The Reincarnation of Tragedy: Comparing Troy to Oedipus

The two ancient Greek plays Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles and the modern play, Fences, by August Wilson are examples of Aristotelian tragedy. Both of the plays are about great men, Oedipus and Troy respectively, who fatefully suffer as a result of their tragic flaws.

An actor plays the character Troy from the play Fences by August Wilson.

An actor plays the character Troy from the play Fences by August Wilson.

Troy shares much in common with Oedipus when it comes to certain circumstances that narrate their existence. Immediately obvious is that both men have complicated issues surrounding the relationships they have with their fathers and with their sons. Another thing both men have in common is that they shoulder a great deal of responsibility when it comes to being the caretakers of their respective kingdoms.

Finally, they share similar deaths and are both remembered fondly in the end for being great men. Overall, Wilson went to great lengths to write a classical Greek tragedy set in a modern urban environment.

Both of these plays are rife with intergenerational male conflict. In the final Sophocles play, the chorus pronounces that “No generation frees another, some god / strikes them down; there is no deliverance” (Ant 593-94).

While the ending of Troy’s story is considerably less bloody there is also the fact that he too has not escaped his father’s “shadow.” This continuance of issues that haunt generations is illustrated by Rose when she says to Cory, “You Troy Maxson all over again” and Cory answers, “I don’t want to be Troy Maxson. I want to be me” and Rose says, “You can’t be nobody but who you are, Cory” (2.5. 76-78). Like Oedipus, Troy also has two sons.

In Act 1 Scene 1 of Fences the scene that plays out between Troy and his eldest son, Lyons, shows the tension between them when Troy belittles him and gives him a hard time over having to borrow a little money (100-115). For Troy, having people depend on him means lording it over them from time to time.

His bully attitudes towards both his sons are rooted in a need perhaps to be useful in a way that other’s will be grateful for it. While Oedipus never knows his father but for a brief encounter before he murders him (Oed King 735-830) Troy says, “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t known my daddy” (1.4.113). Obviously, the situation between the men, their fathers and their sons was full of complex emotional issues and colored their lives in an inextricable way.

Both Sophocles and Wilson use the theme of responsibility as a way of shaping the main characters of Oedipus and Troy as “great men.” Oedipus’ sense of responsibility to his kingdom is illustrated in some of the opening lines of the play, “I have found only one remedy [to] learn […] by what act or word / I could save this city” (Oed King 68-73).

A painting of Oedipus after he learns the truth by Robert Crockett

A painting of Oedipus after he learns the truth by Robert Crockett

Here Oedipus assures the city of Thebes that he has found the best way to get to the bottom of the disease and famine that is plaguing them all. In Act 1 Scene 1 of Fences, Troy tells the story of having to make a deal with the white salesman who he refers to as the devil (119-140). Both men seem to be forced to make dealings with the black arts in order to give their “kingdom” everything they could, their individual sense of responsibility driving them to the most extreme measures.

Furthermore, in order for these men to shoulder their accountability it would seem that both Oedipus and Troy need to believe in their own status. Oedipus utters the lines, “I Oedipus whom all men call the Great” (Oed King 8) in the beginning of Sophocles plays proving that he finds this to be a non-negotiable fact. Troy also has lines that show he has belief in his own greatness, “Hank Aaron ain’t nobody […] Hell, I can hit forty-three home runs right now” (1.3. 62-65).

Another similarity in these two men’s views on responsibility come in what in their opinion is a unique ability to empathize with the sufferings of everyone else. Oedipus says to his people, “Your several sorrows each have single scope / and touch but one of you. My spirit groans / for city and myself and you at once” (Oed King 62-64). Troy also feels this way when he says to his son, Cory, “While you thinking about a TV, I got to be thinking about a roof…and whatever else go wrong here” (1.3. 36-38). Overall, both these men have very comparable ideas and characteristics.

Both Oedipus and Troy die offstage and both men are eulogized and remembered by his own community. In both of the plays someone tells the tale of the fallen hero. In Oedipus, The Messenger tells such a long tale leading up to the death of Oedipus because the actual death of the ill fated man in itself is so mysterious, “we looked back and saw that / Oedipus, yes, Oedipus, was no longer there” (Oed Col 1647-48). In Fences, it is Rose who tells of the mysterious look on Troy’s face when he passes, “He swung that bat […] and stood there with this grin on his face…and then he just fell over” (2.5.69-71).

Furthermore, both of the fallen heroes are fully immortalized with their grand entrances into their respective after lives. According to The Messenger, Oedipus “was sent on his way / with no accompaniment of tears, no pain of sickness; / if any man ended miraculously, / this man did (Oed Col 1664-67).

Not to be outdone, Troy enters Heaven with the help of his aptly named brother Gabriel who awakens St. Peter to open the doors of Heaven, “There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization” (2.5. SD 108-109). Gabriel, despite his obvious handicaps (he was shot in the head as a war hero) is able to “see” things other’s cannot (much like the blind prophet Teiresias in Oedipus).

Furthermore, Oedipus’ death also leaves the one viewer, Theseus, “holding his hand / before his face, […], as though / some deadly terror had appeared to him / that sight could not endure” (Oed Col 1649-52). The last kind words about both men show how they were ultimately revered as father figures. Upon Oedipus’ death, The Messenger says, “He was himself the guide to all of us” (Oed Col 1589). Being remembered in this way would have made Oedipus proud. Rose, similarly is memorializing Troy as being a great dad, “I’m gonna do her [Raynell] just like your daddy did you…I’m gonna giver her the best of what’s in me” (2.5. 77-78). Both men are remembered ultimately, as heroes. The similarities between the men’s deaths and eulogies is further proof that Wilson was following in the footsteps of Sophocles in writing a modern “Greek” tragedy.

There are other clues that Wilson was very aware of his flawed, fallen hero story being similar to that of Oedipus’ story and that he wanted to make his audience aware of it as well. For instance, Troy is illiterate and therefore passing his stories down to his children through the oral tradition is very important to him.

As all Greek tragedy originated in this oral tradition, it is clear that there is meant to be a correlation. Furthermore, Troy, much like Oedipus (minus the dramatic irony) seems to live a life that is controlled by fate. Bono, in Act I Scene I of Fences says to Troy, “You just come along too early” (74-75).

Another hint is Troy is named after the famed walled city of Troy, giving him and the play Fences further association with the Greek tragedies. Overall, Wilson, by writing a modern drama that follows closely the characteristics and character developments that occur in the ancient dramas by Sophocles was able to create a character that could, much like Oedipus be pitied, feared and loved.

Works Cited

Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. David Greene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991.

Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. David Greene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. David Greene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991.

Wilson, August. Fences. Ed. Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.


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