Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud's Oedipus Complex

by Richard Armstrong

January 1, 1999


Freud's first public discussion of what he later called the Oedipus complex claims that it is universal, but he cited no clinical evidence. Rather, the evidence Freud deployed was the allegedly universal effectiveness of the Sophoclean Oedipus Rex on both the ancient Athenian and contemporary audiences. That was what confirmed his hypothesis that we all harbor oedipal feelings. When the stage history of Oedipus Rex is examined, Freud's assumptions are clarified, although the basic logic of his argument is not improved. The productions he saw in Paris and Vienna and the drama's unprecedented success on German and French stages in the 1880s and 90s (and later 1910-12) support his claim that the play moves modern audiences as much as it did the Greeks. It was Freud's own prepsychoanalytic experience of Oedipus Rex as a performance that led him to claim universality for his own feelings toward his parents.

        Abstract  I. Freud's Argument in Outline  II. Oedipus as Evidence 
III.  Paris 1885-86  IV.  Vienna 1886  V.  Vienna 1911 
VI. Conclusion  Endnotes  Works Cited 
see also the accompanying image essay,
"Oedipus in Performance: 1881-1912"

 Abstract:  Freud’s first public discussion of the Oedipus complex (as it was later termed) involves a claim that this psychological condition is universal.  Freud makes this claim in spite of a lack of citable evidence which would compel the reader to agree.  His clinical evidence is based on abnormal people, and he does not wish to use his own self-analysis to make his argument here.  The climactic piece of evidence Freud deploys is the allegedly universal effectiveness of the Sophoclean Oedipus Rex, which he uses to establish the premise that the Oedipus complex transcends time and place.  He takes the drama’s effect on both the ancient Athenian and contemporary audiences, then, as a confirmation of his hypothesis that we all harbor oedipal feelings.  In hindsight, it seems reckless to stake so great a tenet of psychoanalytic theory on an ancient drama taken out of context and put on the modern stage, but when the stage history of Oedipus Rex is examined, Freud’s assumptions are clarified, though the basic logic of his argument is not improved.  He himself saw productions of Oedipus Rex in Paris and Vienna, and the drama’s unprecedented success on German and French stages in the 1880s and 90s (and later 1910-12) would lend support to his claim that the play moves modern audiences with as much intensity as it did the original Greek one.  This “Oedipus mania” of the 19th century’s last two decades helps to explain why Freud so lightly uses the drama as key evidence to expand the Oedipus complex from being a psychological truth of deep personal resonance for himself and for his neurotic patients, to being a universal conflict which would later stand at the center of an elaborate theory of culture.  This paper suggests that Freud’s own prepsychoanalytic experience of Oedipus Rex as a performance text made him predisposed to claim the universality of his own feelings toward his parents.




I.  Freud's Argument in Outline.

        At the end of the last century, Sigmund Freud wrote in the Interpretation of Dreams the following about Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in relation to his own theory of a child’s emotional conflict with the parents (a conflict we now know as the Oedipus complex):

    If Oedipus Rex moves a modern audience no less than it did the contemporary Greek one, the explanation can only be that its effect does not lie in the contrast between destiny and human will, but is to be looked for in the particular nature of the material on which that contrast is exemplified. (4:262; my emphasis) (1)      (Original German)

This is a classic example of Freudian syntax, whereby—to quote Hanns Sachs— “...his sentences were molded and pressed, sometimes twisted until they expressed his thought accurately, neither saying more nor less” (100).  It is hard to say which is more troublesome to the reader:  the conditional premise or the peremptory conclusion.  Its form is basically this:

    If the effect of T is no less on X than on Y,
    then the effect of T is brought about
      not by A
      but rather by B, which stands behind A.

Such schematism hardly makes the point clearer, since we don’t know how X and Y relate to A and B.  Freud’s argument can be better summarized:

    1. Oedipus Rex has an ostensible “theological theme” (the conflict between destiny and human will) which makes it a tragedy of destiny (Schicksalstragödie).

    2. But other such tragedies of destiny like Grillparzer’s Die Ahnfrau are utter failures.

      assumption: Die Ahnfrau is a self-evident failure.
    3. Therefore, the basic “tragedy of destiny” theme is ineffectual by itself.
      assumption: all such tragedies are failures and are so because of their theme.
    4. Oedipus Rex remains as effective on theater audiences today as in classical Athens.
      assumption: it is self-evident to the reader that Oedipus Rex is effective on a modern audience.
      assumption: the cause of this effectiveness must be the very same thing for modern audiences as for ancient.
    5. Therefore, the success of Oedipus Rex lies in another feature and not in the destiny/will conflict that is its ostensible theme.

    6. Therefore, the only explanation can be that the “universal” appeal of the work is due to the universality of the conflict depicted between son and father over the mother.

      assumption: Oedipus and Laius are in conflict over Jocasta.
      assumption: there is only one explanation for its effectiveness, and that must be the same regardless of time and place.

The argument thus analyzed proceeds by 1) establishing Oedipus Rex as representative of a subgenre, Schicksalstragödie  (which was only defined in later centuries); 2-3) claiming the utter ineffectiveness of that subgenre per se; 4) claiming the outstanding success in performance of Oedipus Rex, which must be understood now in terms other than its subgenre 5);  and finally, 6) by jumping to the conclusion that only one other explanation is possible: the play’s themes of patricide and incest are the cause of its success, not the conflict between fate and free will.

        I am only concerned with one part of his argument in this paper: namely, the empirical premise 4) that Oedipus Rex moves a modern audience no less than it did its original Greek one.  Clearly the entire argument calls for extended analysis, but due to its historical nature, this single premise will be the focus of my disclosure—as indeed, I am mostly just disclosing information which helps to put Freud’s assumptions into a more comprehensive view of his argument as a product of his own thinking and experience.  One could just as easily question premise 2) (that other tragedies of destiny are utter failures) or premise 1) (that Oedipus Rex is really a matter of human will vs. destiny), or his final conclusion 6) (that incest and patricide have universal interest whereas the conflict between free will and fate does not), or most importantly, the basic assumption throughout that one and one thing only is responsible for Oedipus Rex’s success. (2)

II. Oedipus as Evidence.

        Before I begin my historical reportage, it is important to delve deeper into certain characteristics of Freud’s reading of Oedipus Rex in order to understand what is at stake in his use of the Sophoclean text.  A first characteristic is that he presents it to us as a riddle, a presentation that is obviously ironic for a play about Greece’s great riddle-master.  The riddle of Oedipus Rex according to Freud is: if this play’s ostensible themes are so intellectually unsatisfying to the point of being insulting, then why is it so universally effective at moving an audience?  This enigmatizing process is clearly at work in the Interpretation of Dreams, and is further brought out by Freud’s later statement about the work in the Introductory Lectures:

    It is a surprising thing that the tragedy of Sophocles does not call up indignant repudiation in his audience....  For fundamentally it is an amoral work:  it absolves men from moral responsibility, exhibits the gods as promoters of crime and shows the impotence of the moral impulses of men which struggle against crime.  It might easily be supposed that the material of the legend had in view an indictment of the gods and of fate; and in the hands of Euripides, the critic and enemy of the gods, it would probably have become such an indictment.  But with the devout Sophocles there is no question of an application of that kind.  The difficulty is overcome by the pious sophistry that to bow to the will of the gods is the highest morality even when it promotes crime.  I cannot think that this morality is a strong point of the play, but it has no influence on its effect.  It is not to it that the auditor reacts but to the secret sense and content of the legend. (16:331, my emphasis).   (Original German)

Freud’s reading, then, is an attempt to reject the conventional understanding of the work, the religious nature of which he holds in characteristic disdain, in favor of a “secret sense and content” that he will now disclose.  He thus makes the incest and patricide not the expression of intractable fate, but rather a kernel of wish fulfillment (and subsequent self-castigation) that drives the play.

         Freud rather likes to make us feel like idiots if we accept the work’s apparent concerns with anything less than contempt.  As in his remarks from the Introductory Lectures, he dismisses the manifest content of the play in the Interpretation of Dreams as originating “in a misconceived secondary revision of the material, which has sought to exploit it for theological purposes” (4:264; my emphasis).  And again he casts disdain on the religious import by declaring, “The attempt to harmonize divine omnipotence with human responsibility must naturally fail in connection with this subject-matter as with any other” (4:264).  If we look back at his first recorded comments on the play, contained in a letter to Wilhelm Fließ dated October 15, 1897, again we find Freud asserting the power of OedipusRex in spite of its content:  “...we can understand the gripping power of Oedipus Rex, in spite of all the objections which reason raises against the presupposition of fate” (Masson 272).  Freud, the “godless Jew,” clearly resists categorically the “lesson which, it is said, the deeply moved spectator should learn from the tragedy,” namely:  “submission to the divine will and realization of his own impotence” (4:262).  In his own oedipal maneuver, Freud rejects this reconciliation with the father, and chooses instead to advance a reading which upholds the unsettling agency of the son.

