Notes on the Oedipus Project


During this bizarre time of quarantine, Theater of War Productions presented on Thursday, May 7th, an entirely online version of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, with some well-known actors Zooming in from their home laptops while 6K viewers Zoomed in on laptops of their own to watch.  I was part of that online audience. Above you see a photo of Oedipus on my computer, and to the left, a facemask I was wearing earlier in the day.

If you had told me a few months ago about this, I imagine my first question would have been, What is Zoom? But the times have pushed us into circumstances, and the ramifications of them, while all very strange, are not all terrible. It was a very compelling performance, and many points of contact with our current situation were notable: the plague, of course, with its widespread death and misery, the arrogance of the leader, the willingness of those around him to spin false narratives, and the sense of spiraling horror.

Oscar Isaac’s Oedipus is intense, by turns quick to anger, threatening, and petulant, but he is also– and here we sense a disconnect with the present– committed to finding the truth and taking responsibility for it.

From Theater of War’s description page:

The Oedipus Project is an innovative new digital initiative by Theater of War Productions that will present acclaimed actors performing scenes from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as a catalyst for powerful, healing online conversations about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon diverse communities throughout the United States. Sophocles’ ancient play, written and performed in 429 BC during the time of a plague that killed one-third of the Athenian population, is a timeless story of arrogant leadership, ignored prophecy, and a pestilence that ravages the city of Thebes. At the time the play was first performed, the audience would have been reeling in the wake of a pestilence and its economic, political, and social aftermath. Seen through this lens Oedipus the King appears to have been a powerful public health tool for helping Athenians communalize the trauma of the plague, through a story that is as relevant now as it was in its own time.

Featuring performances by Frances McDormand, Oscar Isaac, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Frankie Faison, David Strathairn, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.


Presented by Theater of War Productions, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and Brooklyn Public Library.

Registered audience members will receive a Zoom link prior to the event. This is a premiere zoom event for Theater of War Productions. We are convening our events online and our format remains as close to our live events as possible:

  • The actors will read the play.
  • Four community panelists will kick off the discussion with their gut responses to what resonated with them across time
  • We will open the discussion to the audience, facilitated by Bryan Doerries. During the discussion, please raise your hand using the button at the bottom center of the screen. If called upon, you will be promoted to speak and you will be visible and heard by the entire audience for the duration of your comments. If you would prefer not to be seen, please disable your video when entering the event.

Below are some screen shots I took during the broadcast:

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Get you a man who looks at you the way young Charlie looks at the Portland Vase

From Make Me An Offer (1954), Peter Finch’s first film in which he plays Charlie, an antiques dealer specializing in Wedgewood. Not a well-known movie, but it’s on Youtube, at least for now. Here is the young Charlie (Richard O’Sullivan) in the British Museum, having his first glance at the love of his life, the Portland Vase.

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“Asynchronous in Sewanee”

A piece I wrote for Sewanee Features called “Asynchronous in Sewanee” just came out.

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Rainy evening reflections

It’s raining in Sewanee, and will be for the next few days, they say. Springtime has always been the season of showers around here, of course, a small price to pay for the green of the trees and grass. It’s no fun to get wet walking the dogs in, but at night, the sound of rain is a pleasant thing to fall asleep to.

Recently I watched Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s brilliant short documentary from 2014, “Notes on Blindness,” on the New York Times Op-Doc site. The film dramatizes a number of remarks made on audiotapes from the early 1980s by James Hull, a British writer and theologian, about his gradual loss of sight. This is a quiet and powerful film, and as Hull works out his grief and anger, we are drawn in by his deeply poetic observations. At the end, a re-enactor peers out from his house into a spring shower as we listen to Hull’s thoughts. “Rain brings out the contours of what’s around you,” he says, “in that it introduces a continuous blanket of differentiated but specialized sound, uninterrupted, which fills the whole of the audible environment.” We see the rain falling on a small yard and then, in a moment of subtle magic realism, in the kitchen and the table at which the actor sits. But more importantly, we hear it, perhaps listening for the first time as a blind person might.

Hull’s insights are so humane and meaningful, and  this little film captures them so beautifully. It is an inspiration, frankly. As it stands, I am wondering about making another documentary, perhaps about Francis Joseph Campbell, “the Blind Knight,” about whom I’ve written before on this blog. A question I have asked myself is whether a film is the best way to tell his story? Would a podcast be a wiser way to proceed? It would certainly be cheaper. And having had to convert all my classes to an online format because of the coronavirus quarantine, I have been thinking a lot about podcasting as a way of telling some local stories.

