Article Title

The Metamorphoses of Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Sophocles traditionally is credited with having introduced the third actor in Greek tragedy and so with decisively shifting the focus of the drama from the chorus to the interplay of characters. Any thorough account of classical theater-for example, A. E. Haigh's The Attic Theatre (revised by A. W. Pickard-Cambridge in 1907) or Margarete Bieber's The History of Greek and Roman Theater-will allot some space to the three-actor rule.1 However, it rarely is taken into account as a major interpretive tool even when, as with Pickard-Cambridge and others, the author has shown a thorough awareness of the existence of the rule.2 Oliver Taplin, giving the subject barely a paragraph in Greek Tragedy in Action,3 believes there is no greater significance to the rule than a shortage of first-class actors during the Dionysian festival. -Leo Aylen, in a finely detailed account of the Greek theater, does see that the rule, which led to the practice of very creative doubling, had symbolic significance; nevertheless, he devotes only two pages to the topic and insists that four actors must have performed Oedipus at Colonus, for otherwise we would have the "ridiculous" situation of the role of Theseus being played by more than one actor.4 He thus misses one of the great subtleties of the three-actor rule in Sophocles' hands and especially in Oedipus at Colonus. David Seale, examining Sophocles' stagecraft, gives the rule no mention at all, whereas he shows a superb sensitivity to other aspects of the physical presentation of the plays.5 These examples are typical of the way that the three-actor rule is treated by scholars of Greek drama: they either ignore the rule, or note it in passing but do not consider it essential to the actual interpretation of the plays. Yet the plays were written not as literary texts but as performative texts, and the use by Sophocles and Euripides especially of such a striking effect as having an actor change mask, voice, and style of gesture, crossing classes, genders, and ages (e.g., the Antigone actor also plays Tiresias and the Messenger) must have been calculated as essential to their meanings.

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