The Oedipal and the Everyday in Irish Theater

Author: Ariel Watson (Saint Mary’s University)

Oedipus always ruins the barbecue. Or that’s what he claims in the final scenes of Pan Pan Theatre’s 2006 version of Freud and Sophocles’s omphalic drama, blindly poking some disruptively “moist” sausages as his family gathers around him at the grill.[1] In this reinvention by Simon Doyle and Gavin Quinn, which goes by the winkingly flippant title Oedipus Loves You, Oedipus is the spirit of organic development (rawness as well as decay) in the most preservative-laden elements of bourgeois family life: the suburban backyard, the family dinner, the intense discussion of upwardly mobile futures. Oedipus over-seasons the marinade, forgets to put the meat in the fridge, and renders the burgers grey and mushy—all beyond the bounds of edibility.

Jocasta’s been troubled by premonitions since several acts earlier: “It’s about your father,” she confides to Antigone. “You don’t seem to understand. I don’t think he can be trusted with meat. […] The man of the house must be the one to do the barbecue. But your father cannot be trusted to cook the meat properly. This is a dreadful omen.”[2] These charred and unattended meats are what has become of the burnt offerings of the Sophoclean tragedy: the opening moments of Oedipus the King, performed at a real onstage altar, that fill the amphitheater with smoke and blur the boundaries, always hazy, between the religious rituals that framed and structured the Athenian city Dionysia and the fictional obeisances of a Theban polis desperate for divine relief from the plague. Attempts to assuage the gods of Thebes and Athens were an act of chemical and psychoanalytic sublimation: the transformation of the everyday meat that sustains a world of human solidity into the smoke, unknowable and uncontainable, of divine delectation. By the time we get to Oedipus Loves You, however, something’s amiss with the structures of ritual: in the Oedipal backyard barbecue, burnt meat isn’t transformative, and inedibility isn’t proof of sacrifice, but of waste. “Because all that matters,” Pan Pan’s Jocasta notes fiercely, a Greek tragic mother to her core, “is meat, barely cooked, taken in the hands and ripped from the bone. Now that’s what a barbecue is all about.”[3] Oedipus is a blight on nourishment, the spirit of that which is un- and over-processed. He is the plague.

And so as it was with the Sophoclean original, so it is with this postmodern Oedipus of Doyle and Quinn. As Thomas Conway puts it in his discussion of the play’s most Freudian of families: “Their desires are catered for, it is twenty-first century after all, but are not sated. They still demand placation.”[4] The ancient tale’s appetites have not faded in urgency.


Hauntings: Irish Oedipoi

The Oedipal is a haunting, both theatrical and psychoanalytic—an absent presence at the periphery of the vision, in the margins of everyday life. It is the myth that cannot be shaken. There’s a well-worn tale that Ernest Jones tells about Freud’s fiftieth birthday celebrations, when his friends and followers presented the father of psychoanalysis with a medal displaying his own portrait on the obverse, and on the reverse an image of Oedipus in consultation with the Sphinx. The inscription, in the Greek of Sophocles, read, “Who divined the famous riddle and was a man most mighty.”[5] The tragic, hubristic, and solipsistic implications of this triumphal moment, when Oedipus answers the riddle with a gesture of self-implication, seem not to have occurred to any of the gathered analysts. “When Freud read the inscription,” Jones recalls, with something of the tone of a campfire tale, “he became pale and agitated and in a strangled voice demanded to know who had thought of it. He behaved as if he had seen a revenant, and so he had.”[6] When one of the company confessed responsibility, Freud admitted to a memory from his youth of walking through the University of Vienna, examining the statues of academic luminaries: “He then had the phantasy, not merely of seeing his own bust there in the future […] but of it actually being inscribed with the identical words he now saw on the medallion.” Oedipus is the principle of return, of the draw towards the prophecy, towards the past that is the future, towards the principle of oracular language that haunts and riddles. The ubiquity of this myth, in restagings and rewritings, translations and theorizations, is the fort-da of ghosting, the performed dance of loss and return.

No less than for Freud, Oedipus has been a constant presence and continual locus of return for contemporary Irish theater, for reasons more and less obvious: the political critique of power and representation, the charged psychosexual portrait of family life, but also the play’s part in a rhetoric that commingles personal blame with subjection to outside forces.[7] The concern of this essay is this potent lure of the Oedipal in Irish performance, and its particular submersion of the mythic in the quotidian, the mundane, and the everyday of the contemporary moment: this is a theater (and, by synecdoche, a national theatrum mundi) that is haunted by the mythoi of literary authority, psychoanalysis, and political history. It is haunted by the specter of haunting itself, crowded with ghostliness, filled with absent fathers and children and wives—the gaps of history and legend around which the present builds the personal and political—that can only be resurrected through tales and performances, and never exorcised without narrative resurrection.

A tour of a few points in the recent history of Irish Oedipoi reveals much about the almost unheimlich draw the play holds as a haunting crossroads of civic politics, sexual repression, and moral accounting. Classic Stage Ireland staged Sophocles’s tyrannized hero in 2010, and Company D the Senecan version in the same year. “In recent times,” Jesse Weaver wrote of the sociopolitical draw of the latter production, “it may be difficult to imagine, certainly in an Irish context, a leader who so readily takes on the responsibilities owed to his or her citizens, which is why Seneca’s apprehensive Oedipus has potentially more resonance for us than Sophocles’s assured, though tragic, king.”[8] Critics, as Weaver’s review demonstrates, tend to speak of the ubiquitous return to these plays through the collective lens of audience interest, as political and historical acts that are distinctive to the Irish context. Authors and adapters, however, speak of the pull the projects have upon them in more psychological, individualist, and often explicitly Freudian terms.[9]

Consider, for instance, Sam Shepard’s recent play, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), which was Field Day’s contribution to Derry’s City of Culture festivities in 2013. “I don’t believe in adaptation,” Shepard said of his “variations”; “I want to do something with the emotions the play is calling up.”[10] In Shepard’s distinction, variation—a sort of compulsion to cathartic repetition of the discomforts of the classical canon that takes the form of peals of literary changes—crowds out the folly of adaptation, the idea that the past forms an easy, replicable fodder for our current concerns. Meanwhile, Frank McGuinness, on the occasion of the National Theatre’s London staging of his adaptation of the Sophocles play in 2008, spoke of the impossibility of putting aside the Freudian mythos when grappling with Oedipus, and of the way the project forced an acknowledgement of his relationship with his own incompletely mourned father: “You do have to confront,” he said, “the reality of the fact that you have a father, and your father will die. Oedipus killed his father. I’m not saying you’ll go out and do it, but the very fact that you survive, the very fact of your existence, is a testament to your father’s death.”[11]

Here, the personal loss is tied up in a bit of literary Oedipalism: McGuinness had first encountered the play as a youth in a revival of W. B. Yeats’s famous 1926 translation at the Abbey. Yeats, in a broadcast on the BBC, framed this version, which he first contemplated as the National Theatre Society was preparing to move into its new Abbey Street home in 1904, as a matter of nationalist defiance, a prodding-at-the-crossroads of the censorious English Laius: “Oedipus the King was at that time forbidden by the English censor, and I thought that if we could play it at the Abbey Theatre, which was to open on our return, we might make our audience proud of its liberty, and take a noble view of the stage and its mission.”[12] Yeats elides the psychosexual aspect of the narrative—the very incestuous features that were making the Lord Chamberlain in London uncomfortable—in order to situate the play as political, and more specifically about the politics of the theater, and its centrality to the body politics of Irish liberty. He was, according to Bradley W. Buchanan, “the first writer to connect Oedipus and Irish political life.” “Yeats,” Buchanan writes,

frames his motives in explicitly humanistic terms, arguing that Catholic tolerance is more closely “moulded to the body of man” than English prudery. […] Oedipus symbolized the repressed, supposedly immoral side of human nature that England could not tolerate; therefore, it could be an organizing principle of a bid for Irish independence. Yeats wanted to put the Oedipal myth at the centre of a newly independent Irish national and cultural identity.[13]

The play was a prod he used for many years: he responded to directives from Dublin Castle that the theater avoid G. B. Shaw’s political plays with threats to stage Oedipus instead of or alongside the Shaw and force a censorship crisis around classic as well as contemporary texts.[14]

Yeats cooled towards Sophocles’s tragedy when the ban on it was lifted for a London production directed by Max Reinhardt in 1912, saying, “when the pleasure of mocking [the ban] and affirming the freedom of our Irish uncensored stage was taken from me, I lost interest in the play.”[15] Indeed his formulation of the potential production as a nationalist act taken in opposition to the oppressions of the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle and the Lord Chamberlain’s office in London obscures his constant anxiety—in keeping with the ways he narrativized the response to The Playboy of the Western World—about whether Catholic spectators would endure the play’s salacious sexual content. When he finally returned to it at his wife’s urging more than a decade later, he wrote to Olivia Shakespear about the first night’s production: “The actor who plays Oedipus felt the strain at dress rehearsal so much that he could hardly act in the last great moments—a good audience will give him life, but how will the Catholics take it?”[16]

