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Oedipus Rex (1957)

One can be forgiven a knee-jerk reflex to the words "Greek tragedy" as befitting a ponderous ordeal with a white-robed, swaying Chorus, rigid masks, and declamatory poetry perilously close to a High Mass. Yet we hardly ever get a chance to see if that stereotype holds water. Here's a chance. We know that the Greek playwright Sophocles (the Francis Ford Coppola of 5th century B.C. Athens) wrote more than 100 dramatic works. It's a genuine tragedy that only seven survive today. Sophocles wrote and staged his plays during the height of classical Greek theater, so they were as old in New Testament days as Shakespeare's plays are in ours. Of the seven survivors, one remains a touchstone in the essential canon of world literature. It's Oedipus Rex, which we all learned about in high school as the story of the king who killed his father and married (and had children by) his mother. Modern actors from Laurence Olivier to Al Pacino have tackled the role of the hapless young man who solves the riddle of the Sphinx, is rewarded with a kingdom and a queen, attempts to rid his land of a plague, and who is fated from his very beginnings to be the instrument of his father's death and his mother's fatal shame. This ancient masterpiece of incest, divine whim, and the inescapability of fate is such a primal story that its naked exposure of key issues in the human psyche gave Freud a complex.

The 1957 production preserved on this DVD was directed by famed British director-actor Sir Tyrone Guthrie for his Shakespearean Festival Players of Stratford, Ontario. Stripped down to 88 minutes and filmed in a tiny studio without frills or a live audience, this script translation by Irish mystic poet William Butler Yeats hews close to the original text: King Oedipus (Douglas Campbell, whose voice is a superb vocal orchestra) is on a mission to locate the murderer of his father. Of course he's doomed to discover that the blind sooth-seer Tiresias (Donald Davis) is correct when he announces that not only is Oedipus himself the guilty party, but that Oedipus' wife Jocasta (Eleanor Stuart) is actually his own mother.

Guthrie recreated Greek conventions by having all his actors wear elaborate masks, just as they would have in the immense Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis, where the play was originally performed for audiences that numbered in the tens of thousands. Guthrie interpreted Oedipus Rex as a dramatization of the annual scapegoat-sacrifice of the king, the basis (some scholars think) of much Greek religion. This production was therefore designed, with its precise, deliberate movements and carefully posed tableaux, to recreate an ancient solemn ritual just as the ancients had experienced it. Although rooted in religious observances, it's a mistake to think of Oedipus Rex as dry and narrowly sermonic as a Southern Baptist passion play. Oedipus is a vigorous, active king. His main flaw, besides his ignorance, is his speed and energy. While formally stylized to within an inch of its life, Guthrie's vision kept his actors on the move, and there are scenes of real power here, such as Tiresias' pronouncement of Oedipus' guilt. The masks and costumes are emotive and rather creepy, as if we're watching chess pieces or life-size puppets enacting the whims of the gods. The actors' oratory style is formal and stentorian to the point of otherworldly. In its infancy, drama wasn't about reality — it was about poetry and fantasy and ritual, all of which are on ample display. To look for modern realism in Greek drama is to miss the point.

It's safe to say that this disc will be of interest primarily to drama history students and closet classicists. Nonetheless, it offers rewards for us civilians who stick with it to appreciate its novelty. The masks are beautiful and folk-art bold. They strip away everything but a voice and an attitude to convey the rich interplay of light and dark within the tale's complex tapestry. This production's uncredited co-director was Abraham Polonsky, a writer-director blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era because he refused to testify in 1951 before the shameful House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Polonsky's simple but efficient camerawork complements Guthrie's stage direction. Fans of screen science fiction should note two Trivial Pursuit items. Although the masks obscure the actors' faces, two voices will sound vaguely familiar. First, there's Douglas Rain as the Messenger. Eleven years after this production, Rain sang "Daisy" for the ages as the voice of Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The keep-case states that Rain plays Creon, but the closing credit scroll confirms that he's actually the Messenger, a role with greater dramatic presence.) Second, among the 15-member Chorus is another young Canadian who's only just recognizable in his solo lines: 26-year-old William Shatner, nine years before he became Capt. James T. Kirk.

Seeing Sophocles' greatest smash hit in a form similar to how his original audiences experienced it is a rare and pretty nifty thing. For the theatrically adventurous, this DVD would make an interesting compare/contrast double-bill with Jean Anouilh's World War II version of Oedipus Rex's sequel, Antigone.

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This Image Entertainment release preserves a singular production plenty well enough for classroom use or a theater collector's library of classics and rarities. Struck from a vintage broadcast-quality print (1.85:1, anamorphic), it's as good as the source material allows with no restoration. Some scenes would benefit from better sharpness or contrast, and sometimes the image is a bit faded. Finicky digiphiles are forewarned that substantial grain and wear are present, especially in the second half. But overall this is a good, reliable recording. The audio is your basic lo-fi, but it's clear and reliable in DD 2.0 monaural. No extras. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne



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