        Freud's reading of the conventional "lesson" of the text is, in fact, a straw man.  Virtually as he was writing the Interpretation of Dreams, the great philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf was destroying the kind of reading Freud provides here as the manifest content of Oedipus Rex.(3)  But such readings of the play die hard, and as late as 1966, E. R. Dodds felt it necessary to attack it along with other common misconceptions all over again in his now-classic article "On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex."  Freud accepts a view shared by many of his contemporaries which simply maps the Christian free will vs. determinism debate anachronistically onto the Sophoclean text, with the not-surprising result that the play thus comes up as unsatisfactorily "dealing with" a problem which the Greeks of the 5th century BCE did not address in this fashion to begin with.  In Dodds' words,

    The immediate cause of Oedipus' ruin is not "Fate" or "the gods"—no oracle said that he must discover the truth—and still less does it lie in his own weakness; what causes his ruin is his own strength and courage, his loyalty to Thebes, and his loyalty to the truth.  In all this we are to see him as a free agent: hence the suppression of the hereditary curse [i.e., from earlier versions].  And his self-mutilation and self-banishment are equally free acts of choice.  (183)

Sophocles' play does deal openly with something which a Freudian could readily appreciate: the persistent feeling of guilt—or even moral pollution—in spite of the objective knowledge that one is technically innocent.

        As I have said, Freud purposefully enigmatizes the play by asserting that it is a success in spite of its apparent meaning.  It is a simple gesture on his part to remove the significance of anything other than the oedipal content of the play to explain why it is so very effective.  True, Sophocles is implicitly praised for constructing the process of revelation with "cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement" (262), but here too Freud invades the poet's creative prerogatives with the comment that this process "can be likened to the work of a psychoanalysis" (262), implying that the play is effective in so far as it conforms to a psychoanalytic rather than a religious worldview.  Sophocles appears again in the argument as an analyst avant la lettre when Freud describes him as "compelling us to recognize our own inner minds, in which those same impulses, though suppressed, are still to be found" (263).  But this is as far as Freud is willing to go toward making Sophocles responsible for the play's efficacy; soon after casting the poet as the bearer and revealer of the oedipal secret, he asserts the legend sprang from some "primaeval dream-material" (263) which he illustrates with Sophocles' text. The "dream-material" is disclosed in Jocasta's comment that many people dream they sleep with their mothers.  This is asserted as "clearly the key to the tragedy and the complement to the dream of the dreamer's father being dead," but his language is extremely ambiguous: is this the result of Sophocles' dreaming or of "primaeval dreaming" in a broader sense?  Given Freud's tendency to link, as did certain scholars of the time, myths with dreaming, the answer would seem to be the latter, in which case Sophocles gets no credit for inserting Jocasta's comment (Mitchell-Boyask 34-37).  The final remarks on the play condemn it as a "theological" failure, so Sophocles appears to be dismissed in the end as a deluded theologian, guilty of "pious sophistry" as he would later call it.

        Nowhere does Freud enter into an analysis of Sophocles' personality to the extent that he did with Shakespeare's in relation to Hamlet.  Sophocles, the failed theologian and proto-analyst, is not accorded the same status as Shakespeare in relation to his creations:  "...it can of course only be the poet's own mind which confronts us in Hamlet" (265).  This is partly because of the fact that Sophocles is working with the stuff of pre-existing myth, which for Freud suggests his creative input was limited (though here he does the poet little justice).  But there may well be another tactic at work: by undermining Sophocles' contribution to the play's success, Freud is attempting to fend off the aestheticist reading, which would suggest that the play is effective simply because it is well done at the level of dramatic interaction and characterization.  This is the older way to defend the play's efficacy in spite of its apparent content, and it is clearly a danger to Freud's own interpretation.  By suppressing this other possible view of the work, Freud opens the way for a discussion of latent content.

         By thus destroying the interpretative validity of the conventional views of the play, he can now explain the reason for its appeal across the centuries.  He seeks a universal that can be grounded in the psychological relations of the human family instead of in the culturally relative concerns of religion. (4)   Note here below the incongruous “perhaps,” an odd and patently insincere qualification in a statement which so clearly represents Freud’s own forceful interpretation of Oedipus’s significance.

      His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours—because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him.  It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.  Our dreams convince us that that is so. (4:262; my emphasis)  (Original German)

Thus in place of the workings of oracles, gods, and fate, Freud establishes the forceful agency of Nature:  “Like Oedipus, we live in ignorance of these wishes, repugnant to morality, which have been forced upon us by Nature...” (4:263; my emphasis).  It is curious to see how the very deterministic blanket Freud rejected under the guise of fate is now reinserted in terms of the natural world.

         Such is the nature of Freud's reading of the text, but what is its precise evidentiary value in a book about dreams with scientific pretensions?  The Sophoclean play is important to adduce as evidence for two reasons.  First and most obviously, it openly treats the central themes of incest and patricide, so much so that the psychological conflict in question has taken its name from the play.  It is worth noting that in spite of the importance of Hamlet for Freud’s thinking, this was not named the Hamlet Complex. (5)   Second, its alleged effect on a modern audience is powerful and—very importantly for a good empiricist—verifiable.  This second point is crucial for the work’s evidentiary status.  Though it is invoked at first as a “legend that has come down to us from classical antiquity” (294), Freud ultimately does not deploy Oedipus Rex as an instance of illustrative myth, but rather as a performance text.  It is important to note this, since the later course of psychoanalysis’ involvement with myth may push us into assuming that this work is merely valuable as a telling of the oedipal plot.  Freud is careful not to put the evidentiary weight on the mere antiquity of the story, but rather on its effect on the audience (described with the verb erschüttern,  “to move deeply, profoundly”).  Earlier in the section Typical Dreams, he qualified mythic evidence as “obscure information which is brought to us by mythology and legend from the primaeval ages of human society” (4:256), which is only fleetingly cited alongside other contemporary anecdotal and general observations.  Here, however, the use of the ancient text is as a confirmation of a hypothesis derived from clinical experience with neurotics, “confirmed by occasional observations on normal children,” that “being in love with the one parent and hating the other are among the essential constituents of the stock of psychical impulses” (4:260-61) which can lead to neurosis.
        This is a difficult moment in his argument.  He wishes to argue that neurotics are not deviants in kind but only in degree from the way “normal” human beings are psychically disposed. (6)  The only commonalities he can cite as evidence are at best anecdotal, since repression covers the tracks of this psychic conflict very well.  In looking for verification of the hypothesis, he goes to the one place where one can observe the psychic operations of a broad sampling of normal society:  the theater.

         Thus a most critical psychoanalytic premise (or as Freud preferred to call it, “finding”), the universality of the Oedipus complex, is now linked to a single piece of evidence:

    This discovery [i.e., of the existence of oedipal feelings in all people] is confirmed by a legend that has come down to us from classical antiquity:  a legend whose profound and universal power to move can only be understood if the hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of children has an equally universal validity.  What I have in mind is the legend of King Oedipus and Sophocles’ drama which bears his name.  (4:261; my emphasis)  (Original German)

Though initially he purports to address the legend of Oedipus, he quickly shifts the discussion exclusively to the Sophoclean drama, and this focus remains throughout the section, even—as shown above—when Freud seems unwilling to entertain the originality of the drama in relation to its traditional background.

        At first sight, the circularity of Freud’s argument is astonishing.  Broken down into its parts, it is a glaring instance of petitio principii:

    1. There is a universal psychological conflict (Oedipus complex), as I have discovered in my clinical experience.

    2. This is confirmed by a drama which has universal effectiveness.

    3. Why this drama is universally effective can only be understood if my hypothesis is correct.

One can see why this is a problematic way of arguing by giving a similar but absurd example:

    1. I have deduced that there are celestial intelligences that move all things.

    2. This is confirmed by the fact that all moons have stable orbits around their planets.

    3. These orbits can only be stable if my hypothesis about celestial intelligences is correct.

We have, then, another instance of Freud’s “wishful thinking,” as Alexander Welsh describes it.  Freud puts his argument forward in terms of scientific evidence and that very pretension to science infatuates the reader and gives a harder edge to Freud’s often excessively anecdotal narrative.  As Welsh says, “the procedures of the book are inductive up to a point, but the arbitrary turnings Freud takes can best be explained as wishful, pleasing not only to the writer but to his readers” (ix).  Freud is really arguing from a standpoint of deeply held convictions about things which defy proving in a book for a general audience, and he alludes to complications and alternative explanations only as a way of rejecting them, most often doing so far too prematurely.  His use of the Sophoclean text, then, would fit a general pattern within the whole economy of the Interpretation of Dreams.

