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Classics for Pleasure

Radio Times, 13-19th September 1986, Jim Crace

It was, for Don Taylor, “love at first sight”. The object of his passion, while his teenage contemporaries at Chiswick Grammar School in London during the 1950s were swooning over crooners and movie stars, was “that poet of the city state”, Sophocles.

Thirty years on – his passion unabated – Taylor has now translated and directed for the television the three Sophoclean works known collectively as the Theban plays (‘Oedipus the King’, ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ and ‘Antigone’). His cast includes Sir John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Sir Anthony Quayle and John Shrapnel, and the production, says Michael Pennington, who plays Oedipus in the first play, is destined to challenge the cosy expectations of British TV audiences.

“I galloped through Greek drama as a schoolboy with delight and excitement,” says Taylor. “I was astounded at the beauty and relevance of the Theban plays. I have no patience at all with those soft and woolly teachers nowadays who won’t teach the classics and Shakespeare to their pupils. They say the texts are too difficult or that they will turn their children against literature for life. I say that’s rubbish.”

Don Taylor’s sentiments at moments such as this are those of a public-school housemaster unable to suffer lowbrows gladly. Yet the voice that is rubbishing the anti-classicists is the unexalted voice of the bright grammar-school boy, still loyal to his plebeian roots and the progressive politics that accompany them.

Don Taylor is not so much an elitist as an old-fashioned populist with a mission to liberate great literature, great drama, great opera from the preserve of the ruling or moneyed cliques and from the theatrical impresarios who count all Greek drama as box-office death.

“Art belongs to us all,” he says. “It is common heritage. And that has been my aim with my new version of the Theban plays, to make the works of Sophocles available to my own people, my own class.” For such an enterprise, the modern theatre is not suitable. Its audiences comprise “bourgeois intellectuals, students and tourists”. For Taylor, the rediscovery of Sophocles belongs on “what has become the whole nation’s medium – television”.

Don Taylor’s fondness for the “whole nation’s medium”, however, is more circumspect than his love for Sophocles. It obsesses him; it has produced some of his best work including that eerily passionately socialist ghost story, ‘The Exorcism’; but it makes him angry, too. “I come from a time when television wasn’t wallpaper,” he says. “These days that bloody machine keeps turning out endless sport and banal little comedies. Television has become trivialised by the throwaway, advertising culture telling us that if we don’t get the meaning of something instantly then it’s worthless. But in the 1960s it was demanding, intellectual and attractive for the masses in the same way that Greek drama was for its contemporaries.”

He presents a portrait of a Golden Age of the theatre, with Athenians on subsidised day-release from their workplaces, sitting in their spellbound thousands to watch the playwrights compete for the ivy wreath of the Greater Dionysia. It was part contest, part festival, part ceremony. And the plays, says Taylor, despite their rigid dramatic conventions, were spectacular, somewhere between ‘West Side Story’ and the Catholic mass.

For Taylor (whose ironic directorial motto is ‘Surprise, Offend, Upset’), his new version of the Theban plays provides an opportunity to bring back “demanding and sensational popular drama” to the television screen. He insists on the word “translation” although he hardly reads a word of Greek and all his encounters with Sophocles have been in the stilted, mannered English of ageing translations. But a chance meeting with the actor Patrick Stewart, at the gates of the school in Chiswick that their children both attend, alerted Taylor to the need for modernisation. “He pointed out to me the dangers that lay in loyalty to text,” he recalls. “You’ve got to be loyal to your master – but a play has got to work in public, too. It has to be dramatic and playable.” The existing translations were either by poets or classicists; no working playwright had met the challenge of rendering the Theban plays into English dramatic verse. Don Taylor is the first.

