Friday, September 19, 2014

Guthrie's 1957 Oedipus Rex fails (thank goodness!) to deliver on Netflix' promises

Oedipus Rex (dir. Tyrone Guthrie, 1957), a filmed staged performance of Sophocles’ 5th-century tragedy based upon an adapted translation by W.B. Yeats
Howler Alert: Don’t trust the labels on Netflix discjackets: “Acclaimed actor-director Sir Tyrone Guthrie filmed this 1957 masterpiece production of Sophocles’s beloved Greek tragedy. Just as the ancient Greeks performed it, the actors here also wear masks, which add a classic touch. Oedipus Rex, the story of a Greek man who killed his father so he could marry his mother and quench his primal sexual thirst, has for centuries influenced countless plays and films.” … Really?  

Tyrone Guthrie's production of Oedipus Rex landmarked
the beginning of revivals of Greek tragedies in North America.
Sophocles’ “beloved” Greek tragedy? Could they mean beloved like chocolate ice cream or Maria Von Trapp? Who writes this stuff?!?    But then this: … Oedipus’ purpose for killing Laius was to bed his mother? C’mon! If ever a 20th-century reading could be planted upon a classical narrative, this label defines the attempt. Fortunately, it turns out, that back-formed reading of Oedipus goes no deeper than the label; and the content of this disc deserves a good close watching. But you'll need to be patient if you want to benefit.

Nothing seems really further from this production’s primary purpose than proving the Oedipus was driven by incestuous lust when he killed his real father. For the production’s prologue, delivered for the film audience by an actor who is overtly going to assume a mask and persona for the play, clarifies that we are about to participate in a sacramental experience. This Oedipus is going to present a “sacrifice of one man who died for the people, … the destruction of one man that his people might live.” To be sure, the purpose of Guthrie’s undertaking is present a ritualized drama, conceived and produced for the ennobling of the audience. Crafted in the shadow of the Cambridge Ritualists, Guthrie’s Sophocles is all about lionizing the Theban King’s selfless self-sacrifice to the god Apollo.

Analogue of Sophocles’ masterpiece, the filmed drama renders onto a stage the translation of W. B. Yeats. The production has the self-conscious air of monumentality. And, indeed, it is the filmed version of a stageplay that was the highlight of the 1955 Stratford, Ontario New Shakespeare Festival. The director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, first projected the event as a minor feature; but, it became the Festival’s smash hit.

The actors of the Stratford (Shakespearean) Festival recreate for the cameras on a soundstage a  And the play remains to be the thing.
production of the classic drama. Set upon a multifaceted stage and shot from several camera angles as if in the round, this performance features actors in highly stylized masks and costumes. One or two cuts reveal, as if accidentally, that the analogue was not actually shot in one take. Dozens of quick cuts keep the viewer’s eye from tiring. High-angle shots and occasional close-ups instruct the viewer that the director, not the beholder, is in charge here. Still, the cinematic illusion leads the film’s viewer to believe in the analogue of a dramatic performance. The simple backdrop shows that the soundstage where this is filmed is of no great physical scope.

Yeats’ translation flows easily, even if it is overwhelmed in most deliveries here by the overwheening acting. The text is trimmed down somewhat, to the point that many favorite passages are tiny or non-extant. Creon, for instance (in my favorite speech), never gets to ask Oedipus why a second-in-power would really want to overthrow his king. Elsewhere, the Chorus adds background that Sophocles’ audience had no need of hearing (the opening choral “ode”). What the translator, however, does achieve is a composed heroization of the Greek hero, “a conception of an Oedipus who has achieved mythopoeic status”. (Macintosh, 310) Guthrie siezes upon that notion and tries to edify it.

21st century cinema audiences will be put off by the highly stylized acting. Blocking is dramatic to the extreme and often overwrought. Douglas Campbell as Oedipius pauses pregnantly each time Laius’ name is mentioned or considered. This notwithstanding, the text is very easy to follow. Indeed, what I criticize in the acting is actually pronounced to the clarity of the plot. Even a contemporary reviewer, not jaded by my generation’s need for visual thrills, notes that “As pure film [Guthrie’s Oedipus] has gaping flaws that are definitely distracting.” This is not really a film, but a stage play. Nor is it a play done as current audiences are accustomed to seeing, rather in many ways an overtly ritualized performance.