         To summarize, then: at work at this section of the book are three sources of experiential evidence from which Freud draws his conviction that his hypothesis is indeed correct; they explain his certainty, but do not build a sufficient argument.  The first source is the tacit conviction Freud carries from his own self-analysis, which remains unmentioned in the Interpretation of Dreams, but which we can tell from other evidence was a powerful revelation with a lasting impact on him.  The experience elicited the first documented reference linking Oedipus Rex to the eponymous complex, a reference which also shows that both the Sophoclean drama and Hamletwere midwives to his conceptualization (Masson 272-273).  The reappearance of these dramas in the text of the Interpretation of Dreams is the direct residue of Freud’s earlier process of self-discovery.  Fully explicit in the text, however, is the second source of evidence: Freud’s clinical experience, coupled with his observations of non-neurotics (mostly children of his acquaintance).  The many anecdotes he strings together are introduced by terms with clear empirical roots: observation, experience, opportunity, studying (Beobachtung, Erfahrung, Gelegenheit, studieren).  And yet these anecdotes only constitute anecdotal evidence;  hence the need for corroboration or Unterstützung, which brings us to the last source of empirical evidence: Freud’s shared experience as a theater-goer, which he feels safe to draw on in order to win over his bourgeois readers (a natural assumption, it bears saying, for a 19th-century Viennese).  This is the evidence that is brought out last of all in the section, thus it is clearly meant to close the argument.

         This last evidence has been almost universally ignored in its proper form, which is strange considering the weight Freud puts on the Sophoclean text as a performance with a verifiable effect. (7)  Attention has been drawn by Freud scholars rather to the printed/read text, and more specifically to Freud’s experience of the original Greek text during his final year of Gymnasium, when he was required to translate a portion of it at the Matura examination.  But in Freud's comments to Fließ, it is the individual’s presence in the collective audience that is explicitly referred to, not the isolated reader, and it is also the physical presence of Oedipus that confronts us, not just a literary character:  “Everyone in the audience was once a budding Oedipus in fantasy and each recoils in horror from the dream fulfillment here transplanted into reality, with the full quantity of repression which separates his infantile state from his present one” (Masson 272; my emphasis). (8)  The value of the performance text is that it occurs in a context of a large number of eminently “normal” people, whose reactions occur by instigation of the same stimulus.  The theater thus becomes the perfect controlled experiment, bridging Freud’s clinical world with that of his bourgeois reading public.  This is far more effective in argument than a vague reference to the effect of Oedipus Rex on the reader.

         Though the function of this evidence within the argument is clear, it seems far from proven that Oedipus Rex could claim at the time of his writing such unquestioned success on the stage.  Greek tragedies are rarely runaway successes on the modern stage, or so one would think at first. (9)  After all, not even Goethe was able to produce a Greek drama successfully at Weimar; at the premier of his production of Ion in 1802, he was forced to shout at the audience from his box, “Stop laughing!” (Flashar 52).  Why would Freud assume so quickly that a Greek drama can move a modern audience no less than its original audience?  How can he be so certain back in the 1890s that a Greek drama performed on the stage would move a modern audience at all? A cynical view would dictate that this is a familiar sleight of hand on Freud’s part; lacking proper evidence for this allegedly universal psychic conflict, he quickly shifts the discussion to a high cultural text in order to win over our sympathies as readers to what is in fact a very shocking allegation. (10)

        Our task, then, is to understand better the nature of this third source of evidence; namely, the quality of Freud’s experience of Oedipus Rex as performance.  By elucidating Freud’s theater experience, I clearly cannot improve the basic logic of his argument for the Oedipus complex’s universality.  Rather, I claim only to shed light on why Freud was quick to make the assumption that Oedipus is a stage success, and how his own profoundly moving experience in the theater—shared with thousands of his contemporaries—years before the writing of the Interpretation of Dreams may have easily fed into his convictions about the universal nature of the complex.  There can be no doubt that Freud felt it to be true “in [his] own case, too” (Masson 272), and that he was equally convinced that the same oedipal feelings were at work in the neuroses of his patients.  But that further and dangerous leap into the claim that this complex is universal, transhistorical, and verifiable was made possible—at least at the level of argument—not by the clinic, but rather by the theater. (11)

        There are three productions which concern us here.  The first is the production at the Comédie Française starring the great French tragedian, Jean Mounet-Sully; the second is the production at the Burgtheater in Vienna, directed by the diligent poet-translator Adolf Wilbrandt; and the last is the much more famous Max Reinhardt Koenig Oedipus, based on the translation by the Viennese Hugo von Hofmannsthal.  In addition to documenting Freud’s experience of the drama as a performed work, this paper will trace a line of development whereby Oedipus Rex becomes drawn into the orbit of psychoanalysis, such that productions of it must now contend with the Freudian interpretation.  Oedipus, in other words, becomes oedipal.

 III. Paris:1885-1886.

        Freud’s time in Paris in 1885-86 was very important to his intellectual development in many ways.  He went on a lecturer’s travelling fellowship to study with the great French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot, for whom he developed tremendous respect.  Freud became immersed in Charcot’s active research and treatment of hysteria, a topic which would later be fundamental to Freud’s development of psychoanalysis.  During this time in Paris, Freud attended the theater on several occasions, initially for the purpose of improving his French.  In his letters to his fiancée, Martha Bernays, he describes, often in entertaining detail, productions he saw at the Porte-Saint-Martin and the Théâtre Français.  This was an era of great theater personalities whom French theater historians have called les monstres sacrés, the best known of whom for the English-speaking world remains Sarah Bernhardt (Jomaron 156).  Freud saw her in a production of Victorien Sardou’s Théodora, and wrote a long letter to Martha condemning the play but praising her acting in spite of all (E. Freud 179-181).  Another great sacred monster of the time, less well known these days, was Jean Mounet-Sully (1841-1916), whom Freud saw in the title role of Oedipe Roi at the Théâtre Français sometime during his sojourn.  Unfortunately all we know about his reaction is reported by Ernest Jones in his biography, where he reports that the production “made a deep impression on him” (177).  Whether this information was related personally to Jones by Freud himself or rather came from unpublished correspondence to which Jones had access, remains uncertain.

         One thing, however, is certain:  in seeing Mounet-Sully, Freud was privileged to see the definitive Oedipus of the 19th century.  The Comédie Française had taken the piece into its repertoire back in 1858, using a verse translation of the Sophoclean text made by the poet Jules Lacroix and published in 1854.  It had a limited success with the actor Geffroy in the title role, but was far from the sensation it later became when in 1881 Mounet-Sully took on the role.  He was a gifted tragic actor with considerable vocal powers and an original sense of gesture which some found shocking or even laughable at first, but which most came to find mesmerizing.  Though he had many successful roles (including Hamlet, which he re-introduced into the repertoire of the Comédie Française), Oedipus was the role with which he became most widely identified and with which he most identified himself. (12)  His intense engagement with the role led the production to both critical and popular acclaim in Paris and later around Europe, most notably in the ancient theater of Orange and in the Dimotiko Theatro in Athens, two auspicious locations for ancient drama (Janvier, Sideris 142-160).

         Mounet-Sully’s success as Oedipus had a lot to do with his desire to play the role with the full range of its psychological and emotional possibilities, something which struck his contemporaries as far more accessible and realistic than the melodramatic monotone earlier employed by Geffroy.  In an interview with a reporter from the Revued’art dramatique, he explained this approach clearly as a process of vulgarization of a poetic ideal.  He then illustrated this quite vividly:

    Mounet-Sully took the manuscript of Oedipus Rex and translated the poet’s verses into vulgar language, not shrinking from using a trivial expression if it gave more force and energy to the character’s personality.  The argument between Oedipus and Tiresias, Oedipus’ curses hurled against Creon degenerated into a veritable bar fight.  Jocasta expressed herself like a woman of the people.  But what fury, what passion and what intensity of life in all those characters! [...]

