Sunday, October 22, 2017

Classic Theatre Post 4: Oedipus Rex; Sophocles

Perhaps the most famous play of all time, Oedipus Rex enjoys the most revivals of any ancient script - for good reason too. Originally titled Oedipus Tyrannous, this tragedy holds perhaps the most perfect plot of all time. The perfect mixture of murder mystery, political thriller, and family drama, Oedipus Rex has moved its audience members for over two thousand years.

The play begins with the people of Thebes begging Oedipus for help against a mysterious plague. Oedipus’ rule stems not from family bloodline, but from his victory against the Sphynx some years prior, and thus the people look to him as their savior in times of need. Oedipus reveals that he has sent his brother in law, Creon (son of the deceased King Laius), to the Oracle to ascertain the cause of the plague. On his return, Creon tells Oedipus that the plague stems from Laius’s murderer still remaining in Thebes. Oedipus then calls the prophet Tiresias to divine the identity of the murderer. Tiresias refuses, angering Oedipus, who in turn berates Tiresias. Tiresias leaves commenting on Oedipus blindness.
Throughout the next hour, Oedipus discovers that he was accidentally the true murderer of Laius. Worse, he is, unbeknownst to anyone, the son of his wife, Jocasta, and therefore both the father and the brother of his four children. In a fit of despair, Jocasta kills herself. Oedipus, upon seeing his wife/mother’s body, blinds himself, and banishes himself from Thebes.

SUMMATION

The sheer drama of this play makes it incredibly apt for the modern stage, but the themes of incest, family, blindness, and mistaken identity pervade or society to its core, and therefore make Oedipus Rex essential for our viewing. Shakespeare would later use these themes in his two greatest tragedies (Hamlet and King Lear), and one need not look further than Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex for the incipit of that later genius.

Rec. Translations- Anthony Burgess, Gilbert Murray, W.B. Yeats, and Frank McGuinness

Friday, October 20, 2017

Classic Theatre Post 3: The Oresteia; Aeschylus

Where to begin with the Oresteia? Our only extant trilogy (the Theban plays were performed over a thirty-year period), this cycle shows us the tragic downfall of the house of Atreus. These three plays, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides demonstrate of the height of Aeschylus’ genius.

1.     AGAMEMNON
Before the play began, the war hero Agamemnon had sacrificed his eldest daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods, who in turn allowed him to travel to Troy (these events are detailed through the chorus during the Oresteia, and again in Euripides play, Iphigeneia in Aulis). After the Grecian victory in the Trojan War, Agamemnon return home to his wife, Clytemnestra, who murders him for killing their daughter. The play ends on a somber note, with Agamemnon dead, and Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus (Agamemnon’s cousin), take control of Argos.

2.     THE LIBATION BEARERS
Years pass. Since her father’s death, Electra has been in mourning. Her brother, Orestes, returns to avenge his father’s death. The two meet at their father’s grave, and eventually recognize each other. They then enact a plan in which Orestes first murders Aegisthus, and then Clytemnestra. Because he has murdered his mother, Orestes now must flee from the gods of vengeance: The Furies.

3.     THE EUMENIDES
Since the murder of his mother, Orestes has been hunted day and night by the Furies. He eventually comes to Athens, and pleads to the goddess Athena to help him. She does so by setting up a trial, the (apparent) first of its kind. At the end of the trial, the jurors are tied, and Athena casts the final ballot, saving Orestes from gruesome death. Athena then changes the Furies then change to the Eumenides (meaning kindly ones) to keep order in Athens. Thus, Law and Order was established, and Orestes and Electra live happily ever after. Yay!

SUMMATION
These incredible plays not only brim with exciting drama, but also expose the immortal passions of loyalty, justice, and family. Despite Clytemnestra’s villainy, was Orestes wrong to kill his mother? Was Agamemnon justly killed for the murder of his own child? Was justice truly served in the end? These questions, along with its enduring language, and engrossing plot, place the Oresteia as one of the theatre’s greatest creations.


Rec. Translations- Gilbert Murray, Percy Shelley, and Tony Harrison.

Classic Theatre Post 2: The Greeks

Twenty-Six-Hundred years ago, in ancient Athens, humanity changed. In this time, according to Aristotle, a man named Thespis broke from the chains of choral storytelling, and created dialogue with the dancing singers, thus birthing the art of Theatre. Because these early dialogues have been lost, one can only imagine what they contained- what ideas they tackled- were they simple? Were they tragic? Comedic? We may never know. Luckily however, thirty-three plays written by Thespis’ cognitive descendants survive. These dramas from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are often thought of as masterpieces of the ancient world; holding status with the works of Homer, Plato and Aristotle. Yet, due to their dense language and ostensibly antiquated themes, these plays often find themselves read in classrooms, rather than performed in theatre spaces. This, ironically, is itself a tragedy, and one that may be easily rectified.
Whether or not you believe Aristotle, (who lived over two centuries after the alleged Thespis), and though these plays are not the true first works of theatre (there is evidence of theatre in Egypt 1500 years prior), these dramas are the earliest extant plays we have, and have provided the basis for playwriting that we have followed for 2,500 years. Therefore, familiarity with them is essential to all who study classic literature and theatre.

In the following posts, I will select what I believe to be the most important dramas from this period, and explain why each of them deserve full passionate performance, and unmitigated attention.

Classic Theatre Post 4: Oedipus Rex; Sophocles

Perhaps the most famous play of all time, Oedipus Rex enjoys the most revivals of any ancient script - for good reason too. Originally titl...

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