Many years later, after the end of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship of theater and with Oedipus in frequent circulation on stages in both Ireland and England, McGuinness found himself at the crux of an Oedipal crisis not just familial but also literary. In formulating his version for another National Theatre, McGuinness didn’t work from Yeats’s version, this text that had been such an early and formative theatrical experience for him, instead commissioning, as Yeats had,[17] a literal translation of the ancient text. Why? “I want no rivals,” McGuinness told The Guardian.[18]


Plagues and Patricides: Pan Pan’s Oedipus Loves You

If fundamental theatre is like the plague, this is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is a revelation, urging forwards the exteriorization of a latent undercurrent of cruelty through which all the perversity of which the mind is capable, whether in a person or a nation, becomes localized.

-Antonin Artaud[19]     

One of the reasons why Yeats delayed his production of Oedipus the King in the early years of the Abbey was the imperative he felt to establish the national theater’s international reputation through the touring of distinctively Irish plays. Ancient tragedy fit that mandate only through the lens of metaphor, and the censor’s ban meant that a production of Oedipus couldn’t tour at all in England during the first decade of the twentieth century. A century later, Pan Pan’s version of the play, which premiered in 2006 in Dublin, immediately embarked on four years of touring in Canada, the European continent, China, Australia, and the United States. When it returned to pick up its Irish tour, the Galway Advertiser noted, in an odd mixture of boast and complaint, that “arguably the most widely toured show in Irish history” was “finally coming home.”[20] It was situated by the press as extraordinary, representative, epochal.

As with Shepard’s, Yeats’s, and McGuinness’s versions of the play, Pan Pan’s production of Oedipus provides a stage for negotiating identity against (and thus around) a defining forefather (textual, political, authoritative). The shock of form obscures, at first, how faithful the events of Pan Pan’s production are to their Sophoclean source. Here, for instance, we find a naked Sphinx singing a song called “Crackerass”; some spectators reportedly left after this first scene, the Sphinx having performed its monstrous, riddling guardian duty. We encounter Jocasta exhausted and exasperated by an Oedipus who has forced her into marriage and Antigone and Creon enmeshed in violent rehearsals of desire. Tiresius is a glam-rocker-turned-psychoanalyst. In fact, it seems like everyone’s in a rock band.

A plague’s at work, so Oedipus sends off to the Oracle: “That’s not the answer,” Antigone says, insufferably, “Going to the oracle. The solution is only to be found in a just morality.”[21] “You’re so full of crap, Antigone,” her loving father replies, “You’re young. You think that you can control the world. Wait till you get to be my age. Then you’ll find out that the world controls you. That’s why I sent Creon to the oracle. To find out what’s controlling us.” Of course, knowledge is a variety of control as well, and Jocasta—in an echo of her Sophoclean ode to chance as the ruler of human lives—is quick to skewer her husband’s hypocrisy and buoy her own mechanisms of denial: “Nothing is controlling us. Nothing is wrong. Except for your fuck-ups. And you can take responsibility for those without infecting us all with the blame. You’re a fool.”

A few words on the nature of this particular plague: as in Sophocles, it functions as a sort of litmus test for the different characters’ moral cosmologies. Antigone views it as a moral condemnation of the structures of civil society. Oedipus transforms the original tragedy’s exploration of hubris and the human subjection to divine fate into a modern leader’s obsession with control and autonomy. Jocasta’s reaction is perhaps the most interesting: she not only asserts her Sophoclean ideology of a life based on chance, rather than fatedness, but adds an interesting logic related to personal responsibility and blame. Responsibility is control, she argues, and the plague is nothing more or less than Oedipus’s avoidance (repression even) of his own responsibility. Paradoxically, however, this avoidance of responsibility is linked to Oedipus’s keen investment in the investigation and apportioning of blame, just as in the original tragedy, where Oedipus has often been identified as both the first literary detective and the Ur-psychoanalyst. Without the investigation, in Pan Pan’s version, there would be no plague: the pathology does not precede the inquiry. If responsibility is the cure to the plague, in Jocasta’s eyes, its morally punishing cousin blame is the contagion itself, spreading anxiety from character to character.

