Robert Kelly’s “Oedipus After Colonus”

a new play by Robert Kelly

this week in Manhattan, next week in Woodstock–

Directed by Crichton Atkinson
and starring Carey Harrison as Oedipus

Wednesday through Sunday, SEPTEMBER 8-12th at 7PM
‘OEDIPUS AFTER COLONUS’ is being shown at HERE Arts Center in Manhattan.

All Tickets $15

HERE – September 8th – 12th @ 7pm
145 6TH Ave.
(Enter on Dominick,  1 Block South of Spring)
Tickets $15,, 212-352-3101
C/E to Spring, 1 to Houston, N/R to Prince.
Box office opens after 4pm on show days only.


Saturday and Sunday – September 18th & 19th @ 8pm
‘OEDIPUS AFTER COLONUS’ shows at the historic Byrdcliffe Theater in Woodstock NY.
Reservations at 303.913.7595
Inquiries 845-901-2893

We (Nicole Peyrafitte, myself and of a full house) saw the play at its premiere in Manhattan last night & found it superb, from the strangely Greek-sounding opening lines (which turn out to be homophonic versions of Sophocles) to the final chorus. The poet’s breath,  sharpness of intent  and the sheer power of the language easily avoid the need for any merely fancy playwrighty tricks for advancing dialogue, the scourge of so much theater. There is a “thereness” in the play that reminds me of the best of Kelly’s poetry, of the absolute sharpness of a man standing by a word (or a thousand words) he has made his on the breath and under the hand. But why Oedipus? Robert Kelly explains:

The most mysterious moment in Greeek literature, maybe in all that we have inherited from the Greeks, comes at the end of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, when after Oedipus has wandered off into the scared grove a messenger comes and reporst what he has seen. He has seen nothing. One minute Oedipus was there, then he was not. And Theseus, who had been with him, his his face in his hands because of what he ahd seen. Or not seen. We have only the messenger’s word for it, but Oedipus is gone from the wrold.

For years I have been haunted by that disappearance, never really daring to speculate what may have happened. The hush of mystery seemed more potent than any explaining word.

But one morning a couple years ago in Boston I sat alone at a table and heard this phrase in mind: Oedipus after Colonus. And I knew I had to write it, whatever it was, whatever it showed. A day or so alterw e drove through the drak evergreen forests of Maine, end of winter; all those dense woods seemed an endless replication of Athen’s sacred grove, and I began to hear the words of this play.

Only later did I notice that on the mantelpiece of the Boston room where I’d been sitting there stood a tiny Italian plaster bust of the dramatist: Sofocle. I took that finding as my permission.

When Oedipus (marvelously & powerfully played by Carey Harrison) returns (I was surprised to see him return, thought he and his fate now were all in the words of the messenger, the poet, the story-teller, but then the opening scene shows that the messenger is a bad liar who can’t even invent a story, can’t say what he hasn’t seen) — Oedipus sees again. We don’t know if he has come back from wherever Sophocles thought he had left him, i.e. supposedly on his way to Hades, the descent beckoning, so how do we know that it is Oedipus and not some impostor? We don’t, and in a way that is both the marvel and the uncanniness of the play. Nicole was certain he was an impostor, probably just out to get (to) the young woman and/or the young messenger man, some con-man or other, while I, way more naif, & once over my surprise at the return, took him at face-value, i.e. Oedipus is back! Kelly would probably say that we are both right.

But what fascinated me the most, beyond any of the playfulness of the play’s work with words and what they could do or not do or be or not be in a fort/da inherent to language from its beginning, is the powerful deconstruction the Kelly play proposes for that most hallowed and constraining theme of Western Kulchur, our oedipal fate. From the Greeks to Freud we have lived under the boot of that swollen foot, that supposedly shifty edge where culture and nature don’t meet that is used to define the essential taboo of our societies. Hearing this anti-Oedipus Oedipus say that what he did was impro, of the moment, not time- or generation-bound, but just clear thought and lust of & for what was happening right then and there, felt indeed like a liberating breath of fresh air — a very American breath, yes, where the there-ness of geography gets us out of the European swamp of the when-then-ness of history and its illusory logic of enchainments.  Though then again, maybe he was a con-man, some Melvillian gambler with an ace up his sleeve or snake-eyes where his blindness used to be, a snake-oil salesman laughing his way across another continent?

Everything was successful about the evening: the play, the production (well, the sound-track & the video montages could come in for some rethinking, but the text was so powerful that it minimized any limitations of the staging), the acting, the directing — all excellent. The one thing that puzzled was this: not one of the poets one sees regularly in New York at any of the hip poetry reading scenes was present — a shame when the occasion offered a major play by one of the our major poets. But maybe they’ll be coming tonight or tomorrow — I hope so.

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1 Response

  1. What a wonderful blog, Pierre. I’m so happy to have discovered it. (And thank you for your generous words.)

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