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Oedipus Revisited: Steven Berkoff's Greek
by Melissa Green M.A.

Copyright © 2003 Melissa Green


Literary Review

For over forty years, Steven Berkoff has been an ever present figure in London theatre. His violent and often crude language and plot matter kept him off West End stages, yet made him a hero of London’s Fringe scene. Berkoff has written over eighteen original works, in addition to sixteen adaptations of classic works by literary figures such as Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Shakespeare, to name a few. One of Steven Berkoff's best known and most controversial plays is Greek, his retelling of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. In Greek, Steven Berkoff transforms the tragic hero Oedipus into Eddy, a young English lad living in the East End of London in the 1980s. Berkoff's approach to Greek, as well as all his theatre, mixes theories of Artaud along with the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Who better to discuss the reasoning and theory behind the creation of Greek than Steven Berkoff himself? Four Berkovian works will be cited in this essay. After a brief synopsis of the text, more analysis will be made of Berkoff's revisitation of the work. In Greek’s preface, he claims that “Greek came to me via Sophocles, trickling its way down the millennia until it reached the unimaginable wastelands of Tufnell Park - a land more fantasized than real, being an amalgam of the deadening war zones that some areas of London had become” (97). Berkoff's autobiography Free Association also discusses his theories and motivations more in depth. Berkoff has always been very vocal in his opinions of Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Many of his plays deal with her term of office and its effects, and Greek is one of these plays. Berkoff felt that 1980s theatre should “show the moral decline of Thatcherism!” and these effects tie closely in with the plot of Greek (Free 373). The final Berkoff work looked at is The Theatre of Steven Berkoff contains descriptions and photographs of his plays in production.

Steven Berkoff may not be well known in the commercial theatre world, but he is widely known throughout the academic community. Many universities produce his works as workshop, studio and/or main stage productions. But more recently, scholars have looked toward Berkoff's written works, performance style and productions for the source of their writings. (Side Note: This is the first essay I have written fully-devoted to Berkoff, but I have also discussed his work Sink the Belgrano! in my essay on the Falklands War and his production of Salome in my thesis.) Two such scholarly writings will serve as support in this essay. The first one, “Steven Berkoff and the Dramaturgy of Bile” by Alison Forsyth, discusses the intratexuality between both Berkoff's and Sophocles’s works, as well as connections to the Oedipus myth and Freud’s Oedipus Complex. Forsyth writes, “Berkoff domesticates and urbanizes the source text through setting, characterization and language to invite us not only to reassess it though modern eyes but also to consider the effects of the intratext for the present and for our present reception to the source text” (175). The second will be Deborah Knight’s dissertation entitled From the Libido to Identity: Figuring Figuration and the Works of Steven Berkoff ‘legendary actor, director, playwright, author’. Knight looks into Berkoff's fictional and non-fictional plays, their use of language, and effect in performance.

Besides modern interpretations and opinions of Oedipus Rex, the source text itself is important to the understanding of this essay. Without knowledge of Sophocles’s classic tragedy, references to it and connection with Greek will seem useless. More evident in this essay, however, will be references to Aristotle’s Poetics. The Poetics considered Oedipus Rex to be the “finest artistically” tragedy during its time (Aristotle 56). Aristotle’s dramatic theory surrounding the source text will be briefly compared to that of Berkoff's twist on the original.

In addition to interviews with Berkoff by Ross Wetzsteon and Mark Steyn, the paper will conclude by bringing Berkoff's writings, modern investigation and ancient theories together to analyze Greek and its connection to Oedipus Rex. Berkoff has transformed Sophocles’s tragedy into a twisted tale of sex, murder and loose morals in London’s East End. Berkoff wrote, “Greek was my love poem to the spirit of Oedipus over the centuries. I ransacked the entire legend. So this is not simply an adaptation of Sophocles but a recreation of the various Oedipus myths which seemed to apply” (Theatre 139). Therefore, this essay will conclude that Greek is not a modernization of a classic tragedy, but a revisitation of it.


