Let there be no doubt about it! The concert reading of Sophocles' two great tragedies at the Loeb last night was superbly performed. By all means go to hear the readings directed by George Hamlin, and marvel as I did at the skill with which undergraduate voices bring back a Greek tragedian and two modern English poet-translators to an honorable life in Cambridge.
But pay close attention as you marvel, for though the rendering is flawless, the choice of style for the two readings should be carefully studied--and questioned. I've attended Loeb main stage performances regularly for the last two years now, and I find the successes of each performance becoming predictable. Hamlin has relied, as most directors have, on the experienced skill of the same star-studded cast. Last night, the cast acted with the same excellence they've always shown, and I wondered if the use of stars wasn't becoming a riskless formula which Hamlin didn't dare violate. He also relied on what now seems a standard method of concert reading at the Loeb--something a bit more than reading but much less than a full play. Is this too becoming a formula for success?
But first let me state my prejudices. As I sank into my chair at the start of the brilliant Yeats translation of Rex, I wanted to close my eyes, undisturbed for once by theatrical gimmicks, and savor the beauty of Yeats' work--to admire the careful logic of his temperate speeches in prose, only to be transported by the dazzling beauty of the choral speeches in verse. At first the characters permitted me to relax in my reveries by their well-studied, careful excellence of voice. Mark Bramhall, Harvard's leading man of the stage and by rights cast as Oedipus the young man, spoke gloriously in his part, always ready with the right tone and right phrasing, always exploding with outraged pride at the proper moment.
And so it was with most of the others. Arthur Friedman performed impeccably as Creon, assuredly and pompously reasoning his way out of the bursts of his King's anger and into the respect of the chorus. Robert Egan as Tiresias, the blind soothsayer, also allowed me to float by on the prose, mouthing what he could not see with such taste and skill that Yeats himself taunted the King Joanne Hamlin, who played Jocasta the Queen, adopted the precise style a bit too faithfully, speaking moderately, to be sure, but not quite forcefully enough for the part.
The chorus was less satisfying, as should be expected from the actors and actresses cast in it. They are apprentices to the stars, waiting patiently at the wings for their chance. They must still learn how to weigh each word, as the stars themselves have learned in their own rise to the top.
Unfortunately, my reveries did not last forever. For as the production progressed, the skill of the actors and director grew more consummate--and more distracting. Gestures were added to the speeches, and movement subtly wended its way onto the stage until I begin to follow hands and not words. I saw beautiful red lights flashed on the back-drop as miserable Oedipus stumbled wretchedly inside to this wife's death at the end, but I did not hear Mark Bramhall's screaming speech. I am sure it was perfectly spoken, but I wish I hadn't been so fascinated by the blood-red.
The ingredients for the second half of the program were the same, since Hamlin used almost exactly the same cast and made the expectable substitution of John Lithgow for Bramhall as Oedipus the old man. In its own way, the performance of Colonus in the Fitzgerald translation was much better, but it was also much less satisfying. Colonus is a much more complicated tragedy than the earlier Rex, and the character of the aged, sightless, beaten man makes almost impossible demands on the actor.
Lithgow acted beautifully, but still left me dissatisfied. His reading was superb, but he was unfortunately incapable, it seemed, of translating the incredibly complicated emotional range of his speeches into an equally complicated--and therefore plausible--characterization.
The rest of the cast again did justice to the script, although I once more wanted more speaking and less action. The red lights of the climax in Rex were replaced by the shattering booms of Zeus' thunder; even Laura Esterman as Ismene, with emotion shivering in every syllable, was drowned out by the noise. Friedman as Creon again, Richard Backus as Theseus, and David Blocker, who replaced a less talented Lorenzo Weisman of Rex as the leader of the Colonus chorus, supplied that immeasurably graceful skill of speech which brought me back from the visual, just as I had wanted.