Throwback Thursday to Damian Lewis as Oedipus Rex: Archetype of a King

Wow, this pandemic, amirite? Depending on where you live you may be still hunkered down, resisting social gatherings, wearing masks whenever you go out. Maybe you’re somewhere where things are fully open and things are back to normal. For most of us, though, it’s certainly a new way of life. And, it may be with us much longer than anyone hoped it’d be.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have jobs that weren’t too affected, or actually took off, due to the nationwide lock down. (once folks can no longer mill around the water cooler in the office, they seem very keen to get stuff done. I sense in some industries, like tech, for example, productivity is at a record high) Too many of us haven’t been so lucky. And what about our artists, the stories that we need to watch, the performances that entertain and sustain us? Obviously they have been affected in a major way. Those in Damian’s profession are still learning how to get their work running again.

Cue a production company that saw the opportunity to expand a vision that began in 2008, to bridge space and time with productions of ancient Greek plays followed by a discussion of the play with audience members. The fact that space and time are now more keenly felt than ever lead to having each actor in their own space and the audience in ours over Zoom. Theater of War’s production of Oedipus Rex came to us live over Zoom on September 3, 2020 with Damian in the role of Oedipus the King.

Theater of War productions existed before the pandemic. It existed as actors playing roles together in person in front of live audiences. The productions weren’t full costumed and directed affairs, but rather, a slew of great actors gathered over animated table readings of classic greek theater, reimagined to apply to the unique circumstances of the day.

The project, founded by Bryan Doerries in 2008, was intended to show all the ways that Sophocles’ plays, the plots, the intensity of human emotions and challenges faced by his characters, apply to our time. The productions of the war plays were initially put on for military audiences. And each reading was followed by a frank discussion on the issues that came up: the effect of war on families, sacrifice, grief and loss, and, most of all, the “invisible wounds” of war, what we would today call PTSD. Next, Doerries put on plays specific to the experience of prison guards and then to medical staff working in end of life care. He found stories that applied to each of these extremes of human experience.

Ancient greek texts, Doerries said, aimed for the bleachers, they asked the big questions. Most significantly, he saw how productions reached an audience by having that audience talk back to the text, share what reached them. These weren’t academic audiences, just everyday people in the military, guarding prisons, and working in hospices. The productions are the play, but even more than that, they are about the reactions to the play. The goal was to reach that ephemeral catharsis of understanding and connection that can ripple through an audience when they see themselves and their lives in the story.

Doerries stretched the reach of his productions to online live streaming, and once the pandemic was with us, he found the parallels between Sophocles and this war we’re fighting with a plague, and the politics imposed over it all.  With the completely online production of Oedipus Rex, it was absolutely remarkable seeing this in person, the way an ancient text acted out across space and time, reached an audience, also across space and time.

It was really an exceptional mix of voices. One woman who worked in housekeeping at a hospital stood out to me in particular. She pinpointed exactly the parallels between Oedipus’ hubris and arrogance and ultimate ignorance and what she witnessed every day in a hospital caring for Covid patients. Doerries was so very right that Zoom can be used for things like this so well: showing and receiving, the call and response of art. It reminded me a bit of reading plays out loud in English classes, particularly in high school when we were all in the throws of the emotional awakening that comes at that age. There was a zone we would achieve where all of us reading together would sort of enter the play, enter the story, live it, together. We weren’t acting, just reading, and sharing the story with each other transported us in ways that reading alone or listening alone just wouldn’t have. This felt like that, a communal experience, yet from a socially distanced vantage point.

So, the story:

There’s a plague over the city and the populace has come to the King in despair. The King sends his brother-in-law Creon (played by the inimitable Jason Isaacs) to the Oracle for guidance. (Remember, this is ancient Greece, so belief in oracles and prophecies drives everything.) Creon returns, saying that the plague will end once the murder of King Laius, Oedipus’ predecessor, is solved.

Oedipus asks the blind prophet Tiresias for guidance. The prophet is less than helpful and presents riddles that baffle and anger Oedipus. He rages that everyone is against him and his quest to get things back to normal. He accuses both Tiresias and Creon of plotting against him.

At one point one of them says to Oedipus something like “stop your flailing, with all due respect, you know nothing” to which Oedipus responds with a petulant “Regardless!” Damian’s delivery made it almost comical, how blind the leader was to any advice or guidance. As much as he needed information, he actively resisted it by striking up walls to understanding what was being told him. Granted the folks who did know the full story weren’t very helpful. They feared saying too much. Finally Tiresias has to say it: Oedipus is the one who killed Laius.