Oedipus Revisited: Steven Berkoff's Greek


The story of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex has enthralled audiences since its first performance around 430 B.C. Around 335 B.C., Aristotle wrote in The Poetics that he regarded the play as one of the greatest tragedies. Aristotle’s reevaluation of Oedipus Rex is the earliest surviving study of tragic theory and the start of dramatic theory. Yet, his first look at the tragedy would not be the last by scholars. In 1899, Sigmund Freud connected the play with one of his psychoanalytic theories. The theory, a sexual desire for intimacy with the parent of the opposite sex while having a sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex, was known as the Oedipus Complex. Though many scholars have revisited Sophocles’s classic work, so have several dramatists. A variety of productions have been staged, as well as a variety of different interpretations of the tragic tale. One such work, Greek (1980) by Steven Berkoff, not only revisited the story of Oedipus but also reinterpreted it based upon the values seen in 1980s Thatcherist London.

Since the mid-1960s, Steven Berkoff has been a constant in London theatre. Berkoff latched on to the “angry young men” movement popular in British drama of the 1950s and early 1960s, and wrote about the class struggle ever present in English society. His vocally violent and crude writings and subject matter kept him off the West End, yet embraced him into London’s Fringe scene. Berkoff is often credited as one of the leaders in the British In-Yer-Face Theatre movement. Alexs Sierz defined the movement as:

the language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each another, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly violent. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react: either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen, and want all their friends to see it too. It is the kind of theatre that inspires us to use superlatives, whether in praise or condemnation. (5)

Berkoff himself stated he “wasn’t groomed to be sweet,” and his staged and written works are proof of that (Wetzsteon 30). Mark Steyn wrote, “Berkoff believes that British theater is like British society, where ‘we doffed our forelock to the gov’nor.’ Somewhere along the way, he seems to have doffed his forelock right out of his hair to emerge as a bullet-headed scourge of the smug middle-class theater establishment” (39). Berkoff has written over eighteen plays, in addition to sixteen play adaptations of works by Aeschylus, Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe, August Strindberg, Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare. One of Steven Berkoff's best known and most controversial plays is Greek, his retelling of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex.

In Greek, Steven Berkoff transformed the tragic hero Oedipus into Eddy, a young English lad living in the East End of London in the 1980s. Berkoff's approach to Greek, as well as all his theatre, mixed the ideas of Artaud with the Greeks and Shakespeare. In an interview with Ross Wetzsteon, Berkoff said:

Abscesses of the soul!...Go back to the Elizabethans, go back to the bloody Greeks; that’s the essence of drama! I see these Greeks sitting around the agora trying to think of the most shameful the most devastating, the most obscene things imaginable. ‘How about a man who murders his father and sleeps with his mother and then stabs out his eyes?’ ‘You think that’s horrible? I’ve got something even worse…’ The theater’s mandate isn’t to put buns in the seats; it’s to purge the audience! (30)

On the surface, it may seem that Steven Berkoff would be the least likely dramatist to adapt Oedipus Rex, but his interest and passion for the Greeks proved otherwise. He found a connection between the Greeks’ world and writings and his own. Berkoff wrote in the preface to the play, “Greek came to me via Sophocles, trickling its way down the millennia until it reached the unimaginable wastelands of Tufnell Park - a land more fantasized than real, being an amalgam of the deadening zones that some areas of London had become” (97). In Greek, he drew from the Oedipus story for the central plot (the plague, the prophecy, the sphinx, killing his father, and marrying his mother), borrowed from his own experiences growing up in East London for the details, and made a political statement about Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.