Asked later to describe the features of this plague, the characters of Oedipus Loves Me come up with a litany of symptoms associated with the condition of modernity. Jocasta shrugs, asserting that the plague, if it in fact exists, is just a sort of light existential exhaustion: “I suppose that, yes, it’s there. But it’s nothing major. It’s just like you’re feeling a little tired all the time. A little resigned. Like an interesting prescription medicine. I don’t have a problem with the plague. I think he’s the one with the problem.”[22] Oedipus, asked the same question, responds, “I don’t really have a clue. It doesn’t really affect me. But it saddens me to think of you suffering under it. I’m the head of the household. I can’t be running a plague-ridden household now, can I? So we need to sort it out.”[23] The plague for him is a matter of leadership, authority, and reputation: the modern condition defined not by existential exhaustion, but by spin politics.

Earlier in the play, when Jocasta tells her son-husband that Tiresius the prophet-analyst has diagnosed a plague, they have a policy disagreement:

OEDIPUS: We need to find a cure.

JOCASTA: I don’t know that we do. I kind of like it. It suits me. It suits my lifestyle. It makes sense of my inertia. […] It’s kind of reassuring. Like being half asleep and knowing that you don’t have to wake up. I think it suits us here this plague.

OEDIPUS: Who do you mean by ‘us’?

JOCASTA: Everyone’s got it here. Everyone except Tiresias. And you. So maybe it’s you how have the plague? Maybe we’re the un-afflicted ones.[24]

Everyone in the play suffers contentedly from this sleeplike plague, except for the seekers after knowledge, Oedipus and Tiresias. “I feel normal,” Antigone insists to Tiresias at the beginning of her therapy, which introduces her, horrifyingly, to the idea that her relationship with her father is shot through with sexual subtext. It’s unclear whether Jocasta or Oedipus’s view is endorsed here: is this soporific state, this plague of unselfconsciousness, a sort of false consciousness? Or is self-analysis a pathologizing of the “normal,” highlighting the ambiguity at its root: does normalcy indicate the ubiquitous or the functional?

Jocasta goes on to highlight the patriarchal underpinnings of the diagnostics and treatments that characterize Oedipus and Tiresias’s inquiries:

JOCASTA: Anyway, I don’t see what business it is of yours how we live our lives. You barged in here like you owned the place. You thrust your dirty feet into my husband’s shoes. You took his place in my bed without a passing thought for the consequences.

OEDIPUS: It was my right.

JOCASTA: Who gave you the right?

OEDIPUS: I vanquished the Sphinx.

JOCASTA: You vanquished the Sphinx. Did she need vanquishing? She had some good songs, that Sphinx. Maybe we enjoyed her routine. What made you think we needed rescuing?

OEDIPUS: But she was a Sphinx. She had to be vanquished.

JOCASTA: Who told you that? Tiresias? He’s living in his own fantasy world. We stopped listening to him ages ago. He’s insane.

OEDIPUS: He’s a psychoanalyst.[25]

As in the ancient myth, Oedipus’s vanquishing of the Sphinx is a foreshadowing of his capacity to solve the riddle of the new plague: both are enigmas, wrapped up in the mysteries of the feminine, and answerable only through self-incrimination and solipsism (both the solution and the answer to all riddles is “I, Oedipus, mankind”). But in this version, not only is Oedipus identified with Tiresias as a “knower” and an analyst, and the Sphinx with the plague, but all four are associated through ties both symbolic and bodily. The actor who plays Tiresias first appears in the play, completely naked, as the Sphinx: two riddlers who point Oedipus to himself. Through the workings of casting, the association with the Sphinx’s opening torch-song lingers on to trouble us in the body of Tiresias, a phenomenon known as ghosting. Thus the algebra of the play unspools as a series of paradoxical equivalences: Tiresias and Oedipus seek to defeat the Sphinx, and are the only members of their community exempt from the plague, but this is only because they are the Sphinx, they are the plague.

The source of the plague is internal, not external (echoing Sophocles’s paradoxical game with that which is internal and external to the polis, in which Oedipus is both the stranger and the one who belongs), so there is nothing to do but turn to psychoanalysis. The drive towards truth, the riddlers’ drive towards solution that fuels the ancient tragedy, is expressed here as the therapeutic arc towards revelation. So when Creon returns from his visit to the Oracle, the detective narrative of identity from Sophocles condenses into a trip to family therapy. “The dead are spreading death,” intones Antigone semi-satirically, always a chthonic harbinger of good cheer, “and therapy is going to rescue us. Come with your face aflame with drink and your raving women’s cries and we’ll get to the bottom of this mess.”[26] The mess, of course, is bottomless.


