Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Berkoff and Dionysos

Last week, I realised I'd never seen Sophocles' King Oedipus on stage.

Few people would be surprised by that, but I was. These days I don't get to the theatre as often as I'd like but I still think of myself as a theatre-goer. In the past, I've sought out obscure productions of Greek plays – in Greek as well as in English – because of the challenge they pose to today's theatre.

I'm not an expert but, when I struggled through two happy years to achieve a weak pass in Greek A-level, I supplemented my tussles with verbs and syntax with reading everything I could find on Greek history and culture. According to the curriculum, my school didn't offer Greek. Greek, like writing Latin verse, tended to be the preserve of boys' grammar and public schools. But somehow I wangled my way into Greek A-level, which was taught intensively from scratch in the Latin teacher's spare time. I've been grateful to her ever since. I was an unpromising prospect with nothing except a desire to learn to recommend me. There must have been considerable doubt whether I would pass. But the teacher – her name was Miss Blench – did her very best for me, setting plenty of work and urging me to read as much as I could. I think there were four shelves of books about Ancient and Classical Greece in the school library. I probably read every one.

I don't suppose any school would let a pupil take that risk nowadays, what with league tables and so on. But I'm more proud of the grade D I attained (a clear pass!) than any other academic achievement.

My teenage passion for things Greek has subsided now but I still turn to Greek texts from time to time – often in translation with the original Greek beside me, if I can find it, so that I can have some idea of the sound and the way meaning is made. But heading to Steven Berkoff's production of Oedipus at Nottingham Playhouse, I couldn't find a Greek text. I had to make do with a few extracts in The Oxford Book of Greek Verse, which were far too difficult for me.

Instead I thought of the problems posed by staging Greek tragedy today. It's never going to be the same for us as the Greeks. A director could offer a singing, dancing chorus and principle actors in masks and elevated shoes, but it wouldn't have the same effect. The Greeks were as familiar with that convention as we are with drawing-room comedies or Shakespeare framed by a proscenium arch.

Nor does theatre have the same role in society. These days there's a debate about the purpose of theatre and whether it should be funded. There's always someone to say it's superfluous and that, if people want theatre, they should pay for it, however high the prices and however limited their means. The defenders of theatre talk of heritage and culture. They even act like economists and produce charts showing how much money theatres bring into their towns and cities. Meanwhile the government imposes cuts which are made at one remove, leaving the lovers of theatre and custodians of culture to decide whose potential will be stifled and whose lives they will impoverish

None of that would have made sense in Athens, when Sophocles' play was first produced at the Great Dionysia. Performing plays and going to the theatre was a religious duty. Citizens attended to honour the god Dionysos. There was a fund to ensure that those who couldn't afford the tickets could still join the audience. And it was an honour to be the wealthy citizen who sponsored a playwright's work.

As I remember – it's a long time since I worked through those books – the Great Dionysia was also a theatrical competition. A small jury would vote for the best set of plays (three from each playwright and a satyr play). However not all the votes were counted, giving the god a chance to intervene. And the plays were all on familiar topics so the question was not what the story was but always how it was told – and how it honoured the god - in the vast Athenian auditorium.

There was no way Steve Berkoff could offer that experience for an audience seeing a single play from the comfortable seats of the Playhouse. I did wonder whether he would try to bring the audience to a state of catharsis – the state of purification from emotions which King Oedipus achieves, according to Aristotle. But I'm not convinced such a state is possible today. We see the world differently.

One of the main differences is the set of questions we can't help asking about Oedipus: what did he do wrong? what could he have done differently? does he deserve his punishment? But these aren't, I think, the questions Sophocles' original audience would have askes. (These aren't my own ideas. I'm following classical scholars. I don't have my books to hand but I believe I encountered the arguments in essays by E.R. Dodds and Erich Segal.)

Sophocles' first audience believed in curses and prophecies. They probably didn't think about it all the time but the question could even enter politics. When things were going badly, citizens would mutter that there was a curse on the family of Pericles and Alcibiades – not because they thought there must be but because the curse was a matter of historical fact. Electing a leader from a cursed family could cause problems for the city as a whole.

The baby Oedipus was no more than three days old when the prophecy was pronounced – and it derived from a curse on his family. From the time of his birth it was inevitable that he would kill his father and marry his mother. The Christian idea of sin doesn't come into it because his fate was always inescapable. So is the punishment he and his family must endure for his actions – not because Oedipus has committed any conscious or willed wrong but because father-murder and incest are punished by divine law, even if they occur accidentally. What the play shows is not the way we should live but the way the power of the gods and prophecies work out. If it has a moral – and I think it does – it is simply that humans should believe in oracles and honour the gods.

I can see those views at a distance and understand logically that people held them but, like most people, I'm too wrapped up in a world that believes in personal guilt, human responsibility and the innocence of babies to feel what such views mean. Although people today often suffer for the actions of their rulers, few would find it just that a whole city should suffer from plague because its king has acted in the way the gods or Fate ordained. Because our understanding of the world has changed, ideas like this don't work in the theatre of today. Actors need characters they can inhabit and audiences need to sense a world that isn't too distant from their own.

In Steven Berkoff's production (after Oedipus rather than an exact translation) it's surprising how little this difference matters and how much of Sophocles' play survives. Berkoff may have created an Oedipus who is something of a mobster or mafioso rather than a king but Stephen Merrells' arrogant boss fits the play – he is the sort of man who, unfortunately for him, is bound to attract the notice of the gods.

