I recently started watching the TV series 24 on Netflix. The show centers around federal agent Jack Bauer and his team at the Counter-Terrorist Unit. Unorthodox and sometimes illegal in his methods, Jack’s high-adrenaline task is to find and eliminate evil doers, always managing to kill a few major characters in the process. Surprisingly, that’s pretty much the plot of the Greek tragic play Oedipus Rex.
As the play begins, there is trouble in the land: mothers are delivering stillborn children. Fields are failing. Terrorists are hiding a nuclear bomb somewhere in the city. But Jack—I mean Oedipus—is ready to take on the baddies. But in this season’s plot, Oedipus himself is the baddie. When he was born, there was a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. So his parents took him to the mountains to let him die. But through a series inexplicable turns of fate, Oedipus grows up, returns to his homeland, kills his father, and marries his mother, fathering two daughters with her.
The prophecy is all news to Oedipus, and each new revelation of the story comes with gasps from characters and the audience alike. It is the murderous, incestuous evil of Oedipus’ life that has cursed the land and its people. The solution is to mete out justice on the guilty parties, which Oedipus does with the finesse of Jack Bauer with a cell phone and a machine gun, leaving most of the major players dead and himself blinded.
As in 24, the events of Oedipus Rex occur more or less in real time throughout the one-act play. And while the excitement and anticipation of the story comes from its shock value, the underlying focus is on pride and the conceit of a life lived in opposition to the dictates of the gods. Behind the action, the play has an inquisitive philosophical core: Can you reject God’s will and expect to get away with it? King Oedipus could not. Jack Bauer? Tune in next time.
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