Drama of Old Age – Oedipus at Colonus

Sophocles was in his nineties when he wrote Oedipus at Colonus; we think it was not performed until after his death.  It is, of course, part of the cycle that starts with Oedipus Rex  and ends with Antigone, but Colonus was written last and reveals an Oedipus with a different temperament than the younger, brasher man who was overcome by and angry at his fate.  Oedipus is now old and has found a kind of reconciliation with what has happened to him: “You’ll never find / A man on earth, if a god leads him on, / Who can escape his fate.”  So Oedipus seems to have dispensed with the guilt.  He is in a grove near Athens, getting ready to die, and to lend his protective spirit to Athens rather than to Thebes.  The gods have said that whoever accepts the dying Oedipus will be “blessed.”  Oedipus has no wish to bless Thebes, the city that cursed him.   

Oedipus is not the only old person in the play.  Old Creon shows up trying to convince Oedipus to die at Thebes, and the chorus is composed of “elders.”  Oedipus has come to the sacred grove at Colonus (outside of Athens) with his adoring daughters (Ismene and Antigone), and has a confrontation with one of his two hated sons.  But, while the passionate young Oedipus spurned fate, the aged Oedipus has decided to accept his fate and die in the sacred grove.  Zeus thunders his approval. 

In his posthumous book, On Late Style, Edward Said differentiates between two artistic approaches at the end of creative lives.  He proposes that some aging literary and musical artists reflect “a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of miraculous transformation of common reality,” and puts the Sophocles of Oedipus at Colonus in this category, along with the Shakespeare of the late romances (think of Winter’s Tale or The Tempest).  These writers have come to a kind of late serenity, and perhaps also a kind of truce with death.  I would probably put Eliot’s Elder Statesman in this category too.  There are angry old people too, though, and not everyone comes to resolution, peace.  While Oedipus says that his “experience and length of days teach me to be content,” even Oedipus comes to no reconciliation with Thebes, Creon, or his sons.  Reconciliation should not require capitulation.  And perhaps contentment does not require any reconciliation beyond one’s own conscience.

Colonus influenced Eliot’s Elder Statesman and also influenced other writers.  E. M. Forster (at a much younger age) rewrote Colonus as a perfectly wonderful short story (“The Road to Colonus“) with a completely different ending.  In the story, the aging Mr. Lucas is touring Greece with his caring daughter Ethel.  The story starts with the sentences: “For no very intelligible reason, Mr. Lucas had hurried ahead of his party.  He was perhaps reaching the age at which independence becomes valuable, because it is soon to be lost.”  And, of course, we find out that it is already too late. We can all relate to that.  The party comes through the parched countryside to a ramshackle inn by a spring in a grove of trees.  An oasis of sorts.   Mr. Lucas finds some peace there by an old tree; he wants to stay; he wants to die there.  But unlike the obedient daughters of Oedipus, the efficient Ethel is having none of this.  He gets tricked into leaving and spends the rest of his life not exactly living with his daughter and her husband back in England.  We learn later that the inn was destroyed when the tree fell later that evening; Mr. Lucas was meant to die there but did not accept (or was not allowed to accept) his fate.  While his daughter Ethel says, “Such a marvelous deliverance does make one believe in Providence,” we are left to conclude that escaping Providence was a disaster for the poor old man living half a life in his daughter’s house back in England, forever complaining about the noise and forever being ignored.

Colonus is full of strange and mysterious occurrences.  So is life.  We can rage against the things we do not like (including our own mortality – think of Dylan Thomas’s advice that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light”).   However, if we rage on and on,  we may lose any ability to enjoy the parts of life that we do like.  “Our life is not as pitiful as you’d think,” says the elderly Oedipus, “as long as we find joy in every hour.”  This sounds a little like Lear’s speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage… and take upon’s the mystery of things.”  There is, perhaps, time in old age to take upon ourselves the mystery of things.  And to let them be. 