Ghosts Mythic and Everyday: Shining City

My interest here is neither, strictly speaking, in the practice of psychoanalysis in contemporary Ireland nor in a psychoanalytic reading of Oedipus Loves You, but rather in the way in which psychoanalysis and the psychotherapeutic exchange are represented on the stage. This is an elaboration, of sorts, of my work in “Cries of Fire: Psychotherapy in Contemporary British and Irish Drama,” which touched on the most well-known of contemporary Irish psychotherapy plays, Conor McPherson’s Shining City, examining how it functioned as a metatheatrical study of psychotherapeutic narrative and the negotiation of authority.[27] Although these plays couldn’t be more different, they both demonstrate the implications of the theatricality of psychoanalysis for the stage and, here, its mythic history.

In “Cries of Fire,” I argued that McPherson’s Shining City, first staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2004,[28] was a play about anxiety of expectation in a social context of shift. A patient enters a therapist’s office and struggles with the unknowable scripts of this new structure of healing and exchange. The space is aggressively bland, as is the conversation. The title implies that place­­­­—the Shining City—is the constant subtext, but it emerges as such only through the erasure of globalization and its rituals, of which palliative psychotherapy appears to be one. The blandness of the stage, and of the life the patient (John) recounts, is colored briefly and terrifyingly only by a haunting—perhaps even a hallucination—from a specifically Irish past. He’s come to therapy because he’s seen his dead wife’s ghost, and he needs the authority of medicine to persuade him, simultaneously, that he is not “crazy,” and that she is not real. His therapist, a former priest named Ian, is faced with the necessity of curing a belief in otherworldliness, in transcendence. The confessional blurs into the secularism of the psychotherapeutic exchange.

Left unexamined in “Cries of Fire” were the full ghostly implications of Shining City’s final moment. Ian succeeds in the secular cure, and sends his patient off to a future at terms with grief and the unknowable, saying only, “John, we know nothing. We just know nothing really.” John replies, “We’re just barely fucking hanging in there, really, aren’t we? But I had to fucking go there to find that out.”[29] After a long, mundane wait at the threshold to make sure John has made it out into the streets of Dublin without incident, Ian closes his door and starts to tidy his desk. Behind the door, red coat a flash of color in the otherwise neutral set, stands a woman, bruised and “filthy” and “terrifying.”[30] Just as we in the audience glimpse her, in the very second when the therapist starts to turn, the lights go down. When I saw the production in its first week, before even the possibility of foreknowledge had seeped out of the production, half the theater screamed. The other half whispered, “What? I didn’t see.” It was one of the most effective coups de théâtre I’ve ever experienced, shot through with shock, doubt, anxiety, and distrust of my own senses—the very definition of the Unheimlich, as Freud defines it: “something which ought to have remained hidden but which recurs,” as with doubling and “apparent death and the re-animation of the dead.”[31]

The terrifying success of this moment—its efficacy in haunting its audience, in persisting in an afterlife of theatrical effect like an afterimage burned on the retina, a physiological response so strong it is carved into sense memory—depends entirely on the preceding dullness of the play itself. It uses realism—painstaking, numbing everydayness, filled with phatic utterances, stumblings, unfinished thoughts, everyday actions—to lull the audience into a sense of genre complacency. This, despite the fact that this is not the first ghostly drama that McPherson has written, which might have shaped audience expectations. His most famous play, The Weir, is constructed as an escalating series of ghost stories, but never onstage sightings, that present the ghostly as symbolically live but perpetually denied in contemporary Irish discourse.

A drama this mundane, so the spectator of Shining City is situated to believe, is wholly separate from the gothic extremity of ghost stories. This level of naturalism could not possible conspire with the supernatural. Thus, the experience of haunting is pathologized by the audience: it is fully a projection of the mind, and a despised one. The lulling realism of the play’s dullness seduces us into a position of rational superiority. In fact, however, this is a profoundly haunted world, a world that despises the power of grief, the projections of the mind, the presence of dead history, at its peril. The final apparition, visceral and fleeting in a flash of blood red, undermines the therapist’s diagnostic distance; think how it troubles her ontological status as a ghost not just that he sees her, but that we do. The sighting troubles his loss of faith in the otherworldly, and pierces the worldly, the Celtic Tiger blandness of this new, unlocalized shining city.[32]

