For those of us celebrating the Ancient Hellenic Religion, and for Students of Theater in General, it is essential to be able to see the plays.
Although constant lip service is given to these first and greatest works of the theater, they are very poorly represented in the permanent archival medium of film. In the live theater they are given rare revivals, and university drama departments occassionally present one or another of the plays; but this is scant representation, and one would have to have an infinite budget for airline travel to get even a basic sampling of these works.
A recent search of the Net resulted in many references to 'Greek Tragedy,' but most of them turned out to be reportage of high school sporting events, where adolescent hyperbole turned each and every lost goal or game into a 'Greek Tragedy;' leaving one with a vision of near-infinite Freudian incest scenarios on blood-soaked football fields. There was not a single reference to Greek Tragedy on Film. Comedy was even more hopeless to discover.
This page is an attempt to fill that void. We have been able to find precious few examples, but we offer them here, and where possible we will provide links to allow you to purchase the fillms on video.
If you know of any which we do not list we would greatly appreciate e-mail telling us about them. With the current Classical Revival beginning to gather steam, and the recent discovery of a new play by Euripedes, we have hope that the number of items available will increase in the near future.
Be aware that this is an on-going project, and that it will be updated when we have both time and new discoveries.
For the benefit of those who have visited this page before, we are instituting a new feature, this March of 2001. We will put a link here at the top to take you directly to the latest additions, in the form of the date on which the additions were made; so that you don't have to page down and sort through the material you have already perused.
Oedipus Rex: A 1967 film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, with the brilliant Sylvana Mangano as Iocasta and the sexy and passionate Franco Citti as Oedipos.
This film is in Italian, with English subtitles and both suffers and benefits from all the virtues and flaws of Pasolini and the cinema of its period. It is worth noting that Pasolini does not give screen credit to Sophocles, on whose tragedies he based his screenplay.
Pasolini's obsession with a cinema of poetic visual beauty provides the viewer in this, his first color film, with a memory of humanly acheived splendor; a splendor of imagery based on the people, not the landscape or the architecture. The backgrounds: the ancient and run-down buildings, the barren landscapes (filmed in Morrocco), are background not only for the story, but for the films which will follow: Pasolini's vision of Thebes is precurser to George Lukas' rusted, well-worn Tatooin in The New Hope, many years later.
The concern of Sixties art that everything be 'relevent' causes the film to begin in relatively modern times (I think it is the Thirties, maybe the Forties: this part was filmed in Bologna) with the birth of the baby and the Orthodox Freudian view that the father must be jealous of the affection the mother gives to the child. The Gospel according to Freud having been read (in the exact same way that Shakespearean performances of the 1900s often had Christian apologies as preface), we are then free to move to Ancient Times, where we see the naked child suspended from a pole as he is carried out to the desert to be exposed.
Things move along visually and we get to Teen Oedipos cheating at discus, which leads to his learning that maybe he is not the natural child of his parents, and then the actual drama can finally begin; and from that point on things are pretty smooth sailing (for a tragedy) and the direction and acting are in the service of the story, rather than the other way around.
Only at the end does the director feel it necessary to return us to the modern world, to show us how 'relevent' this ancient story still may be: a thing we don't need, the material having already hit us where it hurts; but which, in the context of Pasolini's very personal interpretation of all things, works well enough.
This film does not suffer from the kind of constipated reverence in which many productions get bogged down. It is slow in places, but it is always beautiful and intense. People don't stand around in poses with one arm out delivering speeches which they don't understand. They sweat. The characters are well-thought out and interpreted, and, very important, the attraction between Iocasta and Oedipos is entirely believable.
Until something better comes along, I recommend this one. You can help your reviewer keep writing (and eating) by clicking on the link below and buying the film.
Antigone, by Sophocles: A 1960 film with Irene Pappas in the title role, in Greek with English subtitles.
The way that you ultimately judge the success or failure of drama, either on the stage or on the screen, is by the emotional effect it has on the audience. When we viewed this film for the first time at Greater Dionysia a couple of years ago the effect was devastating. People were on the edge of screaming by the end. More, the next couple of hours were spent in heated discussion of the play, its ideas, and the way that human beings can get so caught up in things that they destroy themselves and those they love.
The film opens simply with Ancient Greek style drawings illustrating and explaining what has gone before, that is, the story of Oedipos. From that we move to a dark and enclosed area in which numbers of soldiers rush about with grim purpose, and out of that darkness emerges the figure of Antigone.
Irene Pappas is stunning as the daughter of Oedipos who will not tolerate the idea that one of her brothers should be burried with honors while the other is left to rot, unburried. Manos Katrakis is equally brilliant as Kreon, the rular who has made the decision in the hope of staving off further bloodshed and warfare. Just when he has convinced us that he is the world's champion ramrod asshole, he shows us the profound humanity behind his unbending hardness; and how impossible it is for him to escape the consequences of his actions, even if those actions are dictated by his being caught between a rock and a hard place. If we are smart, we may come away from this play having learned something, and maybe we will be better people. If we are not...
