fountain pen tip
Zygmunt Frankel

A Play in One Act



LAIUS, king of Thebes;
IOCASTA, his wife;
OEDIPUS, their son. He appears in the play at two different stages of his life: as a young wanderer and king, and as a blind old man with dark glasses and white stick;
THE NARRATOR, whose identity will be disclosed later;
THE SPHINX, a creature with a woman's head, a lion's body, and a pair of wings;
TIRESIAS, the blind prophet;
THE CHORUS of three veiled figures.

(Note: Although this lists ten actors, the same actor could play Laius and Tiresias and the same actress Iocasta and the Sphinx, while the long-robed and veiled Chorus could include anyone not on the stage at the moment.)

CURTAIN UP; or, if there is no curtain, the front of the stage only is lit, leaving the rest in darkness. There is a traffic sign frontstage, showing the meeting of three roads; could be movable, with a sturdy base, and need only be waist-high.

MUSIC: A stanza of YOU ALWAYS HURT THE ONE YOU LOVE, on a wind instrument, in the dark at the back of the stage, softly at first and fading again towards the end, when the tapping of a stick on the floor is heard, approaching from the side.

Enter OEDIPUS, old and blind, wearing dark glasses and tapping the ground with a white stick, stopping frontstage by the sign.


It is already evening. The sun has stopped beating down, and the birds have finished their last songs and have fallen asleep in the trees. This is the hour when owls and bats and ghosts take wing, but you can't hear their flight; when the night animals leave their burrows, and dead men, their graves; when the day is asleep and its dreams are the old tales and legends, and sometimes nightmares.

And, apart from the evening smell of the grass and the trees, there is also a smell of blood at this meeting of the three roads, spilled a long time ago. Who was the killer and who the victim? And why? And who was it, in the dark, playing this popular old tune? Do you remember the words? "You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn't hurt at all?" A simple song, but somehow, tonight, it seems to blend with the dark loneliness and the smell of blood, as if some dangerous winged creature was posing a riddle.

I was good at solving riddles once, long ago, when I still had my eyes. I was also good at fighting, and being a king, and in bed with a woman. Nowadays, there are so many riddles, and we go about looking for answers to them, blind old men in a dark night, tapping the ground with a stick.

(Goes out, tapping the ground with his stick.)

The stage gradually lits up. Behind the road sign, there is a low, about knee-high, table on which there is a coil of rope and a large nail. The roadsign and the table are placed sufficiently far back for a passage of actors in front of them. At the back of the stage there are two simple wooden chairs with straight backs, side by side. Behind the chairs there is a stack of the cardboard or plywood cut-outs, described later.

THE NARRATOR is sitting on one of the chairs, the instrument we have just heard in his lap, looking in the direction of Oedipus's exit. He is dressed in casual modern clothes, say shirtsleeves and slacks, or a sweater if the stage is cool, and wears a wristwatch. His clothes do not commit him to any particular class, profession, or personality. After a while he gets up, puts his instrument on the table, and walks to the front of the stage.


That was Oedipus, old and blind, and not a king any more. Thousands of years have passed since he sat on the throne of Thebes; but his name, and that part of his story where he sleeps with his mother, are widely known in our day, mainly thanks to Dr. Sigmund Freud, the founder of the young science of psychology. It is a pity that this is the only part of the story that interested them, sort of reducing "Oedipus Rex" to "Oedipus Complex", and giving rise to jokes like "Oedipus schmoedipus, so long as he loves his mother." I am not saying anything against all psychologists, only against the conceited ones among them. The study of human soul is an honourable one, and has been going on for ages. About a century ago, the first modern psychologists landed on the shores of - if one may compare human soul to a large island with complicated features - on the shores of that island, and started mapping it out.

(Optional, backstage: a mime, by three or four actors in white doctors' coats: rowing a boat, getting ashore, looking around, hand shading eyes, pointing things out, making sketches, slowly exiting inland. The whole sketch lasts only while the Narrator talks about psychology, not paying any attention to them, perhaps just watching them briefly while they exit.)

They have by now explored a small part of the island, not much more than the beach on which they landed. But the conceited ones among them already consider themselves experts on the whole area. And the island holds tall mountains and deep valleys and caves, and streams and lakes and wild animals and, yes, monsters too, and it's an open question whether man can as much as penetrate into all those places, let alone investigate them.

By the way, tonight, having come to see this play about Oedipus, you may find yourself at a disadvantage compared to the Greek audiences of old. In those days, everyone knew the story, and what he came to see was the presentation and the interpretation of it. It was not a thriller with a surprise ending, and that boy from another joke could not come up to someone in the queue and say: "Give me a drachma or I'll tell you who the murderer is." Tonight, a couple of thousand years later, in a country with another culture and other stories and beliefs, it might help if we go over the story briefly before continuing.

Once upon a time, north of Athens, on a ridge behind a fertile plain, there stood the mighty city of Thebes the Seven-Gated.

(Picks up a contour cut-out of Thebes, black lines on white, and places it on the two adjoining chairs, as if displaying a painting (see following page). The two life-size dolls that follow, black lines and colour, are also flat, hinged at hips and knees; the faces could resemble those of the actors playing Laius and Iocasta.)