    “That is the basic model of the character,” Mounet-Sully said to me.  “That is Oedipus just as Sophocles saw him for the first time.  Art has been able to correct the role’s rough edges, but I will always remain the Oedipus which I’ve tried to show you.”  (Vernay 138-139)  (Original French)

Mounet-Sully also lavished considerable attention on his appearance and costume, using his skills as a sculptor to fashion models for both wardrobe and facial expression.  This is certainly in keeping with anecdotes about his absurd attention to details. (13)

         When one considers the nature of his own mental preparation for the performance, one finds that, like Freud, Mounet-Sully discarded the ostensible themes of the work in favor of “le côté humain” within it.  Yet he was particularly famous for his subhuman groaning in the final act, a hyperbolic style of which not all critics approved. (14)  In defense of his excesses at this point, he said, “Après les épouvantables malheurs qui m’accablent, je suis anéanti, écrasé, j’ai perdu le sens et la raison et je m’exprime comme un être inconscient...” (Vernay 149), words which cannot help but suggest parallels with Freud’s reading of the work against its conscious, rationalizing grain.

         The plight of Oedipus was seen quite often in Promethean terms by the 19th century; Oedipus Rex was thus interpreted as a work about a man’s proud defiance of the machinations of malicious gods.  In his memoirs, Mounet-Sully defined the role himself:

    In Oedipus I had seen a man who revolts against his destiny, who is proud of his power.  He disputes the orders of the gods; he does not submit himself to the prophecies.  In wanting to avoid them, he makes them come true, and he falls in the trap laid for him by the gods who are jealous of their authority.
        This strong man contains the quintessence of a humanity that is proud and rebellious against the Divine.  He is a sort of Prometheus who will never see the vulture, and each of his cries is like the shaking of invisible chains.  Oedipus represents the revolt of instinct and intelligence against blind fate and man’s final defeat (126-127).  (Original French)

Mounet-Sully’s is, in other words, a reading of Oedipus which imparts quite the opposite of what Freud described as the conventional lesson of the work, “submission to the divine will and realization of [one’s] own impotence” (4:262).  It is a rebellious, “oedipal” Oedipus that retains its hostility and self-assertion even after the catastrophe has occurred.  It is also an Oedipus interpreted without reference to Oedipus at Colonus and the reconciliation depicted therein between the human and the divine, so beloved of Christian readers in the 19th century.

        Though Mounet-Sully’s talent was absolutely central to the success of this production, it is also important to note some of the aesthetic alterations which the work underwent in the process of being adapted for the 19th-century Parisian stage.  First of all, the translation by Lacroix was in rhymed Alexandrine couplets, which gives the work the mechanical smoothness of Racine and clearly mediates between audience expectations of dramatic poetry and the Sophoclean original.  The choruses were rendered into French lyric meters of a much more conventional sort, and were not delivered in unison “choral” fashion.  Lacroix had already redesigned the chorus to consist of a male coryphaeus and a few female soloists, who delivered stanzas of the choruses individually.  This in particular would seem to be a concession to French taste, and one that did not go without criticism in the initial run of the play in 1858.  Said one critic:

    What an unforunate idea it was to have the choric stanzas recited by young women!  Young women, ye gods!  Young women in that chorus whose testimony is endlessly invoked concerning events which belonged already to the distant past!  Young women charged with passing judgment on those deadly riddles of incest?  Where is truth?  Where is modesty?  Where is Greece?  (cited in Nostrand 82)  (Original French)

This dissolution of the chorus, as we shall see, was a common expedient used to overcome the greatest difficulty in modern productions of Greek drama: the unwieldly, often abstruse mass of people relegated to their own space in the ancient theater, but who all too easily swamp the visual field of a proscenium stage.  With the chorus thus reduced, the stage was then repeopled with silent extras in keeping with the sumptuous production values of 19th-century historical drama.  The set and costumes were historicizing in their appearance—i.e., Greek buildings, scenery, and Greek-inspired costumes—yet not ancient in design (e.g., no masks and no cothurni).  This again helped to mediate between the alterity of Greek theatrical space and a contemporary audience unused to the orkhestra and parodos, but very used to historical settings, particularly classical ones.  Lastly, a musical score by Edmond Membrée gave the spectators audible cues and colorings suited to contemporary tastes.

         This production also underwent the familiar adaptation made when the chorus ceases to function in the ancient manner:  massive editing of the script to quicken the pace, which makes the work conform more to the appearance of a modern five-act tragedy in its development.  Lacroix’s original translation was shortened by over 200 lines, cuts which reflect a desire as much to repress boringly lyrical sections as to avoid alien ways of thought.  While some of the cuts can be suspected of prudery, certainly many others are a simple matter of timing.  But there is one element of prudery which is of great interest from the Freudian point of view.  Already in the translation, Lacroix had hesitated over lines which Freud would later designate as the key to the drama (see above).  At lines 980-83 of the Greek text, Jocasta tells Oedipus not to worry about what oracles say, since many people dream of sleeping with their mothers; who ignores such dreams gets along fine, she reassures him.  The Greek is—as Greek so often is—quite plain about the sexual reference.  It says specifically that many mortals have gone to bed together with their mother in their dreams (polloi gar êdê kan oneirasin brotôn / mêtri xunêunasthêsan); the main verb, xuneunazomai, contains within it the word eunê, “bed,” a very precise image that serves as the semantic root:  xun+euna+zomai = “I am bedded together with (someone).”   Lacroix in his translation steered clear not of the incest theme but of the literal image of lying in bed with one’s mother:

    L’hymen incestueux qu’Apollon te présage,
    Ne le redoute point.  Ces fantômes cruels,
    Épouvantent parfois les songes des mortels;
    Mais pour l’homme qui foule aux pieds ces terreurs vaines
    La vie heureusement coule exempte des peines!

He offers, however, in a footnote the following alternative which he calls “a more exact translation, but one that is perhaps inadmissible in the theatre”:

      .........Déjà plus d’un mortel,
    En songe, a cru monter dans le lit maternel.

By thus changing the vivid bed for the vagueness of “cruel phantoms,” Lacroix was responding to the particular threshold of his audience as he perceived it.  It is interesting to note the contrast with twentieth-century productions of Hamlet, which have made the real presence of the mother’s bed practically mandatory for the confrontation between Hamlet and his mother in her “closet.” (15)

         In summary:  the Oedipus  Freud encountered in Paris was an interpretation much suited to 19th-century views of the play and dramatic tastes.  His later views of the play share certain features with it, but these are not crudely to be traced back to the Paris production in strictly causal terms.  Rather, we can say that Freud saw in the Parisian Oedipus the greatest culmination of 19th-century artistic energy devoted to the text, a text he had certainly read before and knew about from other discussions.  What would have been new to him, however, would be the play’s phenomenal success with the audience, some of whom would wait around for hours afterward to cheer the actor as he left the theater.  At the height of its popularity in 1888, Oedipe Roi  played 17 times at the Comédie Française in that year, and throughout the 1890s it continued to play a dozen times annually (high figures for a national theater in those days) (Nostrand 81).  The popularity of this play with the modern audience would only be doubly reinforced in Freud’s mind when he left Paris to return to Vienna.


IV.  Vienna 1886
Newly married and trying to set up a medical practice, Freud was very busy when he returned to Vienna in 1886; all the same, it could hardly have escaped his notice that the prestigious Hofburgtheater was about to attempt the first production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex ever on a Viennese stage.  This project was the brainchild of an unusual man, the poet-turned-theater-director Adolf Wilbrandt, who led the Burgtheater in its final days of glory in the old building it had occupied for decades on the Michaelerplatz.  It is difficult to understand nowadays how dear this institution was to the Viennese; but for theatromaniacal Vienna, this was the great meeting place of good society (both the old nobility, including the royal-imperial family, and the new lions of the bourgeoisie) and the home of a unique theatrical tradition on what was at the time the most revered German-speaking stage in the world, the Germanic equivalent of the Comédie Française.

         Wilbrandt had waited over twenty years to realize his dream to direct Oedipus Rex.  As far back as 1866, he had published translations of Sophocles which were specifically intended for stage production and not just for reading.  He rendered the Greek trimeters with German iambic pentameter, the standard meter for German poetic drama, reduced the chorus to speaking parts, simplified mythological references, and strove overall for dramatic immediacy over lyrical flourish. (16)  At the time this was an unusual idea, and it was one which was to haunt him for decades.  His translations were produced in the 1860s and 70s in theaters in Meiningen, Berlin, Darmstadt, and Munich, but Wilbrandt himself did not have a direct hand in the dramaturgy of these performances.

