Oedipus Rex is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles first performed in 429
BC. King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes were the parents of a child. An
Oracle told King Laius that he was doomed to perish by the hand of his own son.
King Laius bound his son’s feet together with a pin and ordered his wife, Jocasta
to kill the infant. Jocasta could not do this and ordered a servant to commit the
act for her. The servant could not do this either and so instead, left the baby with
bound feet in the fields.
A Shepard found the infant and named him Oedipus which means “swollen
feet.” The Shepard could not provide for the infant and gave Oedipus to a fellow
Shepard and he took him to Corinth where Oedipus was taken in and raised in the
court of childless King Polybus and Merope of Corinth as if he were their child.
As a young man,
Oedipus heard a rumor that he was not the biological child of King Polybus
and his wife, Merope. Oedipus asked his parents about this and they denied that
he was not their biological child, but Oedipus was still suspicious and so, he
sought the counsel of the Delphic Oracle to tell him who his real parents were.
The Oracle did not answer Oedipus but told him that he was destined to “Mate
with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire.”
In fear of what the Oracle had told him and believing that King Polybus and his
wife, Merope were his biological parents, Oedipus left Corinth and believed that
once he was away from his parents, he would never harm them and the prophecy
would not be fulfilled.
While on the road to Thebes, Oedipus met his real father, King Laius.
They quarreled over whose chariot had the right of way and his father attacked him
with his scepter , but Oedipus threw his father from the chariot and killed him.
This fulfilled the first part of the prophecy of the Oracles that Oedipus was
doomed to shed the blood of his sire. Shortly after this incident, Oedipus solved
the riddle of the Sphinx. The riddle of the Sphinx is: “What is the creature that
walks on four
legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?” The answer given
by Oedipus is “Man” (who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright later, and
needs a walking stick in old age) and the distraught Sphinx threw herself off of
the cliff side. Oedipus was rewarded for freeing the kingdom of Thebes from the
curse of the Sphinx by becoming King of Thebes and husband to Jocasta, his
biological mother, although none of the characters were aware they were related.
A plague fell upon Thebes and Oedipus sent his brother-in-law Creon to ask
for the help of the oracle at Delphi. Creon brought back the information that the
plague was the result of religious pollution caused by the murderer of their former
King, Laius who had never been caught. Still unaware that he, Oedipus is the one
who had killed his real father, Oedipus as King vowed to find the murderer and
cursed him for the plague he had caused.
that he had the answers to his questions but would not tell him and instead told
Oedipus to abandon his search for the murderer of the former King. Oedipus
became angry and accused the prophet of being involved in the murder. Tiersais,
not having been involved, became outraged and told Oedipus that he himself
was the murderer. Oedipus could not understand how this could be and concluded
that the prophet must have been paid to deliver false information. Tiersais left
but before he left, he told Oedipus that when the murderer was found that he
would be a native citizen of Thebes; brother and father to his own children; and
son and husband to his own mother.
Oedipus wanted to execute Creon for interfering with his investigation to
find the murderer of the former king and for lying. Creon was not executed and
Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta comforted him and told him that he should not listen
to prophets. She told Oedipus about the oracle she and her former husband
had received many years ago which never came true. Jocasta told Oedipus that
Laius had been told that he would be killed by his own son, but that Laius had
been killed by bandits at the crossroads. Oedipus became concerned at the
mention of the crossroads because this is where he had struck and murdered
a man in a confrontation. When he questioned Jocasta as to what Laius looked
like, he started to become concerned that the prophets might have been telling
the truth. There had been one witness to the attack and Oedipus sent for him
to recount the details of the attack and murder.
Oedipus was very upset and explained to Jocasta there had been some
question as to his parentage and confessed to Jocasta there had been a
confrontation at the crossroads and one of the men matched the description
of Laius. Oedipus was hopeful that it was not the same situation since the story
was that King Laius was attacked and murdered by a gang of bandits. During
this time, a man arrived from Corinth where Oedipus grew up with the news
that Oedipus’s father had died. Instead of being upset, Oedipus was happy
by the news, because for him, it proved that he would not fulfill the prophecy
and kill his father, but he was still concerned that he might somehow commit
incest with his mother. The messenger in an attempt to ease Oedipus’s concern,
told him that Merope, the Queen of Corinth was not his real mother. In
questioning the messenger regarding this, Oedipus was told that the witness to
the murder of King Laius was the same Shepard who was given a baby by the
original Shepard who gave the baby to the King and Queen of Corinth. Jocasta
realized the truth and that the prophecy had been fulfilled and begged Oedipus
to stop asking questions. At this point, Oedipus still did not understand the
truth and sent for the Shepard who was reluctant to answer Oedipus’s questions.