The king of Thebes was Laius (unfolds and sits on one of the chairs the figure of Laius) and his queen was Iocasta. (Places Iocasta's figure on the other chair, both of them leaning against the background of Thebes.)

Across the mountain range lay the state and city of Corinth (places an arrow-shaped direction sign with "Corinth" on it on one side of the stage), and it was ruled by King Polybus and Queen Periboea. As our story begins, both royal couples are childless, and except for the adoption of Oedipus, Polybus and Periboea will remain so to the the end.

Now, the most powerful of all Greek Gods in those days was Apollo. Only his father Zeus and his mother Leto could bear his presence; all the other gods feared him. He was the god of divine distance, of death, terror, and awe; the god who made men aware of their guilt and purified them of it; and who passed onto them the knowledge of the future through prophets and oracles; and the most important of his oracles was at Delphi.

(Places a small image of the Delphic Oracle on the backdrop. Whenever the oracle speaks, in a somewhat drugged and hoarse voice, it lits up or a spotlight is directed onto it. It could also emit some smoke.)

And now, as years were passing and Laius and Iocasta remained childless, Laius secretly went to consult the oracle at Delphi. (Takes Laius's doll and approaches the oracle.) And the oracle said:


If you ever have a son by Iocasta,
A son by Iocasta,
That child will kill you,
kill you,
kill you!


So Laius returned to Thebes (replaces him on the chair) and did not tell anyone, not even Iocasta - especially not Iocasta - anything about the prophecy. He quite simply, without any explanation or excuse, stopped sleeping with her, as the best way of preventing the prophecy coming true.

But by now you may be asking yourself who I am: an actor? a story-teller? a passer-by who stopped to provide information? No. I am the god Apollo.

What? you will ask; looking like this? Wearing those clothes? And a wristwatch? Is that what Apollo looks like?

No, of course not; Apollo does not look like anything. This is just a disguise, a little trick of the gods to make themselves more credible and acceptable when going down among the mortals and speaking their language. When we take human form we change into someone so ordinary and inconspicuous that no one even takes us for a spy, leave alone god. We are quietly dressed, speak with the local accent, have some small change in our pocket, and, for a finishing touch, we may have thinning hair or a pot belly or a pimple or wart somewhere on the face. We are quite unrecognisable.

Now, to return to Laius and Iocasta. Iocasta became so frustrated that one evening she got Laius drunk and took him to bed with her. And this time, after all those years, it worked. She became pregnant and nine months later bore a baby boy. By then, of course, Laius was quite sober again, and...

IOCASTA, entering:

Just a minute, Apollo. The way you're telling it, the story is a bit flat and two-dimensional, just like this doll. (Picks up her cut-out and holds it sideways to the audience.) Is this supposed to be me? There's no depth to it, no place for a heart to beat or a womb to swell up with a child. A live woman, and a queen into the bargain, is not like this, you know. And did I detect a little whiff of disapproval when you told about me getting Laius drunk and taking him to bed? He was my husband, for God's sake, and he stopped sleeping with me without as much as I beg your pardon. Do you know how many wives (pointing to the audience) would start screwing on the side in my place? There is no law against serving your husband a few drinks at supper and going to bed with him afterwards, is there? But you make it sound as if here was that treacherous female getting poor innocent Laius into no end of trouble. And what was that word you used - "frustrated"? With all the Greek legends and poetry at your fingertips, you of all gods have to go and borrow a word like that from, what did you call it just now, the popular young science of psychology, and call me "frustrated"? Don't childless women's bellies squirm for a child any more? Have their hearts stopped bleeding? Are they just "frustrated" nowadays? I didn't expect this from you, Apollo.

(Folds the doll, puts it in his hands, and goes out.)

APOLLO (slightly embarrassed, unfolds the doll and puts it back on the chair):

Well, anyway, as I said, Iocasta bore a boy...

(takes a cut-out of a baby and puts it in Iocasta's doll's lap)

and Laius went and panicked. He took the baby...

(LAIUS enters and takes the baby from Iocasta's lap)

spiked its feet...

(Laius takes the nail from the table and puts it through the baby's feet)

and suspended the baby upside down from a bush at the foot of Mount Cithaeron, between Thebes and Corinth, to perish from exposure or wild animals.

(Laius suspends the baby from the Corinth road sign and goes out.)

Enter THE MAN WITH THE NOTEBOOK. He has a pencil in his other hand, wears glasses on the tip of his nose, and asks his questions with deference but also with a certain insistence.


Pardon this intrusion, my lord Apollo; would I be right in assuming that Laius did not kill the child outright because there was a law against literally staining one's hands with blood, and whoever did so had to go into exile?


Quite right; it was myself who had introduced this law and even kings were subject to it. There is a danger to human blood on human hands; it tends to repeat itself, and society is better off without such a man in its midst.


Thank you, Apollo.

(Bows and withdraws.)