The play is told from Eddy’s point of view. Act one begins with Eddy explaining his humble beginnings within a blue-collar family in the London borough of Tufnell Park. His parents, for fun, go visit a gypsy during a carnival who tells them “he sees a violent death for this son’s father/… (then) something worse than death/ and that’s a bunk-up with his mum” (Berkoff, Greek 104). Eddy then leaves home to stop the plague affecting his family, poverty. During his travels, he rests at a café. Eddy gets into an argument with the manager of the restaurant and then kills him. Eddy then runs off with the manager’s wife, a waitress, and marries her. Eddy speaks of his new marriage, “Come, love, you’ve had your share of woe and so have I and if fate heaps the shit it also heaps the gold and finding you is like a vein I never dreamed of, so fate’s been kind this time/ I think we’re fated, love don’t you?” (Berkoff, Greek 119). The act ends with Mum and Dad questioning if they should have told Eddy that he is not their son. Yet, they decide it is not important and they will discuss it with him at a later date:

Dad Perhaps we should have told him Dinah
perhaps we ought to tell
our son should know the secret
or we may end up in…
Mum Hell you mean, you make me laugh
it’s over now, it’s past,
it can’t be now undone with words
fate makes us play the roles we’re cast.

(Berkoff, Greek 120)


Act Two begins with a decade passed. The plague is almost over, but to ensure its end Eddy must solve the sphinx’s riddle: “what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?” (Berkoff, Greek 126). To which Eddy responds, “Man! In the morning of his life he is on all fours, in the afternoon when he is young he is on two legs and in the evenings when he is erect for his women he sprouts the third leg” (Berkoff, Greek 126). By solving the riddle, Eddy has killed the sphinx and ended the plague. Things continue to get better for Eddy. He gains wealth, travels around the world, and is ever devoted and in love with his wife. One evening, Eddy and his wife invite his parents over to dinner to prove to them that the gypsy’s prophecy all those years ago was a scam. It is during this meal that it is revealed that Eddy is not their blood, but instead adopted. His parents explain how they acquired Eddy, which matches the story of how his wife lost a son years prior. Eddy then realizes that the gypsy’s prophecy was true:


My dearest wife and now my mum…So the man I verballed to death was my real pop/ the man to whom my words like hard-edged shrapnel razed his brain/ was the source of me, oh stink/…Me who wants to clean up the city/ stop the plague destroy the sphinx/ me was the source of all the stink/ the man of principle is a mother fucker/.

(Berkoff, Greek 137)

Yet in the end, Eddy does not reach the same conclusion as his Grecian counterpart. Eddy does not go blind or lose his wife with the revelation, instead he chooses to remain with his wife/mother: “We only love so it doesn’t matter mother, mother it doesn’t matter. Why should I tear my eyes out Greek style, why should you hang yourself/” (Berkoff, Greek 138).

Steven Berkoff felt that Greek was more than an adaptation of Oedipus Rex, but instead a tribute to the spirit of Sophocles and Grecian society. Berkoff wrote, “Greek was my love poem to the spirit of Oedipus over the centuries. I ransacked the entire legend. So this is not simply an adaptation of Sophocles but a recreation of the various Oedipus myths which seemed to apply, particularly to a play about what I saw London had become” (Theatre 139). Society had changed greatly from the time of Sophocles’s time to the 1980s, as well as the original response to Oedipus Rex. Modern audiences could not purge emotion or respond morally to Sophocles’s story because society had become desensitized to the elements of murder, lust, greed, etc. Alison Forsyth wrote:

Berkoff incorporates our changing attitudes toward areas of human existence including our reception of tragedy into its own parameters…Thus Greek suggests that today’s society has forsaken the aleatory, serendipitous and deeply personal experience of pleasure for the power-driven instantaneity of desire, and in the case of our reception of Oedipus Rex the attainment of the pleasure of ‘understanding’ and self-knowledge which was at the root of ancient tragic dramaturgy has evolved into the deterministic and generalized information gathering desire to ‘know’ and store. (188-189)

Berkoff found a connection between his own writing with that of Sophocles. Berkoff inferred that Sophocles held back on Oedipus’s feelings towards Jocasta due to ancient society’s constraints on physical love between mother and son. Therefore, Berkoff portrayed for the modern audience the subtext as seen in Sophocles’s play to the fullest degree (Forsyth 166-167).