George Tzavellas directed this film, in black and white, and the cast is fleshed out by the Greek Army and more than five hundred actors from the Greek stage and cinema, in addition the the many principles.
It is worth noting here that the story does not move directly from Oedipos to Antigone. The story of the two brothers at war with one another is covered in Seven Against Thebes; and the newly discovered play Hypsipole is a kind fo prequel to Seven Against Thebes, detailing the stop that the Seven make at Nemea on their way to Thebes and the death of the infact Opheltes.
There are lots of gaps to be filled in the filmic cannon, and it would be nice to consider somebody actually making use of the missing plays rather than just re-making the ones that have been done.
I give this version of Antigone highest marks. The style may be a trifle dated, but not nearly so much as other films made more recently. For those who have never seen a Greek Tragedy, this is a good place to start.
You can keep your critic here on line by clicking on one of the links below and adding it to your collection. Both versions listed appear to be the same film, but one costs a little more. There is also the matter of different spellings for the name of the director, and stuff like that.
(There is another version of the play on film, from 1990, but the reviews make clear that it is too bizarely conceived to be of much use: though any film that so many people truly hated I am now anxious to see without owning. I won't bother to list that one, you can look it up if you like)
The Trojan Women, a film by Michael Cacoyannis, with Katherine Hepburn as Hekuba, Genevieve Bujold as Kassandra, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromakhe, and Irene Pappas as Helen.
With this director and this cast one has a right to expect something extraordinary; and indeed, one does get that. Euripides' tragedy of women taken as the spoils of war is as devastating today as it was when it was written as a condemnation of the inhumanity of human to human 2,500 years ago; and the director and the actresses (and actors) wring every ounce of horror from the text that one could hope for.
The fault of the film is that it makes its point in completely contemporary terms, as commentary on the horrors of war in the world today, as well as in Ancient Times; and thus the director cuts the scenes which, to the Hellenic mind, make some sense of the horror.
Without the discussion between the Gods which opens the play there is no amelioration of the monstrous events to follow. The meaning of the tragedy dissapears, and we are left with the bleakest of existensial landscapes. This is no doubt in keeping with the message the director and the actors wanted to convey: that war is horrible beyond imagining; but it subverts the religious context of tragedy as a means of learning to better ourselves, and leaves us purged but without recourse to recovery.
This is a theological caveat, please note. If we look at the film strictly in terms of drama and the cinema, then the closest thing to a fault that we can find are a few moments when the horror is so overwhelming that it slows the thrust of the emotional action. (Kassandra's torment only reaches full pitch if you are part of the theological system which she represents.)
It should be expected that Hepburn gives the most unrelentingly brilliant performance in the film; but the moment when Helen calls for water, then strips and uses it to bathe, is pretty intense too. Nobody ever faulted Irene Pappas for a performance!
The music is by Mikos Theodorakis.
If you want the Hellenic Tragedies in your collection, this one is a must, despite its minor flaws from a theological standpoint.
Unfortunately, I cannot offer a link to this film at Amazon, as Amazon does not seem to carry it. It I find another source, I will list it. However, a search of several video sources turns up the data that it is out of production at the moment. If you find a source, please e-mail me!
In addition, the search turned up that Cacoyannis also made films of Iphigenia and Elektra, both of which are unavailable. Again, if you find sources, please e-mail me. I would love to see these films!
Medea, a film by Paolo Pasolini, with Maria Callas in the title role.
The great and passionate opera singer Maria Callas made only one non-singing film, and that was the Pasolini version of the Euripides Medea; a role for which she was uniquely suited, as she had pretty much single-handedly revived the Cherubini opera of the story (which has since fallen again into disfavor). My favorite single cut of a soprano is her rendition of the sleep-walking scene from Verdi's Macbeth, where you can feel the blood on here hands. Her Tosca was as bloodthirsty as you could like; so here was a lady just made to commit mayhem of the sanguine variety, and in this film she does.
Pasolini sets the tone for this tale quite nicely by opening with a human sacrifice, performed by Medea as priestess of her tribe. There is a brutal and holy reality to this scene that is not equalled anywhere else in film. It makes the finale of "The Wicker Man" look a lot like Disney. There is a certain barbarian splendor to Pasolini's costumes and locales that convinces us of the alieness of Ancient Kholchis to the Hellenic principles of the story, Jason and the Argonauts, and all this is much to the good.
But Pasolini, committed to a cinema of visual poetry, goes further afield here than in his Oedipos film, and strips from the drama most of its language: a dire mistake!