By the way, (pointing to the baby) it is only fair to warn you that, except for this little demonstration with a cardboard model, you are not going to see on this stage tonight any torture of babies, or Oedipus killing his father, or having sex with his mother, or putting his eyes out, or Iocasta hanging herself. Those are cheap shocks for cheap audiences which we hope you are not. We might let you see the Sphinx committing a low-key suicide because nobody seems to care for sphinxes nowadays. They sort of fall between two chairs; not human enough to stir our hearts, yet not sufficiently beastly to come under the protection of the environmentalists. And as for the shedding of blood, you don't need a theatre for that; just drive along any major road during the summer holidays or, to save time and fuel, visit the emergency room of a hospital; and that's not counting the wars. The Romans catered to this sort of demand with their gladiator shows, and today the tradition is continued with boxing, bullfighting, and football matches. In the latter case, if the game wasn't satisfactory, the public sometimes does a little bloodshedding of its own after the game. There are also horror movies. There was a time when horror movies were clearly labelled as such and it was considered a bit disreputable for a man of education and culture to see them. But there was a lot of money to be made from horror movies and the studios decided to make them respectable. They gave them large budgets, famous movie stars, and some artistic or social or historical pretensions, so that one could leave the cinema with one's head high and discuss and write about, what do they call it, the relevancy of the thing. Oedipus would make a glorious subject for such a movie; just imagine the spiking of that baby's feet, and the killing of Laius in slow motion, and the wedding night of Iocasta and Oedipus, and him putting his eyes out in close-up, and finally Iocasta swinging from a rope with her tongue out, not altogether forgetting that the sphincter muscle goes loose in such situations.

Anyway, there was Laius taking the baby to die of exposure or be eaten by wild animals at the foot of Mount Cithaeron...

LAIUS, entering:

Hold it, Apollo. The way you tell it, people will start asking what sort of father is it that takes his son to die at the foot of a mountain. But what sort of son is it that kills his own father if he survives? It was your own oracle at Delphi that warned me he would do it one day. It was self-defence pure and simple. Doesn't one have the right to self-defence any more?


Against strangers, yes, any time. But your own child? Didn't it occur to you that there are other ways of challenging fate? Hadn't you thought of bringing him up in such a way, making him love and admire you so much, that when the time came he himself would decide not to draw his sword against you?

( IOCASTA enters and listens from the side.)

And have you ever considered what a child is? Imagine, at the start, a darkness like nothing else, the double darkness of the night and of two bodies joined together; and in that darkness, millions of tiny spermatozoa in a race which only one of them will survive, towards a single egg. And then a child is born. The god who has created man, in his own likeness some say, briefly bestows upon this short-lived creation of his his own power of creating human beings in his own image. And what do you do with the child? You try to kill it so it doesn't kill you. A stupid and futile business, Laius. All sons kill their fathers, though not necessarily with swords; they do it with birthday presents and with the ticking of clocks, to be killed in their turn by their own children. Is this what you had the audacity and the shortsightedness to oppose? What were you trying to do - live forever, like the gods?

LAIUS (confused): Apollo, this is all very complicated... I... I was trying to do my duty to the gods and to the oracle as I saw it... I mean I was a king who... I... I must think it over quietly back in my grave... (backing out) excuse me...

(Exit LAIUS. Light on Iocasta. Pause.)

IOCASTA (slowly, not looking at anyone in particular):

In Paradise
children who have died young
have no father and no mother;
perhaps, here and there,
an old grandparent they haven't met before,
and it's not the same.

In Paradise
children who have died young
sit sad and quiet
waiting for mother.

(Light on Iocasta fades and she leaves the stage.)


But the baby did not die. A shepherd from the neighbouring Corinth found him...

(A hand appears from the side of the stage, takes the baby off the sign and withdraws.)

...and took him to his own royal couple, King Polybus and Queen Periboea, who adapted him and brought him up as their own son. It was they who named him "Oedipus", which means "swollen foot" in Greek, because his feet had been injured by the metal spike.


Apollo, please excuse me for interrupting again. I've got here in my little notebook another old Greek legend or two, about different characters, in which someone also leaves a baby to perish, and a shepherd finds it and either brings it up as his own or passes it to someone else. Do you know what I am beginning to suspect? That it was not always the baby's good luck that someone came along and found it before it died, because it's only a matter of a few hours before it dies. I wonder whether there wasn't a custom of leaving unwanted babies in certain places at certain times so that anyone who wanted them could take them. And even if not, something of the sort could always be arranged beforehand, couldn't it?

And, by the way, there is also another version of how Laius got rid of the baby and how Polybus and Periboea got him. This story has Laius putting the baby in a chest and casting it off a boat at sea. The chest is washed out on a beach where Queen Periboea supervises her washerwomen who are rather busy and don't notice her finding the chest. She takes it into the bushes, sees what's inside, and then comes out with the baby, claiming to have just given birth to him. Incidentally, in this version they don't name him "Oedipus", "Swollen Foot", but "Oedipais", "The Son of the Swollen Sea".


You're quite right, there is such a version with a floating baby as well. But the Jews have used something similar for Moses and the Pharaoh's daughter, so to avoid confusion let's stick to the first one.

(THE MAN WITH THE NOTEBOOK bows and withdraws.)

So, whether he reached the royal palace of Corinth by land or by sea, Oedipus was brought up, and loved as if he were their own son, by Polybus and Periboea, and grew up into a fine young man, believing all the time that they were his own parents and loving them in return.

But not everyone else believed it, for the simple reason that a son is supposed to resemble his parents and Oedipus did not look a bit like Polybus or Periboea. And then one day, or rather one evening, perhaps over one drink too many, a companion went and planted that doubt in Oedipus's mind, and it took root and started growing, until Oedipus decided to go and consult the oracle at Delphi. And the oracle told him:


Away with you, wretch!
You will kill your father and marry your mother!
Kill your father and marry your mother!
Away with you, wretch!


