What is the function of off-stage action in Oedipus Rex?

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The off-stage action in Oedipus Rex serves to propel the story forwards. The play is centered largely on Oedipus sitting and waiting for information to be brought to him about things that have happened or are happening elsewhere. Oedipus’s role is consequently very passive, which heightens the dramatic tension of...

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The off-stage action in Oedipus Rex serves to propel the story forwards. The play is centered largely on Oedipus sitting and waiting for information to be brought to him about things that have happened or are happening elsewhere. Oedipus’s role is consequently very passive, which heightens the dramatic tension of the play and serves to underscore that Oedipus is a victim of fate: here is someone who has no control over events, who is by turn confused, intrigued, angered, grieved, and horrified by things that happen around him.

Everything that actively happens does not happen in front of the audience. Oedipus’s birth and adoption, his journey to Thebes, his slaying of his father and marriage to his mother, all serve as the background to the current story. Attempts to pin down the truth—by consulting the oracle and locating and bringing in Tiresias and the old servant—mainly happen off-stage. Oedipus sits at the center of the action, but is not himself a part of it, and can neither speed up nor slow down the awful revelation of the play. When the truth does come out, its consequences also happen off-stage, in Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’s self-mutilation. The narrative does not allow the audience to see or participate in any of the “decision points” of the story, and thus it restricts the audience to the role of helpless bystanders, forcing them to share in horror Oedipus experiences as he experiences it.

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It was conventional in Greek tragedy for violent incidents to occur off stage. This was both for reasons of religious propriety—dramas in ancient Greece were, after all, part of religious festivals—as well as constraints of space.

We see this convention illustrated in Oedipus Rex, where, as we would expect, all of the many acts of violence take place off-stage. Aside from the religious and practical reasons for this, there are also perfectly good dramatic imperatives at play. Removing violence from center stage allows the audience to concentrate more effectively on how the individual characters deal with the consequences of violent actions.

Indeed, much of the tragedy in Oedipus Rex comes not from the individual acts of violence themselves, but from how each character deals with them. Virtually everything that Oedipus does in the course of the play is related to the act of violence which he committed—off-stage, of course—in killing his own father. It could be argued that it is Oedipus's struggle to get to the bottom of things that is much more interesting from a dramatic standpoint than the depiction of the actual murder that provided a catalyst for his search for the truth.

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We can answer this question by considering the most significant event that occurs off-stage in the play, which is of course after Oedipus learns the truth about his identity and goes off-stage to gouge his own eyes out. There is particular significance in this event for a number of reasons that relate to the them. Firstly, it highlights the way in which Oedipus has been blind, willfully or otherwise, to the truth throughout the entire play. Secondly, it also indicates the kind of moral blindness that Oedipus has suffered from, as he has been unaware to truly see his own pride and how this is his tragic flaw. Thirdly, it also shows us how impossible and terrible his situation is as he literally cannot bring himself to look at the situation he now faces. Note the following speech that he says after re-entering the stage:

Dark, horror of darkness

my darkness, drowning, swirling around me

crashing wave upon wave--unspeakable, irresistible

headwind, fatal harbour!

Oedipus literally cannot bring himself to see either himself or the truth of his life, and thus this important action in gouging out his own eyes is immensely significant in order to support a number of key themes in the play. Off-stage action can therefore be analysed as strengthening and casting new light on the key themes of the play as this example shows.

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