But the ghostly glimpse is also a shard of ephemera, a piece of fleetingness that the dramaturgical linearity of theater seizes from you as soon as it has granted it. As such, it places the spectators with the therapist and his patient in a state of psychoanalytically rich uncertainty and even anxiety. Interestingly, this final haunting glimpse is an effect that, although crucial to the play, is totally lost in the experience of reading. When I’ve taught the play, my students have all reported that there was no element of shock in the ending, which takes place over several paragraphs of stage direction. This is the Unheimlich as Ernst Fischer describes it: “a sense of imminence at the very moment when something invisible is about to take shape or something solid to disappear,”[33] an imminence that he likens to Peggy Phelan’s famous definition of performance as “representation without reproduction,” whose “only life is in the present.” [34] “Performance,” argues Phelan, “cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. […] Performance’s being […] becomes itself through disappearance.” What both Shining City and Oedipus Loves You explore is the tension between the ghostly mythic as performance, imminently disappearing in the moment of becoming, and as a fundamentally theatrical act of repetition as resurrection.

This brings us back to the phenomenon Marvin Carlson calls “ghosting” as a fundamental function of the theater: the process by which memory haunts theatrical bodies, texts, and objects, and meaning is transported from one performance to another.[35] The actor’s body, for instance, playing Oedipus, contains traces for the audience not only of our biographical knowledge of the actor, and of our accumulated fictional knowledge of the character’s struggle against fate and control, but also of fleeting memories of other roles we have witnessed the actor play, other performers who have played the role, other tellings of this tale, intertextual layers evoked by the language the actor speaks. This ghostliness of the theater is closely tied, as Carlson acknowledges, to Joseph Roach’s theory of surrogation as a performative response to loss and absence, in which a substitute is put forward, its dimensions always imperfect, to fill “the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure.”[36] Most recently, Andrew Sofer has taken up this theme of the fundamental theatricality of “felt absences”— the holes that structure our sense of the whole—or what he calls “dark matter.” Often the absent, the invisible, the obscure, the ghostly, the off-stage, and the silent are what structure the meaning of the stage, and to trace their effects we must rely on traces and ambiguities in a process Sofer calls “spectral reading.”[37]

What emerges from both Shining City and Oedipus Loves You is the extent to which the unspoken, the ghostly, the spectral, and the surrogated are essential to the function of both theater and psychoanalysis. As the tale of Freud’s medal and the proliferation of Oedipus plays in contemporary Ireland make clear, they are also a function of mythos, the need to resurrect and surrogate the foundational, Oedipal Ur-texts of both Western theater and the psychoanalytic canon. The landscape of the shining city, of the nation’s theater and the theatrum mundi of the state itself, is crowded with ghosts, with mythic fathers.


Form and Fidelity

Where McPherson uses the grinding everydayness of realism to corral his audience into a position of diagnostic dismissal of the psychological experiences of the patient in his play, Oedipus Loves You defies realism completely, situating itself explicitly in the tradition of theater that Hans-Thies Lehmann has called “postdramatic.”[38] This move to the postdramatic marks a shift in concern with how to situate psychotherapeutic treatment within social history in Shining City (how is Ireland to grapple with the erasure of history, of locality?) to the way Pan Pan’s situates the metatheatrics of therapy within theater history (as a rejection of naturalism, of the literary, the dramatic).

The action of Oedipus Loves You is fragmentary and jagged, rather than smooth and lulling like Shining City’s realism. The tragic scene of anagnorisis—the revelation of the truth of Oedipus’s birth, followed by Jocasta’s suicide and her son-husband’s blinding—is delivered at a devastating whisper after the steady shrieks that characterized the family’s time in therapy. The play then cuts immediately to Creon and Antigone sitting on the lawn. “How are things?” Antigone asks. “I finally unblocked the toilet,” Creon replies, with viciously casual symbolism.[39]

The action of the play cycles rapidly between genres, tones, and registers of seriousness. Unlike its Sophoclean predecessor, it overturns Aristotle’s hierarchy of tragic elements to privilege melody and spectacle (those matters for costumers) over plot and character. It is a rock-opera of sorts, a jukebox tragedy structured by a dramaturgical skeleton of angry ballads and murmured torch songs by the band Gordon is a Mime.

The result of this spectacular shattering of dramatic integrity, interestingly, is an even greater emphasis on the theatricality of psychotherapy than the implicit metatheater of McPherson’s narrative negotiations between a spectatorial therapist and the anxious performance of the patient. In the scene titled “Therapy,” Jocasta and Creon, Oedipus and Antigone all bundle themselves off to a psychoanalyst, Tiresius, although the therapy they undertake bears little resemblance to the conventions of psychoanalysis. Instead, Tiresius attempts to lead the family towards a new era of perfect truthfulness, while simultaneously avoiding speaking his prophetic, polluting knowledge about Oedipus’s history. Consider how this works as a model for what the analyst does: prophecy, withhold. He undertakes this feat by instigating a series of role-playing scenarios, while bickering with an implied director who, in narratively omnipotent voiceover, urges the family to don masks, under the Wildean theatricalist principle that only masked truths speak. Tiresius objects to the masks as a variety of disguise, whereas he clearly sees roleplaying as a mode of revelation through displacement. By asking members of the family to take on his role as analyst, Tiresius hopes to speak his truths without speaking—a neat exit to the ethical dilemma of his difficult prophetic knowledge.