Badly shocked, Oedipus forgot or disregarded his doubts about his parentage. He took the prophecy to mean that he would kill Polybus and marry Periboea, and to prevent this he decided never to return to Corinth but start a new life elsewhere; and he went towards Thebes. And at this very spot, where the three roads come together, he met a chariot or a cart in which an old man was riding with a charioteer and a few of his attendants. A quarrel started, and then a fight, in which Oedipus killed all the occupants except a slave who escaped and brought the news to Thebes, towards which Oedipus was also making his way.

(LAIUS and young OEDIPUS enter from opposite directions.)


It was some stupid quarrel which could have easily been avoided. Do you remember how it started, Oedipus?


Yes, I do. The road was very narrow, and your driver told me to step aside to make way for my betters.


That's right, and you said you acknowledged no betters except the gods and your parents. Which included me, but neither of us knew it at the time.


So you told your driver to drive on and he did, running one wheel over my foot.


God, I've never seen anyone fight like you did that day. You must have been in a really foul mood.


What did you expect? There I was, walking along that road, thinking about how I have lost my parents and the kingdom of Corinth in one go, through my own decision, and then someone who can afford a cart and a few servants - you were not travelling in style, so I couldn't have known you were a king - tells me, the son of a king, to make way for my betters, and runs a wheel over my foot as well. By the way, you seemed to be in a foul mood too.


Was I not. I too had been consulting the oracle at Delphi, about that bloody Sphinx which was plaguing my Thebes, but the oracle wasn't much help this time, and I was going back home not knowing what to do about the nuisance.


You know, Apollo, if you were just a human and a writer who concocted this story, the critics would tear you to pieces for those coincidences. Look at Laius and me meeting at this crossroads that day; it's against all laws of chance and probability. If one of us would have passed here half an hour earlier or later, none of what followed would have happened.


That's what you and the critics think. It was a long story coming to a point: an old king who failed to provide a successor to the throne and who could not rid his kingdom of a monster, and a young challenger who could do both. If it would not have happened then and there, it would have happened shortly afterwards somewhere else.


Yes, I could feel it coming. I was in a foul mood coming back from Delphi not only because I wouldn't know what to do about the Sphinx when I got home, but also because there was a chance I would never reach home alive if that monster intercepted me and asked that damned riddle nobody could answer.


Were you so sure you could not possibly solve the riddle?

LAIUS: Yes, I think I was. Ever since that monster showed up, every new victim it killed added to my conviction that the riddle could not be solved by a simple mortal. And once you're that scared, you won't solve it either when it's your turn to face the monster.


You know, the monster wasn't all that scary. A lion's body, yes, but on the smallish side. A pair of rather graceful wings. A dragon's tail, but not all that different from the tail of a snake or a lizard. And then a woman's head which rather softened the overall impression.


It doesn't matter what it looks like, Oedipus; once it's your own death, it's always frightening.

(LAIUS and OEDIPUS leave the stage together.)


And so Thebes was left without a king but with the Sphinx still there, finishing off, one after another, the finest young men of the city. In despair, the Thebans offered the throne and the hand of the widowed Iocasta to anyone who would rid them of the Sphinx; and Oedipus showed up and offered to try.

THE SPHINX, entering:

Apollo, this riddle seems to be some new twist to the story. In earlier versions, there was simply a fight between me and Oedipus, and he manages to kill me. Every people has a story of some hero who kills a dreaded monster and then marries - it's usually the daughter and not the widow of the king, but that's a small detail - and they live happily ever after. What's this about solving riddles instead of drawing your sword and fighting like a man?


Well yes, you see, we're slowly changing the image of the hero. Brute force is not enough any more. By the way, it never really was; even in Hercules's day they admired him for his strength but also made fun of him behind his back because he wasn't too bright. The new hero still has to be a fighter - note how Oedipus killed single-handed all the occupants of the cart but one - but he also has to have brains and imagination, to think three-dimensionally and poetically, and to solve riddles. We're slowly introducing a new type of man into this part of the world, and the world is never going to be the same afterwards.


And when he solves the riddle, I kill myself?


I'm afraid you do. There is no place for the two of you after that.


How do I kill myself?


According to most versions you jump off a cliff, either into the sea or just down the precipice. But should you prefer some other way, please feel free to do so.


Thank you, Apollo; is this what they call "freedom of choice"?


Yes. But there's also going to be a philosopher who will say that if a falling stone could think it would think it is falling of its own free will. Farewell, Sphinx.


Farewell, Apollo.

(APOLLO withdraws.



Excuse me, Sphinx; could I ask you a question?


You ask me a question?


Yes, please. You see, it's only a question, not a riddle, and it may be of considerable scientific interest. As to the dangers of interviewing you, I was hoping that, as I do not belong to this story and have no ambition of killing you or marrying Iocasta, you would not ask me the riddle, which, incidentally, I happen to have in my little notebook together with the correct answer. It's just a simple question I wanted to ask; may I?


By all means; go ahead.


Tell me, please; did you always have those graceful curved wings?


