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Oedipus Rex Essay

OEDIPUS REX: Tragedy in Drama and Dance

                Oedipus Rex, written by Sophocles, tells the story of a man from Thebes who kills his father and marries his mother despite valiant efforts to escape this horrible fate. The play is a Greek tragedy in which fate is predestined and controlled absolutely by greater forces. Oedipus, our protagonist, was doomed by Apollo’s oracle to commit sins of murder and incest from his birth:

And to Laius and his wife Jocasta a son was born.

Before even a name had been give to this infant…

His life was clouded with the presage if disaster…

He was destined one day to kill his father,

And to become his own mother’s husband. (23)

The story is a struggle between Oedipus and his destiny as he attempts to flee from the path that had been placed before him. He leaves Corinth, the home of his adopted parents, to thwart the predicted events from occurring, but in doing so walks closer to the very fate he is trying to avoid. Three terms of tragedy reflect the tragic irony and imminent destiny that is the core of a classical tragedy.  The devastation of a hero obliviously trapped in the hands of the gods can be explained through the terms hubris, irony of fate, and catastrophe. These elements present in the script are also found in Martha Graham’s modern expressionist ballet, Night Journey, which expresses the play from Jocasta’s point of view.

Hubris is the fatal flaw of pride that gives Oedipus the bravery to fight the oracle’s prophecy but also blinds him from seeing the truth, therefore eventually leading to his downfall. Oedipus’ pride in defying the gods creates false assurance of his success in evading his fate, and this security allows Oedipus to seek his identity with confidence. Despite warnings from Teresias, Creon and his own mother, Oedipus continues his search, ignoring and insulting those who are essentially trying to protect him. Because of his pride, he fails to understand the intent of their warnings and assumes other reasons for their guarded behaviour:

(To Creon): “Have you the face to stand before my door,

Proved plotter against my life, thief of my crown?” (40)

(Regarding Jocasta): “Go, someone; fetch the shepherd. Leave the lady

To enjoy her pride of birth.” (55)

Oedipus accuses Creon of plotting to steal his throne and dismisses Jocasta as an arrogant noble, scared of discovering her husband as slave-born. In the ballet, Oedipus’ superiority is presented as he climbs the steps made by the sculptures to stand magnificently at the summit. His high status of king is established when he stands above Jocasta, putting his leg over her shoulder, and by the draping robe that displays a powerful stature. The dramatic length and folds that serve this purpose ironically also represents Oedipus’ tangled situation as he pulls and wraps the circular fabric around his arms to find the material overwhelmingly twisted. His difficulty in collecting the infinite fabric of the robe that represents his royalty is also a foreshadowing of a dark, underlying secret. Ultimately, the flaw of pride in Oedipus’ character causes his insistence in proving the stars wrong as well as his ignorance in refusing to realize the truth, until it is too late.

The fact that Oedipus is completely unaware of the implications of his search and that other characters, the chorus, and the audience or reader comprehend more of his fate than he creates irony. After determining that capturing Laius’ murderer would absolve the nation, Oedipus states the punishment that awaits him:

No matter who he may be, he is forbidden

Shelter or intercourse with any man

In all this country over which I rule…

Expelled from every house, unclean, accursed,

In accordance with the Pythian oracle. (32)

Pronouncing this sentence of banishment, Oedipus seals his own future; he enforces the will of the gods yet he himself is the one who defies them. By capturing his enemy, he unknowingly captures himself. In Night Journey, irony of fate is found in the use of a prop that symbolizes the relationship between the king and queen, and its curse. In slow and precise movements, Oedipus and Jocasta use a rope to entwine themselves in poses of affection and sensuality, signifying their union in marriage. In contrast to their dance is chaos presented simultaneously in the music and the choreography of the corps, or chorus. The women jump to crashing chords, perform series of sharp rolls and contractions, and cover their eyes as if to shield themselves from the horror of the contemporary pas de deux. The interlacing rope is an interpretation of another relationship: that of mother and child, connected by an umbilical cord. This same cord is later the tool used to commit Jocasta’s suicide; the double bond between her and Oedipus proved fatal. When perceived differently from reality, certain actions and situations gain significance as they can cause a change of fortune and reversal of fate when the truth is revealed.

The weakness of pride and dramatic irony in both play and ballet lead to the catastrophe, the devastating defeat of the hero. In fighting destiny, Oedipus ends up completing it. This unconscious self-condemnation is also performed by the character Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. The two protagonists possessed hubris, were influenced by supernatural forces, and believed in their abilities to change their fates – Oedipus denies the oracle’s prophecy while Macbeth follows the witches’ predictions. However, despite these similarities, their circumstances differ: Macbeth deliberately chooses to commit murder against his conscience but Oedipus has no idea of the true consequences of his actions. While Macbeth is therefore responsible for his terrible conclusion, in a Classical tragedy, the hero is powerless and will meet his destiny regardless of his choices. With no chance of exonerating himself, Oedipus accepts his misfortune and in a final act of desperation punishes himself to a most awful death, destroying his own eyes to forever wander the earth.

Where is there any beauty for me to see?

Where loveliness of sight and sound? Away!

Lead me quickly away

Out of this land. I am lost,

Hated of gods, no man so damned. (63)

The classical tragedy of Oedipus Rex portrays the impossible battle between man and his destiny. Time is inevitable, and so is the fate that with all certainty will be fulfilled. In Night Journey, Teresias, the blind prophet, is the last character to be seen, crossing the stage with his staff. The steady pounding of his stick demands authority in the complete silence following Jocasta’s death. It is the last, echoing sound, symbolizing the advance of time, sealing of the prophecy, and continuing power of fate.

Published from June 14, 2012.