I drafted a novel once about the Great Books Institute which takes place every year at Colby College.  If you are interested in what my fictional readers had to say about Colonus, click here.

The Drama of Old Age – Eliot’s The Elder Statesman


I have written about last poems, last novels, and now a last play.  There are many wonderful last plays, many of them directly relating to old age.  T.S. Eliot wrote The Elder Statesman in 1958 when he was about 70; I first read it when I was in my 50s, then again at 63, and now as I am about to turn 70 myself.  It is both a heartening and scary play.  On the plus side, Eliot uses the word love more in this play than in all his other drama combined; on the scary side, imagine arriving at the nursing home only to find it populated by all the people you have wronged in life, all the people who know your darkest secrets.

Eliot stated that he partially based his play on another play by an even older playwright.  Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus when he was about 90.  Cicero tells a story about how Sophocles’ sons were not happy at how their elderly father was handling the family fortune.  They took him to court for incompetence and Sophocles defended himself by reading from Colonus.  So much for the sons.  But Elder Statesman is not a rewrite of Sophocles; it feels deeply personal.  One cannot help remembering that Eliot and his brother-in-law had locked his first wife away in an insane asylum; she had died there ten years before this play was written.  And here we have a play about the problems of the past, how to deal with regret for things that cannot be changed.  Any old person knows about this.

Much of Eliot’s late writing is religious (or spiritual) in nature, but there is no religion in Elder Statesman.  The protagonist, Lord Claverton, has just retired due to a failing heart and is facing the first period in his life with an empty appointment book.  He has a loving daughter and a renegade son.  And time to think.  But he does not have to dredge up his old sins; they come knocking on the door.  The youthful joyride where he ran over someone, the inappropriate love match that he let his father buy off, the younger friend whom he betrayed.  For most of us, these kinds of past sin just reside at the bottom of our consciousness; Eliot has them come to call.  The question to be answered is what to do about our past sins, our inner critic:

What is this self inside us, this silent observer,

Severe and speechless critic, who can terrorize us

And urge us on to futile activity,

And in the end, judge us more severely

For the errors into which his own reproaches drove us.

One of the things we sometimes do with our own faults is to project them on our children.  Lord Claverton does this with his son  Michael – always fearful that Michael has gotten into trouble with some woman or hurt someone while driving his sports car.  In the end, however, he realizes that the only lesson both he and his son have to learn is not to try to escape their responsibilities, the consequences of their own actions:

Come, I’ll start to learn again,

Michael and I shall go to school together.

We’ll sit side by side, at little desks

And suffer the same humiliations

At the hands of the same master.  But have I still time?

There is time for Michael.  Is it too late for me, Monica [his daughter]?

Is it too late?  The call, the question, the entreaty, the petition of the old – can I undo, can I atone, can I make restitution, can I learn the lesson?  This is a play and so the old man does learn a lesson and that lesson involves love – a very human kind of love.  Confession, yes, but not necessarily to a priest:

If a man has one person, just one in his life,

To whom he is willing to confess everything –

And that includes, mind you, not only things criminal,

Not only turpitude, meanness and cowardice,

But also situations which are simply ridiculous,

When he has played the fool (and who has not?) –

Then he loves that person and love will save him.

We all hope to be fortunate enough to have that person, to find that person.  For Claverton, it is his daughter.  But one has to be willing to confess.  In Colonus, Oedipus dies claiming he was not fully responsible for what happened to him and his family.  There surely is a sense in which our fates are ordained by circumstances – but almost never completely.  Oedipus says that old age teaches him acceptance:  “My experience and my length of days teach me to be content.”  I hope your old age has brought you acceptance and contentment.  If not, read The Elder Statesman and think about who you might not want to encounter in the rest home of your final years. 

Also, for a story about dealing with the sins of the past, try my story “Shrove Tuesday;” for more on T.S. Eliot, you might look at my blog from a year ago, “Eliot’s Gifts of Old Age.”

