In 429 BCE Sophocles wrote a play called Oedipus the King. At the time, Aristotle considered it to be the greatest example of Ancient Greek tragedy, and the play’s ideas are still widely impactful today.
The plot tells the story of Oedipus, a man who is destined from his birth to murder his father, the king of Thebes (Laius), and marry his mother (Jocasta). At the beginning a religious oracle predicts that these horrific events will come to pass, which leads the characters to take extraordinary efforts to avoid their awful fate. King Laius orders the secret murder of his baby son. Years later, when it is revealed that the son is still alive and is now an adult, Oedipus attempts to discover the truth about himself and save the kingdom and his family from ruin. But despite these fierce attempts to alter their fate, by the end of the story the awful events have, indeed, occurred, resulting in the ultimate suicide of Jocasta and the blinding of Oedipus, who is stripped of his kingdom and banished.
For centuries people have argued over the meaning of this dark and compelling story. Some see personal, tragic flaws in Oedipus’ character (such as hubris), which lead him to brazenly attempt to thwart the will of the gods and blind him to a truthful understanding and acceptance of his destiny. Others see the story as an example of how helpless humans are in the face of malevolent forces outside of our own control, serving as mere cogs in an unfeeling and cruel cosmic machine. While still others (such as Sigmund Freud) see unacknowledged, latent desires (violence between son and father, sexual desire between mother and son) as the engine that drives the story to its despairing conclusion.
Perhaps one of the many factors that makes Oedipus the King a classic and timeless story is that it can be studied, read and understood in so many different ways, each yielding insight into the human experience.
I have always been struck by the fact that Sophocles wrote a play about the limits of free will while living in the first democratic society in the history of the world. Writing at a time when new ideas about freedom, equality and rational thought were bursting forth all around him, Sophocles fashioned a play in which the central characters are unable to fully exercise their own free will. Despite their attempts to change the future from darkness to light, the characters fail. While others have focused on the psychological ramifications of this, I have been fascinated by the political message. For many years I have wondered: what would Sophocles portray as limiting free will in our democracy today?
In his brilliant contemporary play, Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro puts forth a provocative and compelling answer to that question.
Luis retells Sophocles classic story with great faithfulness and accuracy, but he relocates the story from Ancient Greece to our own contemporary United States of America. More specifically, his play begins and ends in North Kern State Prison in Delano, California.
California not only has one of the largest prison populations in the country, it also has a notoriously high rate of recidivism. Seven out of ten prisoners in California return to jail or prison within three years of being released, which is the highest recidivism rate in the nation. Kern County, where this play is set, has a staggering recidivism rate of 70.3%.
Whereas the Ancient Greeks saw the malevolent force of invisible gods controlling the destiny of human lives, Luis replaces the Greek gods with a prison culture that effects the same result. Here in the United States the effect of incarceration on former prisoners has been a common topic of discussion for many years. After being released, most prisoners will find themselves right back where they started, in jail. In the United States, 53% of arrested males and 39% of arrested females are re-incarcerated. These rates of incarceration and re-incarceration in the U.S. have increased dramatically in the past three decades, resulting in prisons being filled to capacity with horrendous conditions for inmates. In many prisons, crime continues inside the prison walls and gangs exist and flourish. North Kern State Prison houses 4,171 inmates, which is 170% of its designed capacity.
Interestingly, though Oedipus el Rey focuses on Hispanic characters, Latino prison inmates in California actually have a significantly lower recidivism rate than either white or African-American inmates, and are 5.6% below the state’s average.
Our justice system has traditionally focused the majority of its efforts at the front end of the system, by locking people up, rather than at the tail end of the system, with a focus on decreasing the likelihood of prisoners returning to the very prisons from which they have been set free.
However, like Sophocles, Luis doesn’t provide the audience (or his characters) with any one simple answer. The events of the play are not solely caused by the penal system. Religion, economics, human desire, psychology, character, and family ties are all deeply entwined in Oedipus’ story, leaving our contemporary audience to ultimately grapple with the same questions faced by those in Ancient Greece about the limits of free will and how to best break free of the tragic ties that bind into a more hopeful, liberated future.