I wonder whether I am the only viewer who is disappointed by the remarkable lack of "chemistry" between Jocasta and Oedipus in this production. The 2013 OT by the Utah Classical Greek Theatre foregrounded an affectionate wife pleading to halt the inquest. And I come to  Guthrie's masked Jocasta fresh from deep viewings of Martha Graham's Night Journey and the erotically supercharged Edipo Alcalde in which Ángela Molina moves Jocasta into entirely new territory. Guthrie's production reminds me that for many generations, Oedipus' plight is all about him. Sophocles can really wrench your gut by delving into the mother's view — Remember that Eurydice in Antigone is also undone, not just Creon, by Haemon's grief. The pesky masking of the present Oedipus obfuscates, for me, the tragedy of Jocasta at a time in my life when I'm beginning to look for it more.

Those who have grown up with the cinematic flexibilities of CGI and FX or the like will grow impatient with this production. All the dialogue comes from actors whose entire faces, except for the chin, are covered by depersonalized masks. Of course, our age would scarcely tolerate a messenger’s speech in any context. Sophocles’ audience expected otherwise. “You shall see it!” responds the messenger when the Chorus asks him to describe Jocasta’s death. This moment cannot but remind us that we will see nothing but the words of the messenger.  Would a really modern production not actually impose this gruesome scene upon us? 5th-century staging forebade the playwright from forcing such upon the audience.
Oedipus thinks himself at the top of his game while he brow-
beats the prophetically nimble Tiresias. The avian costume is discomfiting.
Oedipus’ final blinding is tame and heroically discreet. Though the Messenger reports that “The blood poured down, and not with a few slow drops… in a dark cataract of scarlet!” when Guthrie’s Oedipus comes forth from the shadowy doorway, he is clothed in scarlet, not gold; bereft of the golden crown. Benighted now in a black veil, the final Oedipus is less physically anguished and more composed than other Oedipuses at this moment.This uncommonly restrained moment sows insightful understanding of Oedipus' grandest accomplishment, the clarity of vision he has striven for throughout his existence as demonstrated within the play. Bereft of all he has held dear, he can now appreciate illumination. This QED rewards the viewer who has tended through the production's discomfiting oddities.

I feel fortunate that I watched this film in solitude. Glad that I did not watch with teenagers, especially Oedipus’ interrogation of Tiresias. There would certainly have been lots of uncomfortable laughing.  Later, Oedipus’ rehearsal of his violent encounter with Laius is stirringly overwrought. The dramatic moments in this production involve histrionic gestures of lifted arms. Tiresias, the blind seer, is a walking characture. His costuming seems ripped from the pages of Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy, or awfully like a marshmallow dripping into a campfire.

Guthrie is said to have regarded acting as a product of conscious style:
Style is an alarming word to American actors. They think of it as something assumed, something fancy and affected, something connected with being more elegant and flossy than anyone has a right to be in private life.It is hard to convince them that style in acting, as in dress, is concerned with appropriateness, with suitability to environment, and does not necessarily involve a great deal of elaborate mannerisms and posturing.” ( provides no detail for this reference.)
Viewers who can suspend their naturally acquired tastes and invest in Guthrie's production will benefit from watching this rather clearly presented narrative of the western literature’s most humane hero, the ill-starred savior of Thebes.


Directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie the year after winning 1956 Tony for directing Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker”.

IMDB provides links to these and other contemporary reviews:

Aaron Cohen reviews the film in The Village Voice 6 February 1957; link:,4156872&dq=movies&hl=en

Bosley Crowther reviews the film in New York Times 8 January 1957; link:
See also
Fiona Macintosh, “Tragedy in Performance: nineteenth- and twentieth-century productions,” in The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, ed. by P.E. Easterling (Cambridge UP, 1997): 284 – 323.
...But save for her treatment of other receptions M. McDonald, The Living Art of Greek Tragedy (Indiana UP, 2003): 95.

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