Oedipus Meets Freud

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), August 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

Oedipus Meets Freud


Byline: Paul Denison The Register-Guard

ASHLAND - In anger, they mock each other as "Mr. Swollen-Foot" and "Doctor Soothsayer," but Oedipus Rex and Sigmund Freud need each other to solve a primal mystery in Frank Galati's "Oedipus Complex," which had its world premiere July 31 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

As Oedipus says to Freud in their first encounter:

"Who are you? Why do you dream of me? Because I am the tyrant of Thebes? You think I will save you. I am the solver of riddles. Dream on, priest; you must help me solve this riddle of ours."

Galati is a Tony Award-winning playwright and director who has adapted works by 20th century writers including John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Anne Tyler, Mikhail Bulgakov and John Kennedy O'Toole.

When festival artistic director Libby Appel approached him about adapting and directing Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," about a man who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, Galati was not sure how to adapt the nearly 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy so a contemporary audience could "engage emotionally with the inexorable unfolding of this terrible story."

His solution was to pair Oedipus up with Freud, the famous pyschoanalyst whose interpretation of his own dreams and Sophocles' play led him to the Oedipus Complex, the idea that a child naturally tends to become attached to the parent of the opposite sex and to hate the parent of the same sex.

"If Freud is a way of understanding `Oedipus,' `Oedipus' could also be a way of understanding Freud," Galati said in an interview with festival dramaturg Douglas Langworthy.

Whether Galati has succeeded in writing a play that will engage audiences emotionally is not easy to judge after seeing it once, although ``Oedipus Complex'' has moments of undeniable emotional power.

It is clear, however, that this play will engage people intellectually.

Brilliantly imagined, tightly written and expertly staged, "Oedipus Complex" brings ancient myth and modern psychoanalytic theory together, dream-weaving the struggles of two troubled truth-seekers together so adroitly that the tense dialogue between Oedipus and Freud seems perfectly natural and throws light on both men.

At the outset, standing on a black-and-white checkerboard floor in an all-black surgical theater crowded with doctors and students, Freud begins to expound his hypothesis on the psychology of children, first summarizing the myth which provided the "back story" for Sophocles' play.

At this point, two nurses roll Oedipus in on a gurney, making it clear that Oedipus is the patient whose psyche Freud is about to dissect. But the doctor really is struggling to understand his own feelings toward his late father and his attractive young mother. Just as the gods decreed Oedipus' tragic fate, Freud seems to be saying, sexually-determined emotions shaped his own psyche.

This all sounds pretty dry in print, but on stage it crackles with life, especially in direct encounters between the king and the psychoanalyst. Sophocles and Freud were both mighty good writers, and Galati slices and dices and splices their words so skillfully that it's easy to accept the convention that Oedipus and Freud can barge into each other's dreams and lives, like detectives from different precincts working the same case from different angles.

When Oedipus summons Teiresias, a blind soothsayer who might help him find the man who killed King Laius, what he gets is Freud, wearing dark glasses and asking, ``Is this the opthamology ward?''

When Freud tells Oedipus, ``Your tyrant is desire'' and then wittily free-associates to make it clear that he's talking about sexual desire, the beleaguered king gets a bit testy, and they goad each other until Freud finally tells Oedipus that he is the man whose crimes and sins have brought plague down on Thebes. …

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