         When Wilbrandt was appointed director of the Burgtheater in 1881, he immediately began to realize his plans for introducing Greek drama along with other international classics (Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and works of Calderón in his own translations) in order to build the repertory into a mirror of world drama.  The very first play of his tenure was Sophocles’ Elektra, starring the famous tragédienne Charlotte Wolter, who was able to carry the play to modest success largely through her personal following.  As an after-piece to the Elektra, he also produced Euripides’ Cyclops, the only fully extant satyr play which Wilbrandt had translated into prose.  This combination of works set the precedent he would follow of producing one tragedy and one lighter drama in the same evening, in imitation of the ancient Athenian dramatic festivals.

         Wilbrandt was hesitant to bring out Oedipus Rex too early, because he was not entirely satisfied with the actor destined to play the leading role.  This was a fiery Hungarian, Emerich Robert (1847-1899), whom Wilbrandt literally retrained slowly but surely over the space of four years so as to prepare him for Oedipus (Wilbrandt 1905:24-26).  Matters were complicated for the première ofOedipus Rex by the fact that Wilbrandt had managed an unprecedented directorial triumph: the entire Faust I and II, performed over three successive nights, which caused a sensation with the public.  This meant that all other new initiatives were bound to pale in comparison.  From Wilbrandt’s memoirs, we can see just what a risk he was running at this time by bringing out Oedipus Rex onto the Viennese stage, and just what a resounding success he achieved.  This passage describes how Wilbrandt announced his intentions to his only superior, the Generalintendant Baron Bezecny, who oversaw all the court theaters:

    I had informed him, as I did in each case, that I now planned at long last to put on Oedipus; I was the absolute master in this, as I was for everything that pertained to artistic production; so he took it simply as an announcement from me.  I heard from others soon afterward, however, that he had spoken out against it with regret; it seemed to him right at this point that an overwhelming success was needed, with a powerful, modern play, “and here he comes with Oedipus!  What use is Oedipus to us!”  I believe in his place ninety-nine out of a hundred other men would have thought just that; for who really knew Sophocles?  The learned translators had only succeeded in making him barely alive; actually, quite dead. (1905:43)  (Original German).

Wilbrandt took great care to see that all details of the production were in order; if his dramaturgy in this case was similar to that for his Elektra, he doubtless cut many lines from his own translation in order to enliven the action n the pace.  (17)   Like Lacroix, he had reduced the chorus to a few speaking parts and filled out the stage with a crew of silent extras; this shifted the full weight of the production onto the dialogue.  The set was rather unadventurous for the time: Greek buildings, still in the colorless interpretation dating before the discovery of Greek polychromy, with an assortment of statues.  Wilbrandt clearly did not want to create any distraction from the dialogue by resorting to scenic gimmicks or innovations. (18)

         The unusual preparations being made must have attracted notice, because this particular première differs from all his others in the unusual build-up it received in the press.  On December 29, 1886, the day of the first performance, several papers published preparatory articles; the Neues Wiener Tagblatt devoted half of its entire front page to a lengthy introductory article, while the Wiener Tagblatt and Freud’s favorite paper, the liberal Neue Freie Presse, published preparatory pieces in the usual place by their theater reviewers.  Ludwig Speidel, by far the most penetrating and influential among the contemporary critics, clearly thought that the performance of Oedipus Rex was to be a test of the public as much as of the performers:  “The public will have to undergo an aesthetic examination, a veritable Rigorosum” (Neue Freie Presse 12-29-1886, Morgenblatt).  He also baited the public into accepting the challenge:  “To be able to endure and enjoy such a work of art is a sign of naturally great feeling, or of a high aesthetic culture.  Both these elements are well represented in the Vienna public, and we can be certain to enjoy a pleasurable evening.”

         Not everyone was so optimistic, however.  A writer for the Neues Wiener Tagblatt raised the point that Wilbrandt’s aesthetic alterations did not address the real problem of Greek drama’s alienating qualities: “Not the trimeter [of the Greek original] and the choruses, but rather fate, oracles, belief in the gods, and the power of priests are the great hindrances which thwart the universal effectiveness of tragedy” (12-29-86).  He thus predicted that the enjoyment would be purely historical, and that the dramaturg cannot in anyway remedy this basic problem.  Ludwig Ganghofer in the Tagblatt similarly proclaimed that the play would not be truly effective with the modern audience:

    So it is that the greatest masterpieces of Greek tragedy, even though they seem to us when we read them to be the inexhaustible sources of the purest, noblest pleasure and uplifting memories, confront us in their experimental embodiment on the modern stage not indeed as incomprehensible, but certainly as alienating, and that not one of our heartstrings will resound harmoniously with the notes which we hear in these works. (12-29-86)

Like Freud, then, these critics objected to the “theological” themes of the work, and predicted—prematurely, it turned out—that this production would not meet with much more than a succès d’estime.  At issue was chiefly the matter of tragic guilt and the negation of free will inherent in a cosmos of foreordained agency.  Such fatalism insulted progressivist sensibilities, while the religiosity appeared simply naive.

         The result at the first performance was a great surprise to everyone.  Wilbrandt, rightfully proud of this particular triumph, related in his memoirs the power of this moment:

    ... [W]hen the tragedy appeared that night—translated by me for the living stage, the choral passages reduced to speaking parts; with Emerich Robert as Oedipus in Greek eloquence and bodily perfection, but with the looseness, the fire, the spiritual timbres of our days; and with Joseph Lewinksy as Tiresias with powerful dramatic countereffect, and with his great speaking voice; and with even the small roles full of life; and now the action relentlessly drawing step by step toward the devastating discovery of a dark secret, until Fate’s door swings open—as all this ran its course and the curtain fell, a storm of applause broke out as it had at [my production of] Goethe’s Faust; it could have been only slightly less. I quickly left my box so that there would be none of the inspired but excessive cheering as there was then; but everywhere the thundering roar of the crowd followed me.  I went around back to the stage; there stood Baron Bezecny [the Generalintendant], alone, with an excited, moved, elated look on his face that I have not often seen in a man.  “Herr Direktor!” he said rushing up.  “Never before have I had such an impression in the theater!”

     “If only Sophocles could hear that!” I thought.

     The roar continued; I don’t know for how long.  “Go on, go out there!” said Baron Bezecny, and again, “Show yourself to them, man! Otherwise they’ll never quiet down!”  I remained, however, steadfast and faithful to the “by-law.”  The Director must never appear on the stage of the Burgtheater [i.e., for a curtain call, the famous Vorhangverbot], nor must the actors.  The galant curtain rises only for poets, guests, and those celebrating a jubilee.  Like every other noise, this one too came to an end. (1905: 44-45)  (Original German).

Wilbrandt’s recollection is not exaggerated by any means.  Ludwig Speidel in his review after the performance was clearly pleased with what this production meant for Vienna as a theater capital:

    The success of the production, which had been prepared with the greatest care, was outstanding.  The spectators, who confronted the tragedy’s alien style of composition with refined understanding and who lost no moment of the action, truly deserve the highest praise.  Vienna has at last come of age for grand tragedy, from which it has heretofore more or less snivellingly shut itself off.  This realization is the happiest thing to come out of this performance of Oedipus Rex, in my opinion. (Cited in Smekal  216)  (Original German.)

The other press reviews were extremely enthusiastic, though not uncritical.  In particular, intelligent reviewers like Johannes Meissner of the Deutsche Zeitung felt that to undo the choruses of Greek tragedy was to go too far, and that there should be some means of saving them for modern production (including the use of “oriental” music that would allow the words to be understood) (Deutsche Zeitung 12-31-1886).  Opinion was divided about Emerich Robert’s performance as Oedipus; Meissner found him so natural for the role that he speculated Robert could have played in ancient Athens with success (Deutsche Zeitung 12-31-1886), and many praised his grace and dynamic control, which allowed him to play Oedipus as “one great crescendo” (Neues Wiener Tagblatt 12-30-1886).  Others felt he lacked the arrogant, imperious quality needed to rationalize in some measure his fall; Robert was too innocent-looking, blond, and Apollonian to fill out the role of the impetuous, suspicion-prone king (Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung 12-30-1886).  Many objected to the way Euripides’ Cyclops was made to follow Oedipus, since the comic blinding of the monster was hardly enjoyable in the wake of Oedipus’ terrible exit.

