Oedipus Rex (07/14/1954)

Oedipus Rex. Widely considered the greatest of all the extant Greek plays and the granddaddy of all tragedies, it was written by Sophocles and first performed around 429 B.C. If you ever went to school, chances are that you read, studied and/or learned about Oedipus Rex. Even if you have never heard of it directly, its themes of the “tragic flaw”, of fate and free will and of the futile struggle to change what is destined to happen have been a fixture of drama for the last two and a half centuries.

The third and final production to be mounted at Stratford in 1954, Oedipus Rex was also the very first play performed at the festival that was not written by Shakespeare. As related in my previous post on Taming of the Shrew, director Tyrone Guthrie was certainly not adverse to taking a classic play and, through dress and stage direction, modernizing it in some fashion. For Oedipus Rex, however, he did the exact opposite.

Ancient Greece was the birthplace of the dramatic arts, more specifically it was the origin of theater as we know it. From the structure of plays to the amphitheaters with stages where those plays were performed by actors playing specific roles, Greece created the template for much of what would become the thriving theater arts even to this day. The origins of the words “orchestra”, “theater”, and “chorus” can all be traced back thousands of years to ancient Greece. Hell, even the first recorded actor’s name, Thespis, later transformed into what we call actors in English…thespians.

But there were, of course, some differences between ancient Greek theater and modern theater. For one, there was a chorus of players, consisting of between 12 and 50 actors, who would comment on the play as it proceeded. They were there to convey to the audience what the characters were thinking, what the themes of the play were, and to elucidate on the action occurring on stage. Although there were sometimes many members of the chorus, they all spoke and acted as one to connote that they were one single entity or character.

The second big difference was that all actors in ancient Greek theater wore masks during the production. The chorus all wore the same mask (again to show that they were all the same organism) but the other actors wore highly stylized and individualized masks that served several functions. For one, they were designed to act very much like megaphones, essential to project the actor’s voice to the farthest reaches of the outdoor theaters that sometimes sat 17,000+ people. Additionally, having the actors wear masks to show what character they were portraying meant that they could then play multiple characters, cutting down on the number of actors needed for any one production. Finally, the masks were designed so that even audience members far from the stage could tell characters apart as they watched.

Greek acting style is not known, and can only be inferred by contemporary accounts and the play texts themselves. Most historians believe that the chorus danced and sang or chanted most of their lines, due to the structure and cadence of the studied extant texts. Many believe that the main actors also spoke their lines very loudly, possibly in a drawn out or chanting style as well.

Guthrie took the known and guessed at conventions of ancient Greek theater and brought them almost wholesale to Stratford in 1954.  There were a few modifications: the chorus wore very similar but not identical masks and they did not always speak as one (although they usually did), the main roles were not shared by a small number of actors but were doled out to individuals, and the masks themselves were not the “megaphone” type of ancient Greece, instead exposing the actor’s mouth and chin to allow for a wider range of expression. In addition, the Guthrie’s Greek chorus didn’t sing and dance, but they did often speak in kind of a chanting voice.

William Needles as the Old Shepherd

I will talk more about the plot of Oedipus Rex, as well as make a full review of it in a later post (for reasons explained below), but I will note that Shatner appeared in the play as a member of the chorus. The famed British actor James Mason played the title role and the rest of the 1954 Stratford company rounded out the production. As a member of the chorus, Shatner would have no real room to stand out or shine. Indeed, I could find no real mention of him associated with the production (other than the cast list.)

The play, by design, did not run the full length of the festival, going from July 14th through August 20th and playing concurrently with both The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure. It was evidently a successful endeavor, because it was mounted again for the 1955 Stratford season and then filmed in 1956 as a movie directed by Guthrie and using most of the same Stratford cast, including Shatner. This filmed version is commercially available, so Oedipus Rex, more than any other Stratford production during Shatner’s time there, can be critically evaluated.

As stated above, this was the final production of Stratford’s 1954 season. After the festival was over, the cast dispersed, most of them coming back the following year. Many of them would work in regional theater in the meantime, and/or would head to Toronto to earn a living working on TV productions mounted by the relatively new CBC network there.

One of those actors who did the latter was William Shatner.