No, as a matter of fact, not always. I only got them when the time came for me to fly here from Egypt, which was my real homeland.


Just as I thought. Down there, you were never painted or sculpted with any wings, just a lion's body with a woman's head, like that huge one near the pyramids. It's only in Greece that you have wings. A sort of metamorphosis, wouldn't you say, like a butterfly that spends most of its life as a wingless caterpillar, then a chrysalis, and the wings only in the last stage. It's as if the butterfly found it easier and safest to eat and grow wingless and ugly. It gets its wings only to lay its eggs and die, and its wings are both its wedding dress and its shroud. If it could think like us men, the sight of its wings would scare it like we are scared by our first heart attack.


Yes, in Egypt it was different. In those days, one thought one would live for ever.


Well, that's how it goes, Sphinx. Thank you very much again, and goodbye.


Goodbye, man with the notebook.


As he himself says, he does not belong in this story. He is a little man with a little notebook, and in it he has everything about the Sphinx except the magic of Sphinx: where the Sphinx came from, and when did the Sphinx get wings, and the Sphinx's riddle, and the answer to it. And very soon now he'll be able to round it off with the date on which the last Sphinx died.

There always comes the time for the last one to die. There was the last dinosaur, and the last unicorn, and the last dodo, and the last of the Mohicans. And I - I am the last Sphinx.

That comparison with the butterfly, though complimentary, was a bit lame, wasn't it? It seems to be the habit of little men with notebooks to be always comparing something to something else. I understand they even invented comparative literature. They would feel awfully out of their depth if something was unique and incomparable. The Egyptian Sphinx does not have any wings but the Greek one does; now, who else does not have any wings at first but gets them later on? Aha - a butterfly! So the Sphinx is like a butterfly. Any slight differences are of secondary importance.

On the other hand, come to think of it, once you start flying the end does seem to be near. There was Icarus who crashed into the sea, and me who flew from Egypt to Greece to be finished off by Oedipus, and when they finally invent flying machines, men with little notebooks will draw some comparisons with butterflies and Sphinxes and announce that now that mankind has grown wings its end is near.



There is a shadow of wings
on Mount Cithaeron;
it glides over our fields
and flocks
and over our Thebes the Seven-Gated
and now it circles our cemetery.

Is it an eagle
or a falcon?
No, more like a vulture,
but not that either.
A strange shape
gliding lower;
a bird's wings, yes;
but could it be a lion's body?
a dragon's tail?
And the head;
the head of a woman.

Sphinx, Sphinx,
with the black shadow of your wings like death,
where from, and where to?
Perhaps just passing by
and only circling and dropping lower
to get your bearings?
No; the shadow of the wings is growing larger,
and now it's landing.



Seeing The Sphinx, Oedipus draws his sword.)


Relax, young man; the days to fight monsters are over. Put down your sword and sharpen your wits instead; I am going to ask you a riddle.

OEDIPUS (reluctantly putting his unsheathed sword on the table and keeping close to it):

And if I answer it?


Then you marry the queen of Thebes and rule the city. It's a great future for someone like you, coming out of nowhere with only a sword to your name. May I?

(Picks up Oedipus's sword and sniffs it.)

It smells of human blood, you know.


Does it? (Taking the sword and smelling it.) It can't possibly. That was several days ago, and I washed it in the river and scrubbed it with sand. (Putting the sword back on the table.) Creatures like you must have some senses sharper than humans. They say for example that bats and dogs can hear sounds that humans can't, and that cats and owls see better in the dark.


And oracles into the future.


Yes, oracles. Without them I wouldn't be here today. I would be living quietly in... never mind. Now, just in case I do manage to solve this riddle: have you any idea what this Queen Iocasta of Thebes is like?


Quite pretty from what I hear. Not a young girl any more of course, but a mature experienced woman who might be quite good in bed. She'd been sharing it with an elderly husband for some years, and you might pluck the fruits of accumulated frustration; a woman pushing forty could be spurred into great things with a handsome young husband. (Looking him up and down with appreciation.) What are those scars on your feet?


Some accident when I was still a baby. My parents have been rather evasive about it. Is it very noticeable?


No, hardly; it's just my sharp senses again. What's more, a scar that's not repulsive often looks good on a man. You needn't fear that Iocasta will reject you because of it. And talking about Iocasta, you're not forgetting for a moment that you'll be getting not only a wife but the throne of Thebes as well, with everything that goes with it, including ladies-in-waiting and servant girls should you feel like a change from time to time. Thebes is a great old city, surrounded by fertile land bearing large olives, sweet grapes, heavy grain, and fat sheep. They do have this blind old prophet, Tiresias, sitting under the city wall. when he's not hobbling around with his stick because he's both old and blind. All sorts of tales are being told about him, and he is no respecter of kings when the gift of prophecy is upon him. But even prophets usually only become troublesome when things go wrong. So long as you rule well, the crops are brought in, and the people are satisfied, he shouldn't give any trouble.


You talk as if I've already solved the riddle.

SPHINX (smiling):

Watch out; it may be a trick to put you off your guard.


How much time do I have to answer the riddle?


Oh, there's no hurry; take your time, and then I'll give you a warning a minute or two before it's up.


Very well, then. I am ready.


All right. What creature goes on four feet, and also on two, and also on three, but has only one voice; and it goes slowest on all four?


