Carol Michèle Kaplan's Jocasta Rising
based on Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos
Artscape Theatre, Cape Town, SA
Reviewed by Betine Van Zyl Smit,
University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, SA
The writer-director of Jocasta Rising, Carol Michèle Kaplan, has refashioned Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos by focusing more on Jocasta and her fate. In her quest to reclaim Jocasta from the silence imposed on her by Sophocles, Kaplan found that Jocasta 'was in fact a moon goddess long before she became the domesticated wife and mother in Sophocles' compelling whodunit.' Kaplan included in the programme notes a lengthy explanation of the mythology, her interpretation of the mythology, underlying her adaptation of the famous tragedy. Here it is already clear that she was heavily influenced by the writings of Robert Graves and by 20th century feminism. Thus her overarching concern was to reclaim the ancient pre-Sophoclean Jocasta whom she saw as very different from the 'cursed woman' of the tragedy. However, Kaplan's ambition for the play was wider. She meant to show that by suppressing the feminine, by allowing the male version of the myth to dominate, world history had been subjected to an endless succession of wars and exploitation, everywhere and at all times. In order to underline this, the action is set not only in ancient Thebes, but also in presentday Cape Town.
At the start of the play the audience sees an open stage. There is no curtain but a dark open space with edges of urban environment at the sides. At the back there is a screen where images can be projected. Suddenly the cry "Jocasta' is heard from the back of the audience and a woman makes her way to the stage. She proceeds to enlighten the audience about the background to the play. She uses the colloquial speech of the Cape but warns that she will be speaking 'grander' in the real play. 'Alles is bietjie opgemix':(Everything is a little mixed up, she says, using colloquial Cape Afrikaans.) This woman functions as a kind of chorus throughout the play, connecting the new material to the scenes from the Sophoclean drama. Sometimes she explains an action on the stage to the audience, sometimes to one of the characters.
The audience sees Jocasta as a little girl, later as a young bride/teenager and then as the mature queen. Antigone is introduced as Jocasta's daughter and it is indicated that she is the link through whom Jocasta is to be brought into contact with her earlier, deeper, real self again. Thus a kind of community of women is created at the outset. This prologue is used to familiarize the audience with the traditional plot of the Oedipus play as Sophocles represented it. A hanging dummy prefigures the death of Jocasta in that play and mention is made that Oedipus stabbed his own eyes with Jocasta's brooch on learning that his wife was also his mother. This somewhat lengthy introduction underestimated the audience's familiarity with the Oedipus myth. Not only was a synopsis printed in the programme, but Cape Town had seen as very successful performance of Sophocles' Oedipus the Tyrant, directed by Roy Sargeant at the Kirstenbosch open-air theatre a mere eight months before.
From the Cape Town prologue the action of Jocasta Rising is transferred to Thebes. It is explained that it is a city in Greece and simultaneously a slide of the Parthenon is projected onto the screen. Presumably one part of Greece can do for all. Again it is made clear that this could also be happening on the tip of Africa. Thus an effort is made to be all-encompassing as regards time and place. The plague in Thebes could also be in Gugulethu, a predominantly black Cape Town township, or Ramalla. Now the chorus comes on stage. Instead of the old men of Sophocles' tragedy, the citizens of Thebes that make up the chorus are of various ages, gender and class: a homeless man pushing a trolley, a black businessman, a young 'sick' man, a young runaway girl, and a smartly dressed young woman, a tourist/career woman. They represent a sample of people one could meet on any street in the city. As the young woman asks whether anyone has consulted the golden oracle, the first words of Oedipus in Sophocles' drama are broadcast, there is bright light and Oedipus appears on a raised platform. In contrast to the chorus' contemporary clothes, he looks kingly in a glittering cloak and crown. This distinction in costume assists in identifying the chorus as onlookers, like the audience, while the actors in ancient costume enact the central drama. Oedipus vows to track down the cause of the plague.
Antigone is confused. The chorus tell her (and the audience) about the curse. She wants to stop the story. This kind of interruption of the Sophoclean action has a twofold purpose: to provide more background for the audience, and to pave the way for the reinterpretation by questioning the validity of the canonical version.
