In 1950, when Shatner was most likely a junior at McGill University in Montreal, he appeared in his very first motion picture The Butler’s Night Off. In that film, he played one of the “crooks,” a very small role with only a few lines. Seven years later he would appear in his second motion picture, this time a filmed version of the classic Sophocles play Oedipus Rex. Once again however, and actually even more so than The Butler’s Night Off, this was the very opposite of a starring or featured role.
This production of Oedipus Rex is the same version of the Shakespeare Festival company’s play that ran at Stratford for both the 1954 and the 1955 seasons. Adapted by the prominent Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Oedipus Rex was directed by Tyrone Guthrie both years it was at Stratford and then again for this film version. In fact, it was almost certainly made during or directly after the 1955 season, as the cast of the movie is identical to that season’s cast and it was filmed in Toronto. My guess is that it was filmed directly following the season while much of the cast was in the city preparing for Guthrie’s Broadway version of Tamburlaine the Great. I’m not sure why it would have taken a whole year and some change to release it, but I guess that’s showbiz for ya!
As with the two Stratford productions, the actors in this film all wear relatively period-authentic masks over their faces. They also wear these odd and stylized gloves which make their hands and fingers seem somewhat grotesque and sometimes elongated, but I doubt those were period specific. For a little more information on ancient Greek theater and the conventions and intentions behind it, please read my earlier post on the 1954 Stratford production of Oedipus Rex.
Back to the masks for a moment. Because they cover almost the entire face of the performer (except for the mouth, unlike in ancient Greece) it is all but impossible to identify individual actors in the chorus apart. The main characters are obviously billed and can be identified, but Shatner playing as a simple chorus member (which he did for the two seasons at Stratford as well) is almost impossible to find. Even leaving the mouth and chin exposed helps very little as the actors all wear a kind of beardpiece and makeup that further obscures their features.
However! At the beginning of the film, a young and (rare for him) beardless William Hutt (the Chorus Leader) and two other actors come out on stage to explain a bit about the intent and style of this particular production of Oedipus Rex. I’m not sure who the second actor is, but the one who brings Hutt his mask is none other than William F. Shatner. He has no lines here, but through the simple act of being onstage he becomes one of the only actors to be seen without a mask on for the entire 88 minute film. Don’t get used to it though. Once the play starts in earnest, everyone is in a mask and no one in the chorus is recognizable.
As Hutt explains in the clip above, “As priests put on vestments and move in a preordained ritual we put on these characters and reenact this tragedy.” This is a very helpful piece of information for the audience as it makes it clear that the style of performance we are about to see is modeled in many ways after the chanting, sometimes sing-song, sometimes dirge-like manner of a religious service. The actors movements are indeed quite ritual-like much of the time, extremely stylized and deliberate. The film is shot on a minimally dressed soundstage that most likely matched (or closely followed) the one that was used at Stratford. The backgrounds as mentioned are quite sparse, with some pillars and columns, a slightly raised stage area and some grey-blue curtains.
Very briefly, a synopsis of the story: A plague has fallen upon the city of Thebes, ruled over by Oedipus. His brother-in-law Creon reports that the plague can only be lifted if the murderer of the Laius, the former king who died shortly before Oedipus came to Thebes, is found and brought to justice. Oedipus summons the blind prophet (foreshadowing!) Tiresias to help him divine who the murderer might be and Tiresias eventually says that Oedipus is the murderer he seeks. Worse, the seer makes a comment that Oedipus is a brother and father to his children and a son and husband to his wife, Jocasta, the former wife of the murdered Laius.
You see, when Oedipus was just a baby his parents (Jocasta and Laius) heard a prophecy that he would grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. As they very rightly did not want this to happen, they gave their son to a servant and told him to kill the infant. Of course the man could not do it and gave the baby to a shepherd and instructed him to murder the innocent baby Oedipus…and the shepherd could not carry out the deed either. Eventually, Oedipus was given to the childless king of Corinth who raises him as his own son.
When Oedipus grows up, he too hears of the prophecy that he shall murder his father and marry his mother. Horrified, he runs from Corinth to save his “parents” from this fate, not knowing that they are not actually his birth parents. On the road to Thebes he gets into an altercation with Laius, his real dad, strikes and kills him and then proceeds to Thebes where his solution to the Sphinx’s riddle entitles him to become the king and marry now-widowed Jocasta who, unknown to him, is his mother. In the following years he sires two daughters, who also happen to be his half-sisters. Yuck.
Anyway, through a series of conversations with Creon, Jocasta, the prophet and finally the shepherd that gave him away, Oedipus eventually comes to realize the truth. In horror, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus takes the wardrobe pins from her dead body and stabs out his own eyes (told you there was foreshadowing.) Creon becomes the king, agrees to take care of Oedipus’s daughters and the play ends with the chorus chanting that wonderfully cheerful old maxim, “No man should be considered fortunate until he is dead.” Hooray for happy endings!
As I mentioned above, the acting is very often stylized with the performers playing with intonation, speed, volume and rhythm to achieve at times a kind of ritualistic chanting. At one point the chorus even sings a bit in a kind of liturgical style. Although certainly intentional, the actor who plays Oedipus (Douglas Campbell) performs with a complete over-the-top abandon that makes Shatner’s occasional overacting look like a lesson in restraint. Check out the clip below for just one fantastic example.