         In spite of such criticism in point of detail, it was clear that Adolf Wilbrandt had made theater history and achieved something that would permanently alter the repertoire of the Burgtheater.  It was said over and over again that he was sincerely to be thanked for the gamble he had undertaken.  It is worth remembering that one of Freud’s favorite authors, Mark Twain, would describe Vienna in 1898 as remaining “upon the ancient basis” precisely because of its devotion to grand tragedy (something he felt powerfully while seeing Wilbrandt’s Meister von Palmyra) and not just light drama:  “She sticks to the former proportions: a number of rollicking comedies, admirably played, every night; and also every night at the Burg Theatre—that wonder of the world for grace and beauty and richness and splendor and costliness—a majestic drama of depth and seriousness, or a standard old tragedy” (250).  Thus this performance of Oedipus Rex can be seen to have crowned Vienna as a capital of world drama, as reviewers at the time were ready to claim.

         It is also evident that Wilbrandt thought the successful production of König Oedipus to be his finest directorial triumph; this is corroborated by the fact that when he resigned from the Burgtheater, it was the piece performed on his last evening as director.  It was certainly a lifetime achievement in that it was long in preparation, and although it premiered in the same year that the Comédie Française production was at its height of popularity, there is no evidence that Wilbrandt was vying with the French in his production.  His was a personal challenge dating back twenty years.  Wilbrandt’s production premiered only in 1886—late in the century—but by 1899 it would become the most performed play in the repertory of the Burgtheater, with thirty presentations during those years.  Classical theater historian Hellmut Flashar has written the following about Wilbrandt’s classical productions in general:

    These productions are milestones on the road to the naturalization of ancient drama on the contemporary stage.  The previous skepticism as to whether Greek drama had any right to exist in the modern theater was once and for all set aside, at least as far as Sophocles was concerned. [...]  Without [these productions], the more far-ranging steps taken later by Wilamowitz and Max Reinhardt are unthinkable. (103)

Naturally the burning question is whether Freud ever attended one of these performances.  There is unfortunately no positive evidence that he did or that he did not.  Given the interest he showed in attending the Paris production, we can safely assume that even the pre-psychoanalytic Freud would have found such an event appealing.  In the late 1890s, as his psychoanalytical investigations began to take shape, we can imagine he would have been particularly motivated to go, and there would have been ample opportunity for him to see a performance.  But for the sake of this paper, it is not necessary that Freud actually saw the production; all Vienna, judging from the papers, was well aware of the success this play had on the contemporary stage, and that is the assumption under which Freud worked when writing the Interpretation of Dreams.


V. Vienna 1911.

        We know of a production in Vienna which Freud definitely saw many years later, long after he had become the leader of the international psychoanalytic movement and was embroiled in his first major scrap with his followers.  This production is far better known, and is often cited as the true beginning of the Greek drama revival on the modern stage (though clearly it is not fair to say so).  The Viennese poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who as a teenager had attended Wilbrandt’s Burgtheater productions, turned his own hand to translating Oedipus Rex for the stage in 1906, and this was produced in Germany in a most unusual way by Max Reinhardt beginning in 1910.  Reinhardt experimented with huge casts and unusual spaces in an attempt to revolutionize the idea of intimacy: not an intimacy of small dimensions like the dinner theater, but one of mass, like the original Athenian theater (Carter 210-211).  Thus he took Oedipus Rex out of the theater and staged it in circuses.  In May 1911, the Deutsches Theater of Berlin came to play in Vienna, and one of their performances included König Oedipus staged in the Zirkus Busch with local student talent used to fill out the cast.
         Like all of Reinhardt’s guest performances in Vienna, this caused a great sensation.  The arena had been turned into a stage with the audience occupying three quarters of the usual seating; a fourth quarter was made into the palace of Thebes.  A central stage entrance was built straight through the public onto the stage, with two smaller ones flanking it, which thus effected the Sprengung des Bühnenraumes or dissolution of the scenebox conventions of theater that traditionally establish great distance between actors and audience through the use of the proscenium stage. Reinhardt’s desire was to overwhelm the audience’s senses, especially with the exciting novelty of his crowd scenes (the total cast numbered well over 100).  Like the silent extras of the late 19th-century, these crowds were something other than the Greek chorus, the role of which Hofmannsthal had reduced in his translation just as Wilbrandt and Lacroix had done. (19)  Reinhardt also made particular use of dramatic lighting constrasts, deploying darkness and half-light to suggest vast spaces and spot-lighting to illuminate specific points of action. The translation and direction were designed to give a quick pace to the work, one which did not always find smooth execution in practice, due to the cumbersome staging of the large cast and the incidental deployment of exotic music (at least in London, this included the use of gongs).  But even with its glitches, the whole spectacle was intoxicating.  A reviewer for the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung cited some of its faults but added:

    This alters nothing of the event; the event, that is, that one saw a creative power in the work, full of fantasy, full of ideas, full of wit, full of daring, full of the pleasure in difficulties and their overcoming, full of the pleasure in never-before seen images and scenes, never-before heard sounds, never-before felt theatrical effects, full of pleasure in artistic adventures and creative frenzy.  (5-6-1911)

It is clear that the Viennese appetite for Greek drama had evolved significantly since the days of Wilbrandt’s comparatively tame productions 25 years before. Wilbrandt had tried to avoid sensationalism in favor of the dialogue itself; Reinhardt was more concerned with moving beyond the text and into uncharted realms of spectacle.
         The actor in the title roll was Alexander Moissi, who was at the time rather young for the part.  He was not possessed of the regal demeanor and virile energy expected of great heroic characters, but his youthful appearance and his cello-toned voice added, by some accounts, an inward power and a tragic gracefulness to the role (Neue Freie Presse 5-6-1911).  Unfortunately his colleague playing Kreon was more regal than his own Oedipus, which set up an unequal contrast; Reinhardt himself played the role of Tiresias.  The biggest problem for the actors was that they were somewhat overshadowed by the massive crowds of extras which were so important in the staging.  These details are important in that they represent the many things which were commented on by virtually everyone who saw the play as it travelled all over Europe—everyone, that is, except for Sigmund Freud, as we shall see.

         Freud at this time was fighting to repair the damage being done to the psychoanalytic movement by the rebellious Alfred Adler, and he consoled himself with the prospect of a new international leadership under Carl Jung, to whom he wrote confiding his frustrations.  On May 12, 1911, Freud wrote to Jung:

    ...I am becoming steadily more impatient of Adler’s paranoia and longing for an occasion to throw him out.  Especially since seeing a performance of Oedipus Rex here—the tragedy of the “arranged libido.”
    (McGuire 422)

Freud’s reference to “arranged libido” is a personal joke based on a theory held by Adler which Freud disliked; namely, that incestuous libido is “arranged” or rigged, in that the neurotic does not genuinely desire his mother, but rather “wants to provide himself with a motive for scaring himself away from his libido; he therefore pretends to himself that his libido is so enormous that it does not even spare his mother” (McGuire 507).  It is clear, then, that Freud attended this performance with weighty matters on his mind.

         The performance delighted him all the same.  Hanns Sachs saw him the following day, and remembers how he talked excitedly about the previous evening.  He told Sachs that it was not the acting or the directing which impressed him, but rather a moment in the play which had hitherto escaped his notice.  In his memoirs, Sachs reports Freud as saying:

      “You know that the repressed content always comes back to the surface, almost undisguised, but so placed and motivated that it remains unrecognizable.  (We call this ‘the return of the repressed.’)  Now, in the course of the play Oedipus, who is deeply disturbed by the oracle which told him that he would kill his father, learns that his father has died.  It is, in fact, not his real father, but the king who adopted him and whom he believes to be his father.  In hearing the news of the natural death of his reputed father, the dreadful weight of the Delphian prophecy is lifted from his mind.  He reacts with triumph and jubilation.  You see that the rejoicing over the father’s death is as clearly present as the murder itself which Oedipus commits unintentionally, in obedience to his destiny.”  (Freud as quoted in Sachs 70)

This detail struck Freud as important for the first time only as he watched the play in performance, yet it clearly fits very well into a psychoanalytic reading of the work.  This is just as “symptomatic” a passage as Jocasta’s statement on incestuous dreams which Freud highlighted earlier in his Interpretation of Dreams, and which follows a mere four lines after  the passage in question.  The “son” is jubilant at the news of his supposed father’s death, then suddenly fears, against all common sense, that he might still be fated to sleep with the woman he supposes to be his mother.  This passage has often been cited by critics as a weak point in the play.  In Wilbrandt’s day, critics thought the “genuinely ancient crudeness” of Oedipus’ joy ought to have been cut out in the modern production (Wiener Tagblatt 13-31-1886), and that surely the great riddle-master of Greece could manage to avoid sleeping with his mother, especially now that he has long been married (Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung 12-31-1886).  Indeed, the passage is much easier to read psychoanalytically than it is to accept at face value; it is not often that one sees a heroic character truly worried about the prospect of accidentally sleeping with his elderly mother.  One could even accept this more readily as an example of “arranged libido.”  Otherwise, it is just bad drama.  The apparent absurdity of Oedipus' fear makes it a better candidate for "key" to the drama in the Freudian interpretation than Jocasta's commentary on dreams, though the two belong together in the same scene.

