By Covi Loveridge Brannan
Two weeks ago, I attended Theatre of War’s presentation of The Oedipus Project as part of The Nobel Prize Summit: Our Planet, Our Future, put on by The Nobel Foundation and The U.S. National Academy of Science. This first ever Nobel Prize Summit brought together Nobel prize winners, policy leaders, youth activists, and public audiences to strategize around how to best tackle the climate crisis in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The program featured networking sessions, scientific presentations, and a number of distinguished speakers including Sir David Attenborough, John Kerry – the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate – and Dr. Anthony Fauci. What most stuck out to me, however, was the program’s inclusion of several artistic presentations, of which The Oedipus Project was one.
My first encounter with one of Theatre of War’s productions was back in the fall of 2019. On one of my first dates with my current partner, we attended a public reading of The Investigation by Peter Weiss. The Investigation is a documentary theatre piece adapted from transcripts of The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65. This performance, coupled with a guided discussion around mass murder and communities affected by genocide, was riveting. I was overcome by emotion, and after quite a bit of ugly crying and digging my nails into my date’s hand, I admit, the two of us decided to leave early. I remember our subway ride back home was quiet; there was an awkwardness in acknowledging we had just shared perhaps our most intimate moment to date. It was an outing I certainly won’t forget, and do not recommend as a romantic night out, unless you are looking to fast-track the level of intimacy in your partnership ten-fold.
Since that night, I have been fascinated by Theatre of War’s methodology. In their own words: “Theater of War Productions works with leading film, theater, and television actors to present dramatic readings of seminal plays—from classical Greek tragedies to modern and contemporary works—followed by town hall-style discussions designed to confront social issues by drawing out raw and personal reactions to themes highlighted in the plays. The guided discussions underscore how the plays resonate with contemporary audiences and invite audience members to share their perspectives and experiences, and, helping to break down stigmas, foster empathy, compassion, and a deeper understanding of complex issues”. And I can tell you first hand, boy, do these events succeed in their mission. Early on in the pandemic, I was thrilled to see Theatre of War’s work move online and attended a presentation of Antigone in Ferguson, a project centered on racialized police violence. Imagine my excitement then when I learned about their upcoming spot in The Nobel Prize Summit focused on environmental justice. This was gonna be good.
At the time of the presentation of Oedipus The King, I was off volunteering at a nature reserve in the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from attending. So I grabbed some bug spray, camped out on the covered patio, crossed my fingers, and prayed the notoriously spotty Wifi would hold. I was not disappointed.
The performers included some of my favorites – Frances McDormand as Jocasta and Jeffrey Wright as blind prophet Tiresias – flanked by a Chorus of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Harold Varmus. It’s incredible what new insights I had while listening to this all-too-familiar play through a new lens. In the wake of the pandemic, the plague facing the people of Thebes suddenly took on a whole new weight, and, in my mind, the Sphinx’s riddle suddenly became a symbol of the oppressive curse of the capitalist system.
Perhaps the most impactful part of the evening was hearing responses from five community panelists which included “two young climate activists: A poet, a farmer, and an urban grower” reflecting on what about the play resonated with them “across time”. The words of David James “DJ” Savarese, activist, public scholar, and “practicing optimist”, were particularly potent : “A few things resonated for me. One is that even if we know the future, if we take that knowledge and act from a place of fear, nothing good will come of it. That means we need to remain hopeful. Hope is not easy. It's messy, imperfect, and nearly absent from the play. What would it mean to quit gorging ourselves on fear and to live life as a meditation on hope?”
Oedipus the King is a story of fear. We must not forget that at the start, Oedipus is a hero, the great savior of Thebes, yet when the curse of his birth comes back to haunt him, the protagonist falls immediately into paranoia, motivated by self-preservation. When Jocasta, his mother and wife, realizes the truth of their corrupt relations, she pleads with Oedipus: “Oh, if you care for your life, abandon This quest! The anguish I endure is enough”, implying she would rather them live in blissful ignorance than learn the hard truth–even if this knowledge has the power to end their city’s plague. Once again individualism prevails over altruism.
The story of Oedipus is a tragedy because we can’t help but feel for the title character. His humanity connects him to us, the audience. Yet, in the Greek world, nature was very much a part of divinity and by that token a part of the human experience–the pathetic fallacy of the plague was beget directly by Oedipus’ actions. The theme of blindness in the play is directly connected to humans ignoring the truths signalled by nature. Why does the “blind” prophet Tiresias see the truth regarding the origins of the plague before everyone else? Because he listens to the birds. In truth, he is not the one who is blind.
In the final dramatic moments of the play, Oedipus gouges his eyes out as a form of penance and asks to be exiled, thus ridding his people of “the pestilence”. While all hope seems to be lost when focusing on Oedipus’ fate, a closer reading of the play implies that altruism has, in fact, prevailed. Oedipus’ final actions save the city of Thebes from sickness and environmental destruction. With this thought, I am reminded of DJ Savarese’s final plea of the evening: “ I want us to understand ourselves as a vast ecosystem – enmeshed, entangled, and interdependent”. Viewed through this lens of interdependence is Odeipus The King truly a story of tragedy? Or rather one of prevailing environmental justice?
Covi Loveridge is an actress, playwright, creative producer based out of NYC and LA. As a practitioner, Covi is committed to producing and pursuing sustainable and
eco-socially conscious work. She believes human stories and ecological stories are intertwined and values work that embraces this shared legacy of life on Earth.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
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