What creature...on all four...also on two...also on three... (pause) one voice... slowest on all four... (another pause). Why, it's man! Crawling when he's a baby, on two feet most of his life, and with a stick for a third when he's old!

(THE SPHINX shrieks, then grabs Oedipus's sword from the table and plunges it into her breast.)

Sphinx, wait! (The Sphinx is reeling.) Sphinx, what have you done?

SPHINX (sinking to her knees and speaking with difficulty):

You have guessed the bloody riddle, so I have to go. Those who came before you and failed to guess it also had to go; it's the rule of the game. I understand there will be no more Sphinxes after this.


But the riddle wasn't all that difficult... Sphinx, now that I think about it... it was plain suicide on your part, because you practically told me the answer before asking the riddle: you brought up the scars on my feet which reminded me about my childhood, and then about old Tiresias with his stick; why, I was bound to guess it! You simply went and killed yourself! Why?

SPHINX (in a still weaker voice):

It's all to do with all those gods and oracles.... legends and fate... sphinxes and men... a time to live... and a time to die...

(The Sphinx dies.)

OEDIPUS (standing over the Sphinx):

I suppose I shouldn't feel any pity for her...after all, it was her or me...wonder what'll replace her because nature doesn't like a vacuum...and whether whatever replaces her will be any better....she was quite a human monster as monsters go, and probably acting on orders from above... anyway, no use crying over spilt milk (pulls his sword out of the Sphinx, wipes it on the tablecloth, and replaces it in its scabbard. Then he lifts the Sphinx's body and walks off the stage with it. Behind the scenes: cheers of the population, growing louder, then ringing of bells, and finally Mendelssohn's wedding march.)

APOLLO (entering):

And so Oedipus and Iocasta got married, and Oedipus became the king of Thebes, and they lived happily, well, not quite ever after but for a long time, and had four children, two boys and two girls.

(Apollo replaces the cut-out of Laius on the chair with that of Oedipus, and then unfolds and places against their knees a harmonica-like cut-out of four children, joined at hands and feet.)

IOCASTA (entering):

Now about this incest, Apollo. Why did you have to have us commit this sin, one of the most terrible on the list: a mother marrying her own son and bearing his children?

THE CHORUS (entering, frontstage):

Forbidden love is a dark moth in a moonless night,
and clean love, a butterfly in broad sunlight.

Stolen love is a black bat flitting in and out of a cave,
and clean love, a bird soaring in a blue sky.

Forbidden love is an owl swooping down in the night,
and clean love a golden eagle at noon, preening its feathers.

Stolen love is a nightingale, singing.



Iocasta, was this incest really so terrible so long as you didn't know it was incest? A later poet is going to say that there is no good or bad but thinking makes it so. So long as you don't know you're committing incest it doesn't bother you, and tastes as sweet as any other lovemaking. As a matter of fact, the only way to prevent any chance of unintentional incest would be never to go to bed with anyone young enough to be your son or daughter, and where would that leave us?


You sound as if you were making fun of incest, Apollo. It was far from fun when the time came to pay for it, and in my case, I had been led into a trap of sorts. You see, I really and truly loved Laius when we were married, and remained faithful to him as long as he lived. And then, when a young man who looks very much like him when he was young shows up, it's not quite betrayal to become fond of him; on the contrary, one could see it as remaining faithful to his father. And then don't forget that I was a woman and not getting any younger and wanting children badly especially since I lost the first one...


Since you got rid of the first one.


Since Laius got rid of the first one.


Since the two of you got rid of the first one.


Since then, anyway, I kept hoping for other children, free of any evil prophecy, but they were not coming. Those were long years, passing slowly, while Laius and I were ruling Thebes from a childless palace, and sharing a bed over which some cold spell seemed to have been cast since we got rid of the first child conceived in it. And then Laius got killed by some stranger and I was left a widow while the Sphinx kept haunting the countryside and killing off the best young men of Thebes. And then Oedipus turned up and rid us of the Sphinx and married me, and there followed long years again, monotonous to an outsider perhaps but happy ones for me. I had a handsome young husband and was bearing children, and Thebes was being ruled well, and the people were prosperous and happy, and it could have lasted if the plague hadn't broken out.

(Young Oedipus enters and stands aside, listening.)

Until then, the people cheered when we passed, and swore they loved us and would lay their lives for us, and old Tiresias just sat there under the wall and kept quiet.


Exactly. Do you remember them going wild when I freed the town from the Sphinx? They didn't check too closely who I was then. When everything is fine with them, their king is fine too. It's only when things go wrong that they start looking for a scapegoat. They don't like to think that misfortune can hit them just like that, out of the blue. And of course they'll never admit that they themselves might be guilty in some way; oh, no. There must be a scapegoat, and if the king is not clever and fast and perverted enough to find one for them then he himself becomes the scapegoat. I can remember someone who, after losing a war, told his people: "We are all responsible." Well, he isn't around anymore. And do you know what I suspect? I suspect that even if I were not the son of Iocasta and the killer of Laius, they would be quite capable of... no, I am talking nonsense. They couldn't have invented the whole story, could they? I mean, they did find some old witnesses: the slave who had travelled with Laius and escaped to tell the story, and the shepherd to whom they now say Laius had given the baby to take to Mount Cithaeron, and then there was old Tiresias who had known the story all along but kept quiet...


