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Flippin’ the Oedipus Record: Will Power’s Seven and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

Casey Dué

I propose to show how Will Power’s Seven (first produced in 2006 at the New York Theatre Workshop) reinvents the Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus for a modern audience, using the lyrical language of hip-hop and taking its characters from the streets of Power’s youth. Seven engages the idea of the family curse of Greek myth (Cameron 1970) and uses it to explore the curse of poverty, domestic violence, addiction, and other seemingly inescapable patterns that are inherited in family systems and urban neighborhoods today.

            In the first half of my presentation (10 minutes), I will use production stills and passages from the script of Seven to highlight its particular features and aims, including it’s hip-hop style and reimagined characters. We will focus on passages in which the curse of the line of Laius is highlighted, as well as the character of Oedipus, who appears on stage throughout the play. (The actor playing Oedipus, Edwin Lee Gibson, won an Obie award for the role.) I will show a very brief segment from an interview with Power about the nature of Greek myth and how it connects to his work and his own personal background. Power asserts: “A myth is a story that holds in it the values and the culture and the rhythm and the vibrations of a people. So for me a lot of my work has been mythological.” For Power, Aeschylus himself was merely “flippin’ the record” of a myth that was already old in his own day, and Power asserts that he has done the same thing.

            In the second half I will discuss to what extent Power’s work successfully translates the ancient experience of viewing tragedy for a modern audience. I will focus in part on the register in which Seven has been composed, as best exemplified in this passage:

AESCHYLUS I speak of a sin sown long ago/ O house of endless tears / Trouble follows like a sea / Rolling its waves onward / One breaks, and it lifts the next

So it was with king Oedipus / Wretched man, he became aware / Of the marriage he had made / Tormented and outraged

In the madness of his heart / With the hand that killed his father / He destroyed those eyes / That could not bear to see his children

DJ Oedipus had two sons yall / Eteocles, and Polynices / And they was ashamed a’ they daddy /And so was all the people of Thebes

...

AESCHYLUS His sons grudged him his place at home!

DJ They took they Daddy, locked that fool up in a Caddy

AESCHYLUS Then in fury / And with bitter tongue, alas!

DJ Oedipus put a curse on they ass! / Like- / Woo Eee Oedipus / Look at you with your bad self… (Enter OEDIPUS, dressed like a pimp from the 1970s)

I will also highlight other changes, including the use of both a DJ and a hip-hop chorus, and a romantic relationship between Polyneices and Tydeus. Does Seven arouse the emotions of pity and fear and produce a catharsis for its contemporary American audience? I will argue that while Seven does not ultimately live up to Aristotle’s ancient definition of tragedy, it is one of the more effective and one of the boldest attempts I have seen to situate an ancient Greek play in the values and experiences and concerns of a contemporary community. (Cf. Arrufat’s 1968 Cuban adaptation, Los siete contra Tebas, which was banned in Cuba [discussed by Torrance 2007] but performed again in 2007.)

            I will conclude with some examples of how the students at my extremely diverse large urban university have responded to reading Seven together with Seven Against Thebes in my Myth and Performance in Greek Tragedy class.

Session/Panel Title:

New Wine in Old Wineskins: Topicality in Modern Performance of Athenian Drama

Session/Paper Number

66.1

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