Drama and Theatre Gimmicks

The Mail

To the Editors of the CRIMSON:

Although parts of Mr. Gordon's recent review of the Oedipus plays at the Loeb were flattering, both to myself and to others for whom I think I speak, please believe that I write this in a wholly disinterested spirit.

I was concerned by Mr. Gordon's review because of what he admits are his "prejudices"; they seem to typify the attitude with which many CRIMSON reviewers approach their task, and to which, unfortunately, many student actors and actresses have grown cynically accustomed. I refer to the always carefully postulated disdain for "theatrical gimmicks" which one generally finds following that ominous "But" which invariably opens the second paragraph.

Mr. Gordon et al, must surely realize that those of us who are working in the theatre are as wary as they of gimmickery. Certainly it can spoil the best of plays; and certainly the Loeb Drama Center is capable of providing it in immense amounts. But CRIMSON reviewers must also realize that the process of making a play "come alive," as Mr. Gordon says Sophocles' works "honorably" do, is absolutely dependent upon a certain amount of hocus-pocus. Sets are gimmicks; so are theatrical lights; so are costumes and made-up faces. And they have a certain amount of validity: they began to be used even before theatre moved out of the cathedral. The problem is not whether or not gimmicks should be employed in the theatre, but where, how much, and what kind they should be.

Now: when I encounter a passage like this in a review, I am irked--

...as the production progressed, the skill of the actors and director grew more consummate--and more distracting. Gostures were added to the speeches, and movement subtly wended its way onto the stage until I began to follow hands and not words. I saw beautiful red lights flash on the back-drop as miserable Oedipus stumbled wretchedly inside to his wife's death at the end, but I did not hear (Oedipus') screaming speech. I am sure it was perfectly spoken, but I wish I hadn't been so fascinated by the blood-red.

It sounds as though Mr. Gordon has just witnessed a badly-done hula. Yet he insists that the plays were "superbly performed." Why this confusion? To my mind it is a result of a fundamental misconception about the nature of theatre. All drama is action; all action is gesture of one sort or another--physical, verbal, and psychological. The way to bring a play to life on stage is to portray as much of its essential action as possible. If plays were merely "words," as Mr. Gordon would seem to have them, what would the point be in performing them?

I use the phrase "essential action" advisedly. Mr. Gordon objects to the "fascination" of "blood-red" at the climax of Oedipus Rex. In a fully-staged production, I admit, a device of this sort would be unnecessary--but this is a "concert reading" in which, with as little actual staging as possible, an attempt is made to focus attention on the themes and meanings imbedded in the script itself: exactly what Oedipus' words are at the climactic moment is not so important as the atmosphere in which they occur, which has brought them about. Personally, I think blood-red is appropriate. The "words," after all, which pin-point the climax of the play are, and I quote, "O! O!" As the play-wright knows, and the actor must understand, these words are the closest language can come to pure gesture--to that impulse which precedes actual speech. If the attempt had been made to communicate them to Mr. Gordon purely in terms of language instead of in terms of psychological tone and gesture, I sincerely doubt that he would have been subject to the same "fascination" which led him to "marvel" at the production.

I feel no need to defend the "shattering booms of thunder" with which Mr. Gordon takes issue in Oedipus at Colonnus. They are Sophocles' stage directions.

I hope Mr. Gordon will not take offense at my writing this: my concern is with the nature and quality of CRIMSON reviews in general, not with his in particular. I know several of this paper's reviewers personally, Mr. Gordon among them; they are all excellent and intelligent writers. My point is that no matter how intelligently written their critiques may be, they cannot be justifiable as such unless they are based upon a working, principled knowledge of their subject. If it is unfair to ask that CRIMSON drama critics understand in detail the ways and means of stage production, as I can understand it might be, I do not think it so to ask that they confess their views to be those of the "average theatre-goer" rather than those of a professional critic. Mark H. Bramhall   President, Harvard   Dramatic Club

Mr. Gordon replies:

I do indeed agree with Mr. Bramhall that "The problem is...where, how much, and what kind...." I meant only to question, in the course of a review, proportions the Loeb has used in the past and used once again in the Oedipus readings. Many "average theatre-goers" have joined me in suspecting too great a dependance on "production" devices and too little a reliance on the talents and insights of the actors.

I also chose the medium of a review to wonder whether the "concert reading" as it is done at the Loeb is an appropriately rewarding exploitation of the talent and capital which the Loeb's presence has made so manifestly available. Any resemblance between our reviews and those of a "professional critic" is purely coincidental.