Monday, April 25, 2016

Oedipus Wrecks

Images from

I realized today that I have watched the abridged version of the 1957 Tyrone Guthrie directed Oedipus Rex over 100 times over the last 23 years. And then I got scared.
It’s not true that “everything old is new again.” Everything old is…old.  If it’s not damning enough that I have shown and studied this production with two generations of students, it’s even worse that I have a VHS copy I’m forced to show on an actual TV/VCR combo.
The play has some annoyances that grate on me like a zester on a lemon. Why are they saying “EEEE-di-pus”? Oh. They’re Canadian. That explains it. And is it “Creon” or “Crayon”? Make up your mind.
When I show the video, I explain that we are used to a naturalistic style of acting. The actors in this production are not attempting to be “real”. Aside from the exaggerated masks, gloves with elongated fingers, and bulky costumes, the actor’s delivery is arch, drawn out, and melodramatic enough to make me snicker. Favorite line in this vein? Here
On the other hand, the language of the play is beautiful. William Butler Yeats adapted it. His poetic treatment of the story is both lovely and clear enough for freshmen to understand.
While I don’t really get into literary analysis when we watch the play, the abridged version we view emphasizes the dramatic irony.  Greek audiences would have known the plot already; you don’t have to say “spoiler alert” when you mention that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic, and Greek theatergoers would have known how Oedipus’ story ended. As we watch, we know more than Oedipus and Jocasta, and the resulting irony is delicious. Near the beginning of the play, Oedipus declares his intent to find the miscreant whose hubris has brought the plague down on Thebes. Hmmm…who could that be? Later, when Jocasta is describing her husband Laius, she remarks that her late beloved’s hair had just begun to grow gray and he looked a lot like…yep, you guessed it, Oedipus.
In the end, though, it’s the performance, not the text, that makes me show this play again and again.  Modern critics have sneered at the overwrought and mannered performances; I think the approach might hint at the kind of acting an ancient Greek actor might have used. After all, a Greek actor was trying to convey story and emotion to an amphitheater full of people. Subtlety was not an option.
The enormous masks also represent the trappings of Greek theater, and the stylized movement hints at how ancient choirs might have moved.
This vintage production of an ancient Greek play enthralls my students. After so many showings, it still enthralls me.
One of the themes in Oedipus Rex is lack of vision. As a teacher, I don’t want to be someone who does the same thing year after year, blind to the changes in students and pedagogy. But I don’t want to throw something out simply because it’s been around for a while. 
We can’t ignore how so many forces, from technology to the changing personalities of the students we see in our classes, are altering education. But we also shouldn’t abandon all of the tools and materials we have at our disposal simply because they have been around for a while. There’s a metaphor there for how we sometimes treat veteran teachers who hold invaluable institutional memory even as they try to deal with shifts in policy in education.

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