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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
We’ve been accepting it for thousands of years: At the end of Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus goes into the palace, he discovers that Jocasta has hung herself, and then he blinds himself with a pin from her dress.
But what if that wasn’t what happened? After all, we don’t actually see the violence: It gets reported to us. So what if those horrible events were just a political fiction, created to make Oedipus and his mother-wife more sympathetic? What if they were the last bits of spin from a king still desperate to control his image?
Those questions run through Blind, Craig Wright’s loose adaptation of the Sophocles play, now at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Set in Oedipus and Jocasta’s bedroom, it stages a fraught confrontation in which they reveal how much they’ve always known about each other (and what they couldn’t let themselves know.) Wright also invents a palace maid who learns the royal secrets, reveals a few of her own, and realizes, finally, how her life has been affected by her masters.
Ultimately, Wright’s play explores how willful ignorance impacts the fate of a state---how leaders and the people both can be seduced by convenient lies that keep them from addressing what’s festering around them.
It’s no accident that Blind was written now. “It was a good metaphor to me about the time we’re living in,” Wright says. “A lot of the economic and political chickens are coming home to roost, and people are saying, ‘Really? It’s that bad?’ And I look back and say, ‘Didn’t we know? Didn’t we know this bubble couldn’t last?’ And I thought, ‘Well, I know another story like that.’”
Given that statement, it’s surprising to remember that early in his career, Wright was not an overtly political writer. Plays like The Pavilion and Orange Flower Water deal with more personal issues like infidelity, love, and self-expression, not the destiny of nations. “There’s some interview where a journalist asked me if I would ever write politics into my plays, and I said, ‘Never, never, never,” he recalls.
Then came 2002, when he wrote Recent Tragic Events, a darkly comic response to 9/11. Since then, almost all of his plays have been intensely political.
The shift is partly due to Wright’s work on television. (He created the ABC dramedy Dirty Sexy Money and has written episodes of Six Feet Under, Lost, and Brothers & Sisters.) At this stage in his career, he feels that television is just better suited to intimate stories.
“The privacy of television makes it a great medium for psychology,” he says, noting that we often watch shows alone or with just a few other people.
At the theatre, however, we’re never in a private audience. “You have to go out in public to see it, and you have to see it with people you don’t know,” Wright notes. “But you’re bound to these people. You’re bound to them just by the fact that you’re all human beings, and you’re also part of a state. You’re part of a political community or an existential community, and the theatre can reflect that.”
In other words, Wright’s work reflects the space where we see it. When we’re sitting alone or with a few friends, he delivers intimate, psychological stories. When we’re sitting with fellow citizens of our “state,” he delivers plays about the fate of our nation. He may put Oedipus and Jocasta in their private bedroom, but he uses them to embody issues that affect us all.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor