Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The nature of feelings

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Ingres
Image via Wikipedia

You call me unfeeling. If you could only see
the nature of your own feelings...
--Teiresias in Oedipus Rex (Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald trans.)

One should encourage the production of Greek tragedies in our day.

I write this as a great lover of the classic Greek tragedies. If one is being performed locally, you are guaranteed my attention and interest. I have witnessed astoundingly moving productions, some elaborate and some done on a shoestring, and astonishingly bad productions. But I am always glad they are being done. There are reasons the classics are classics. They touch primal themes and timeless truths and are never out of date.

At the performances of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Vortex Theatre I spotted a notice that Oedipus was going to be performed at the Auxiliary Dog Theatre. I immediately planned to attend and got my reservations in early.

The tale of Oedipus is a fascinating one - and I speak in pre-Freudian terms here. Oedipus is a man who tries to run from his fate and ends up running headlong toward it. There are constant juxtapositions of opposites, most notably themes of truth, lies, and ambiguity; light and darkness; sight and blindness; order and chaos; salvation and destruction.

The play turns my thoughts to Ατη (Atē), "the spirit (daimona) of delusion, infatuation, blind folly, rash action and reckless impulse who led men down the path to ruin" and to Apollo, the god of truth, knowledge, and light - a ruthless deity, to be sure, as the myths demonstrate.

Oedipus is a great hero to the people of Thebes for he delivered them from the ravages of the Sphinx who prevented travelers from access to the city, devouring them if they could not solve her riddle. Oedipus solved the riddle and the dreaded creature offed herself. This feat wins him the throne of Thebes and its widowed queen. No one is aware at the time that this queen is his mother and she is a widow because he has slain his own father. All this was foretold in prophecies that he and his parents both sought to preclude in vain.

At the beginning of the play, Thebes is suffering once more. Apollo has sent a plague upon the city-state.
A rust consumes the buds and fruits of the earth;
The herds are sick; children die unborn,
And labor is vain. The god of plague and pyre
Raids like detestable lightning through the city,
And all the house of Kadmos is laid waste,
All emptied, and all darkened Death alone
Battens upon the misery of Thebes.
This is divine judgment for harboring the murderer of the former ruler. Oedipus swears to find who it is and render judgment, unaware that he is the parricide, the incestuous one, the polluter of the land.

The starting point is one of misery and desperation from which the viewer hopes to find some relief, though the salvation of Thebes will come at a high price.

One great challenge in watching a play or any artistic performance is measuring it against a truly good past experience. I saw a performance of Oedipus back in 2003 by Shotgun Players in Berkeley. We sat on bleachers and the production was done with a very minimal budget. The lead (Clive Worsley) had injured his ankle the day before and had to play with a swollen foot, necessitating last minute changes in blocking, which the director explained before the play began. I was the one person who laughed, not at the injury but at the pointed mention of "swollen foot" since that is what the name Oedipus means. It was a riveting performance nonetheless and the opening scene of the suppliants was the finest liturgical act I have ever experienced in my life. The seriousness, the desperation, the sacredness of very sound and motion were palpable. My stomach was in knots within the first five minutes. The staging was simply phenomenal.

Let us then take pity on AuxDog when I bring memories like that with me to the performance.

It was good to see the story enacted once more. Sophocles is powerful.

One must single out two of the actors, both playing the roles of older men who do not want to share what they know. Alan Hudson played Tiresias, the blind seer, who could see more than those around him with sight. Hudson captured a sense of a prophet who knows his own power, dignity, and worth and also wants to avoid being dragged into what he knows must unfold. Ominous utterances combine with wordplay as he spars with the king, hoping to say as little as necessary while being bound to the truth that Apollo gives him. The old Theban shepherd is played by Arthur Alpert who seemed truly to inhabit his part, not reciting lines but being the shepherd who had long since fled the terrible secrets and dark fate of the court to live away from the palace in peace. I sank into his skilled performance as one might collapse into a beanbag chair, grateful and luxuriating in comfort. Wynn Rowell's Creon carried dignity and seriousness that fitted the tale as well.

Unfortunately, what I experienced from the beginning and through much of the performance was a sense that the desperate, tragic reality of the story was undercut, which is why I chose the citation at the beginning: "If you could only see the nature of your own feelings."

The performance seemed to lack gravitas, to use an old Latin term for a sober weight and dignity. I heard the lines but I did not feel the emotion that matched the reality of the dramatic situation. The direction and adaptation portrayed Oedipus at the beginning as a sleazy, self-satisfied politician - and there is an element of that in Sophocles' text - but to my mind this seemed to trivialize the whole tale. This shifted from tragedy to a possibly weightier version of tabloid tale and made me uneasy.

"If you could only see the nature of your own feelings."

Many lines that evening felt read, recited, not internalized and embodied. The players knew their lines and did not miss cues, but I sometimes felt as though the horrors of the story were narrated by people who had themselves never suffered or witnessed the truly unspeakable and tragic in their lives. What I am describing is not about the anguished narration overheatedly delivered by the Second Messenger who describes the death of Jocasta and the self-blinding of Oedipus but the whole texture of the piece. I cannot help wondering what might have emerged if cast and director had spend more time pausing to consider WTF is happening here? What is being said?

I suppose that what I yearned for was to truly hear, in the actors' recitation, the emotions that matched the words, and it did not happen with sufficient frequency and consistency.

That, I hope, is a constructive criticism as my desire is for more ventures into the Greek classics, to the enrichment of actors, audiences, and the community as we ponder timeless dilemmas and our human responses to them. I could watch this part of the story knowing that Oedipus finally finds redemption and peace, though n0t in this play.

Thank you, AuxDog, for giving it a go.

--the BB


author said...

Great review, thanks - made me think about the classics. (My husband's grandfather was a classics teacher in Pontus & then Greece - Nick's middle name is Sophocles for a reason.) I've been lucky to see some of the plays in Greece -- you made me think of the Oresteia and Euripides' version of the Furies and a merciful end.

- Janine

Fran said...

What a thought provoking post and a reminder of the classics indeed.

Michal Anne said...

nice reflections on Greek tragedy. I confess I WAS watching with Freud in mind. Grateful to see a local performance, but distracted by the stilted, and at times, overheated acting. And yes, I did come away with a deeper insight into the male psyche--always something of a mystery to me!

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

But then... are we ever at the hight of the Greek tragedies?..