I also mentioned that the actors in the chorus are unrecognizable once their masks are on. The chorus almost always talks in unison, and the actors are not seen putting their masks on so there is no way to know for sure which one is Shatner. Or so I thought.
If you listen closely (and I did), you can very occasionally hear Shatner’s voice at times in the chorus. In addition, pretty much every member of the chorus gets one solo line at some point in the production. I was able to find Shatner on one of my most recent viewings. Watch the clip below and you should be able to recognize Shatner’s voice, especially in the way he says “stone.”
Anyway, you’re welcome. Now you can watch the whole thing and look for that gold-masked Shatner throughout.
The movie is mostly a series of rather static long takes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as it helps to convey the theatrical nature of both this adaptation and of the original Greek theater. The play is considered a masterpiece of ancient Greek tragedy, and is certainly required reading (or viewing) for all those studying Greek theater or even just theater in general. For those interested in how a Greek play may have looked thousands of years ago, or for high school English teachers that want to torture their students, you could do a lot worse and probably no better than Oedipus Rex.
Unfortunately, Shatner plays a less than noticeable role in the play and sitting through the thing can be a bit of a slog. I would much rather there be some film on the Shakespeare plays that he was involved in but this will just have to do. In the end, this film is about as close as you’ll ever get to seeing one of Tyrone Guthrie’s Stratford productions.
It’s time to detail all of the connections between Oedipus Rex and other Shatner appearances!
Pretty much the entire company appeared in both of the other 1955 Stratford Festival plays. Many also acted in the 1954 and 1956 seasons with Shatner. Indeed, many of them also appeared in the Tyrone Guthrie directed Broadway production of Tamburlaine the Great in early 1956. 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 himself was no stranger to Oedipus Rex, having appeared in both the inaugural 1954 production and the subsequent 1955 one at Stratford. And after this it appears that he wasn’t quite finished with it, as he would play the Palace Messenger in Omnibus TV version that debuted on the same night as this film.
Douglas Campbell, who played Oedipus, appeared in the 1955 episode of General Motors Theatre, “Billy Budd.” You may remember him playing opposite Shatner’s titular Billy Budd, as the evil (and quite possibly conflicted homosexual) Claggart.
William Hutt, the chorus leader who has the distinction of speaking the only line in the film spoken without a mask on, had previously appeared in a 1955 episode of General Motors Theatre, “The Coming Out of Ellie Swan.” Hutt would never work with Shatner again after this, but he would go on to have an incredible (mostly) stage career in Canada, most of it tied to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He was part of the very first troop when the festival formed in 1953, and would perform there for 39 of the first 52 seasons. indeed, his last stage role before retiring was as Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest there at Stratford. Acting, comedy and/or Canadian TV watchers may also remember him from the third season (2006) of the wonderful series Slings & Arrows, as an old actor wanting to play King Lear one last time. He died in 2007.
Donald Davis, who played the blind prophet Tiresias (and may have been the man to try and feed a dry Shatner his lines when he starred as Henry V), would also appear in the Omnibus television version of “Oedipus Rex.”
Douglas Rain, although a regular at Stratford during all the years Shatner was there, is strangely one of the few people that wasn’t in the 1955 stage version of Oedipus Rex. He would go on to appear with Shatner in the 1960 Festival television show’s production of “Julius Caesar.” He is probably best known as the eventual voice of the murderous computer HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
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. In addition, he was in an episode of Omnibus with Shatner in 1956, Moliere’s “School for Wives.” He would also appear in the Omnibus episode of “Oedipus Rex.”
Tony Van Bridge appeared in the 1979 Canadian film, Riel.
Eric House appeared in an episode of Scope, “The Verdict Was Treason”, as well as in the 1960 TV Movie, Point of Departure.
Robert Christie, who played the title character in Julius Caesar, also worked with Shatner prior to Stratford in CBC Theatre’s “The Man Who Ran Away.” He also appeared in Scope’s “The Verdict Was Treason” and in the film version of Oedipus Rex.
Ted Follows would follow Shatner to a 1956 appearance of On Camera’s “Dreams,” as well as to Festival’s 1960 “Julius Caesar.”
Bruno Gerussi would be seen with Shatner in “Forever Galatea”, an episode of General Motors Theatre, and in 1960’s Festival production of “Julius Caesar.”
James Manser also appeared with Shatner in “The Big Leap.”
Louis Negin had previously appeared in the CBC Theatre episode, “The Man Who Ran Away.”
Neil Vipond would also work with Shatner in the 1958-1960 Broadway play, The World of Suzie Wong.
Tyrone Guthrie, the director of this film, had previously directed Shatner in 1954’s Oedipus Rex and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as 1955’s King Oedipus and The Merchant of Venice. In addition, he was the director for Shatner’s first trip to Broadway in early 1956, for the short-lived Tamburlaine the Great.
You can purchase a DVD of Oedipus Rex at Amazon.com and other sites, rent it from Netflix, or just watch it for free on YouTube.
A few years after the film came out, comedy musician Tom Lehrer came up with a theory that the film could have been so much more successful if only it had a catchy theme song. So, he wrote one.