When asked to comment on the roleplay, the family mistakes it for theater, focusing on the aesthetic rather than the emotional content of the revelation. They routinely critique the technique of the acting, although Oedipus notes there is something about the performance that did appeal: “I liked the eyes especially.[40]

When Tiresias disagrees with the spectral Voiceover that dictates the terms of “Act 2: Therapy” and insists that they all wear masks and roleplay to bring about revelation (“Well if you really want to. I think you are missing the point, though. Isn’t that just further secrecy, murkiness?”[41]), he seems to be saying that here, on the grounds of truth, is the split between theater and psychoanalysis. But this elides the oft-noted theatricality of the psychoanalytic process, in which truth-telling comes about through masking and haunting and repetition—the roleplay of symbols, of transference, of dream-work, of jokes. Creon plays Tiresias, Jocasta Antigone, then Oedipus Antigone and Antigone Tiresias. Parents “play” children, and kings prophets. Everyone tries on the mantle of prophecy, of questing inquiry, of the analyst. Each generation is doomed to play the power struggles and self-cannibalizing, psychosexual curses of their usurped predecessors. “Rescue us,” Oedipus begs Tiresias the analyst, “from everything being infected by the dead.”[42]

Despite its postdramatic form, the play has a strange fidelity to its classical sources, a fidelity that is almost quotational as scene after scene echoes incidents in Sophocles’s much-admired, complete-in-itself Aristotelian plot structure. Even the musical elements, which feel like such a standard piece of postdramatic disruption, are in fact a hearkening back to the most overlooked aspect of ancient tragedies: their status as ritual musicals, shot through with song and dance. Tiresias, introducing himself to the family and longing to join their band, says that he’s made a study of ancient epic in an effort to resurrect its lost musical structures (a fitting hobby for a glam-rocker-cum-analyst).

The fidelity of Oedipus Loves You to the classical predecessor it ghosts, seemingly so paradoxical for a piece of avant-garde, postdramatic theater, is in fact the point of its efforts at surrogation, just as identification is the seed of individuation. What becomes clear as this rebellious fidelity unfurls is that it’s a play that is reveling in the living hauntedness of myths, and that the mythic inheritance that interests it is not simply the canon of ancient tragedy, but also the lens of Freudian mythos through which we can’t now help but see it. In Act IV, the scenes of revelation and anagnorisis, all the characters wear headphones, which prompt them with their lines and actions. The mythic canon (theatrical, psychiatric) is the oracle, the fate, to be ventriloquized, transmitted, puppeted.

Pan Pan’s Oedipus shares with Shining City a concern with the everydayness of psychoanalysis and its language, the way that it has pervaded discourse and social relation. The plague in Oedipus Love You is the back-formation of talk therapy, called into being in the moment of language, as that which can be named: “If you mention the plague again,” Creon moans in therapy, “I’m going to be sick.” Oedipus is quick with a reply: “I think that’s the point right there.”[43] The play reveals talk as the double inheritance of psychoanalysis and the ancient agon: language as ambivalent, exhausting, and exhausted revelation. Language is a haunting by a simulacral ghost. The mythic canon, theatrical and psychiatric, is the oracle here, the fatedness we struggle against and with, the prophecy to be transmitted, ventriloquized, puppeted, played out in different terms, generation after generation. As the blinded Oedipus croons in the play’s final song (having become the bloodied monster at the outskirts, the new Sphinx): “Everything is different now | But I still can’t give you up.”[44]


[1] Simon Doyle and Gavin Quinn, Oedipus Loves You, in The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Irish Plays, ed. Thomas Conway (London: Oberon, 2012), 286.

[2] Ibid., 264.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Conway, “Introduction,” in The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Irish Plays, ed. Thomas Conway (London: Oberon, 2012), 8.

[5] Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, vol. 2 (New York: Basic Books, 1955), 13.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] The experience of teaching the play proves that it is hard to avoid the ubiquity of a post-classical, Christianized interpretation of Sophocles’s play as about inborn sin—hamartia as “fatal flaw” rather than “missing the mark”—and to wrest it from a dominant discourse of relating to fiction as heavily invested in blame.