Oedipus threatened the Shepard with torture and execution and so the Shepard
told Oedipus the truth about who Oedipus was and that he was the Shepard who
had given him to the King and Queen of Corinth, because his mother, Jocasta did
not want her son to kill his father and commit incest with her and fulfill the
As Jocasta had already realized the truth, she had run into the palace
and hanged herself. Oedipus cursed himself and asked his servants to find him
a sword so that he could kill himself. As Oedipus raged through the house, he
came upon Jocastas body. He took her down from hanging and removed the long
gold pins holding her dress together and plunged them into his eyes, blinding
A line from the play makes reference to sight as the blind prophet told
Oedipus, So, you mock my blindness? Let me tell you this. You [Oedipus]
with your precious eyes, you’re blind to the corruption of your life....” Martha
Graham, in her dialogue of her interpretation of this myth in her choreography,
“Night Journey” also makes reference to seeing through the eyes of Jocasta
and not only seeing, but knowing her terror through the depiction of her
Using classic inspiration for dance or plays and movies is not uncommon as the play and then the movie, “West Side Story” uses the theme of Romeo and Juliet placed in New York in the 1950s. Fate and man’s free will and destiny are the themes which are classic and allow interpretation. Archetypal images create a solid basis to communicate through both the medium of dance and bring into current times, the universal motifs of humanity. The evolution of ballet and modern dance have led dancers and choreographers of both ballet and modern dance to appreciate the benefits of both forms and the styles within those forms.
Some critics (Lewis Segal, Los Angeles Times) and second generation modern dancers (Doris Humphrey) said of the ballet form that it was the perennial sixteen and although that might be more about the ballet from the nineteenth century and opinion, the statement was made about ballet focusing more on the technical performance of the steps rather than the communication of a statement being the primary goal of a dance. Although different in technique in its origins, modern dance in its beginnings had a highly developed codification of steps and theories, but the thematic material and intent was different than ballet. The beginning of the second generation of modern dance in the 1920's led to a sharp division and comparison of the two forms and one of the most remarkable differences was the thematic material.
The different techniques remain intact as study and for pure application of performance of the classic dances. The film we are about to see of modern dance and demonstrates Grahams highly developed technique as well as her choreographic approach and contribution to dance. As Doris Humphrey advises in her book, The Art of Making Dances, the choreographer should develop concepts slowly and through studies, cautioning the choreographer that taking on the interpretation of the creation of the world is too large of a concept to give full choreographic attention and vast concepts as these might be better suited for literary discussions than dances. The decision to choose motifs which inspire movement make the choreographic statement clear and well-defined as a source of communication. This level of choreographic development and study lays the groundwork for larger bodies of work to bring to the choreographic interpretation a highly developed study of not just miming or gestural communication but of refined reflection with dance technique being the vehicle for performance communication. In Martha Graham’s “Night Journey” she, as the choreographic interpreter of the Greek tragedy, chose the moment where Jocasta realizes she is both wife and mother to Oedipus. This is the pinnacle of the story and allows for inspiration of movement to express the anguish felt by the characters throughout the play as they are predestined to fulfill a prophecy which is finally fulfilled.
The world premiere of “Night Journey” was May 3, 1947 at Cambridge High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States. At the premiere, Erik Hawkins danced the role of Oedipus and in the film production, Paul Taylor dances the role of Tireias, the Seer. Isamu Nagouchi designed the set for both “Night Journey” and “Appalachian Spring.” One of Nagouchi’s sculptures can be seen at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa; The Nagouchi Gardens.
“Appalachian Spring” is the other dance we are going to watch of the Martha Graham series. Aaron Copland was commissioned by Martha Graham to compose the musical score for her ballet with funds from the Coolidge Foundation headed by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The dance premiered on October 30, 1944 in Washington D.C. Copland was awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for music for his work. The ballet was originally scored for a thirteen member chamber orchestra and in 1945, Copland re-arranged the work as an orchestral suite. The chamber orchestra version, the adapted orchestra version and another version of the fusing of the orchestra and the complete orchestra continue to be performed. The full orchestra score for Appalachian Spring is credited as the more important work which popularized the composer.
As Copland and Graham collaborated on this work for her ballet, Copland did not have a title for his musical score and referred to it in its working title as Ballet for Martha. As the time for the premiere drew closer, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring which is a phrase from a Hart Crane poem, “The Bridge” even though there is not a direct relation to the story of the ballet:
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in the violet wedge of Adirondacks!
The interpretation of audiences was based on the title and Copland found amusement in this as people told him he had both captured the beauty of the Appalachians and the season of spring when the source of the inspiration for the title was a source of water alluded to in the poem by Crane. The storyline of the ballet by Martha Graham is a spring celebration of the American pioneers of the 1800s after building a new farmhouse in Pennsylvania. The central characters are a newlywed couple, a neighbor, a revivalist preacher and his followers. The most widely recognized section from the ballet is from the seventh section of the fourteen movements of the musical score and is a set of variations on the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts” from 1848. The musical arrangement for the ballet is different from the version which is performed as a musical suite.
Nagouchi also designed the set for “Appalachian Spring” and he and Martha Graham designed the costumes for “Night Journey.” Giving studied attention to both the sets and the costumes particularly in “Night Journey” the patterns of the costumes create designs when the dancers are in different positions. The sets serve as props and this level of intent brings to the performance of the dances a theatrical experience.