published 8.07.2018

Lee Breuer on “The Gospel at Colonus” in 1983

Here’s a good question, posed in an essay by a black scholar who had seen “Gospel at Colonus” three times: Is it a classical Greek play in a dramatic interpretation that uses the Pentecostal service as a metaphor? Or is it an Afro-American work that utilizes a Greek myth as a parable of the Christian view of redemption? She answered her own question. It depends on the audience. For theater does not exist as an artifact on a stage. Theater exists in the eye of the beholder.

Zora Neale Hurston made the connection between Greek tragedy and the Pentecostal church back in the 1930s. I didn’t know this when I got the same idea. I was wandering around a Greek theater on the Southwest coast of Turkey. I tripped over some stones—and was told that what I’d tripped over was an altar. What was an altar doing in a theater? Then it dawned on me: Greek theater was a religious service.

What kind of religion—well, we can now speculate, from that intricate conflation of history and myth as described in “Black Athena,” that a case can be made for Greek religions having had Egyptian origins—and that quite probably Egyptian culture was Nubian influenced. I didn’t know of these theories then either, but I did wonder why Thebes and the Sphinx were central to the story. However, what I did know then, was that the music that I listened to and loved was rooted in Gospel. That was all that any white kid could experience of Afro-American culture back in the 50s.

Things came together. Greek tragedy was sung. Wouldn’t a chorus then be a choir. The poetics speak of “catharsis.” Did it stop at “pity” and “terror,” or could it have evolved to “bliss” and spiritual insight. Did one, in the church phrase “get happy.” And what about the meter. Could the meter have been where the percussion used to go. The Greek “messenger”—(wasn’t Martin Luther King called “the messenger”)—didn’t he arrive at the end with the “answer”? Doesn’t the “message” of a sermon come last? And what is the mystique of blindness, from Homer to Oedipus to Blind Lemon Jefferson to Stevie Wonder. What is it that the blind can see? Is it the truth?

In physics, Grand Unification theories are the rage. Was there a time when “all the powers that be” were one? And was there also a time when European culture was a multiracial one? Oedipus tells Theseus, “God attends slowly—but he does attend.” Is God attending to the humanities now? Wouldn’t it be ironic if our “late capitalist” “Postmodern” “now” was theater’s catch up to “physics time.”


Lee Breuer