[8] Jesse Weaver, “Oedipus,” Irish Theatre Magazine, November 9, 2010,

[9] The exception to this tendency, as we will see, is William Butler Yeats, who thought of his Oedipus project from the perspective of a theatrical canon-creator and political nation-builder from the first.

[10] Quoted in Clare Dwyer Hogg, “Sam Shepard: The Good Guy and Bad Guy Stuff Just Doesn’t Interest Me,” The Guardian, December 1, 2013,

[11] Quoted in Charlotte Higgins, “Frank McGuinness: I’m not entirely respectable. I couldn’t be,” The Guardian, October 18, 2008,

[12] Quoted in David R. Clark and James B. McGuire, W.B.Yeats: The Writing of Sophocles’ King Oedipus (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1989), 4. This statement first appeared in print in the Irish Weekly and Ulster Examiner on September 12, 1931, after Yeats had read it on a BBC broadcast in Belfast.

[13] Bradley W. Buchanan, Oedipus Against Freud: Myth and the End(s) of Humanism in Twentieth-Century British Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto University Press, 2010), 94-95.

[14] In Clark and McGuire, The Writing of Sophocles’ King Oedipus,” 14-15.

[15] Ibid., 4-5. This explanation emerges from the same BBC Belfast broadcast in which Yeats asserts his hopes that a production of Oedipus would lead to meta-reflection on the liberty of “the stage and its mission.”

[16] Ibid., 35.

[17] Ibid., 4. Yeats begged a series of poets to perform the act of translation and adaptation for him, after struggling to find the proper balance between the mythic power of the story and the everyday argot of “a political speech or an article in a newspaper” that he was aiming at. Among these were Gilbert Murray, who promptly replied, “I will not translate the Oedipus Rex for the Irish Theatre, because it is a play with nothing Irish about it: no religion, not one beautiful action, hardly a stroke of poetry. […] Sophocles no doubt did many bad things in his life. I would not try to shield him from just blame. But in this case I am sure he was in a trance and his body was possessed by devils. […] It has splendid qualities as an acting play, but all of the most English-French-German sort: it is all construction and no spirit”; ibid., 9.

[18] Higgins, “Frank McGuinness.”

[19] Antonin Artaud, Theatre and Its Double, trans. Victor Corti (Richmond: OneWorld Classics, 2010), 20.

[20] Charlie McBride, “Oedipus Loves You,” The Galway Advertiser, November 11, 2010. This is a bold claim, given the emphasis which the Abbey Theatre placed on international touring from the very beginning of the National Theatre Society.

[21] Doyle and Quinn, Oedipus Loves You, 263.

[22] Ibid., 270.

[23] Ibid., 271.

[24] Ibid., 255.

[25] Ibid., 255-256.

[26] Ibid., 266.

[27] Ariel Watson, “Cries of Fire: Psychotherapy in Contemporary British and Irish Drama,” Modern Drama 58, no. 2 (2008): 188-210.

[28] It’s interesting to note that Shining City, like Oedipus Loves You, was written as much with an international audience in mind as an Irish one. The erasures and performances of Irish identity in these plays are thus politicized by their engagement with theatrical globalization.

[29] Conor McPherson, Shining City (London: Nick Hern, 2004), 64.

[30] Ibid., 65.

[31] Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in Art and Literature: The Penguin Freud Library, vol. 14, ed. A. Dickson, trans. J. Strachey (London: Penguin, 1985), 364.

[32] This recalls to me Anthony Vidler’s observation that “from the 1870s on, the metropolitan uncanny was increasingly conflated with metropolitan illness, a pathological condition that potentially afflicted the inhabitants of all great cities. [….] The uncanny became identified with all the phobias associated with spatial fear in its various manifestations”; see Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 6.

[33] Ernst Fischer, “Writing Home: Post-modern melancholia and the uncanny space of living-room theatre,” in Psychoanalysis and Performance, ed. Patrick Campbell and Adrian Kear (London: Routledge, 2001), 119.

[34] Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993), 146.

[35] See Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001).

[36] Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 2

[37] Andrew Sofer, Dark Matter: Invisibility in Drama, Theater, and Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 4-5.

[38] Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. Karen Jürs-Munby (London: Routledge, 2006).

[39] Doyle and Quinn, Oedipus Loves You, 283.

[40] Ibid., 269.

[41] Ibid., 267.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., 272.

[44] Ibid., 289.