The story of Oedipus was well known to Sophocles’ audience. Oedipus arrives at Thebes a stranger and finds the town under the curse of the Sphinx, who will not free the city unless her riddle is answered. Oedipus solves the riddle and, since the king has recently been murdered, becomes the king and marries the queen. In time, he comes to learn that he is actually a Theban, the king’s son, cast out of Thebes as a baby. He has killed his father and married his mother. Horrified, he blinds himself and leaves Thebes forever. The story was not invented by Sophocles. Quite the opposite: the play’s most powerful effects often depend on the fact that the audience already knows the story. Since the first performance of Oedipus Rex, the story has fascinated critics just as it fascinated Sophocles. Aristotle used this play and its plot as the supreme example of tragedy. Sigmund Freud famously based his theory of the “Oedipal Complex” on this story, claiming that every boy has a latent desire to kill his father and sleep with his mother. The story of Oedipus has given birth to innumerable fascinating variations, but we should not forget that this play is one of the variations, not the original story itself.
Antigone was probably the first of the three Theban plays that Sophocles wrote, although the events dramatized in it happen last. Antigone is one of the first heroines in literature, a woman who fights against a male power structure, exhibiting greater bravery than any of the men who scorn her. Antigone is not only a feminist play but a radical one as well, making rebellion against authority appear splendid and noble. If we think of Antigone as something merely ancient, we make the same error as the Nazi censors who allowed Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Antigone to be performed, mistaking one of the most powerful texts of the French Resistance for something harmlessly academic.