What he has determined to avoid were the “banalities of the ‘archaeological’ translations” that he encountered as a young man. He instances Storr’s parallel text of 1946 and the “trusty” Penguin version, first prepared by the classicist E.F.Watling in 1947. At what Taylor calls “one of the most powerful moments in western literature”, the final entry of the blinded Oedipus, Storr has the king say “Ah me! Woe is me! Ah wither am I borne! Ah me, ah me! What spasms athwart me shoot.”  Watling is more restrained, yet bloodless: “O agony! Where am I? Is this my voice that is borne in the air? What fate has come to me?”

“What can an actor do with lines like that?” Asks Don Taylor, who has employed a loose verse owing much to T.S. Eliot and Anglo-Saxon poetry. “This persecuted man, this Oedipus, has come on stage having just stabbed his own eyes with brooches. What is required at that point in the play is a great song of despair. An aria! A sensationally exciting, tremendously dramatic experience.” Taylor’s own version of the king’s entry (written in the old servant’s attic of his house in Chiswick) is both startling and moving. “I have resisted the temptation to put Oedipus on a motor bike or exaggerate lurid aspects or set it all in, say, 1955,” he says. But his characters – dressed in costumed from sources as varied as Bruegel and the Blitz – speak modernisms such as ‘stuntman’, and ‘security police’. They represent humankind in all its guises and all its ages.

“I approached the play nervously, expecting anachronisms of phraseology if not distortions of ideas,” says John Shrapnel, who plays Creon, Oedipus’s successor as King of Thebes and the one major character in all three plays. “But it was only when I got on the rehearsal floor that I discovered their power, their relevance.”

The danger, of course, is that the modern television ‘masses’ will be frightened away by the sheer antiquity of the Theban plays. ‘Oedipus at Colonus’, for example, was written over 2,300 years ago, when Sophocles was90, for a ‘well-versed’ audience, used to spoken monologues and acquainted with every nuance of the dramatist’s meaning.

Michael Pennington admits, “Of course, there are elements in Greek tragedy, its formality, its operatic quality, which people initially might find unattractive. These plays are written in a rhetorical manner for audiences of many thousands in the open air. We did them as intimate chamber drama. Yet all the actors are gripped by the way in which the psychology of the characters makes the plays as valid as if they were written yesterday.”

What can the plays say to an ‘unversed’ audience more used, as Don Taylor puts it, to ‘televised trivia’? He holds up three fingers and counts off his well-rehearsed arguments. “One: these are works of supreme artistry. The dramatic construction is perfect. Two: through the remorseless and inevitable destruction of some remarkable human being, they present a perfect image of out own destiny and of our own death. Three: their subject matter has a mythic value; they touch our feelings and all our experiences. ‘Antigone’ puts into definitive form the conflicts between the individual and the state. And the ambivalence of family relation is perfectly expressed in the Oedipus story.”

He recounts how, during rehearsals for ‘Antigone’, the Sarah Tisdall case (in which the civil servant considered her duty to the people more pressing than her duty to the nation) was preoccupying the newspapers. “The actors were coming in each day and saying ‘ That speech of mine on page five was almost exactly the same as on Newsnight last night.’ The issue was the right of the individual to dissent from the state. It is the major 20th-century dilemma. Yet the fact is that Sophocles gave it its most perfect expression over 2,000 years ago. That’s why the plays survive.”

Don Taylor is experienced enough not to expect a modern audience to receive Sophocles with the intimacy and rapture of an ancient Greek audience (or, indeed, a Chiswick teenager in the 1950s). All he is doing, he says, is to provide “a first encounter, a taste. Nobody sees ‘Hamlet’ for the first time and gets more than a fragment of what is there. Great works of art aren’t like TV advertisements. They don’t give up their secrets and their meanings easily. There’s always the pleasure of looking again.”

At best, the new audience for Sophocles will, like actor John Shrapnel, stand in awe. “I could not fully express their appeal,” he says, “until I was driving through Provence and came upon the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct at Nîmes. A play by Sophocles is like that bridge: ancient, solid, powerful, architectural. You wonder how it has stood for so long and has not moved an inch and is still perfect.”

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