A traveling troupe of actors performs their own interpretation of a very old and highly symbolic play
After dinner, Redmantyl brought Orlan downstairs. “You’re going to see a play tonight, Little One,” he said.
A stage had been set on the courtyard above the Plaza. Torches blazed on the walls and huge squares of black canvas hung across the southern side. There were few props—painted chairs, a baptismal font, an odd pile of lumber and canvas with a platform at the top, and a large, sheet-draped object at one corner—but Orlan looked around, wondering, as his father took him across. They sat on the Plaza just below the steps. All the servants, the off-duty guards, and the more prominent citizens of Lyges sat behind them, on benches and cushions. Orlan saw none of the thespians who had been rushing about all day.
“It’ll be starting soon?” He looked up at his father.
“At any moment,” Redmantyl answered softly. “Hush.” And as Orlan began to squirm with impatience, a young maid in plain dress—Anyse—walked out from the Bottom Hall and curtsied pertly.
“Our noble patron, Lord Redmantyl, his household, and welcome guests from Lyges,” her voice rang out clearly. “We the members of Redmantyl’s most kindly sustained thespian troupe thank you all for your favor and bid you attend the tale we perform tonight. `Tis a sad but worthy story of a man of pride and temper and of his grievous sins. With no more apology nor delay, we humbly present our tale of times long passed and people long dead, of Oedipus, the tragic King.” She bobbed again and exited.
Orlan watched the pageant with uncomprehending fascination. A man and a woman in purple robes and gold crowns stood by the baptismal font. The woman held a squirming baby. They spoke to each other of the baby, their son, of how he would be King of Angeland someday, as his father was King now. A man who was meant to be a priest, as he wore a long, white robe and a large gold cross, came to them and prepared for the christening, when another man in red and black—like Lord Redmantyl but with no mysterious markings on his mantle—appeared in a puff of smoke. The wizard, Merlin, warned the King and Queen that the baby would murder his father and wed his mother one day if he were to grow to manhood. The royal couple was horrified by this prediction; they demanded that the wizard repeat it, then they stepped to one side of the stage to discuss it between themselves. The King was shocked that his own son would murder him, but he had heard of such things happening before. The Queen could not believe her child would commit such horrible crimes. She said she did not believe Merlin’s predictions, but her husband grew more fierce as he grew more afraid and at last he forced her to surrender the child. The King gave the baby to a servant and told him to kill it.
On another part of the stage, the servant ran up onto the platform meant to be a mountain top, set the crying baby down, and prepared to stab it through with a dramatically raised dagger. Orlan hid his face against his father’s sleeve so he would not have to watch, when suddenly the red-cloaked wizard appeared and stopped the murder. He said he would take the child and care for it hereafter. The servant ran away, and the wizard picked up the screaming baby, told it that it was the child of a wicked, unworthy man who had sealed his own fate by his cruelty, and carried it into the Bottom Hall.
The play continued after the baby stopped crying. Anyse returned and told the audience that many years had passed and the infant Oedipus had grown into a fine young man. The King and Queen of Angeland ruled well, but they had no other children. A dragon ran wild in the land, destroying villages and eating people; all of Angeland was in fear and the King had gone to fight the dragon himself. Then the old wizard and his apprentice came out and spoke together. The young man called the wizard “Father,” and said that he must leave his home to seek his fortune in the world. Merlin agreed that it was time for Oedipus to go, but he warned the boy not to engage in any fights with strangers, as he was so hot-tempered and passionate that anger would only cause him sorrow. Oedipus promised that he would control himself. He changed into the armor of a knight and he went out in search of adventure. On his travels, he met an older man also in heavy armor at a crossroads. They argued, then engaged in an exciting sword fight and jumped back and forth across the courtyard, until the older man was killed. The young man went on to the magnificent city of London. There, he heard of the dragon and the missing King and he proclaimed that he would go on a quest to kill the beast, and find the King as well.
Oedipus went to the dragon’s lair. The shrouded thing at the edge of the courtyard turned out to be a terrible monster with a long, green, scaly neck, huge claws, and red and orange ribbons like flame charging from its mouth. The young knight fought this dragon as it squirmed half-way out onto the courtyard with frightful roars; he used his sword and used some spells that the wizard had taught him, and at last the creature fell to the stone floor and died. When Oedipus returned to London, bearing one of the dragon’s sharp claws as proof of his victory, the city rejoiced. They told him that the King had been found dead, murdered on the road, and the Queen was in mourning for her husband. Oedipus went to comfort her, and she came to love him as a handsome and brave young knight. She decided to marry the young man and make him King. There was a splendid wedding ceremony: music from lutes and horns and drums rang out gaily and the thespers went out into the audience and pulled some of them to their feet, up onto the stage. The Queen herself took Lord Redmantyl’s hand and the wizard rose to join the dance. Colorful streamers flew everywhere.
Once this festival had ended and the audience returned reluctantly to their seats, the dancers collected the streamers and Anyse stepped forward to announce that more years had passed. Oedipus and the Queen ruled well together and had four children. They were very happy and the kingdom was safe and prosperous. Then, one day, a storm roared over all the country and would not go away. King Oedipus and his Queen sat in their throne room, wondering what this storm could mean, when a messenger entered and told them that the wizard Merlin had returned from long years of travel and heard of their unholy marriage.
“What dost thou mean, Unholy?” the Queen demanded, but the messenger could only answer that he knew not. The wizard appeared in a puff of smoke, as before, and told Oedipus who his true parents were and how he had committed the most hideous crimes imaginable. The Queen was horrified and she ran into the darkness, screaming. The young man cried out his sins, how he had murdered his father at the crossroads and then married his mother to become King, then he heard from another messenger that the Queen had hung herself. Oedipus was screaming now too and he dropped to his knees on the stage and huddled like a small, crushed thing. He cried out that he could not bear this, that he could not live, and then he gripped his hands to his face. Blood flowed from his eyes and he fell forward as if dead. A maiden came to his side and gently led him away.
The audience cheered and applauded. The thespers stepped out to bow and thank them for their kindness. Orlan shuddered in Redmantyl’s lap.
“Horrible,” he whispered. “Is he dead, F-father?”
“No, Child. No one died. It is only a story.”