Long story short, Oedipus fled the place he was raised, Corinth, and who he thought were his parents when he heard a rumor that he wasn’t their son. He went to the Oracle then for info and all he got was that he would kill his own father and sleep with his mother. The horror of such a thing caused him to flee his home town and set up his King-hood in Thebes. On his way to Thebes he met up with a group of travelers, at a place where three roads crossed, and he ended up killing them in self-defense.

Back to present day Thebes, Oedipus goes to his wife Jocasta and tells her what the prophet said, that he was the murderer of Laius (Jocasta’s first husband). Jocasta says, hey, prophets don’t know it all. Some prophet had told her Laius would be killed by his son. And the only son Laius had was left to die by a side of a mountain. Lauis was, instead, killed by a group of travelers at a place where three roads crossed.

Oedipus is like, hold up, where three roads cross? That sounds familiar! There’s a witness to what happened at this crossroads, a shepherd, and when Oedipus sends for him, he learns that who he thought were his parents in Corinth weren’t. Oedipus as a baby had been recovered from the side of a mountain and was given to the shepherd and taken to Corinth to be raised by the royal family as their own. Oedipus demands to know where he came from and finally learns that he is Lauis’ son. And, he, indeed, has married and had conjugal relations with his own mother.


Once the connection is made, Oedipus realizes what has happened and he is utterly destroyed. He goes to his wife/mother and finding her dead, is destroyed even more. Damian doesn’t simply cry in pain at the destruction, he wails. Oedipus has had the feet taken out from under him, and he must lose his eyes too. He can’t bear to see any more.

The prophecies, through some convoluted machinations, came true after all and all is lost. Oedipus is horrified and so is Jocasta. Jocasta hangs herself and, upon finding her, Oedipus takes her pins and pokes his own eyes out. He demands to be exiled, a fate worse than death.

What does this have to do with present day, you may ask? Well, it tells of a world with a leader who is out of the loop on essential information. Essential information is provided to him and to all of us in riddles and statements shrouded in mystery. You can find more parallels in this great article than I can possibly summarize here:  Can Greek Tragedy Get Us Through the Pandemic?

Now, for Damian in the role of Oedipus. Let’s just say, he may have been online, but his part was no where close to being simply phoned in. He performed with the vigour and commitment we’ve seen him in every other role he’s played under “normal” circumstances. He felt the words, knew the story, knew the emotional truth of it, and played it fully immersed and present.

We know that Damian has resisted stereotypes from the days when he came off of Band of Brothers, was offered Black Hawk Down and refused. Fine, he thought, you Yanks love me as an American soldier, and I’ll happily play one again, just not quite yet, because if I play another one now, you people in your studio offices will think that’s all I can play. Instead he settled back into a solid English epic serial role, Soames Forsyte, a role about money and class and love, and reinvented himself right away.

Yes, stereotypes are to be avoided. But archetypes are something to aspire towards. A stereotype is representative because it is what you see the most often, and an archetype is what you want to see, it is the ideal form of the kind. Archetype characters are what allow us to see a model of a certain type of human being, one that we all encounter and may see in ourselves. An archetype offers a perfectly nuanced and layered rendering of that certain kind of person. With Oedipus (as with Bobby Axelrod and Henry VIII) I dare say that Damian is the owner of the rarified space of the archetype of the megalomaniac. An all-powerful king, a charismatic leader, with a blind spot miles wide.

The megalomaniac has graced cinema forever so you could say it’s become a stereotype, yet there’s room in that particular role that doesn’t exist within other stereotypes. Also, I can’t say enough about the prescience of this archetype to our current lives. Such a character could easily be a caricature, as much as the quite difficult to stomach caricature we see when we watch or read the news of the day. But, in the right hands, such a character can be compelling to watch, if not to sympathize with him, then to at least find the energy in the mania, the drive as self-preservation at all costs. Damian has found room within such a role to plant his feet in the kingly stance, to bellow orders straight from the gut, to peer at his scene mates with maniacal focus when his character is demanding something of them. His body, even seated behind a computer screen commands the space. His eyes perpetually at the ready, attentive to the rhythms around him.

When the other characters are talking, he does that thing with his left eyebrow that translates to “I’m listening” or, at the least, “I see words coming out of your mouth and they make no sense but I’ll let you finish.”

In all its high emotion and extremes, it was a stunner of a performance. We can only hope that we see Damian in roles like this again and soon.

2 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday to Damian Lewis as Oedipus Rex: Archetype of a King”

  1. JaniaJania tu narrativa es exquisita. La descripción de cada arista del proyecto, la síntesis de la obra y tu valoración del artista definitivamente transportan e instalan.

Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.