The desensitized audience that Berkoff wrote Greek for could relate to the Oedipus plot with its modern connections. Yet, there was one element from the classic tragedy that did not fit with Berkoff's retelling. Berkoff wrote:

In writing my ‘modern’ Oedipus it wasn’t too difficult to find contemporary parallels, but when it came to the ‘blinding’ I paused, since in my version it wouldn’t have made sense, given Eddy’s non-fatalistic disposition, to have him embark on such an act of self-hatred - unless I slavishly aped the original. (Greek 98)

In Berkoff's opinion, Greek was a love story (Berkoff, Theatre 139). His most poetic language was seen in the love scenes between Eddy and Wife. Deborah Knight wrote:

One may well wince over the language of many of Berkoff's bathetic passages, but the sublime simplicity of perhaps the most bathetic of them all, Eddy’s response to his future wife’s equally straightforward sexual invitation, highlights the extreme factitiousness of the elevated language that precedes it… These two go on to form Berkoff's most sexually satisfied and amorous pair, probably delivering his most beautiful lyrical passages in spite of the fact that they turn out to be a modern version of the original Oedipal couple. (“Figuring Figuration,” 6.2. par. 8-9)

Examples of Berkoff's use of language between Wife and Eddy are seen in Act one, scene five, with Wife’s description of Eddy “Your face is like all Greek/ and carved from ancient marble./” and Eddy’s devotional monologue to her in Act two, scene three, “I love a woman/ I love her/ I just love and love and love her/…I love her seasons and love her sleeping and love her walking and speaking and whispering and loving and singing and love her back and her bum nestled into you and you become an armchair/” (Berkoff, Greek 120, 127).

Despite Berkoff's reference to the Oedipal ending (TAKE A SKEWER AND JAB THEIR EYES OUT/ LOVELY/ GREEK STYLE…), Eddy renounces Oedipus’s fate and refuses to blind himself:



…Oedipus how could you have done it, never to see your wife’s golden face again, never to cast your eyes on her and hers on your eyes. What a foul thing I have done, I am the rotten plague, tear them out Eddy, rip them out, scoop them out like ice-cream…Bollocks to all that, I’d rather run all the way back and pull back the sheets, witness my golden-bodied wife and climb into her sanctuary, climb all the way in right up to my head and hide away there and be safe and comforted.

(Berkoff, Greek 112, 138)

The ending put a modern twist on the legend, as well as made a statement about the state of a selfish society. Greek allows modern audiences to better understand Oedipus Rex because contemporary society’s understanding of human sexuality is better. Yet, due to modern society’s constraints, audiences are not allowed to fully connect with Eddy because of societal understanding of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus Complex (Forsyth 167).

Throughout Greek, Eddy alludes to his knowledge of both Oedipus Rex and Freud’s theory. Forsyth wrote:

Berkoff's Greek does not seek to offer an alternative or oppositional re-reading of Freud’s reading of Sophocles’s tragedy…the play encompasses the historicity of the source text, including Freud’s appropriation and its repercussions for the ‘present’ that is, Thatcher’s Britain during the 1980s. (168-169)

Eddy refuses to suffer the same fate as Oedipus, portraying the ideals of the 1980s “Me Generation.” Eddy is aware of the tale of Oedipus Rex, yet is unaware of how his life parallels the tragedy. Eddy disregards the story as “that old hoary myth…of patricide and horrid incest/ or subtitled could be called the story of a mother fucker/” (Berkoff, Greek 128).

Besides rudiments from the Oedipus story, Berkoff borrowed elements from Greek works and society and put them into Greek. Within the text, Berkoff alluded to the fates and the gods (just by luck as if the fates had ordained us to meet), descriptions of the sirens’ cries (the sirens like wailing banshees from black marias tear along the garbage-filled London street), and a vacation in Thebes, Oedipus’s homeland (Greek 119, 110). Another mention of the gods was seen in Wife’s speech at the top of Act two. Wife specifically named Greek gods in this scene: “Ten years have flown away as Apollo’s Chariot hath with fiery stride lit up our summers…to be kicked out in turn by spring’s swift feet of Ceres, Pluto, Dionysus/” (Berkoff, Greek 121).

