"Oedipus Rex" imagined in pre-Civil War South
Tom Hawkins, associate professor of classics, was looking for a modern interpretation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” to teach in his Greek mythology class when he stumbled upon “The Darker Face of the Earth” by Rita Dove.
In this celebrated piece, Dove — a Pulitzer Prize winner and former United States Poet Laureate — adapts the ancient Greek tragedy to the pre-Civil War American South.
The classic storyline, in which Oedipus ends up killing his father and marrying his mother, unfolds in the play through the character Augustus Newcastle, a mixed-race slave who unknowingly forms an intimate relationship with his white biological mother.
"Students learn a lot more by taking an ancient text and looking at a modern adaptation of it, just so you have some basic compare and contrast opportunities to see theme and variation in ideas," said Hawkins, adding that in Dove's version, “what you might think of as fate or destiny in the Greek original really becomes the gender and racial politics of the American South."
He has used “The Darker Face of the Earth” as a teaching tool for nearly a decade, and recently helped secure a campus visit from Dove on March 23 and 24 for a discussion and staged reading of the play.
“[Dove’s] piece has been sort of the flagship element of a whole transformation in my teaching and has even had some connections to my research,” said Hawkins, who now teaches the first course to be cross-listed between the Department of African and African American Studies and the Department of Classics (Classics 3956: Black Cultures and Classical Education).
With an empowered female lead, a brewing slave revolt, religious undertones and the social climate of antebellum South Carolina, “The Darker Face of the Earth” truly transforms the centuries-old tale of “Oedipus the King,” Hawkins said.
Dove, to my mind, makes the personal side of both the Oedipus figure and the female lead far more interesting than what Sophocles did.”
Dove will visit Ohio State’s Wexner Center for the Arts on Friday, March 23, to reflect on her experiences as a playwright and discuss the evolution of “The Darker Face of the Earth,” which underwent deep revisions before its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1996.
On Saturday, March 24, at the Drake Performance and Event Center, Assistant Theatre Professor Tom Dugdale will direct a staged reading of Dove’s play featuring a cast of students. A post-performance discussion with Dove and Hawkins will follow.
“I hope that the audience understands that the classical narrative that Dove takes and transforms is part of a living tradition, and that we all can be part of rethinking ancient storylines,” Hawkins said. “The story that we needed to tell 100 years ago about Oedipus is different from the story that we need to tell now.”
Acclaimed poet Rita Dove comes to @wexarts this weekend to explore “The Darker Face of the Earth.” #ASCDaily
These events were made possible thanks to sponsorship from the Ronald and Deborah Ratner Distinguished Teaching Award and a collaboration between the Department of African and African American Studies; the Department of Classics; the Department of Theatre; and the Wexner Center for the Arts.