Now that you yourself mention it, Oedipus, I have things in my little notebook which might help cast doubt on all the three witnesses you mention. I suppose there is, or should be, something of detective in every scientist, especially an investigator of ancient tales like me. Not all the versions of the story have you taken to Mount Cithaeron by a shepherd. In some it is Laius himself who takes you there, and that disposes of the first witness for the prosecution. Then, in some versions Laius travels with his charioteer only and you kill both of them, so once again no slave who escapes and no witness. And as for the seer Tiresias and his knowledge of past and future, that's a sort of evidence which not every proper court of law might accept.


No, I still don't believe the people have invented the story. They would believe it alright and be ready to sacrifice Iocasta and me to end the plague, but inventing it is something else. Had they really invented it, it would have been more primitive and crude. They work hard during the day, ploughing their fields and tending their flocks and running their shops and counting their pennies, and watch entertainment in the evenings, and had they invented the story it would be more like light entertainment than a Greek legend. They badly need their gods and their miracles and an occasional downfall of their kings, Apollo. You will see: if you and your oracle at Delphi ever fade, they'll invent similar new gods and similar new oracles, and should their powers of invention fail, they can always dig out old astrologies and witchcrafts to believe in, and old stones to kiss.

(Oedipus puts his hand on Apollo's shoulder and they start walking off the stage, followed by The Man with the Notebook.)

And even if they learn to fly to the moon, they'll still be wearing some lucky charm while flying there. And even if they invent cures for all the diseases, and find ways to prevent famines and wars, they'll still knock on wood and spit over their left shoulder against the evil eye.



We are the plagues, the famines, and the wars;
When the crops grow too tall
or men too fat
We soon take care of that
We soon take care of that.

And when they've buried their dead
And sowed their fields with new grain
They hope it was the last time;
They hope it won't happen again.

We are the plagues, the famines, and the wars;
Merely asleep, in some dark cave,
like rats and wolves and bats;
And when men grow too sure of themselves
and plan too far ahead,
it wakes us up, and we crawl out,
and strike them dead.

We are the plagues, the famines, and the wars;
Not always here, but never far away;
And men can knock on wood for all they're worth,
consult their horoscopes, avoid black cats, and pray;
The rustle of their crops will wake us up,
and things will take their course;
because we always come back like the night:
the plagues, the famines, and the wars.



When the plague struck, the first thing to do was of course to consult the oracle at Delphi. And the oracle said:


The murderer of Laius lives among you!
Remove the murderer of Laius to end the plague!


So Oedipus, like the good king he was, immediately started looking for the murderer of Laius. He checked old rumours, and dug up some old witnesses: there was the slave, the only survivor of those who had travelled with Laius from Delphi, who had seen the killer of Laius and had kept very quiet ever since; and an even older shepherd who seemed to remember something about a baby at the foot of Mount Cithaeron. And then a letter arrived from Queen Periboea of Corinth. King Polybus has died, a natural death from old age, and she now felt free to reveal Oedipus's origins. And, for a finishing touch, Tiresias, the blind seer, stepped forward and completed the story. From grief and shame, Iocasta hanged herself, and Oedipus put out his eyes and left Thebes to wander over the face of the earth, a blind old man finally to die in a far land; some say swallowed up by the earth during an earthquake, near Colonus.

(APOLLO leaves the stage. The tapping of a stick is heard. Enter OEDIPUS, old and blind. From the opposite direction comes the tapping of another stick, and TIRESIAS also enters and walks slowly towards the centre of the stage.)


Is that you, Tiresias?


Yes. So you have learned to recognise other blind men by the tapping of their sticks, Oedipus?


Yes, I have. Some are timid and slow, others more confident and faster.

(Tapping, finds a chair and sits down. Tiresias does the same.)

Interesting how you get used to being blind and discover all sorts of tricks to get around.


Don't forget that in your case the blindness was self-inflicted, so you can't blame fate or anyone else for it.


Narrowly speaking, no; but I do bear fate and people grudge for a few other things they did to me.


You must admit that you did occasionally provoke the fate, if only by trying to avoid it.


But you might also say that the fate provoked me first, if only by revealing itself to me. I sometimes wonder whether Apollo's oracle at Delphi does more harm than good by telling the future. You yourself also do such things, Tiresias. The moment people know something about their fate, they try to take it into their own hands, and usually make an awful mess of it.

TIRESIAS (chuckling):

Listen who's talking, after a lifetime of doing exactly that. You know, there must be somewhere - and if there isn't there will be - some religious sect praying to their god not to lead them into temptation; not succumbing to temptation or anything of the sort, but not even being led into it. Would that suit you, Oedipus?


Life without temptation? No, thank you; it would probably not be worth living. By the way, how much truth is there in all those stories they tell about you?


There are two versions of the old saying: ask no questions and you'll be told no lies, and ask no questions and you won't be told the truth.

(Enter THE MAN WITH THE NOTEBOOK, leafing through the notebook.)


Now let's see, Tiresias; aha, here it is. According to one version, you have been blinded by Athena because you had watched her undressing to bathe.