On this rainy evening, I have been thinking about another storm from long ago. We recently comped a student who had taken Archaeology a few years ago, so I felt compelled to let him write an essay on the topic. Pick any monument, I told him, and so he wrote on the Marcus Aurelius column in the Piazza Colonna. It has been many years since I thought about this monument, but it was a pleasure to read again about Marcus and his battle against the Marcomanni. An incident I had forgotten was the miraculous burst of rain that occurred during a stand-off with the Quadi. Surrounded by their far vaster army, the Romans are in a bad situation due to the blistering hot weather. The Quadi feel it will only be a matter of time before their thirst forces a surrender on the Romans and decide to wait it out. The Byzantine historian Xiphilinus writes that Marcus approaches some of his Christian soldiers and asks them to pray to their god, who obliges the emperor and his troops with a welcome rain.

When the skies opened, he writes, “at first all turned their faces upwards and received the water in their mouths; then some held out their shields and some their helmets to catch it, and they not only took deep draughts themselves but also gave their horses to drink. And when the barbarians now charged upon them, they drank and fought at the same time; and some, becoming wounded, actually gulped down the blood that flowed into their helmets, along with the water.”

The scene is depicted rather charmingly on the column, and though most Romans preferred to attribute the miracle to Jupiter or Mercury, perhaps we can also see the “Father which is in heaven,” who as Mark says (5:45), “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” Roman and Quadi alike. We can see it here, and feel it in the vivid passage of Xiphilinus above. And now I am wondering, along with John Hull, what that “continuous blanket of differentiated but specialized sound” must have sounded like that unlikely hot winter day in the hinterlands beyond the Danube.

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LATN 403 Spr 20: open book #2 exam, due Monday, May 4th at noon Central

Friday, May 1, 2020

Dear Imperial Roman Prose students,

The exam on Tacitus’ Agricola is below, and it is due Monday, May 4th at noon Central

Please send me an email with the subject line “LATN 403 Midterm 2: Your Last Name, Your First Name”. The email will contain these three items: 

  • The Sewanee Honor Code pledge typed out by you.
  • A list numbered one to fifteen with your answers to the grammar questions.
  • Your Essay of at least 250 words on Tacitus’ Agricola.

Any questions? Email me, and if you like, we can set up a face-to-face chat over Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp, or just talk on the phone. 

It has been a bizarre semester, and I am sorry we had to end it the way we did. But I am convinced, after my conversations with you, that you have all done a good job of keeping up with reading Tacitus and thinking about the issues he raises. You should be proud of yourselves. 

Have a great summer. May it be filled with relaxation and good health.

Yours sincerely,




Scilicet illo igne vocem populi Romani et libertatem senatus et conscientiam generis humani aboleri arbitrabantur

  1. igne. What is the case and why?
  2. vocem. What is the case and why?


Iam vero principum filios liberalibus artibus erudire, et ingenia Britannorum studiis Gallorum anteferre, ut qui modo linguam Romanam abnuebant, eloquentiam concupiscerent.

  1. concupiscerent. What tense and mood?
  2. Why this mood?


Agricola expulsum seditione domestica unum ex regulis gentis exceperat ac specie amicitiae in occasionem retinebat.

  1. expulsum. What part of speech is this?
  2. What tense and voice?
  3. seditione. What is the case and why?


Sed nulla iam ultra gens, nihil nisi fluctus ac saxa, et infestiores Romani, quorum superbiam frustra per obsequium ac modestiam effugias.

  1. quorum. What part of speech is this? What is its antecedent?
  2. effugias. What is the tense and mood?
  3. Why this mood?



Feel free to consult the Dickinson commentary on Agricola 46.

Si quis piorum manibus locus [est], si … non cum corpore extinguuntur magnae animae, placide quiescas, nosque domum tuam ab infirmo desiderio et muliebribus lamentis ad contemplationem virtutum tuarum voces, quas neque lugeri neque plangi fas est.

  1. Explain the form of quis.
  2. What tense and mood is quiescas?
  3. Why this mood?
  4. What kind of condition is this?
  5. What part of speech is quas? What is its antecedent?



In an essay of 250 words or so, please respond to the following observation made by Myles Lavan, “Slavishness in Britain and Rome in Tacitus’ Agricola,” Classical Quarterly 61 (2011) p. 303:

“… the Agricola’s Roman and British narratives are structured around a shared set of polarities – compliance and resistance, silence and speech, passivity and action, masculinity and effeminacy, self-indulgence and self-control, oblivion and memory – which can be encompassed within a broader, governing opposition between slavishness and freedom. No reading of the Agricola can afford to ignore the interweaving of the two narratives.”


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Protected: Myth Spr 20: Oedipus at Colonus

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Protected: LATN 403 Spr 20: Agricola chap. 30

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