Tuesday, September 17, 2013

OGCMA0762Oedipus_Shelley: recommendation for a paper topic

Once-Banned Drama to Play on DeJong Stage

That Oedipus the King should have been banned from the English stage for practically a century seems stunning in our modern sensibility. Sophocles plunges his heroic investigator into revelations of incest and patricide. Sure. But, censored? For nearly a hundred years?

In 1905 Gilbert Murray, the great classical scholar, wrote to William Butler Yeats: “I am really distressed that the Censor objected to [Oedipus the King]. It ought to be played not perhaps at His Majesty’s [theatre] by Tree, but by Irving at the Lyceum, with a lecture before … and after. And a public dinner. With speeches. By Cabinet Ministers.”[1] That would really rub their noses in the mistake perpetuated over decades that had relegated the Sophoclean to silence.

Percy Bysshe Shelley had perpetrated the offense in 1818 with his burlesque satire of King George IV which he called Oedipus Tyrannus; or Swellfoot the Tyrant. This “highly altered version”, as McDonald characterizes it, bothered the Lord Chamberlain, and a period of censorship ensued. Highet sees the Swellfoot more as the brilliant Shelley’s “greatest failure … an attempt at an Aristophanic farce-comedy based on the scandalous affair of Queen Caroline.” Intriguing is the fact that Shelley’s play was published in London, but not until 1820. Shelley’s reception of classical literature ought to invite hearty scholarship in our day.

This looks like an interesting usage, one that will likely reward further research. I think that, because the author is a major figure in English literary history. Further, Shelley’s Swellfoot the Tyrant offers
a)    an overt usage of a classical myth — so, I won’t have to work hard to prove THAT Shelley was using the myth consciously — and
b)   an apparent purpose, or narrative gain, for Shelley’s working with the myth — i.e. a gifted thinker’s likening a moment in contemporary cultural politics to one of classical antiquity’s most salient myths. Shelley’s usage effected plenty of scandalous discomfort.
How does the poet’s commentary on George IV and his queen gain by its being likened to the Oedipus story?

My plan for research, if I choose to investigate further involves first checking to see whether Reid’s OGCMA already references the work. Then I will look to see whether Reid offers any leads for further reading. After that, I will start reading around and hope soon to form a compelling thesis statement. Then I will read around further and try to muster evidence to prove the point articulated in my thesis.

   Reid offers these references for further reading:
·      An edition of Shelley’s poetry, where I might find a footnote or something of interest in an introductory essay: T. Hutchinson, ed. The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1932.
·      The promise of some analysis and explication awaits in this monograph (apparently) on the author and his work: T. Webb. Shelley: a voice not understood. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1976. — p. 201
·      Analytical treatment of the work’s place in the broader classical tradition: G. Highet. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman influences on western literature. London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.  — p. 421 and 678 (fn. 44)

I would not limit my research to those items, but I would certainly start with them.


[1] Murray to Yeats, 27 January 1905 in Finneran et al. (1977), cited here from F. Macintosh, “Tragedy in Performance: nineteenth- and twentieth-century productions,” in Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. by P.E. Easterling (Cambridge UP 1997), p. 297.

Oedipus the King at Classical Greek Theatre Festival

Oedipus the King, produced by The Classical Greek Theatre Festival (Westminster College, Salt Lake City); performed Saturday 14 September, O.C. Tanner Theatre, Springdale, UT.

Circumstances found my wife and me in Southern Utah on Saturday morning, unable to see the annual CGTF production in any other scheduled performance but free to arrange for a visit to Springdale and the magnificent venue of the O.C. Tanner amphitheatre. As the morning unfolded, we found ourselves wondering why in the future we would ever choose to see a CGTF production in any
Classical Greek Theatre Festival 2013 
location but here. So marvelous — and marvelously used — was this venue.

Oedipus the King stands, in its 2013 CGTF manifestation, as a straightforward and accessible interpretation of the venerable Sophoclean mainstay. Staging, costuming, message are classical. Sandra Shotwell eschews devices that other directors sometimes employ to “update” the ancient text or make it speak to some overtly modern context. Credibility accrues, rather, as the Prof. Shotwell lets this mighty tragedy speak for itself 
 A lovely moment of exquisite staging, which will not be replicated in any other performance of the CGTF OT has Oedipus turn his back on the audience and shouts his genealogy into the soaring red rocks beyond stage. When the mantic void echoes his ancestors’ names back, the effect is poignant. The lines in question are 265 – 70:
“I fight in [Laius’] defence as for my father
and I shall try all means to take the murderer
of Laius the son of Labdacus
the son of Polydorus and before him
of Cadmus and before him of Agenor.
Those who do not obey me, may the Gods
grant no crops spring from the ground they plough nor children to their women!”
                      (David Grene, trans.) 
The intellectual impulse in Oedipus drives him toward assumption of the legitimate right to act in behalf of the murdered king. We know, if we care to explore the bloodlines of the Labdacids, that Oedipus is in very fact a direct descendant of Agenor. At line 268 of this play, the Sophoclean Oedipus is some thousand lines from full awareness. Inasmuch as Oedipus does not yet perceive that Agenor’s lineage is yet viable, this pledge to bring its exterminator to justice resonates irony. No response rises from the stage; it echoes, rather, back upon Oedipus from the majestic red cliffs that soar a thousand feet above the Tanner stage. The theatricality is magical.

Pity that spectators who view this production in a modern theatre, or even at others outdoor venues, will miss the spectacular device availed by the Virgin River’s handiwork in Zion Canyon. The morning sun’s rising over the Springdale audience’s right shoulders provides the actors with a focal point for addressing Apollo on a handful of occasions during the play. This is a turn-around from the gorgeous Red Butte Gardens stage, where the morning sun rises in the spectators’ eyes leaving the actors look into a publicum that is either blinded or holding their hands in front of their faces. One gathers that the Tanner open-air venue may perhaps be among the very best situated stages for any production of a Greek tragic play.

The CGTF OT achieves a definitive success through minimalist adherence to the Sophoclean text. Marianne McDonald’s English translation drives the play. In spite of some overtly awkward acting from some actors, the play works. Because Oedipus’ agones against Tiresias and against Creon preciptate so immediately into shouting matches — more quickly, I feel, than the textual script actually warrants — I came away with the feeling that the actors were directed into an interpretive oversimplification. True, Oedipus’ character did manifest rash outrage that fateful day at the junction when Laius went down. So, maybe the King ought to shout down his interlocutor at every first sign of resistance. Diminished nuance in this aspect of the director’s choices put me off. Only in one late flashing moment does this Oedipus exhibit that intellectual heroism Sophocles wanted Oedipus to possess. When examining the shepherd, Oedipus presses toward revelation that will illuminate the extent of his hamartia.

Jocasta plays her part, particularly when downstage, with gut wrenching intensity. Sophocles’ brilliant plot structure is adequately matched by this Jocasta’s response to the revelations and her anticipation of what is coming next. If you consider the human inclination to circumvent fate to be this play’s chief caution, you will appreciate the roll and performance of this lead character especially rewarding. The off-stage scream was unnecessary; for, on-stage the actress showed the turmoil crush the queen.

Costuming bows to the archaic. Each chorus member is robbed in earth-toned sackcloth and each leans upon a crook, which is used as a percussive tool from eisodos right through the entire play. There are no masks. When a new character is required by the text, a chorus member changes costume subtly and emerges to stand opposite Oedipus. Before the play has ended, each on of these players has taken a shot at Oedipus’ blind preference for human intellect over blind belief in mantike. The director’s clever circulation of faces deftly implicates the chorus in the disclosure of the play’s action while economizing the production’s cost. Stage properties are minimalist. The oboeist’s upholstered chair and a meagerly stylized skene are the only fixtures on the stage. The doorframe’s rhomboid geometry suggests that the entrances and exits from the House of Labdacus can never be squared with outright propriety.

The decision to include a gifted auletes — well, obeist — in the company is a major plus. CGTF productions have rarely, if ever, been so well endowed with such lovely musical accompaniment. The effect is unobtrusively essential. That feeling one often perceives in less subtle productions, some atonal accompaniment articulating the on-stage proceeding or other, is neither pursued nor inflicted upon this elegant production. One comes away from this production wishing that all Greek tragic performances could accomplish this production’s musical grace. The choral odes are chanted by a well rehearsed troupe, to be sure. The rhythmic effect of McDonald’s translation is less lyric, though, and will certainly seem “other” to most in the audience.

In all, again, the 2013 production of the CGTF Oedipus the King is well worth the ticket price. A pre-play lecture by the affable Professor James Svendsen really adds to the value. Now as adjunct professor at Westminster College after his distinguished career at the University of Utah, Prof. Svendsen continues as dramaturge for the CGTF and seems fit for another full run through the Greek tragic canon.

Looking forward with unaccustomed anticipation to 2014.

—  RTM