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Over the past half century Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, has built up an extraordinary reputation as one of the most active centers of ancient Greek study in the country. The prime stimulus was Miss Mabel Whiteside, who functioned as a local Thalia, Melpomene and Terpsichore rolled into one. She had her students of Greek put on some 40 productions of Greek drama in the original language. In the spring of 1954, she fittingly climaxed 50 years of teaching at Randolph-Macon by presenting, not one more Greek play, but three--Aeschylus' trilogy The Oresteia, the mighty masterpiece of the first great dramatist in history.
So successful was this undertaking that it was decided to conduct a fund drive to enable the College to memorialize the production on film. The faculty, administration and student body labored hard with a professional technical staff.
Given all the attendant premises, the film is a really remarkable achievement. The three plays--Agamemnon, Choephoroi, and Eumenides--have a total running time of about eight hours, cut to five and a half for the live production. This was obviously too long for a movie, and the time had to be further shortened by wholesale cutting to an hour and three quarters. Still, the film manages to capture the grand sweep of the classic tale of revenge, murder and retribution, though many qualities of the original are necessarily lost.
Since the cast of fifty includes Randolph-Macon students only, the male roles are all played by women. But after all this simply reverses the ancient practice, which allowed all-male casts only. A few of the big roles could have stood better acting; yet Jeannette Hume has a number of fine moments as Elektra. And it was a good idea for Elizabeth Scarff to portray Cassandra as insane, for this makes more credible the continued disbelief of all her auditors. I do wish something had been done about the actresses' accents: Attic Greek just does not mix with a Southern United States drawl.
The spasmodic English narration is not always satisfactory. In the Agamemnon portion particularly, the narrative is simply superimposed on the dialogue, with the result that one cannot understand either the Greek or the English. At other times the Greek is momentarily faded out. I think a better solution (if a narrative was necessary at all) would have been to present an English summary at the start of each play and then let the drama go right through in uninterrupted Greek.
The star of the film is clearly the chorus; and the whole production seems to be organized around the chorus as a focal core. They sing beautifully together and are right on pitch. Violet Teass wrote the fine choral chants. And Henry Hallstrom's extensive musical score, played by 21 members of the National Symphony Orchestra, is unusually distinguished and carefully synchronized. No less expert is the chorus' dancing of Eleanor Struppa's choreography. Executed with precision, the dancing adapts most effectively the modern Martha Graham stylistic approach.
The finest portion of the film is the last. For this much of the credit goes to the marvelous chorus of avenging Furies, whose frightening makeup, snakepit writhings and almost surrealistic dancing are worthy even of Dante's Inferno. The play itself is a real suspense thriller, with the outcome in doubt. It builds up to the theatre's first trial by jury, a device that is still proving useful to dramatists 2500 years later.
Director Nicholas Webster has made excellent use of his cameras and of the simple but solid sets. The costumes, inspired by archaic statues and vase paintings, are well designed and made of top-grade material. And finally, a word must be said for the stunning quality of the film's Anscocolor processing.
The completed movie, its blemishes notwithstanding, emerges as an impressive artistic accomplishment and a lasting tribute to Miss Whiteside's 50 years of inspiring zeal and unflagging dedication. And the film is evidence that, in one place at least, the ancient Greek language, far from being dead, is not even moribund.
"Tois toi dikaiois cho brachys nika megan." (A film showing of Aeschylus' "Oresteia" trilogy, in Greek with English narration, will take place this Thursday in Emerson Hall 210 at 7:30 p.m., and will be open to the public without charge.
Made to honor Professor Mabel K. Whiteside, who herself plays the role of a Priest of Dionysus, the film will be introduced and will carry commentary by William Yandell Elliott, Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science, emeritus, at Harvard; former Director of the Harvard Summer School; and currently University Professor at The American University.)
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