An Antebellum Oedipus

“I was fascinated by the way the concept of fate in Greek myth was analogous to the African American experience. If there’s any group of people that knows what it’s like to try to find a certain amount of freedom within a cage, it’s African Americans”

—Rita Dove, US Poet Laureate


Rita Dove’s play The Darker Face of the Earth (1994) is an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, (also known as Oedipus Rex), set on an antebellum South Carolina plantation. Published in 1994 and first performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1996, the play explores the struggle of slavery though the Oepidus myth. After re-reading Oedipus Tyrannus, Dove felt compelled to apply the myth (with broad strokes) onto the the history of African Americans and the intergenerational trauma of slavery (Carlisle, 2000, p. 139).

Like many heroic tales, Oedipus Tyrannus is structured around a prophecy and tragedy. The prophecy foretells the fall of King Laius, who will be murdered by his own son. After Laius’ wife Jocasta gives birth to a son, Laius attempts to circumvent the prophecy by leaving the baby on a hill to die from the elements. Of course, fate has other plans and a shepherd finds the baby and raises him as his own. Through additional tragically foretold events, a grown-up Oedipus ends up unknowingly killing his father and sleeping with his mother.

With new names, setting and story, Dove’s play largely mirrors Sophocles’ plot. In the adaptation, August Newcastale (Oedipus), is the offspring of a secret affair between Amelia (Jocasta), the white daughter of a plantation owner and Hector (Laius), a black slave on the plantation. In addition to the similarly tumultuous triangle, the original theme of inescapable fate and its tragic consequences is deeply entrenched in Dove’s work.

While there is no established premonition as the one in Oedipus Tyrannus, the infant Augustus is bought by a white family and secretly educated. Unfortunately, his education and cleverness do not prevent him from escaping the claws of fate (Goff and Simpson, 2007, p. 6). After his childhood, in a twist of fate that modern audiences can expect, Augustus is again sold as a slave, bought by Amalia and they become lovers, neither aware of their kinship.

Illustration from the 1994 edition of The Darker Face of the Earth, showing the baby Augustus being carried away from the plantation (Dove, 1994, p. 8).

The notion of fate, curses and power tie the two stories together. Much like how the ancient Greek Moirai (the Fates) controlled the destiny of characters in ancient Greek mythology, slavery controlled the fate of African Americans. The play is “invested quite heavily in the notion of fate, which is equated with the system of slavery as having an irrational but absolute power over the individual." (Goff and Simpson, 2007, p. 6). Slavery is the curse that has a profound effect on the African-American characters and their autonomy.

However, Augustus rejects the religious and superstitious nature of the play’s voodoo woman Scylla, (a vaguely similar figure to Sophocles’ character, Tiresieas). In a somewhat patronizing speech on autonomy, Augustus rejects curses’ ability to affect or drive his life. See the excerpt to the right, where Augustus reasons with Phebe, a fellow slave on the plantation, arguing about the futility of believing Scylla and her superstitions (Dove, 1994, p. 58).

The scene evokes Oedipus’ lines near the end of Sophocles’ version where he realizes fate was indeed saving him for something “special”.

“Now I know that no ordinary end waits;

For me. There was a reason I was spared

From death, some other daunting destiny.

Let fate guide where I go, and what will be will be”

(Sophocles, trans. Meineck and Woodruff, 2000, l. 1455-8).

Without spoiling the end of Dove’s transformative work, “The Darker Face looks back twice, to American slavery and to ancient Greece, in an account of how difficult it is to build a free future" (Goff and Simpson, 2007, p. 33).