More subtly, Berkoff had Eddy mock Freud’s theory and diagnose himself with The Oedipus Complex. As Eddy openly refers to himself as a “mother fucker,” in the end he seems to taunt Freud in the line, “Yeh I wanna climb back inside my mum. What’s wrong with that?” (Berkoff, Greek 138-139). In the end, Eddy disregarded Freud’s theory and remained with his wife and mother:

…it’s love I feel it’s love, what matter what form it takes, it’s love I feel for your breast, for your nipple twice sucked/ for your belly twice known/ for your hands twice caressed/ for your breath twice smelt, for your thighs, for your c*nt twice known, one head first once cock first, loving c*nt holy mother wife/ loving source of your being/ exit from paradise/ entrance to heaven. (Berkoff, Greek 139)

Eddy refuted Freud and found nothing wrong with his illness of wanting to remain with his wife/mother and the other crimes committed.

Despite these changes between Eddy and Oedipus, Berkoff discovered ways to connect the two characters throughout Greek. Berkoff compared Eddy to Oedipus in his note prefacing the text:

Oedipus found a city in the grip of a plague and sought to rid the city of its evil centre represented by the Sphinx. Eddy seeks to reaffirm his beliefs and inculcate a new order of things with his vision and life-affirming energy. His passion for life is inspired by the love he feels for his woman, and his detestation of the degrading environment he inherited. If Eddy is a warrior who holds up the smoking sword as he goes in, attacking all that he finds polluted, at the same time he is at heart an ordinary young man with whom many I know will find identification. (Greek 97).

Throughout the play, Eddy walks in Oedipus’s path: the oracle’s prophesy looms over his being, he leaves home to rid his parents of the prophesy, lives despite a plague affecting the city, unbeknownst to him murders his father and weds his mother, becomes a man of power, confronts and defeats the sphinx, and finds out the truth of his upbringing. Yet, the similarities end there. As Eddy decides to stay with his wife/mother and renounces his counterpart’s end, Berkoff reminded the audience that this is a different play and the situation has changed. Eddy proves himself to be very different from Oedipus. Forsyth wrote:

Even though the Rewrite [Greek] does not appear to present Eddy as a tragic hero, it does structurally and thematically allude to the tragic fate of his predecessor, Oedipus, dramaturgically compelling the audience to address and confront the ‘tragic’ for today. (179)

Berkoff's varied outcome of the two characters also varied their status within the genre of tragedy. Eddy, despite all of his similarities, may not be compared to Oedipus because in the end he is not a victim and/or tragic hero.

As previously mentioned, Aristotle laid out the rules of tragic theatre theory in Poetics. In one chapter, he discussed his views of the necessary qualities in a great tragic hero. The tragic figure should be “highly renowned and prosperous - a personage like Oedipus,” a comment on the social status of the individual, and the tragic figure should be morally upright: “a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty” (Aristotle 42). Berkoff, however, threw out Aristotle’s rules when he wrote Greek. Eddy definitely does not fit that description. He comes from a working-class family in the ghettos of London. He is also not morally just as seen in his dialogue and actions. As Aristotle wrote, “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man of ourselves,” and modern audiences do not pity Eddy or fear his fate, but instead can connect the Oedipus story to contemporary society (42). Though his outcome is shaped by the fates, Eddy does not receive the pity that Oedipus may from audiences. Greek also does not teach a moral lesson as learned from Oedipus Rex, instead it abandons all use of morality in the play.

Berkoff painted a picture of a dismal society where morals were non-existent, violence consumed the streets, and the upper-class remained wealthy while the lower-class remained poor. Other playwrights strayed from such negative topics, and instead tried to show the good that existed in society. Berkoff wrote, “Good quality plays with a good porridgy feel to them, since we are all becoming so drearily politicized that I almost feel the Thought Police might be watching in case, God forbid, the word art is used. No, we have to show the moral decline of Thatcherism!” (Free 373). In Greek, as well as several other of his plays, this English society is under rule of the fictional Maggot Scratcher, a character based upon the non-fictional Margaret Thatcher. Berkoff has made the point of expressing his opinion of Thatcher within his works. He wrote, “I took great exception to the torpid lie that there were hardly any plays dealing with the Thatcher years, when all my plays dealt with was those very years. Greek, Decadence, Sink the Belgrano!” (Free 374). By using Thatcher as a character in his works, Berkoff historicalises an era in British history, and in Greek connects the modern with the ancient. With Eddy lacking the characteristics of a tragic and/or modern hero, Berkoff mocked that Thatcher did not fit the role of hero either with Mum’s comment, “Maggot is our only hope, love” (Greek 110). Forsyth wrote:

Berkoff dramaturgically asserts, through silent allusion to the source text, that in today’s godless society surely the concept of responsibility needs to be addressed with even greater urgency if we are not to repeat the destruction and barbarism of a society which is prey to the often double-edged properties of the ‘hero’ or the ‘will to heroize,’ be that in the form of ‘Adolf’ or ‘Maggot,’ a perjorative allusion to Mrs. Thatcher. (178)

Maggot Scratcher and her non-fictional counterpart are important to the history, plot and attitudes expressed in Berkoff's work, especially in the moral and societal decline as seen in the era of Greek.

Aristotle viewed Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex as the “finest artistically” when it came to tragedies. One can only imagine how Aristotle would view Stephen Berkoff's Greek. Berkoff is a dramatist with no regard to dramatic rules. Berkoff's works expose his characters, their society and their flaws at face value, and Greek is no exception. Berkoff transformed Sophocles’s tragedy into a twisted tale of sex, murder and loose morals in London’s East End. Eddy is not just a modern version of Oedipus, but a representation of the effects of 1980s Thatcherism. As Sophocles used his hero to teach, Berkoff used his ‘protagonist’ to speak against the society in which he was living. Greek is not a modernization of a classic tragedy, but a revisitation of it. Berkoff took another look at the ancient work and breathed a new and modern life into it. Though Berkoff's 1980s society and values may seem dated to contemporary audiences, its effect was strong during its era and gives modern audiences a period of history they can easier relate to. Berkoff's play, though very different from Sophocles’s, conveyed the idea that the story of Oedipus Rex is universal and timeless. In the end, the audience receives the best of both worlds, the classic original and a modern spin on it, as does Eddy in the end of Greek with both his wife and mother. Therefore, the audience, like Eddy, may “exit from paradise/…[enter] to heaven” (Berkoff, Greek 139).


Works Cited

Aristotle “Poetics.” Trans. S.H. Butcher. Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski
Ed. Bernard F. Dukore. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1974. 31-56.
Berkoff, Steven “Author’s Note: Greek.” Steven Berkoff: The Collected Plays, Volume I.
London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1994. 97-98.
Berkoff, Steven Free Association. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1996.
Berkoff, Steven Greek. Steven Berkoff: The Collected Plays, Volume I.
London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1994. 95-139.
Berkoff, Steven The Theatre of Steven Berkoff. London: Methuen Drama, 1992.
Forsyth, Alison “Steven Berkoff and the Dramaturgy of Bile.”
Gadamer, History, and the Classics: Fugard, Marowitz, Berkoff and Harrison Rewrite the Theatre.
Vol. 15. Studies in Literary Criticism and Theory. Ed. Hans H. Rudnick. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. 165-196.
Knight, Deborah From the Libido to Identity: Figuring Figuration and the Works of Steven Berkoff ‘legendary actor, director, playwright, author’.
Diss. University of Geneva, 2001.
Absolute Berkoff. Ed. Iain Fisher. 2002. 8 Apr. 2003.
Sierz, Alexs In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.
Sophocles “Oedipus Rex.” Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald.
Masterpieces of the Drama.
Ed. Alexander W. Allison, Arthur J. Carr and Arthur M. Eastman.
Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1991: 61-88.
Steyn, Mark “Covering the Classics.” The New Criterion. February 2001: 39-43.
Wetzsteon, Ross “Bad Boy Brit.” New York. 21 November 1988: 30.


Copyright © 2003 Melissa Green
Included on the site with the kind permission of Melissa Green.



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