Do the Elderly Have More Bandwidth?

I recently read Alan Jacobs’ book, Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil MindWho does not want a tranquil mind?  I recommend it (both the book and the tranquility). But I was particularly taken with Jacobs’ metaphor of bandwidth as a measure of the perspective of our lives.  Specifically, he wonders if young people – cocooned in their internet playlists and current fads – have not much narrowed their bandwidths.  Sounds paradoxical doesn’t it –  shouldn’t more bandwidth mean more information, knowledge, perspective? 

One might look at it this way.  When we boomers were young (oh, so long ago), we were universally exposed to what our parents and grandparents listened to, watched, talked about.  There was only one television in our house (in the family room), one radio (in the kitchen), and one phone (in the center of everything to prevent any kind of privacy).  And the children were not in charge.  So, we watched and listened to things our parents chose.  And when there was nothing else to watch or listen to, we read a book or eavesdropped on the adults.  Thus, I knew the tunes and lyrics of all the popular songs from the forties, watched any number of old TV shows and movies, and used the kind of language they approved of while talking on the phone.  When I was at my grandparents’ house, I watched Lawrence Welk and listened to my grandfather play old hymns on his upright piano.  Forced to attend church and Sunday School, I picked up the 17th century language of the King James Bible and got to know the organ music of Bach.  Desperate for something to read in the days before Kindle, I picked up whatever old stuff was in the house.  All of those things became my points of reference. I don’t think I was any different in this regard from other members of my generation – and probably all previous generations.   So, as Jacobs posits, our bandwidth stretched well into the past.  He says this wider bandwidth gave us a greater personal density – a term Jacobs said he got from Thomas Pynchon. 

For the most part, younger people today have their own computers, smart phones, televisions.  Statistics tell me families seldom sit down to meals together and seldom even gather around the same television show.  They can insert their ear pods and not have to listen to old music, old television, old people.  Their world is narrower.  Not that I wouldn’t have loved to have their options when I was fifteen.  And yet.

Jacobs’ argument makes sense to me.  Churches (at least main-line churches) and classical music concerts (when we could still have concerts) have become oceans of white hair.  Young people are, presumably, home listening to self-selected podcasts or reading the latest graphic novel.  Not only does that mean that they know less about the past, but it may have some effect on their attention span.  When you cannot change the channel or find another book, you have little choice but to stick to it.  Unless you are exposed to Bach and the beauty of King James English at an early age, will you easily appreciate it as you grow older?  And there is something else about the past that the present and future don’t have – it’s over; we can see how things turned out.  We can (maybe) learn lessons, or at least intuit when we are repeating prior mistakes.

It is not just the young I worry about in this regard.  I don’t listen to commercial radio because the music sounds like noise to me.  And I now have a choice.  I can listen to whatever I want on my MP3 player or computer and will never develop an appreciation for Lady Gaga and grunge rock.  I can get almost any book I want from our wonderful library system; as a result, I read books I like and have never opened a graphic novel.  So, my bandwidth extends far into the past, but not far into the future.  And the internet wants to help me with this by suggesting books based on my past reading, movies like the one I just watched, people like me that I might like to be “friends” with.

By the way, this problem is not entirely new.  T. S. Eliot identified it in 1928 (“Second Thoughts on Humanism“) in relation to the fact that there were enough books marketed in his day that “there never was a time, I believe, when those who read at all, read so many more books by living authors than by dead authors; there never was a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.”  If old Tom were still alive, he might be pining for those days.

I have no solution to this, but I am not sorry that I had the exposure I got when I was young.  Left to myself, I would have read Nancy Drew books and watched cartoons – perhaps branching out as I got older and bored of the same fare, but how would I have known what was out there?  And, of course, the extreme divisions in this country are surely a symptom of this.  If you aren’t forced to hear all perspectives, how broad is your bandwidth?  I wonder.