Oedipus at Colonus
In Fogg Museum Court
On the diamond anniversary of Greek drama at Harvard, the Harvard-Radcliffe Classical Players are offering a gem of a production. Those who witnessed the 1881 production of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex can now see what eventually happened to the King in the play's sequel, Oedipus Coloneus, the last of the dramatist's seven extant tragedies.
Oedipus is to Greek mythology very much what King Lear is to British mythology. In the current show we see the last hours of the self-blinded and aged King in exile. This play lacks the searing impact of Oedipus Rex, but exhibits instead a glowing mellowness and profound restraint. It is the wisdom of old age--the old age of both the King and the dramatist. They both are telling us that man is a prey to Fate, which he cannot control but should learn to accept.
The traditional crown of ivy must go to Robert A. Brooks for his fine direction, and for stepping into the demanding title role on two day's notice. He has made the play flow, but not swiftly. And this is right. One should not look for violent physical action and rapid pace in Greek drama, since the ancient actors were encumbered by masks, long robes, kothornoi (special raised shoes) and ogkoi (large headdresses); and, in lieu of a curtain, there were choral stasima, sometimes lengthy, to denote the passage of any amount of time between scenes. Nor should one expect to see many characters together on stage, since a maximum of three actors was available to play all the roles.
Working with a small stage, Brooks has expertly handled the problem of the chorus, ably led by Richard Smithies. In this play the chorus functions not only as a group of commenting onlookers but also as Elders of Colonus who participate in the dialogue. The distribution of lines among them is wisely varied: they speak sometimes singly or by twos, sometimes in unison. The celebrated ode in praise of Colonus comes off especially well.
Director Brooks is also obviously an actor of considerable experience. He gives a virtuosic performance as Oedipus, who dominates all the scenes of the play. With a sonorous and resonant voice, he conveys to perfection the character of a man who is physically helpless but spiritually strong; a man who, like King Lear, proclaims himself "more sinn'd against than sinning;" a man who, although having committed incest and parricide, is not morally guilty, and arrives at a wiser view of sin in which his past deeds are not crimes but sorrows. The denunciatory "kakon kakiste" speech to Oedipus' wayward son Polyneices is particularly outstanding, and all the more terrifying for being a deviation from a generally restrained level.
In the role of the faithful daughter Antigone, Nancy Dersofi is most convincing, and extremely graceful to watch. Erich Segal is exemplary as the wily Creon. Royall Tyler appropriately spits out his lines in portraying the ardent but hypocritical Polyneices. David Shillman's Theseus suffers only from unclearly articulated diction; otherwise he manages to grasp the psychological changes that Theseus undergoes during the course of the play. Amy Mims is adequate, if a bit stiff, as Antigone's sister Ismene.
Glen Bowersock does a splendid job with the long Messenger's narration, one of the loveliest and deepest speeches ever penned, in which he describes Oedipus' last moments on earth and his mystical, saintly end. But instead of having the Messenger quote the words of the gods, Brooks has these lines delivered by an unseen voice on the second-floor ambulatory as a modern counterpart of the ancient theologeion, a special platform for the gods.
Don Berry has designed a striking and workable set in modernistic style, representing the sacred Grove of the Eumenides in red, blue, and silver. Its effectiveness is enchanced by Margaret Fairbank's lighting. Pringle Hart's costumes and Penny Sutherland's choreography are simple but tasteful. Stephen Addiss has composed modern musical backgrounds for the odes and lyrics that are fitting but a little too loud. Timpani rolls substitute adequately for the thunder-machine (bronteion) of the ancients.
All in all the present offering is eminently worth a trip to Fogg, even for those with "little Latin and less Greek." For both the play and the production live up to the closing choral line, "A master is wholly in control."