‘Care for Our Common Home’ focuses on ecological justice through theater

The university’s annual Notre Dame Forum opened on October 27 with a virtual production of The Oedipus Project. The event featured a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ 429 B.C. play, Oedipus the King, followed by a panel discussion of the play’s thematic applicability to contemporary environmental conversations.

A presidential initiative of Fr. John Jenkins, the forum was created in 2005 to invite “a campus-wide dialogue about issues of importance to the university, the nation, and the larger world.” Previous topics have included women in leadership, education, and sustainable energy. The Forum typically hosts several events throughout the academic year that invite notable experts, leaders, and activists to engage the campus community in meaningful issues that resonate with the Catholic identity of the university.

The 2021-2022 ND Forum is centered on the topic of “Care for our Common Home: Just Transition to a Sustainable Future.” Citing Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si as a source of inspiration for the theme, the ND Forum offers events that discuss effects of negative human impact on the environment, including “changes in precipitation, devastating wildfires, intensified storms, severe drought and other consequences around the world.”

This presentation of The Oedipus Project, directed by Brian Doerries of Theater of War Productions, featured actors such as Jesse Eisenberg, Jumaane Williams, and Amy Ryan. After a brief introduction by Doerries, the cast performed the play through Zoom for hundreds of viewers.

Theater of War Productions identifies the play as a “​​story of arrogant leadership, ignored prophecy, intergenerational curses, willful blindness, and a pestilence and ecological collapse that ravages the archaic city of Thebes.” Because of its historical proximity to the devastating Plague of Athens, Theater of War Productions also sees The Oedipus Project as an opportunity for “healing online conversations about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon diverse communities throughout the world.”

Oedipus the King is situated as the first in a trilogy of plays by Sophocles that cover the dramatic myth of King Oedipus of Thebes. When placed in relationship with the other plays, Oedipus the King offers other interpretations of the text besides those that are relevant to modernity. Typically, interpreters focus on the repeated themes of the role of fate and the limits of free will. The presence of gods and oracles in the plays call attention to the ways in which the cultural context of the plays differs from our own.

Following the play, a panel of students, professors, and audience members discussed elements of the play that resonated with them and related to ecological justice. Speakers included Diogo Bolster, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Meghan Sullivan, professor of philosophy, alongside students and young adults who engaged in the audience discussion.

As none of the panelists were traditional classicists, the discussion offered perspectives from modern interpretations that connect with issues of social justice and political beliefs. Several panelists even opted to lean away from academic discussions of the text in favor of offering personal anecdotes of which the text reminded them.

The panel discussion of Oedipus repeatedly highlighted the role of leaders in addressing climate crises and the disparity between policy and mounting ecological concerns. Panelist Katie Thel, an ACMS student, remarked, “Something that was especially troubling to me was just the fact that the priest had to beg the king of Thebes to do something… Why are [leaders] so disconnected from what is going on?”

These sentiments were affirmed by Doerries, who remarked, “The tone that’s required [in the play], the supplication, the begging of leadership to see and act upon what is right in front of us and right in front of them strikes a real nerve.”

Professor Sullivan’s remarks focused on the duty of humanity to future generations and the presence of suffering and pain in the world. She told the Rover, “It can be easy to feel hopeless in the face of such a complex problem as climate change … Our Catholic identity gives us a source of hope that hard work, shared sacrifice, and mutual love can help us find a route out of this crisis.”

Sullivan further expressed to the Rover her hopes for the event: “I hope viewers will be moved (as I was) by the idea that a few hundred people from all over the world—famous actors and unfamous professors included—can gather together to mourn, and dialogue, and console one another and open their eyes to see a problem in a slightly different way. I was so moved by the performances, and I think everyone present felt their sensitivity heightened and hearts opened up a bit more.”

The ND Forum will be holding events throughout the academic year to continue the discussion of ecological justice and sustainability in a global world. Other events have included the awarding of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemew with an honorary degree on October 28, as well as the ongoing exhibit of Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture Earth Kid (Boy) in the Snite Museum. More information about ND Forum events can be found here.

Mary Rice is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology. When not reading Great Books, she spends her time anticipating next semester when she’ll be studying abroad in Athens. Send travel recommendations, well-wishes, and baklava recipes to mrice7@nd.edu

Photo credit: University of Notre Dame