Man describes almost offhandedly how he has murdered his father and burned his remains in the house; historically, the Big Houses were burned in the Civil War of 1922, the same year in which the Young Man was born. The Old Man?s desire is focussed on his mother and on preventing the moment of his conception:

Do not let him touch you! It is not true

That drunken men cannot beget,

And if he touch he must beget

And you must bear his murderer.

The Old Man is deluded, last of all but in a way least of all in the fond belief that he can undo or reverse historical time. The deeper delusion is the myth of racial purity which he seeks to preserve in the image of the unsullied mother (in Yeats, this is put primarily in class terms); and the paired belief that pollution has entered with the lower-class father. The play is full of displacement and deferral, and arises from a profound sense of guilt which its repeated phallic stabbings acknowledge even as they seek to deny. In no other play of the twentieth century as in Purgatory, certainly in no other play of Yeats?s, is it so necessary to make the distinction between a character and their creator. Yeats?s views in the late nineteen thirties overlap in certain noxious respects with the Old Man?s. But the embodiment of tragic truth which is Purgatory has its own integrity and continues to fascinate Irish critics and writers alike. It suggests that while Oedipus may be for all time it is also a peculiarly Irish affair.


Arkins, Brian, Builders of my Soul: Greek and Roman Themes, in Yeats (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1990).

Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix, ?An Exaggerated Oedipus?, in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, translated by Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975), pp. 9-15.

Macintosh, Fiona, Dying Acts: Death in Ancient Greek and Modern Irish Drama (Cork: Cork University Press, 1994).

Miller, Liam, The Noble Drama of W.B. Yeats (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1977).

Saddlemyer, Ann (editor), Theatre Business: The Correspondence of the first Abbey Theatre Directors: William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1982).

Tracy, Robert, ?Intelligible on the Blasket Islands: Yeats?s King Oedipus, 1926?; in The Unappeasable Host: Studies in Irish Identities (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1998), pp. 108-118.
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