The Theban Plays

Sophocles - The Theban Plays

BBC Radio 3

The legends surrounding Oedipus of Thebes and his ill-starred offspring provided a rich vein for the Greek tragic dramatists, not to mention Freud and his followers. Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) returned to this source several times, and it inspired his three greatest plays. "Antigone" (441 B.C.) is the tragedy of a woman ruled by conscience, who obeys unwritten law when it clashes with human law. "Oedipus the King" (428 B.C.) is the story of a ruler brought down by his own oath, unknowingly in conflict with himself. "Oedipus at Colonus" (401 B.C), written late in Sophocles' life but produced after his death, telling of the passing of the aged and self-blinded king. All Sophocles' heroes and heroines are larger than life, so that they portray the human condition in panoramic and vivid fashion.

The three plays were translated by Robert Fagles and directed by David Spenser with music specially composed by Christos Pittas.

1) 'Oedipus the King' (Sunday 3rd February 1985)

Some twelve years before the action of the play begins, Oedipus has been made King of Thebes in gratitude for his freeing the people from the pestilence brought on them by the presence of the riddling Sphinx. Since Laius, the former king, had shortly before been killed, Oedipus has been further honoured by the hand of Queen Jocasta.

Now another deadly pestilence is raging and the people have come to ask Oedipus to rescue them as before. The King has anticipated their need, however. Creon, Jocasta's brother, returns at the very moment from Apollo's oracle with the announcement that all will be well if Laius' murderer be found and cast from the city.

In an effort to discover the murderer, Oedipus sends for the blind seer, Tiresias. Under protest the prophet names Oedipus himself as the criminal. Oedipus, outraged at the accusation, denounces it as a plot of Creon to gain the throne. Jocasta appears just in time to avoid a battle between the two men. Seers, she assures Oedipus, are not infallible. In proof, she cites the old prophecy that her son should kill his father and have children by his mother. She prevented its fulfillment, she confesses, by abandoning their infant son in the mountains. As for Laius, he had been killed by robbers years later at the junction of three roads on the route to Delphi.

This information makes Oedipus uneasy. He recalls having killed a man answering Laius' description at this very spot when he was fleeing from his home in Corinth to avoid fulfillment of a similar prophecy. An aged messenger arrives from Corinth, at this point, to announce the death of King Polybus, supposed father of Oedipus, and the election of Oedipus as king in his stead. On account of the old prophecy Oedipus refuses to return to Corinth until his mother, too, is dead. To calm his fears the messenger assures him that he is not the blood son of Polybus and Merope, but a foundling from the house of Laius deserted in the mountains. This statement is confirmed by the old shepherd whom Jocasta had charged with the task of exposing her babe. Thus the ancient prophecy has been fulfilled in each dreadful detail. Jocasta in her horror hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his eyes. Then he imposes on himself the penalty of exile which he had promised for the murderer of Laius.

Translated by Robert Fagles from "Oedipus the King" (also known as "Oedipus Rex" and "Oedipus Tyrannos"), a Greek tragedy written by Sophocles in 428 BC. The play was the second of Sophocles' three Theban plays to be produced, but comes first in the internal chronology of the plays, followed by "Oedipus at Colonus" and then "Antigone".

With Tim Pigott-Smith [Oedipus], Sian Phillips [Jocasta], Patrick Stewart [Creon], Robert Eddison [Tiresias], David Collings [The Messenger], David March [The Priest], Arthur Hewlett [The Old Shepherd], Alan Dudley [The Shepherd from Corinth], Peter Acre, Stephen Boxer, James Bryce, Scott Cherry, Alan Dudley, David March, Peter Rumney and Colin Starkey [Members of the Chorus], and David Timson [The Chorus Leader].

110 min.

2) 'Oedipus at Colonus' (Sunday 10th February 1985)

Blind old Oedipus, a former king of Thebes, wanders for many years guided by his daughter, Antigone. Although once successful as a ruler, he was exiled after the gods sent sickness to the city because Oedipus had killed his father Laius, the prior king, and he commited incest with his mother, Iocasta, after he becoming king of Thebes. Now he and Antigone end their journey near the Greek city-state of Athens at a place called Colonus. There, Oedipus offends the Eumenides -- goddesses of the underworld -- and he must make offerings later to avoid punishment. His youngest daughter, Ismene, joins them at Colonus, bearing news from Thebes that her brothers are fighting over the kingship and that the younger Eteocles exiled his older brother Polyneices from the city.

Oedipus is stunned to hear this, but she also reveals the oracle's prediction that the each of the sons will soon seek Oedipus' support to win the battle for the throne. Disgusted, he refuses to help either of them because Theban citizens had treated him so poorly before. He asks for the help of Theseus, King of Athens, to protect him and his daughters, and the wise king agrees.

Later, Creon, Iocasta's brother, finds Oedipus at Colonus and kidnaps his daughters to force Oedipus to return to Thebes, so that the younger Eteocles can win the war. Thankfully, Theseus comes to the rescue by retrieving the two girls and sending Creon back to Thebes empty-handed. Next, the exiled older son Polyneices comes seeking Oedipus' support, yet the old man is angered at his son's request and condemns both of his sons to death because they are so selfish.