I admired Louise Jameson's Jocasta too. She seemed softer than I would have expected – sympathetic and believable. I don't shudder in the way the original audience would have done when she repeatedly denies the power of oracles – to the watching Athenians this was the kind of blasphemy that could threaten the city as well as the speaker. For a modern audience this is more understandable. She's a mother who has lost her child and her husband and whose love for Oedipus is, in consequence, tender and protective.

What interested me above all was how the play itself would work. After all, telling a well-known story can mean there's little suspense. But just as children like to repeat the same suspense-filled journey, grown-ups can be interested in how a familiar story is told – and knowing the ending doesn't necessarily spoil the excitement.

I was surprised how well the tension builds. As members of the audience we observe the unfolding of events, alert to every little irony and clue. When Oedipus promises, with an oath as binding as an oracle, that he will punish the murderer of Laius with exile, we already know that he is promising to punish himself. And when we're told of his similarity to Laius, we know this is because he is Laius's son. Yet the inevitability enthralls the audience, as I suppose it enthralls the audience of a slasher-movie. And I found that, whereas I would watch Hamlet, which I've seen many times, for how the play is staged and acted, with Oedipus most of my attentions was given to the way in which the story unfolds. I suppose in that respect the modern audience is very like the Greek audience, who would have seen a number of plays on the Oedipus theme.

There were two points where I was less certain of the production, though this may suggest I'm something of a purist when it comes to Greek theatre. While at times the stylised mime of the chorus worked well – when performing clear emotions or recognizable actions, as, for instance, when a member of the ensemble suddenly became a horseback messenger – at other times I found the movements too vague in intent, though performed with complete conviction. But what a pleasure it was to see such a range of faces. Each chorus-member was both part of an ensemble and a human individual, whose face could at times be transformed into the fixed pain and astonishment of a Greek tragedian's mask.

For me one of the highlights of Greek or French classical drama is the messenger's speech when an actor tells the story of horrors that happen offstage. I'll never forget Robert Edison in the Phedre of Racine, holding a full theatre still and on edge as his mellifluous voice painted a succession of cruel catastrophes. The horror that occurs in my imagination is always more terrible than any that can be shown on stage.

I was unhappy, therefore, at the decision to show Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus's eye-gouging on stage. Even a simple dumb-show distracts from the power of language to shock. The conclusion did allow a moment that moved me deeply: when Oedipus gently embraced and kissed his dead mother-wife. But that gentleness somehow made the ending less bleak and powerful. The play moved me but not to the extent that I felt purged and purified by having seen it. Good as the production was, it offered me no catharsis.

But then, I didn't go to Nottingham Playhouse to worship Dionysos. I'm not sure I believe in him.


Alan Baker said...

Great write-up. Very informative for someone with no Greek, Ancient or Modern. I must try and get to see this.

Anonymous said...

A most thought-provoking review/essay, as always.

I wonder though (and admittedly I have yet to read or watch a classical tragedy, even in translation) whether Sophocles' and his contemporaries were more ambivalent in their attitude to curses and prophesies than we might imagine.

Today we have a small but significant culture of horoscopes and other esoterica. Most people may not take them too seriously, but in times of personal crisis, that can change. And of course, the more widespread the belief, the greater the incentive for freelance soothsayers, and correspondingly the stronger the reaction against it as well. Was it like that in Sophocles' time? Was Jocasta representing a common ambivalence, rather than being blasphemous?

Could the whole thing with prophesies coming true, and those fighting the prophesies unwittingly making them come true, be more a literary device than a moral? I am thinking now of The Time-Traveller's Wife where pre-ordination is just part of the story, and doesn't mean the author believes it or that the audience should. There could still be a moral, but a different one.

By the way, I completely agree with you that some things work much better off-stage. We know what blood looks like, do we need to be reminded?


Kathz said...

Thanks for your comments. I take your points, cide-hamete, and perhaps you are right that ancient Greek society was more ambivalent about curses, etc. However, when I studied Greek I read a great deal of scholarship that assumed the Greeks followed a belief system that was much like ours - and that all good Athenians were like mildly sceptical members of the Church of England, observant without entirely believing. It used to be pretty standard to assume that this. Then I read E.R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational and his edition of the Bacchae of Euripides and began to realise how very different their belief system was and the extent to which the Greeks and their supposed ways and beliefs had been commandeered to give a historical support to more recent beliefs and actions. I may, of course, have gone too far down the path of assuming the Greeks are different. I do hope you'll at least read some Greek drama - the plays aren't that long. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus was, I think, the first I read (in translation) and I had the good fortune to be recommended the translation by Louis MacNeice which was made for a staging in the 1930s - I think it still works as well as any.

Incidentally for an interesting use of ancient Greece as a setting (which both reflects on contemporary life and, particularly in the later volumes, where she examines the stranger customs and beliefs of Greek society) try Margaret Doody's detective stories in which Aristotle is the detective. I haven't checked her scholarship (nor could I) but I imagine it's scrupulously careful on the details of the time, even though her subject as an academic is English rather than Greek.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I will look up the Aristotle Detective series. I do hope to read the great tragedians some time, though I fear in this life it will have to be in translation!