Reconciling and Re-imagining a Classic: On Amy McCauley’s Oedipa

I was Oedipa rebel Oedipa

trouble but I


I was always my own



(Oedipa, Act II)


Amy McCauley’s approach to Oedipus Rexoffers not just her own take on the classic but also a modernized update to the plot and the work’s form, creating a “poetic play” that reimagines Sophocles’ tragedy with an all-female cast. McCauley’s work tells the story of Oedipa, an adolescent girl who fights for independence from those who seek to control her, mapping a trajectory of manipulation that questions the boundaries between relationships, and whether freedom must come with a price tag. Brilliantly designed and brought to life by Emily Juniper’s illustrations, Oedipa provides detailed stage directions through visuals and words, as well as an “index of objects” and a diagram for each of the four acts at the end of the play, to the point where someone could walk in tomorrow and begin preparing a production.

Oedipais perfectly aware of what it is and the pedestal it has been placed upon as McCauley takes every chance she gets to address and rebuke the work’s predecessor by tweaking its legacy little by little. One will find references to the original play that also take jabs at it, like Jokasta saying she’d rather poke her eyes out in Act 1. Similarly, the events in Oedipado not deviate from those in Oedipus Rex, yet there is a newfound power and significance to them. Oedipa is not characterized by the incestuous actions of her namesake. Instead, McCauley takes the opportunity to comment on the gender-bent nature of the work by emphasizing the societal construct of gender and the pressures that are placed on women but not felt by men. By taking out the central plot point of the original myth, McCauley makes Oedipa a criminal in a crime she never truly committed, one that doesn’t even exist, in fact. She reroutes the discussion about defying the gods and incest to discuss a made-up curse some acquire from birth that is diagnosed by those who benefit from its existence. Oedipa’s soliloquies are part self-discovery and part commentary when she tells the reader:


there’s this

awkward silence here


between my legs / the kind you

could lose a lifetime in


(Act I)


Included in the background of Oedipa’s own physical and mental struggle against the remaining members of the work’s cast is McCauley’s secondary attack on the enigma that isOedipus Rex, where she continues to strip away the layers of history and academia that have been suffocating the play for years. McCauley doesn’t spare historical figures or classical protagonists from her poetic barrage, drawing them in and “killing” them on the page as well as in spirit, emphasizing Oedipa’s cleansing power. By reiterating how significant a role language plays in our lives, McCauley challenges the Freudian reading of the original tragedy to the point of having Freud walk out wordlessly in Act 1 only to be shot by Oedipa from a pistol and die. Orpheus appears in Act 3, dragging a tree by its roots, only to reappear again later, pushing a shopping cart with a dead Euridyke in it. The best by far was Sophocles’ appearance, first with a metal detector and then with a shovel, which he uses to dig a hole that effectively becomes his own grave, in which he is buried alive. McCauley includes all these figures in the stage directions, perpetually silencing them and confining them to the same void that they created for an adolescent woman like Oedipa.


Instead of being plot-driven, Oedipa is fueled by questions and a challenge to the concept of healing. McCauley reconsiders who a healer is and shows the downfalls in the notion of having a designated individual assume such a role, that there must inevitably be someone who is qualified to do the healing. The work erases the patient-doctor dichotomy in the same way that the past, both as a historical fact and as a literary legacy, is rendered obsolete in the infinitely universal yet simultaneously closely contained world that is Oedipa. Oedipa becomes a victim of circumstances in a way that Oedipus does not, as McCauley suggests that Fate is an extension, an additional mask put on by authority to add additional credentials in its own favor. By blending the past with the present McCauley creates a commentary on the importance and consequences of a diagnosis and the authority it has in an individual’s life, in extreme cases leading to dehumanization and dismissal:


so if you’re my aunt/ yesthen who am I

O Oedipa / you’re


my nieceI saidmy niece the one with problems


(Kadmeaand Oedipa, Act IV)


There is a sense of the world not understanding and, as a result, maiming the individual further because of its own ignorance. The characters in Oedipacontinue to function around the protagonist’s tragedy without ever truly stopping and attempting to comprehend what it is they are attempting to “cure”. This creates a break in the language that mirrors the break on an emphatic and intimate level. McCauley equates a lack of physical contact, especially the outright unwillingness to touch, with the ultimate failure of a fatal and incorrect diagnosis, and of all the characters in the work Jokasta is most guilty of this. Her half-hearted attempts to help Oedipa are constantly followed by discussions about herself until it becomes a case of a toxic self-love that she channels throughher own daughter, cooing to Oedipa in a state of trance-like intoxication:


lo / ve yo / ur mo /

ther li / ke a go / od

gi / rl do /


n’t ho / ld

ba / ck do / n’t st /

op / do / n’t / op / en / up / th /


ere / ‘s a go / od / gi / rl sh / o

w / me / how / mu /

ch you / lo /


ve / me / st /

op sw / eet Oed / ipa /

sh / ow me yo / u’re my gi /rl


(Jokasta, Act III)


It is unclear what role sexuality in the original, Sophoclean sense plays in Oedipa, yet this is an ambiguity that is incredibly welcome. As a result, it is difficult to consider the ending of McCauley’s work to be definitive the way it is for Oedipus, where he is condemned to the life of an outcast. While Oedipa’s blindness is certainly an impediment, McCauley uses it as a means of emphasizing that physical sight seems to be an ironic hindrance for the rest of the characters, their existence in a closed circuit of self-importance continuing indefinitely. Oedipa never loses her hunger in a search that is not exactly for answers as much as it is an attempt to negotiate pain’s place in her life, brilliantly illustrated by the satirical knock-knock joke between the Chorus and the Fates:


Tic toc

Why did Oedipa cross the road?

To live dangerously. To take her life into her own hands.


(Act IV)



Margaryta Golovchenko is a poet and reviewer. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as Acta Victoriana, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Contemporary Verse 2, and Metatron’s OMEGA, among others. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks. She is about to begin her MA in art history at York University and can be found sharing her (mis)adventures on Twitter @Margaryta505.