Commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Night Journey was first performed in Cambridge MA, as part of Harvard University’s Symposium on Music Criticism. The dance is part of Graham’s Greek cycle and like Cave of the Heart (1946), based upon Medea, and Clytemnestra (1958), inspired by the Orestia, Graham’s interpretation makes the woman’s experience central. When the dance premiered in New York City, Walter Terry wrote that Graham had succeeded in “transfer[ing] the action to the area where only Jocasta’s heart and mind are real.”
According to the myth, Oedipus was the son of King Laius of Thebes and Queen Jocasta. At his birth, an oracle prophesied that he would murder his father and so he was abandoned on a desolate mountainside. He was found there and protected by a Corinthian shepherd and grew to manhood as the adopted son of the King of Corinth. Once again, an oracle predicted that Oedipus would slay his father and marry his mother. Thinking the King of Corinth his true father, he fled the city, and in his wanderings met, quarreled with and finally killed a stranger who was King Laius of Thebes, his real father. Oedipus traveled on to Thebes, solved the riddle of the Sphinx, and was rewarded with the throne and the murdered King’s widow, Queen Jocasta. He reigned nobly until a plague ravaged Thebes and the oracle declared that only banishment of the murderer of Laius would save the city. When the truth was discovered and the incestuous relationship revealed, Jocasta took her own life. Oedipus blinded himself and wandered the earth an outcast.
In her retelling of the Oedipus myth, Graham was almost certainly influenced by contemporary interest in psychology and the emerging (in America) theories of Freud and Jung, theories which explored the darker recesses of the human psyche, including erotic passion and the powerful sexual dynamics operating within the family. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Jocasta’s experience is largely unexamined. But in Night Journey, the complex interweaving of emotions between mother and son, between mother and lover are paramount; in the central duet between Oedipus and Jocasta, passionate lovemaking is interrupted by maternal memories; the infant suckling at Jocasta’s breast, the child cradled in her arms. And Graham’s command of symbolic language is never more powerfully expressed; the rope which is the instrument of her death evokes both the marriage vows which tie Jocasta to Oedipus the King and the umbilical cord which once bound her to her son.