Where Euripides makes use of words to show us Medea's memories and musings on the possible future, Pasolini uses flashback and vision, and the result, without intelligible demarcations, is confusing at times and tedious at others. Speech punctuates rather than moving the drama forward. Moments which ought to be crystal clear and terrifying have to be puzzled out, and that works against the subject rather than deepening it.
Callas is, of course, brilliant in the role. And in those moments when everything works the way the director no doubt wanted it to work, the film is astonishing.
But there are problems. When we viewed this film at Greater Dionysia, those who were more visually oriented were quite pleased by the way Pasolini stripped away the dialogue to let the story happen; but they also had questions about what actually did happen. Those of us more oriented toward traditional verbal presentation were blown away by the visuals, but dissapointed by the lack of opportunity for the actors to deliver Euripides' great and passionate words.
In brief, this falls short of being the definite Medea that the lead, the cast, and the director suggest that it should have been. But it is definitely worth seeing, even worth owning, for its excellences.
Medea, a 1959 video directed by Jose Quintero, starring Judith Anderson, with Colleen Dewhurst as the Chorus Leader; in a translation 'freely adapted' by Robinson Jeffers.
Actually, the credits tell us that it is "Medea, by Robinson Jeffers," and only later note that it is adapted from the play by Euripedes; but that was the manner of theater way back when. We need only recall the screen credit in "Midsummer Night's Dream" which lists 'additional dialogue by..." to catch the tone of the times, when people had been convinced (and many of them still are) that nothing not new was of value.
But no mind: Jeffers does an excellent job, being one of America's major poets, and we are indeed fortunate that somebody decided, in those adventurous early days of live television, to bring this stunning Broadway production to the tube.
A little digression may be in order at this point. The fact is, if you are an actress, and you want to win a Tony, you talk somebody into letting you do Medea. It happens about every ten years (discounting that dire period when Broadway sank like a stone from inbreeding and soaring production costs) and I imagine it will keep on happening. It is possibly the single greatest vehicle for an actress that anybody has ever penned. The role makes Lady MacBeth look like an amatuer effort.
One of the critics quoted on the box for the video describes Judth Anderson in this role as 'mercurial,' which seems at first like an odd choice of word to describe this darkest of protagonists; but the fact is, Medea moves so rapidly from one emotion to another, from one mood to another, from one motivation, one passion, to another, that the word is apt, however odd it may seem. She is a woman possessed by so many conflicting rages that the actress who portrays her must be a kind of emotional decathlete; and in this, nobody is in a league with Judith Anderson!
The juncture of styles of acting which this production displays are in themselves interesting. Theater was right at the end of the Grand Manner which had dominated the stage since the late 1800s, and was rapidly becoming dominated by the post-Stanislawski techniques of the Actor's Studio, perhaps most familiarly exemplified by Marlon Brando. Poised between the two extremes, and perfectly competant to both ends of the spectrum, Anderson manages the enormous stage presence inherited from the older style and clothes it in the detail of the newer, more intimate techniques.
How good she was is perhaps best judged by the difficulty of the other actors in the production. It should be understood that this video is of a live production. Actors used to the reality of Theater were performing before cameras. There was no tape or time to fix mistakes; what you saw was what was happening.
Clearly, some of the other performers were a little bit rattled, now and then, by the necessesity of stopping this headlong plunge into horror every fifteeen minutes to introduce a commercial. (The commercials are mercifully removed from the tape, but the play is divided into five acts to accomodate them, which makes no dramatic sense but certainly made economic sense to broadcasters in 1959.) The difficulties are never large, nor intrusive, but they are there.
Anderson never falters, never lets these breaks in the downhill ski jump slow her or cause her the least hesitation.
The play runs 107 minutes, and we leave to you the calculation that will reveal how much more commercial dreck is inserted into today's television than was allowed by law back then.
The video is in black and white, is a little shaddowy at the beginning; but that really adds rather than detracts, given the subject matter.
We watched this in ritual space at the 2001 Greater Dionysia, and people paused before the Sacral Feast began, because you have to do that with this play. Constraints from the outside world prevented us from watching a comedy after, but we really felt the need for one, and there was much relation of comic story in the interim before those of us on the mountain had to take our leave and rush home.
In short, we recommend this as a first choice for a Medea because, unlike the Callas version, there are enough words to make everything clear. It is a play, not a film, and the story takes precedence over the ego of the director. Both versions are excellent in different ways, but this is the one that comes closer to the Dionysian experience.
Great News! Word has just reached us that Warner Brothers is planning to film The Bacchae, by Euripides. We only hope that they give us an historical version rather than an 'updated' version set at a rave or a soccer match.
We have more videos to review, but this has to be fitted in a little at a time, so bear with us, please.