         This time, however, Freud had some help in achieving his insight into the play; help of a kind he could not have received before the writing of the Interpretation of Dreams.  To understand this, we must attend to the details of Hofmannsthal’s translation.  In the Sophoclean text (964-971), Oedipus joyously declares that his “father” Polybus, in dying of infirm old age at Corinth, has thereby swept away the oracles that have plagued him all his life.  But then he adds the thought:

        ...egô d' hod' enthade
    apsaustos enkhous, ei ti mê tômôi pothôi
    katephthith'—houtô d'an thanôn eiê 'x emou.
         ...but I am here,
    and have not touched my weapon; unless by his longing for me
    he was consumed—thus he would have perished by me.

These lines can be variously weighted, ranging from a mocking acknowledgment that in this way alone can the oracles be said to have any validity, to an earnest pang of religious misgiving, a desire to be free of the oracles without resorting to impious rejection (a position hard to maintain, since he calls them “worthless” two lines later).

         Hofmannsthal engaged in a little willful literalness in his translation in order to render the text in a tendentious manner.  The Greek phrase tôimôi pothôi means literally “by my longing or desire,” but the adjective emos in this instance is clearly to be taken as the equivalent of an objective genitive, not a possessive genitive; i.e., “by desire for me.”  The word pothos in Greek means quite specifically a longing or desire for something or someone that is missing, and cannot mean a desire to do something or a wish; Wilbrandt had rendered it with the German word Sehnsucht.  Yet Hofmannsthal’s translation reads:

        ...er müßte denn
     an meinem Wunsch gestorben sein.  So wär ich
    denn freilich schuld an seinem Tod.  (6: 363)

which transforms both the object into a possessor and the longing into a wish.  This is an overtly Freudian twist to the passage, in other words, to which Freud himself responded without realizing that his own theories had given color to the production.

         This important fact was first noticed by Michael Worbs, who characterizes Hofmannsthal’s interpretation thus:

    He makes explicit what was only implicit in Sophocles.  In his relief brought about by the erroneous assumption that the oracle has been proved false, Oedipus by a characteristic slip makes known that to which he himself has not owned up: his wish to kill his father. Oedipus’ destiny is thereby psychologized in the Freudian sense; the religious meaning of the ancient fate is suppressed and made sympathetically understandable for the modern spectator from the standpoint of Oedipus’ individual psyche.  The heart of the drama lies in himself, not in a curse laid upon him from outside.  The confirmation that Freud found here is thus the circle’s coming to a close...  What Freud saw in the Zirkus Busch was not the Oedipus Rexof Sophocles, as it was first performed in 425 BCE in Athens, but rather a paraphrase of the ancient tragedy in the spirit of modern psychology (262; original italics).  (Original German).

Worbs’ characterization would appear to suggest that the Freudian reading can only stand with such alterations effected; i.e., that for it to be “oedipal,” Oedipus Rexneeds some Freudian emendations.  But Freud would certainly not have agreed; it is the artist’s task to conceal, not reveal the deep psychological truths that are the wellsprings of art, in Freud’s thinking.  Repression being what it is, we would expect to see other agencies—such as the sinister machinations of “fate” and “the gods”—held responsible for the action, in a “misconceived secondary elaboration” of the material which originally was quite the opposite of accidental.  This brings us, then, to some final considerations on the import of these performances in relation to Freudian theory.

VI.  Conclusion

         It might appear that by showing cases where Oedipus Rex was effective on the modern stage, but only with hefty emendations, I am suggesting that Freud’s desire to make the textual effect into a timeless universal is unrealizable; that instead of a unitary performance text that was the same for the Athenians of ca. 425 BCE as it is today, we have a variety of very different actualizations of a script that therefore cannot be said to share in a stable identity as the text of Sophocles. (20)  To push this argument further to its conclusion: Freud wrongly asserts the Oedipus Rex as evidence of a transhistorical psychic condition, since the play can only transcend its origins by losing many of its essential or original characteristics.  Such an argument can be made with ease in this instance by champions of historical relativism, but I do not think Freud would find this to be a serious challenge to his reading of the text.

         First of all, the original site of “oedipal textuality” was twofold: Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, as I mentioned earlier, were the dual foci of his original formulation of the complex now known solely as "oedipal" (Masson 272). (21)   Freud was well aware of the qualitative difference between the open enigma of Oedipusand the critical conundrum of Hamlet; he ascribed the difference to the “secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind” (298), by which Shakespeare was compelled to censure himself more than Sophocles.

Mounet-Sully as Hamlet and Oedipus, his most original and most famous roles.

Since the task of the artist, in Freud’s view, is to learn how best to circumvent the censors in the minds of his audience, artists from different times will respond differently in working on the same psychic material.  And by extension we could argue that Freud would find the alterations made on the Sophoclean text in order to make it successful with a modern audience entirely understandable, and that he would not feel they altered the psychic facts of the case, i.e., that Oedipus Rex is a play derived from the Oedipus complex.

        Freud was well aware that modern productions of ancient drama can transform the original to the drastic extent of becoming quite literally a joke.  One of the oft-cited jokes from his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious is in fact about the Berlin production of Antigone(1841), which Berliners mocked with a pun on the title: Antik? Oh, nee! ("Ancient? Oh, no!") (31).  But this is not the indictment of modern productions that it might seem at first, since the joke is itself Freud’s model for the artwork:  it bribes with forepleasure in order to release the critical judgment from keeping its repressive watch on the contents of the unconscious, which then become the deeper hedonic targets of the joker / artist.  The strategies of forepleasure may very well change over time in accord with social and historical circumstances, but the deeper unconscious motivation is, Freud can argue, largely the same.

        This may explain Freud’s constant tendency to downplay the specific techniques and artistry of production in his discussions.  For most people, they are usually the elements which hang in the balance for critical appraisal: is this Oedipus a worthy interpretation of Sophocles?  For Freud, the question is much more: is this Oedipus oedipal enough to have a powerful effect on the audience?  As can be seen from Freud’s “enigmatizing” of the play’s success, he does not seem at all interested in ascribing it to the genius of Sophocles.  In fact, he considers the ostensive lesson of the play to be an insult to a thinking person’s intelligence.  Sophocles, then, is not the standard by which to judge a performance of Oedipus Rex.

        Nor does Freud enter into details about the actors or directors, a fact which at first might appear to weaken his argument in the Interpretation of Dreams.  Why does he not cite by name Mounet-Sully and the Comédie Française or Wilbrandt and the Burgtheater to substantiate his claims?  He is usually not shy about dropping names, after all.  The reason is, I think, that this all too quickly diverts the question of the efficacy of the play to the great personalities behind the production, whom, it must be remembered, 19th-century audiences adulated.  In fact, well within memory of the book’s writing, Mounet-Sully had been in Vienna playing a most unusual Hamlet for the Viennese; mentioning his name might well have distracted the reader from what is the central issue for Freud: not the medium but the latent message.  He leaves the stage success of Oedipus Rex, then, as self-evident, and indeed it would have been so in Vienna.  It is worth remembering that many people shared Freud's disinterest in the theological drift of the play.  Its success came initially as a bit of a surprise, and many would have been quick to ascribe it to "purely aesthetic" causes;  this, more than some notion of Sophocles' original intentions, is the greatest threat to Freud's argument.

         From Freud’s point of view, then, the many changes made in the process of making Oedipus Rex stageworthy present no challenge to his basic argument that it is as successful today as it was in the fifth century BCE.  As is so often the case with a Freudian premise, one’s ability to agree with him will rest largely on experiences and wishes within oneself, rather than the force of demonstrable argument.  Since much of the interest in Freud these days goes beyond the substantive claims of his psychoanalysis and lies in Freud as representative of the transition between the late 19th century and the early 20th, it behooves us to entertain the idea that the theater—that great bourgeois institution—had its role in the genesis and confirmation of his most contested and daring assertion (“discovery,” he would say, correcting me):  the Oedipus complex.



1)  All quotations from Freud in English are from the Standard Edition, in the format:  volume: pages.  All German quotations from Freud are from the Gesammelte Werke edition, in the same format as the English.