It was not necessarily a punishment; it could also be interpreted as a blessing and a gift for the rest of one's life. No one who had seen Athena naked has any need to look at another naked woman as long as he lives; on the contrary, blind, he is free to imagine that all women he sleeps with are like her, an illusion his eyesight would only destroy.


According to another story, you once saw a pair of snakes coupling in the grass and killed one of them which happened to be the female, and you have been turned into a woman. Then, a few years later, you saw another pair of snakes coupling and this time killed the male and became a man again.


Yes, and also that during those few years as a woman you became the most celebrated harlot of the times. And wasn't there another version of how you lost your sight?


Yes, the gods again. Once, an argument broke out between Zeus and his wife Hera. She was maintaining that men got more pleasure out of lovemaking than women, and Zeus contradicted her. The argument could only be solved by someone who had been both a man and a woman, so Tiresias was brought in, and said that women got ten times more pleasure out of love than men. The enraged Hera struck him blind, but as compensation Zeus gave him the gift of prophesy, and also an extremely long life; some say seven generations and some nine.

And, later on, you sat quietly under the walls of Thebes while I ruled the city with Iocasta, and children were being born to us, and you knew the whole story all along and kept quiet about it until the plague broke out, didn't you?


Yes, I did. You see, people's ears are stranger instruments than one might suppose; they filter out the things people don't want to hear and amplify the ones they want. As the man with the notebook just said, my life might last nine generations, but it might only be seven, and for all I knew it might depend on me. I was almost seven generations old when you came to Thebes, Oedipus, and I didn't want to throw away the remaining two generations. A prophet has to be more careful than anyone else, otherwise instead of letting him sit quietly under the city wall, the king or the people might decide to throw him off it.


Do you also know what's going to happen to our children?


Yes, I do.


Do you think you could tell me?

TIRESIAS: Er...I am not sure I should...

APOLLO (entering):

You're quite right, Tiresias, you shouldn't. I think Oedipus has had enough prophecies for one lifetime.


You're right as usual, Apollo. (Getting up.) Well, good night, Apollo. Good night, Oedipus. Good night, man with the notebook.


I am also going. I would like to ask you another question or two on the way, Tiresias, and then put my notes in order. Good night, everybody.



You know, Apollo, one way of looking at this whole story could go like this. You, the great god Apollo, have the whole thing in your mind, long before it begins to happen. Then you tell it loud and clear to those who are to participate through your oracle at Delphi. Laius and Oedipus do everything in their power to prevent it but it still comes to pass. To resume: you conceive the story; a little later, and for thousands of years to come, it becomes man's heritage; people all over the world know the story, retell it, are moved by it, and from time to time even write a play or make a movie about it. The question whether between your invention of the story and mankind's heritage of it the story really happened or not, whether there ever really lived a king called Laius and his wife Iocasta and their son Oedipus becomes of secondary importance. Even if they were real, it was only a few people and it only lasted a generation; and if they were not, the story is still with us. And even if it did happen after you thought of it, does that make you much more than a playwright with the means to put on your play, with the world for a stage and real tears and blood instead of the glycerine and the tomato juice they use in the film studios? And let me ask you something, Apollo. What sort of god is it that makes a young mother let her baby be taken away to be exposed at the foot of a mountain? And let me tell you something: you were very wise not to try it again. I had learned my lesson, and had decided that it was the first and last time that such a thing has happened to me; that if I have another baby and anyone - king, prophet, oracle, or god - tries to take it away, I am going to fight so that he is going to be sorry he hasn't provoked ten Sphinxes instead. You can kill Laius, and you can make Oedipus put out his eyes, and everyone knows that I am going to hang myself at the end of this story, but that's where your power stops, Apollo, because when I am dead I won't be able to harm any of my children any more, or watch them harmed by others, whatever your plans. And do you really think that it is only the mortals who die while the gods live forever? One day, digging in the ground, they may find not only our bones but yours too - white marble statues with dead eyes, missing arms and legs, and broken noses. But no, on second thoughts, you're too clever for that. You would only be faking death, having changed into something else. Keep your immortality, Apollo, while it lasts.

(Takes the rope from the table and goes out.)


You see how it is, Oedipus. When a mortal feels that he's had or seen enough, he can blind himself like you did, or provoke a quarrel and get himself killed like Laius, or commit suicide like Iocasta. It is only us gods who are condemned to watch it all, century after century and millenium after millenium, from the beginning of time to its end.

(Glancing at his wrist-watch and getting up.)

Ladies and gentlemen, it is getting late. Soon the last buses will leave, and, later, the last restaurants close. And then, in the double darkness of the night and of the joined bodies, millions of new spermatozoa will start on their race for a few years on the face of this earth. And it is time to say goodnight to one of them who had succeeded and had grown feet and hands and eyes, only to have his feet spiked and to use his hands to kill his father and to blind himself, starting back on his way to the darkness from which he came.

(Light on Apollo slowly fades towards the end of his speech, and he leaves the stage. Light on Oedipus.)

OEDIPUS (raising his finger):

That's not quite true, you know. I am not totally blind; only during the day. In my dreams I see again. And, in my dreams, no woman I lie with is my mother, and no man I kill is my father, and nobody is lame or blind or miserable. But, of course, they are only dreams. Good night, and sweet dreams to you too. Thank you for coming. Good night.

(Goes out slowly while the light is fading, tapping the ground with his stick.)



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