The Darker Face of the Earth: Greek Tragedy or Slave Narrative?
Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth is basically a recounting of the Oedipus drama in an African American context taken from the slave era. While it poses the possibility of being a Greek tragedy through its emphasis on Greek motifs and themes, in truth Dove’s embodiment of American culture in her play taps into a deeper darker concept. Augustus plays the role of Oedipus very well through the narrative, but his character is much more complex in that he carries the contemporary controversial burden of race, and the plight of slavery. Oedipus when he kills his father and beds his mother he merely corrupts the family and monarchy that had turned its back on him and fulfills a prophecy. The tragedy in the original Oedipus play is based on the prophecy that the protagonist will kill his father and bed his mother, but in Dove’s play the tragedy stems from America’s original sin of slavery. This contrast in themes ultimately relieves The Darker Face of the Earth from being labeled simply as a Greek tragedy but through the primal themes it adopts from the Oedipus play in collaboration with complex ideology of the Antebellum, Dove’s play reveals dark truths embedded slavery and the American class system making it undeniable that the play is a slave narrative and not a contemporary Greek Tragedy.
The Oedipus tragedy is arguably too familiar in the minds of audiences, and it might not be deemed fashionable to make a contemporary version of the play, but Dove does exactly that. The Darker Face of the Earth on the surface presents itself as a Greek Tragedy, but Dove’s ability to revamp the plot of this story with a retake based in the Antebellum South opens the Oedipus themes into a complete new realm of ideology. The original sin of slavery serves as the central focus of the play and is the tragic flaw of the triangular relationship between Augustus, Amalia and her husband. Ironically, the play manages to use many Greek themes, specifically those of Greek mythology which are virtually never present in slave narratives. Though this is the closest Doves play ever comes to being a Greek tragedy or reclaiming the tradition of the genre, Greek mythology does serve a significant purpose in better expressing the relationship Augustus has with American slave culture, as shown when Augustus playfully explains his origin to Amalia,
Actually, I wasn’t Apollo’s legitimate son; I was his bastard and stable boy. Every evening he drove his two gallant steeds up to the Olympian stables and gave them into my care. They stood calmly while I wiped the sparkling froth from their mouths and eased the golden bit and bridle. I combed their fiery manes and smoothed their pale coats. Then one morning Apollo appeared with his legitimate son, whose name was Phaethon. (Dove, p374)
Augustus not being the legitimate son in his story about appolo parallelels him not being treated as the legitimate son of Amalia, the gods and the mortals in his story are representative of the whites of the antebellum south and their relation to the slaves. Augustus story metaphorically serves as a window into the relationship he has with the world being half black and half white. The theme of Greek mythology while loosely connecting the play with the story of Oedipus and the tradition of Greek tragedy it also mikes the primal nature of Greek culture very relevant to contemporary times. This is a very unique take on old southern American culture and Dove is keen to use it considering that Greek mythology is very rarely ever used in slave narratives. This leads one to the possibility that the play could be a Greek Tragedy and this argument is even further enforced when Augustus presents the relevance of a prophecy as a part of his story.
There is a point in the play when Augustus attempts to use the Greek mythology theme to explain how blacks emerged on the globe, along with this story comes a prophecy that they are cursed. “Apollo returned that evening with the horses but without his son. It seems the runaway chariot had swooped too near the earth, scorching a continent and blackening the skin of its people so that Zeus was forced to strike the chariot with a thunderbolt to avert further disaster; Phaethon plunged into the sea, and Zeus foretold the abduction and enslavement of these dark people (Dove, p374).” The idea that blacks are cursed, or more specifically that America is cursed with the sin of original slavery is biblical and very far from the genre of Greek. Again Augustus uses the Greek mythology story as a way of metaphorically expressing the nature of slavery in the Antebellum south, and while it is a very creative take on the subject the relationship between Augustus and Amalia is doomed for much more historically prescribed reasons than those in the prophecy declared by Zeus.
The finale of Augustus’ story with Amalia identifies him as the protagonist with a purpose that he can’t reveal to her and that truthfully he doesn’t know himself. Of course the audience knows that this is the storylines way of hinting to the inevitable deaths at the end. Augustus says, “When the time came for the prophecy to be fulfilled, I went to Apollo and asked to be sent down to earth in order to live among the unfortunates whose fate was enmeshed with mine. “Give me a human form and the memory of my origins,” I asked, “and the promise that when I die, I can return to Olympus as your stable boy.” All of which Apollo granted (Dove, p374).” Here Augustus presents himself as being something greater than his fellow Africans. His subtle way of referring to his relation to Apollo and being his stable boy at the same time is similar to how he is Amalia son and a slave at the same time. The concept of him returning to Olympia is merely another way of arguing that the divine is color blind, and that when he does die race will not matter. All in all, the fact that his race is an issue brings up the conflict that his mulatto skin deprives him of a clear place in the society of Antebellum South. This is a social conflict for which the story of Oedipus has no substitution.
In sum, The Darker Face of the Earth by Rita Dove perfectly exemplifies all of the traits of a Greek tragedy while establishing a completely new take on the genre. All of the complexities that arise when assessing the nature of slavery in America and the relationships that can evolve from it make the original sin of slavery the main focus of this play as opposed to the heinous acts of the protagonist. In the end when Augustus is lifted above the heads of the rebel slaves as they rejoice in the reclaiming of his birth right, he is disillusioned form all of the bloodshed. In Oedipus this moment is very tragic, but in Dove’s play the decision of whether this is a tragic moment is not completely identifiable. Due to the fact that many slaves were disenfranchised from any sense of heritage, this moment in the play has a weight of redemption. Oedipus’ mother commits suicide in light of discovering she has slept with her son the information is devastating, but Amalia’s discovery holds much more weight in the fact that she is being forced to face the son she gave up in accordance with the ideology of the antebellum south. The truth is there are so many complex themes and antiquated conflicts that exist within the slave narrative genre, that the second Dove settled on the Antebellum South as a setting she through the Greek tragedy genre out the window. The final close of Darker Face of the Earth is supposed to be bitter sweet, but in light of all of the history that comes with the topic of slavery Augustus’ story proves to be redeeming, which is much more than can be said for Oedipus.
Dove, Rita. “From ‘The Darker Face of the Earth.’ (excerpt from the play).” Callaloo. 17.2 (Spring 1994): p374. Literature Resource Center. Gale. FLORIDA STATE UNIV. 2 Nov. 2008
Neilen, Deirdre. “The Darker Face of the Earth.” World Literature Today. 71.2 (Spring 1997): p389. Literature Resource Center. Gale. FLORIDA STATE UNIV. 2 Nov. 2008
Pereira, Malin. “‘When the pear blossoms / cast their pale faces on / the darker face of the earth’: miscegenation, the primal scene, and the incest motif in Rita Dove’s work.” African American Review. 36.2 (Summer 2002): p195. Literature Resource Center. Gale. FLORIDA STATE UNIV. 2 Nov. 2008
Rosenblatt, Louise M. (1938). Literature as exploration, (4th edition). New York: Modern Language Association Press.