Capturing the fascination of countless audiences for more than two thousand years, the endearing and tragic tale of Oedipus is a true testament to the timelessness of literature. While Sophocles’ classic, known collectively as “The Theban Trilogy,” has been adapted and performed endlessly, Ward Archibald ’17 plans to give it yet another go with his modern take on the text this weekend in the Memorial Chapel.
A prospective classics major, Archibald adapted the story himself, making this his debut as a writer-director. Sam Wachsberger ’17, who also aspires to major in classics, stage managed the production and joined Archibald early on in the process of the adaptation. Archibald became well acquainted with Wachsberger through their ancient Greek class, and it did not take them long to realize that they both shared a love for Sophocles and a desire to bring “The Theban Trilogy” to Wesleyan.
“The Theban Trilogy” follows Oedipus’ battle with his cruel fate. As is common in Greek tragedies, the hero receives a horrific prophecy from the Delphic oracle, who states that he will one day kill his father before marrying his mother, and in his quest to avoid that outcome, he ends up fulfilling it. The first play, “Oedipus Rex,” ends with Oedipus realizing the woman he has been bedding for years as his wife is actually the one who birthed him. He gouges out his eyes and sets out on a journey to redeem himself, setting up the second play, “Oedipus at Colonus.” In the third and final play, “Antigone,” Oedipus’s daughter Antigone comes into conflict with her uncle, Creon, the new king of Thebes, who denies her permission to bury her own brother. In classic tragedy style, of course, she too dies in the end.
Archibald was passionate about the text even before he read and analyzed “The Theban Trilogy” in its historical context for a class on Greek drama, having acted in a production of “Antigone” in high school.
“I love the ancient Greek tradition of putting on three plays in one day and [having] everyone sit through all of it,” Archibald said. “That was my original idea, but it was not going to work.”
With Wachsberger’s assistance, Archibald rewrote the three adapted works into one production that would fit the standard Second Stage schedule and format.
“We both share a pretty intense passion for the subject.” Wachsberger said. “[It’s] an opportunity to work closely with a friend and a classic text.”
Likewise, Archibald said that Wachsberger was an obvious choice for stage manager.
“The reason I picked Sam…is that I decided early on I would work with someone who had no theater experience, was a friend and was [as] passionate about the project as I was,” Archibald said. “I knew there’d be days when I’d hate it and never want to do it again, [and] I wanted someone as passionate [as I was] to help me through it.”
Deciding to keep his and the audience’s main attention on the text, Archibald kept the tech involved to a minimum. As a result, there is little lighting, practically no set, and no sound system whatsoever. He explained that this helped him immensely as a first time writer-director, limiting his concerns to the script and the performances.
Brett Keating ’15, who has worked extensively with Second Stage before, stars here as Oedipus. Loving Archibald’s script and approach, Keating found his role both exciting and challenging, especially in terms of distancing himself from the legend of Oedipus.
When dealing with such a well-known character, Keating said his approach is to work primarily with what is given to him in the script and to ground his character choices in the text of the play.
“It’s this archetype [that] people reference all the time,” Keating said. “You just have to think of him as a character in a play. You can’t think of him as anything more than that or apply more context especially because the text stands on its own.”
Archibald and Keating both worked on last semester’s “Hamlet” as actors and quickly developed a liking and respect for one another. When the time for auditions came, Archibald asked Keating to try out for the play, confident early on that he wanted him in the cast.
“I thought of him [as] a person who could help carry this production and one I can rely on,” Archibald said.
Especially without previous experience as a playwright, Archibald faced numerous challenges in producing and editing his script. Initially relying on the advice of Dylan Zwickel ’14, who directed him in “Hamlet,” Archibald began his journey in adaptation by deciding on the angle with which he wanted to approach the text.
Inspiration came to him, Archibald said, through his struggle with how to edit the vast number of pagan references in the plays. He decided then that he would make man’s relationship with the divine his main focus. Given his religious upbringing, Archibald himself held many speculations regarding the role of human agency in the face of an omnipotent power.
“I decided to stir into the skid,” Archibald said. “[I’ve] struggled with questions like, how can there be free will and you can put whichever sock you want on in the morning, but also have it predetermined?”
The setting is revitalized and switched to the small town church of Thebes. The characters are reframed from members of a royal court to the attendants and residents of the church, something aptly suited for the Memorial Chapel. The religious context of the play is adjusted to suit a contemporary Judeo-Christian setting while retaining the same core plot and motifs.
Concluding this semester’s lineup of first-time sophomore director and stage manager teams, “The Theban Trilogy” brings Sigmund Freud’s favorite Greek tragedy to the Memorial Chapel on Nov. 20 and 22.