The scene, between Creon who brings the message from the oracle, and Oedipus follows. As they argue, there is a flash of light and 'Destiny comes calling'. It is Teiresias arriving but the audience do not see him on stage. His presence is indicated by a dazzling light shining from the right. Oedipus addresses this invisible prophet. He starts off respectfully: 'Lord Teiresias I have sent for you', but his speech grows increasingly familiar and colloquial, e.g. 'Spill the beans magic man'. Oedipus gets angry when Teiresias doesn't speak and insults and taunts him, and calls him a snake oil salesman. The prophetic message is delivered to Oedipus through the agency of the chorus. The street child calls him 'pollution of the land' and members of the chorus read the rest of the message off their mobile phones like text messages: Oedipus' reaction is that Creon and Teiresias are in cahoots. The traditional motif of Oedipus' distrust of Creon and Teiresias is therefore preserved but delivered in a novel way. 'What a scam!' Oedipus says as he exits.
Antigone again comes on. She insists that the catastrophe can be stopped. Another motif from mythology is introduced. It is revealed that Laius as a young man had seduced a boy and that that was the reason for the curse. Since everyone knew that he was cursed, a wife had to be sought for him who would not object, and that is why Jocasta, who was a young girl of fifteen, was forced to marry him. Another piece of evidence is thus provided of the exploitation of women by men. This evidence of the deceit of Laius is followed by a rehearsal of the horrors of war. Images of war are projected onto the screen and 'Hot gates', a song about the omnipresence of the ravages of war, from Thermopylae to the present, is sung by the actor who plays the young Jocasta and the street child.
Then the play reverts to Sophocles' plot again. Creon appears, now clad in camouflage uniform. This underscores the association of males with war. His argument with Oedipus develops into a duel. Jocasta appears and manages to calm them. A tender love scene between Jocasta and Oedipus follows. She calls him 'Eedie!' The first half of the play ends with an attempt to link it to the most famous and revered South African, Nelson Mandela by the words, 'When hope comes out of prison after 27 years.' The hope in the play is for an outcome different from the traditional ending of the Oedipus story.
In the second act Jocasta comes on with incense. Antigone is back from Delphi. This is another sign that she is not acquiescing in the traditionally passive woman's role. She wants to find out the truth for herself. She and her mother worship Isis. The parallels between the Isis Osiris, mother son relationship and the Jocasta Oedipus one, are mentioned in the programme. In the play the religious ceremony creates a separate female religious sphere, different to that shown earlier when Oedipus bandied words with the prophet.
A messenger arrives from Corinth looking for Oedipus and the Sophoclean tragedy advances. The revelation of the truth, that she is not only Oedipus' wife, but also his mother, is accompanied by the actor playing the young Jocasta miming giving birth at the front of the stage. This illustrates her pride in being female, in being able to give life. The rather obvious conclusion is that while males deal death, females nurture life.
As Jocasta is preparing to hang herself she is confronted by a passionate Antigone. She tells Jocasta that she represents all women, that she can be the saviour of women if she refuses to accept the shame and guilt of the incest. Jocasta delivers a monologue that shows her acceptance of the horror of her incest, but also her desire to save her daughter. When Oedipus comes on stage, he calls her 'mother' and an evil woman. To compound the callousness of the male he adds: 'Go hang yourself, mother.' Creon also views her as shameless, but Jocasta gradually strengthens her resistance until she cries out: 'I will not die...I can do whatever I can imagine. I can do anything. I am queen Jocasta.' This is the turning point. Jocasta has grown strong enough to alter the role that Sophocles gave her.
As Oedipus prepares to pierce his eyes, Jocasta stops him. She insists that this is the story of a mother, a story of the womb not the phallus. The present pollution and exploitation of every kind are Apollo's curse. We have forgotten how to love. Jocasta reveals her feelings at the loss of her baby, she was only fifteen at the time. This is another aspect of woman's experience that Sophocles neglected. The play ends with mutual embraces of Jocasta and her two children, Antigone and Oedipus.
Thus Jocasta becomes reconciled to the incestuous nature of her marriage. As the play ends she is looking to the future that will give women their rightful place at the centre of power. This implies that there will be less death and destruction because, as has been shown, these are primarily caused by male powermongers.
Kaplan has made this into the story of a mother's relationship with her son and her daughter. Antigone is the catalyst of Jocasta's transformation which ultimately leads to the women taking over the narrative.
Although this play had some interesting ideas and some impressive scenes it cannot be rated as a convincing work. Part of the explanation may be that the playwright was also the director and lacked the necessary distance and discipline to cut and condense large parts of the play. The constant shifting in and out of time frames and geographical locations detracted from the unity of the play.
Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape
Betine van Zyl Smit