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Shatner’s Web

It’s time to detail all of the connections between Oedipus Rex and other Shatner appearances! Because the group of actors working at Stratford worked on so many other things together, there is a fair bit of cutting and pasting from my previous post(s), but there are a few new things here discovered recently. Many of these actors spent the time away from Stratford working in various productions for the fledgling CBC television network in nearby Toronto, so there are a lot of connections to be found.

Pretty much the entire company appeared in both of the other 1954 Stratford Festival plays, as well as in subsequent Stratford productions with Shatner over the next few years. Indeed, many of them would also appear in the Tyrone Guthrie directed Broadway production of Tamburlaine the Great in early 1956, and the Guthrie directed film version of Oedipus Rex in 1957. Rather than list all of those actors here, and name each and every production they appeared with Shatner in, I’m going to cherry-pick some of the more interesting connections.

Shatner would appear twice more in Guthrie’s Oedipus Rex. He would be a member of the chorus again in both the next year’s Stratford production as well as the 1957 film.

This was James Mason’s second and final performance at Stratford. He previously appeared with Shatner in Measure for Measure, although Shatner did not have a speaking part in that production. Shortly after Stratford’s 1954 season wrapped, Mason would be featured in the immensely popular film A Star is Born alongside Judy Garland. Mason won a Golden Globe for his performance in that movie, and was nominated for the Academy Award as well.

Tyrone Guthrie would remain artistic director through 1955 and would continue directing plays at Stratford until 1957 (a year after Shatner left.) In addition to directing Shatner in “The Taming of the Shrew,” he would direct Shatner again in Stratford’s King Oedipus (basically the same production staged in 1954), and The Merchant of Venice in 1955. He also directed Shatner on Broadway in 1956’s short-lived production of Tamburlaine the Great. Finally, he would direct Shatner in the film version of Oedipus Rex, released in 1957.

Douglas Rain would also appear with Shatner in Tamburlaine the Great on Broadway, as well as in the 1957 film adaption of Oedipus Rex. In 1960, he would play “Cassius” alongside Shatner’s “Marc Antony” in the “Julius Caesar” episode of Festival.

Like Rain, William Hutt also appeared with Shatner in Tamburlaine the Great on Broadway, as well as in the 1957 film adaption of Oedipus Rex. Additionally, he appeared in a 1955 episode of General Motors Theatre, “The Coming Out of Ellie Swan.”

William Needles worked again with Shatner the following year in an episode of General Motors Theatre, “Never Say No” and then again in 1955 on an episode of Scope, “The Verdict Was Treason.”

Bruno Gerussi would be seen with Shatner in “Forever Galatea”, an episode of General Motors Theatre, as well as in the film version of Oedipus Rex and 1960’s Festival production of “Julius Caesar.”

Eric House would also appear in “The Verdict Was Treason”, as well as in the 1960 TV Movie, Point of Departure.

Jonathan White would also appear in the above mentioned “Julius Caesar.”

Donald Harron would also appear in 1979’s Riel.

Douglas Campbell would appear with Shatner in “Billy Budd”, a 1955 episode of General Motors Theatre as well as playing Oedipus in the 1957 film version of the play directed by Tyrone Guthrie.

Robert Christie worked with Shatner prior to Shatner in CBC Theatre’s “The Man Who Ran Away.” Later he would appear in Scope’s “The Verdict Was Treason” and in the film version of Oedipus Rex.

Neil Vipond would also work with Shatner in the 1958-1960 Broadway play, The World of Suzie Wong.

James Manser would next appear with Shatner in a 1955 episode of General Motors Theatre, “The Big Leap.”

Robert Goodier appeared with Shatner at Stratford for all three seasons The Shat was there, plus in the 1956 Broadway version of Tamburlaine the Great and the 1957 film version of Oedipus Rex. In addition, he was in an episode of Omnibus with Shatner in 1956, Moliere’s School for Wives.

Finally, Peter Mews would go on to become the host of the Canadian Howdy Doody Show. Shatner would also appear on that program, perhaps multiple times, but it is not clear if they actually ever worked together on it…more on this in a later post.

Further Studies

Read up on Oedipus Rex here.

Learn more about ancient Greek theater here.

Some cool pictures of the festival (most with Shatner) can be found here.


Author: Shatner

I give myself to him, William Shatner.