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1 COMPARATIVE ? ama Volume 27Fall 1993Number 3 The Metamorphoses of Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus Brian Johnston Sophocles traditionally is credited with having introduced the third actor in Greek tragedy and so with decisively shifting the focus of the drama from the chorus to the interplay of characters. Any thorough account of classical theater—for example, A. E. Haigh's The Attic Theatre (revised by A. W. Pickard-Cambridge in 1907) or Margarete Bieber's The History ofGreek and Roman Theater—will allot some space to the three-actor rule.1 However, it rarely is taken into account as a major interpretive tool even when, as with Pickard-Cambridge and others, the author has shown a thorough awareness of the existence of the rule.2 Oliver Taplin, giving the subject barely a paragraph in Greek Tragedy in Action? believes there is no greater significance to the rule than a shortage of first-class actors during the Dionysian festival. Leo Aylen, in a finely detailed account of the Greek theater, does see that the rule, which led to the practice of very creative doubling, had symbolic significance; nevertheless, he devotes only two pages to the topic and insists that four actors must have performed Oedipus at Colonus, for otherwise we would have the "ridiculous" situation of the role of Theseus being played by more than one actor.4 He thus misses one of the great subtleties of the three-actor rule in Sophocles' hands and especially in Oedipus at Colonus. David Seale, examining Sophocles' stage271 272Comparative Drama craft, gives the rule no mention at all, whereas he shows a superb sensitivity to other aspects of the physical presentation of the plays.5 These examples are typical of the way that the threeactor rule is treated by scholars of Greek drama: they either ignore the rule, or note it in passing but do not consider it essential to the actual interpretation of the plays. Yet the plays were written not as literary texts but as performative texts, and the use by Sophocles and Euripides especially of such a striking effect as having an actor change mask, voice, and style of gesture, crossing classes, genders, and ages (e.g., the Antigone actor also plays Tiresias and the Messenger) must have been calculated as essential to their meanings. Mark Damen, in an article in Theatre Journal (October 1989), closely examines the three-actor rule in its many manifestations , especially as employed by Euripides. His essay is an excellent account of the symbolic possibilities that emerge from some of the astonishing doublings that occur. As I am convinced that the "meaning" of a Greek drama is inseparable from the experience of its performance, I believe the subject of Damen's insights should be central, not peripheral, to interpretation. What is required, I believe, is the placing of this feature at the heart of our interpretation of the plays. Consider one startling but not unusual example of such doubling that Damen mentions: the fact that the Orestes actor in Sophocles' Electra also plays Clytemnestra. This entails the Orestes actor confronting his "sister" both as menace and as rescuer in alternative scenes. At one point, as Damen observes, the actor, entering the palace to kill his "mother," becomes two persons ,6 giving out his mother's death scream. To see the actor shift from the positive role of Orestes in the Prologue to the negative role of Clytemnestra tormenting her daughter and praying for Orestes' death and then, joyfully for Electra (and, surely, for the theater audience), return to the rescuing Orestes-role discourages readings that try to "see" this Orestes identity in negative terms. This is to read Sophocles' play in terms of Euripides ' very different version where the Orestes actor undergoes no such startling change. In such a non-naturalistic art of changing voice, mask, costume, identity, and dramatic function, the impact of these role-changes should prevent the psychologistic or moralistic judgments one still encounters. David Seale, for example, complains that Orestes is "a secretive schemer . . . unheroic , unemotional . . . [who] spends most of the play 'behind the scenes', and his one momentous act is virtually appropriated Brian Johnston273 by his sister."7 But this idea...


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