(To my email followers: I’m sorry if you receive duplicate emails; I had publish this earlier but something happened that caused it to be turned into a draft again. Sorry for the hassle.)

Thanks for reading,
thebookybunhead

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Filed under Academia, Dance, Poems, Essays, and Things

Romeo and Juliet: Ballet Review

Love at first sight. (Applies to that dress as well. )

When I attended the world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet last year, I was blown away. My viewing this past Friday was not as exhilarating – I’m sure the fact that it wasn’t my first viewing had something to do with it – but I am definitely still a fan. The tale of two star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, is not necessarily my favourite Shakespearean play, but definitely holds a special place in my heart, and this new ballet is no exception.

Creating another version of an existing ballet is risky, but especially when both Kenneth Macmillan’s and John Cranko’s own Romeo and Juliet are still performed today and considered classics by many. So Ratmansky cleverly avoided comparison altogether, with a production that is fresh, exuberant, and with unique style. I would still call it a classical work, but with undertones in the choreography, costumes, and sets of modern movements and abstract concepts that really set this ballet apart.

One word to describe this ballet is vibrant. Bright colours, dynamic movements, and -oh my goodness- the music! I am at a loss for words to describe just how amazing the score is. It tells the story in itself with strong and endearing themes that are so enjoyable to listen to, and if you’re sitting high enough to see the orchestra pit, it would be a ballet with a symphony concert experience too. Thank you, Mr. Prokofiev. Ratmansky has also unleashed his creativity with mind-bogglingly acrobatic passes and clever details that make us fall in love with the characters and the world created for us.

Costume choices such as these headresses are strange and delightful at the same time. (Image courtesy of http://www.thecoveteur.com/)

Storytelling can be under-appreciated sometimes, but here I must mention it because in addition to traditional mime were some very innovative techniques. For example, when Romeo meets Juliet they do not dance together but with their partners. While everyone is traveling around a circle, the pair are lifted into the air, spinning around as the rest of the party, but ‘spotting’ or turning their heads constantly to find the other. Similarly, after the death of Mercutio, Romeo’s rage is interrupted by a vision of Juliet (who has slipped onstage to be lifted above a crowd, reaching out to him), reminding of the consequences in dueling Tybalt-who-is-now-family, and giving the audience a peek into the protagonist’s thoughts. Another sweet effect is when the plan using the potion is explained. Behind a scrim, the scene of Juliet falling asleep, being deemed as deceased, and reuniting with Romeo is played by her double as both Juliet and the friar sit watching, as if with the audience. Here, we don’t imagine, but know exactly what the friar is telling Juliet; it’s neat as entire plots or speeches cannot always be so clearly expressed through movement.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the entire ballet, I do have my favourite parts. Generally, they are all the pas de deux’s, especially the balcony scene, but in this particular show my choices are different (I will explain why later). The trio of Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio has a very fun section showing genuine friendship and kidding around which really builds them up as the good guys. Mercutio’s character is probably my favourite because of its whimsicality and mischievousness (maybe also because he was my role in our abridged grade 9 production of the play). Similarly, the carnival men that entertain in the town square add brightness to the tragedy, and gives the dancers a chance to show off some impressive tricks and turns. Overall, what was really impressive this night was the solidarity of the corps de ballet who danced as the people of Verona. At the beginning of the first act, I felt tears in my eyes over the grief of the women for their fallen husbands. Yet I did not feel this much emotion for the deaths of our hero and heroine…

Mercutio the clown is very charming and catches everyone’s attention; his personality shines through in his solos.

At this point you may be wondering why I have not commented on the love story; it is called Romeo and Juliet after all, isn’t it? Let me explain. Both Romeo and Juliet are great dancers and presented their characters well; however, I did not feel much chemistry between them. Something that was a bit distracting was the fact that in the first portion of the ballet, I was aware of Juliet acting the sweet, young, girl. The ballerina is very experienced and maybe it was this maturity that did not fit perfectly with internalizing the character. That being said, in an unfortunate incident Romeo became injured and after pushing through was replaced by another dancer for the last two acts. It made it hard to examine continuity, so all I can say is, for such an abrupt change, it was well done.

One of the funniest moments in the performance was not meant to be funny at all. In the scene where the Juliet’s parents open the curtains of her bed to find that she has died, Lord Capulet fails to fasten the fabric securely to a bed post. As they crouch in front of the bed, mourning over Juliet’s inanimate body, the curtain swings closed onto their heads (and blocking the audience’s view), ruining what was truly a sad and touching moment. The father tries to refasten it, hold it up with his hand, and when all fails, finally stands up and leans on it with his whole body. When the bed rolls offstage, the long fabric clings to Lord Capulet and peels of his wig at the very last moment. Silent laughter in our row for a good half minute, I think.

The third act was the best part of the night for me, despite an accidental comedic discovery of Juliet’s ‘death’.

Romeo and Juliet by Ratmansky has only had a life span of one year, and it is definitely one that I want to see again. There were some things I liked more now, and some things I enjoyed more last year – every live show is different so this is often the case. What I saw last Friday was not spectacular, but it was good. The company’s previous Cranko version of the production still holds the spot for making me bawl my eyes out, and Macmillan’s for my favourite recording of the ballet; Ratmansky’s neoclassical version definitely has a place of its own. I appreciate and love all the productions, classical and neoclassical, and I’m sure Shakespeare would too.

EXTRAS:
If you have never heard this score, you must. Just have a listen to this opening theme (skip to about a minute in), and enjoy the rest of this medley, if you want:

The Royal Ballet (Rojo and Acosta) in my favourite balcony pas de deux:

All photographs courtesy of Bruce Zinger for The National Ballet of Canada, otherwise noted.

Thanks for reading,
thebookybunhead

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Filed under Dance