A Review of
The Rise of Greek Tragedy: Sophocles: Oedipus the King
Scenario by Daniel Seltzer
Produced and Directed by Harold Mantell
Narrated by Anthony Quayle/Dionysus
Films for the Humanities, Inc. 1988
45 minutes, color
The Role of Theatre in Ancient Greece
Directed by M. Spiratou
Produced by ERT2, Greek Television
English Adaptation by David Rosenbloom
Narrated by Robert Lanchester
Films for the Humanities, Inc. 1989
26 minutes, color
Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch,
Department of Classical Studies,
University of Michigan,
Films for the Humanities has given us a new take on the book- jacket blurb. Said blurbs normally describe the contents of the book in terms so trite and overused that they rarely do justice to the work itself. That is not quite the problem with these two videotapes. The back jacket of The Rise of Greek Tragedy promises:
'This film helps to explain Tragedy as a form and to acquaint audiences with what is probably its foremost example, Oedipus the King. Photographed in the ancient Greek theatre of Amphiaraion, using tragic masks, this production emphasizes the modernity and the eternity of the play, as well as its lasting emotional impact.'
Perhaps the Athens Classical Theatre Company, which presented this particular Oedipus, was not entirely to blame for a performance which verged on paratragedy and made the reviewer grateful for the fast-forward button. The camera's persistent close- ups made the masks much more alienating than they would have been seen from the auditorium. An actor in a mask has to show emotion with the body; when bodies are rarely visible due to the framing and focus, the expression is lost. It was clear from what we could see that the actors were using highly exaggerated (though not very effective) gestures, but most of them were either never captured on tape or were left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.
If the Athens Classical Theatre Company's Oedipus really had 'emphasize[d] the modernity and the eternity of the play, as well as its lasting emotional impact,' the production, which makes up the bulk of the tape, might have redeemed The Rise of Greek Tragedy from its hokey framing concept (Dionysus' own retrospective on Greek tragedy) and even, perhaps, from the English voiceover and the plodding translation of Oedipus by Stephen and Michael Mantell. Unfortunately, the production values and the acting style follow in the footsteps of an introductory narrative which perpetuates ideas about tragedy's origins and function--complete with a 'goat-dance' by the Dora Stratou Dance Company which culminates in the blood of the finest dancer spilled on a stone--which asserts ideas about actors and Dionysus which no self-respecting specialist in ancient theater would be caught dead inflicting on a Classical Civilization course.
A rather unprepossessing actor climbs the hillside and walks down the eisodos into the orchestra of the theater at Amphiaraion, facing, as Anthony Quayle tells us, the altar on which he will be sacrificed. He approaches a table arrayed with masks, apparently-- and implausibly--left unattended to wait for him. Seizing the mask of Oedipus, he raises it to eye-level and stares meaningfully and purposefully at it. Shortly thereafter he appears wearing that mask, together with the rest of the cast, all of them looking like nothing so much as B-movie Egyptians, in long caftan-like garments, hair hidden by rectangles of cloth.
The gestures were large, but mechanical; the actors looked as if carefully following a set of instructions on where and when to move. Their movements seemed quite unconnected to their words or feelings. The dubbed-in English voices were equally void of emotion. The production had a very amateur feel to it, a naivety of approach which suggested ignorance of recent work in performance criticism and indeed the expertise of Greece's own theater companies, which do a far better job every summer in Epidavros and Athens than this hapless troupe did in Amphiaraion.
The Role of Theatre in Ancient Greece is rather better, though the English narration is often out of synch with the camera and potentially confusing. The pace is slow, despite a wealth of images and high-quality camerawork, complemented by the haunting woodwinds of the soundtrack. There are many still shots of vase- paintings and relevant monuments, though most are used without reference to their chronology and the relevance of the many panoramic views of different parts of the Greek countryside is questionable.
The narrator (who does not adopt a mythical persona) covers most of the basic points about tragedy, comedy, satyr-play, and dithyramb. Nevertheless the program does not really do what its description promises: 'to explain the design of the ancient theatre; the synthesis of art forms that was ancient Greek drama; the origins of tragedy; the audience in classical times; the comparative roles of writer/director and actors; the use of the surrounding landscape in many plays.' All of these things are mentioned; some are illustrated with visual or verbal examples. But the narration does not in fact explain very much of anything and its terminology can be misleading. The use of the terms 'amateur' and 'professional' with regard to actors suggests that fifth-century productions displayed the same lack of technique which characterized the Amphiraion Oedipus, as does the later description of fifth- century theater as a 'modest democratic institution.'
Modest? With production budgets comparable to the city's military expenditures? Democratic? Yes, but not as democratic as the tape claims when the camera does a slow pan of the theater at Epidavros and Lanchester says that everyone has 'equal access, equal view.' Anyone who has ever seen a production in that theater could refute that statement; while the sight-lines are never as bad as in some parts of proscenium theaters, there are better seats and worse seats and tickets are priced accordingly.
No breath of controversy is admitted to the narration. There is no sign of the passionate arguments which take place even today about how and why Athenian drama was performed and how we are to understand it in its context. Hotly-debated issues such as the presence or absence of women and foreigners in the Theater of Dionysus are ignored in favor of authoritative statements--in this case, that the original audiences were citizen males only. Likewise there are plenty of classicists who would dispute the point that the advent of New Comedy was the result merely of a 'decline', not to mention the implication that the Romans did not have theater because they had replaced it with bloodthirsty gladitorial games.
A certain degree of generalization, a certain exaggeration of one's certainty about the controversial points, is necessary for an introduction to any subject, whether the medium is a videotape or a live lecture. But a videotape cannot answer questions, and these two attempt to eradicate the possibility of questions. Their authoritative tone perpetuates the same stereotypes and misconceptions about Greek drama that many of us spend our careers dismantling. It reduces ancient theater to a foreign but known quantity, essentially uninteresting, profoundly undramatic.
What will happen to classrooms full of secondary students if these tapes are their first encounter with Greek drama? Will they see these millennia-old plays as an arena in which to exercise their own creativity? I doubt it. These two tapes offer fifth-century theatrical practices (as understood by their scriptwriters) for slavish duplication of a sort which may please the pedants but which the Athenians themselves would never have permitted in their theaters-- and which most assuredly has 'nothing to do with Dionysus.'
The visuals are on the whole good and some of the information (especially in the second tape) useful. Instructors who know enough to caution their students against accepting the programs as gospel truth, who can frame viewing with questions and supplement it with other materials--preferably including videos of more dynamic productions--will still find them useful, if not necessarily worth the price FFH charges for them. But I pity anyone who has to rely on these tapes to form a conception of Greek drama.
COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 2 Issue 1 - June 1994 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington firstname.lastname@example.org ISSN 1320-3606