On the Misconception of Oedipus

How is it that the sordid ‘familial romance’ of Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus, or ‘daddy, mommy, and me’, came so completely to define the concept of desire in the modern West? For Deleuze and Guattari, authors of The Anti-Oedipus, that is the true sphinxian riddle at the heart of the Oedipus materials, the myth, and its subsequent interpretations from Sophocles to Freud and beyond. Forty years after the publication of their famous broadside against mainstream Freudian psychoanalysis, and notwithstanding a significant and growing body of sceptical opinion, the Oedipal complex is still widely regarded as humanity’s universal history. In fact, argue Deleuze and Guattari, it is nothing of the sort. Rather, they say, Oedipal desire is an historically contingent, socio-cultural consequence of capitalism. When psychoanalysts, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, and even dramatists reach for an Oedipalised analysis of social relations, they not only violently disfigure our understanding of desire, but also reinforce and normalise the omnivorous progress of capitalism and its patriarchal social forms.

Sharing something of this radical spirit, director Matthew Lutton’s new adaptation of the Oedipus myth, devised with Zoe Atkinson and Tom Wright, challenges the archetypal inevitability of Oedipal desire by offering a multiplicity of ambiguous and often contradictory explanations that emphasise the uncertain tangle of libidinal investments on which the tragedy might rest.

Although the impulse here is dramatic, the mood is essayistic to the extent that the nature of ‘fate’, and through it the problem of inevitability, are addressed by each of the three characters almost as an intellectual problem, one framed by the triple misconception implied in the play’s elegant title: Oedipus’s misunderstanding of the Delphic prophecy; Oedipus as a child conceived against oracular advice; and the misapplication of the Oedipal narrative by Freudian psychoanalysis.

The play is described as a prequel and takes us only so far as the incestuous reunion of Oedipus and Jocasta. It begins with Oedipus (Richard Pyros), well-groomed, polo shirt and slacks, alone, seated in what looks like a sound booth, describing his childhood and how he came to leave the mansion of his adoptive parents. Tracing the movement of myth into classical tragedy, the monologue becomes a duologue as Jocasta (Natasha Herbert) and Laius (Daniel Schlusser), bickering, antagonistic, offer their version of events, dwelling on the circumstances around Oedipus’s conception and birth.

MALTHOUSE-OEDIPUS-photo-Jeff-Busby_373On the Misconception of Oedipus. Photograph by Jeff Busby

A somewhat laboured piece of physical theatre follows, depicting both the murder of Laius, pitched almost comically through a sheet of drywall, and the seduction of Oedipus by Jocasta. The play then closes with a mostly improvised conversation between Herbert and Pyros. This shift into improvisation makes for a moving conclusion. Despite the menace of future grief that hangs over the scene, its unscripted energy suggests the potential for Oedipus, or anyone else, to ‘overturn the theatre of representation’ and escape the hereditary guilt that is said to govern the unconscious.

Deleuzian references, in word and image, are deployed, or at least cited, throughout the scripted portion of the performance. ‘Are you a machine?’ demands the widow, representing Jocasta. ‘Yes of course I am,’ replies the man, Laius, ‘And so is the oracle / And medicine / And notions of the future / And anything / That comes between your body / And yourself.’ We also hear talk of bodies without organs, ‘becoming beast’, and, of course, schizophrenia. But the improvised scene is as far as we get towards any specific anti-oedipal program. If this is an essay, it is a reflective essay only, a kind of ante-Oedipus, content to dissolve the tragic formula back into the contradictions and possibilities of ancestral myth.

Conceptually, it is an insightful and subtle package, which, like a Delphic prophecy, or even the sometimes Delphic aphorisms of Deleuze and Guattari, might be unpacked in countless ways. The writing and the direction, however, do not always support this potential, particularly in matters of subtly. Tom Wright, who elaborated a script for the first portion of the performance out of devised materials, perhaps needed to spend longer with his text in order to develop a more consistent poetics. Occasionally, he does manage to sustain a kind of stern musicality: for example, when Oedipus is describing his life of exile, ‘cowering on the fringes / hating myself / hating this paradox / that in order to swerve fate / I was barely alive’. At such times the argument really begins to bustle and we see past Lutton’s otherwise static arrangements. But Wright regularly bruises his lines with clumsy literary references, and wallows too lovingly in clichéd depictions of violence.

Nevertheless, the performances are extremely persuasive, with all three revelling in the unreliability of their testimony. Although the drama is brief and played out entirely within a hellish family dream, its several crises do suggest potential disruptions and possible lines of escape, conveying a satisfying sense of dramatic progression.

On the Misconception of Oedipus, devised by Zoe Atkinson, Matthew Lutton, and Tom Wright, presented by Malthouse Theatre and the Perth Theatre Company. Malthouse Theatre, performance attended 16 August.

 

Published in October 2012 no. 345
Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann reviews books and theatre. He was an ABR Ian Potter Foundation Fellow in 2013 and is currently writing a book on the plays of Patrick White.

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