2)  Freud’s peremptory claim that modern Schicksalstragödien are all failures on the stage does not hold true, judging from the stage history of his one cited example, Grillparzer’s Die Ahnfrau.  This play was performed 124 times at the Burgtheater in Vienna between its premiere in 1824 and 1902, with numerous performances during the last three decades of the 19th century (von Alth 1:149).  One could argue that Freud’s use of it to represent the genre is decidedly unfair, as it was quite dated by Freud’s time and was only the first of Grillparzer’s plays.  For one thing, its trochaic meter, which is cloyingly deployed throughout, could certainly contribute much to one’s feeling of boredom while watching it.  But, as I said, the Viennese appear to have been fond of it.

3)  Although Wilamowitz strongly disagreed with attempts to read Oedipus Rex as an "idea play" about free will vs. fate, he shared Freud's unqualified appraisal of Sophocles as "...der vornehmste Vertreter der geltenden Religion der Athener; wenn man will, ist er der einzige wirklich gläubige Heide neben Pindaros..." (57).  Wilamowitz even went so far as to say:

    Vermuthlich wird den Sophocles am besten heut zu Tage ein christliches Mütterlein verstehen, das in all den unbegreiflichen und ungerechten Lebensschicksalen, die sie gesehen hat, die Hand des persönlichen in alles eingreifenden gerechten Gottes findet, und sie hat nicht Unrecht, wenn sie dann den armen Heiden bedauert, dem die Gewissheit der (potentiellen) Erlösung gefehlt hätte, so sehr auch Sophokles dies Bedauern abzulehnen berechtigt wäre. (57)

This characterization of Sophocles as a naive religious poet has been seriously questioned in our age of suspicion.  But Wilamowitz, one of the greatest philological authorities during Freud's lifetime, here echoes the idea that there is a devout "theology" of a kind in the play, though not that which contemporary Christian readers found in it.

4)  It was of course up to anthropologists, sociologists, and social historians to examine to what extent the family structure of Freudian theory is a human universal, and to what extent it is culturally relative.

5)  Hamlet suits Freud’s technique precisely because it presents itself as a genuine riddle, i.e., the famous lack of an “objective correlative” for Hamlet’s emotions.  Freud clearly felt that he had solved this riddle, and Ernest Jones went to greater lengths to make the psychoanalytic argument in a monograph (no such monograph was produced by the movement on Oedipus Rex).  Of course, now a Freudian reading of Hamlet is quite often encoded into modern productions, most openly in Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother in her “closet” (III.iv).

6)  This is quite patent in his wording:  “It is not my belief, however, that psycho-neurotics differ sharply in this respect from other human beings who remain normal (normal verbleibenden)—that they are able, that is, to create something absolutely new and peculiar to themselves.  It is far more probable—and this is confirmed by occasional observations on normal children (an normalen Kindern)—that they are only distinguished by exhibiting on a magnified scale feelings of love and hatred to their parents which occur less obviously and less intensely in the minds of most children.” (4:261)

7)  Even Peter Rudnytsky, who has written extensively on Freud and Oedipus, neglects this point, though he mentions the fact that Freud saw Oedipe roi in Paris (10).  He maps instead a route of Oedipus as a figure in intellectual history in the 19th century, which, while interesting, speaks less to the type of deployment Freud makes of the Sophoclean text in the Interpretation of Dreams.

8)  Again in the Interpretation of Dreams, he refers explicitly to der tief ergriffene Zuschauer, and die Zuschauer haben ungerührt zugesehen (2/3:268), which underscores the theatrical presentation of the text.

9)  Others continue to express doubts about the stage viability of Greek drama when produced in some approximation to the ancient manner and not in a modern adaptation.  See for example the paper by Trypanis.

10)  It has been suggested that Freud’s use of the archaeological metaphor was a similar attempt to make the procedure of analysis look more respectable and scientific by drawing an analogy with a grand cultural enterprise.

11)  Ernest Jones was of the opinion that such a jump in reasoning was typical of Freud’s personality:

    When, for example, Freud found in himself previously unknown attitudes towards his parents, he felt immediately that they were not peculiar to himself and that he had discovered something about human nature in general:  Oedipus, Hamlet, and the rest soon flashed across his mind.
         That is the way Freud’s mind worked.  When he got hold of a simple but significant fact he would feel, and know, that it was an example of something general or universal, and the idea of collecting statistics on the matter was quite alien to him.  It is one of the things for which other, more humdrum, workers have reproached him, but nevertheless that is the way the mind of a genius works. (97)

This certainly may be true, but there is a distinction to be drawn between the way his mind worked in jumping to analogies and conclusions, and the way in which he chose to argue publicly to convince others of these ideas.  The use of Sophocles and Shakespeare in his discussion marks the continuity between the two; that is, between the private revelation we find in his letter to Fließ and the public argument made in the Interpretation of Dreams.

12)  Mounet-Sully said in his memoires:  “Quel est mon sentiment lorsque j’incarne Oedipe?  Je m’absorbe et je m’identifie de tout mon être au malheureux héros.  Toutes choses s’abolissent pour moi, hormis le rôle.  Il me semble qu’une responsabilité sacrée pèse sur moi...  Celle de représenter, à ce moment, devant les hommes, le grand symbole de la lutte éternelle entre le Destin et l’orgueilleuse faiblesse humaine...  Oui, en vérité, je joue Oedipe avec un respect religieux.  J’entre en scène, chaque fois, comme un prêtre monte à l’autel.”

13)  Igor Stravinsky related the following tale:  “One day the Comédie Française was rehearsing a medieval play in which the celebrated actor Mounet-Sully, according to the author’s directions, had to swear an oath on an old Bible.  For rehearsals the old Bible had been replaced by a telephone directory.  ‘The script calls for an old Bible,’ roared Mounet-Sully.  ‘Get me an old Bible!’  Jules Claretie, the director of the Comédie, promptly rushed into his library to find a copy of the two testaments in a magnificent old edition and brought it triumphantly to the actor.  ‘Here you are, mon cher Doyen,’ said Claretie, ‘a fifteenth century edition...’  ‘Fifteenth century!’ said Mounet-Sully.  ‘But then at that time it was brand new...’” (25)
 14)  “‘Quand il jouait Oedipe’ raconte Jacques Charron dans son livre de Souvenirs ‘il se gargarisait avec du Bourgogne.  Pour la grande scène où il se crève les yeux, il commençait à crier depuis le foyer, le vide se faisait sur son passage et il débouchait sur la scène totalement déchaîné...’”  (Dalba 58).

15)  I am grateful to members of the audience at Text and Presentation XXII for this point.  In particular I wish to thank Andrew Sofer.

16)  Like Lacroix, Wilbrandt avoided the literal image of the bed at 980-83 of the Greek text, and instead rendered the Greek vaguely but violently with:  “Wie vielen träumten nicht einmal im Schlaf / von solchen Greueltaten?” (1903:73).  Freud himself owned the very popular translation by J. J. C. Donner, in which these lines are rendered: "Denn viele Menschen sahen auch in Träumen schon / sich zugesellt der Mutter..." (957).

17)  From playbooks now held in the Theatermuseum in Vienna, we can see that Wilbrandt cut over 300 lines from his own translation of Elektra.

18)  In a design for the Darmstadt production, one can see a similar set, overstuffed with a statue garden redolent of Winckelmannian classicism.

19)  For example, the 64 lines of the parodos in the original are reduced to 17 lines in Hofmannsthal’s version, 12 of which are spoken by one member simply designated as “Der Erste.”

20)  There was very little split between the author's script and the performance text in the original Greek context, as far as we can tell.  The poet was also the composer of the music, choreographer and director, and even leading actor, as was the case with Sophocles.  Thus one can with reasonable certainty talk about the first performance of a tragedy as being in essence the "author's" work.  The date of Oedipus Rex's first performance is somewhere between 429  and 425 BCE, and it is often suggested that the original audience had two recent experiences in mind which would have conditioned their response to it: 1) the experience of the plague in Athens shortly after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, and 2) the death in that plague of the mighty politician Perikles, whom some see as a model for the Sophoclean Oedipus. See Knox 112-124, who favors a date of 425 BCE.

21)  In his letter to Fließ, it is clear that Freud came up with his oedipal interpretations of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet at the same time.  However, in the Interpretation of Dreams, the long paragraph on Hamlet was contained in a footnote to the Sophoclean analysis up until the 1914 edition.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Richard Armstrong "Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud's Oedipus Complex". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/armstrong-oedipus_as_evidence_the_theatrical_backg. May 23, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 1999, Published: January 1, 1999. Copyright © 1999 Richard Armstrong