After praising the Athenians for their kindness, thunder in the sky summons Oedipus into the wilderness to die. Accompanied by his children and King Theseus, he walks off toward death, declaring that Athens will forever be protected by the gods as long as Theseus does not reveal the location of his grave to anyone. Oedipus thus dies after a long life filled with suffering that is cured only by forgiveness and acknowledging the supremity of the gods. Because of his return to faith, he is absolved from the crimes he committed so many years before. After their father's death, Antigone and Ismene return to Thebes, hoping to prevent the deaths of their two brothers that Oedipus had predicted.

Overall, the story of Oedipus at Colonus is about opposites: how a good ruler should behave compared to a poor ruler, how a good city should be compared to a bad city, and how the gods should be worshipped compared to how they should not. After leaving these negatives behind while seeing the fine example of Athens as a model city, Oedipus finally discovers inner peace. However, the suffering of his children shall only continue as the daughters try to stop their brothers' unsuccessful battle for the Theban throne.

Translated by Robert Fagles from "Oedipus at Colonus" (also known as "Oedipus Coloneus"), one of the three Theban plays of the Athenian tragedian Sophocles. It was written before Sophocles' death in 406 BC and produced by his grandson (also called Sophocles) at the Festival of Dionysus in 401 BC.

With Tim Pigott-Smith [Oedipus], Lucy Gutteridge [Antigone], Nicky Henson [Theseus], Patrick Stewart [Creon], Scott Cherry [Polynices], David Collings [The Messenger], Moir Leslie [Ismene], David Timson [The Citizen of Colonus], Stephen Boxer, James Bryce, Scott Cherry, Alan Dudley, Peter Rumney, David Sinclair and David Timson [Members of the Chorus], and David March [The Chorus Leader].

130 min.

3) 'Antigone' (Sunday 17th February 1985)

After King Oedipus was exiled from the city of Thebes when he learned that he had committed incest and patricide, his younger son Eteocles claimed that the kingship belonged to him, exiling his older brother Polyneices. Polyneices then attacked Thebes with a massive army, but neither son won because they killed each other in battle. The new Theban king, Creon, declares that Eteocles will be buried and honoured as a hero while Polyneices' body will rot away and be eaten by dogs in disgrace; the penalty for trying to bury the body is death. Hearing this news, an angry Antigone insists that her brother's body must be buried so that his spirit can rest in peace, in spite of the cautious advice of her younger sister, Ismene.

Antigone goes to the battlefield in front of Thebes, pouring sand over Polyneices' body and performing burial rites. She allows herself to be captured after coming out of hiding when some guards try to brush off the dust, and a defiant Antigone is brought to Creon. Stunned that a woman would dare to disobey his orders, he imprisons both Antigone and Ismene as an accomplice, declaring that they shall be executed. Soon after, Creon's son Haemon pleads for Antigone's release because he is engaged to marry her, although his arrogant father mocks him, ignoring his worries.

An angry Haemon runs away, hurt that his father has treated him like this.

Then Creon changes his mind abruptly, deciding to execute only Antigone since Ismene's innocence is clear, and the older sister is thus sent outside of Thebes to starve to death in a cave. While Antigone is suffering this unfortunate fate, the blind prophet Teiresias warns Creon that the gods are very angry that he has refused burial for Polyneices, since the very same dogs and birds that eat his flesh are later used for sacrifices. As a result, Creon's son will die in punishment, he declares. Mocking Teiresias, Creon does not listen to this advice, saying that Teiresias just wants to scare him. However, he finally agrees to bury the slain man after the Chorus of Theban citizens reminds him that Teiresias has never been wrong about anything.

Now worried about his son, Creon washes Polyneices' body, performs burial rites, and cremates the body's remains. Then he goes to free Antigone from the cave where she is imprisoned, but it is too late to avoid tragedy: she has hung herself by a rope, and Haemon stands weeping beneath her. After trying to attack Creon, Haemon stabs himself and dies holding Antigone's body in his arms. A broken man, Creon returns to the palace only to learn that his wife Eurydice has also commited suicide after learning about her son's death. Creon is led away by his citizens, lamenting, wishing for the release from suffering that only death can give him. The story of Antigone focuses on the role of the ruler in a city, providing a model for all of the bad qualities that a king should not have, lest he be punished terribly as Creon was in the end. Moreover, the gods must always be respected by everyone.

Translated by Robert Fagles from "Antigone", a tragedy written just before or in 441 BC by Sophocles. It is chronologically the third of the three Theban plays but was written first.

With Lucy Gutteridge [Antigone], Patrick Stewart [Creon], Anton Lesser [Haemon]. Robbert Eddison [Tiresias], Moir Leslie [Ismene], David Collings [The Messenger], Stephen Boxer [The Sentry], Ellen McIntosh [Eurydice], Peter Acre, Stephen Boxer, James Bryce, Scott Cherry, Geoffrey Collins, David Marsh, Peter Rumney and David Timson [Members of the Chorus], and Alan Dudley [The Chorus Leader],

100 min.


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