Behind the Scenes

By Amy Boggs '07

When he walks onto the stage in Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus is a man at the end of his life, seeking out a place, after years of wandering, where strangers are willing to give him a home despite his past history. When Rachel Kitzinger, the Matthew Vassar Jr. Professor of Greek and Latin Languages and Literature, directed a production of the play this past April in the Fergusson Quadrangle, it was also a kind of homecoming, a return to directing Greek tragedy in the last phase of a career shaped in part by fate.

Late in 1981 Kitzinger got a call from Bob Pounder, then professor of classics, asking if she could fill in at Vassar for a classics professor who had fallen ill. Kitzinger had just decided to leave academia, after an unsatisfactory experience at Amherst College, and she had not spoken with Bob Pounder since they met 10 years earlier at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, where she was doing research and he worked in administration. “It came just at the moment, literally, when I was about to move my life in a completely different direction, and I said, ‘Well, one more semester, that’s OK. I’ll do that.’ And here I am,” Kitzinger says with a laugh. “It’s been a very long semester.”

While she loves her career at Vassar, Kitzinger has been looking for the opportunity to produce a Greek play with her students, as she did in the past. That opportunity came in 1998. Kitzinger and Eamon Grennan, professor of English, were approached by the Oxford University Press about collaborating on a translation of an ancient Greek tragedy. Kitzinger was drawn to Oedipus at Colonus. “It was written by Sophocles when he was 90, and I just didn’t think that, until I was that age, I could understand it,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘This will be a way to see if I can really come to grips with the play.’” Kitzinger and Grennan worked on the translation for three years, going through six different versions of it until they were satisfied. “One of the things we agreed on when we started was that we would do a translation that was speakable; it would be a stage version,” says Kitzinger. When it was finally finished, she wanted to see if they succeeded, and Vassar seemed the perfect place to test it.

The citizens of Colonus
The citizens of Colonus
At right, the citizens of Colonus demand that Oedipus leave the Grove of the Furies. Chorus members: Jennifer Hart '08, Hilary Carr '10, Christine Hottinger '10, Ariel Kleinberg '09, Hannah Segrave '08

Thanks to a Mellon Faculty Development Grant and support from Vassar’s drama department, Kitzinger was able to fund her project, and she turned to Vassar students and alumnae/i to bring the play to life. Early on, Kitzinger ran into Marcia Goldman Widenor ’51. “She happened to have a photograph of an installation she had just done, and I just took one look at it and said, ‘That’s the set I want for this play,’” says Kitzinger. Widenor graciously agreed to adapt her installation as a stage set in an outdoor venue.

Kitzinger then turned to Jonathan Elliott ’84, who had taken a course on Greek tragedy with her during his time at Vassar. A decorated composer, Elliott’s spare and dramatic compositions seemed to offer the right musical tone. He was given a lot of freedom in his composition but found the limitations of collaboration refreshing as well. “Generally I write for professional musicians,” says Elliott. “Working with these students, teaching them the material and helping develop their confidence, was rewarding for me.”

Antigone, Ismene and the messenger at Vassar College
Antigone, Ismene and the messenger at Vassar College

Left: Antigone, played by Rachel Christopher '08 (left), and Ismene, played by Elisabeth Watson '10 (right), mourn the death of their father. Right: The messenger, played by Ann Fraistat '10, reports the voice of a god calling Oedipus to his end.

Kitzinger originally planned to hire a choreographer for the choral dances, but then she remembered her student Kathryn Reed '07, a dancer and classics major. At Kitzinger's request, Reed happily took on the project for her senior thesis. "It was probably a much better, more enjoyable thesis than I think a lot of people have," says Reed. "Not so much doing research and being by yourself in the library, but actually creating."

This interplay between study and creation defined the play's production, as well as the class. The students involved in the project took a semester-long course with Kitzinger and Darrell James, the acting coach in the drama department, who, in addition to co-teaching the course, took on the massive role of Oedipus. "It was really a multidisciplinary project," Kitzinger says, "because I, as director, was coming at it from the point of view of someone who works with the ancient text, and he was coming at it as someone who works with actors and is himself an actor. So it was really an ideal combination of strengths that we put together."

Actors performing play
Actors performing play

Creon, King of Thebes, confronts his brother-in-law Oedipus. Creon was played by Thane Floreth '08, and Oedipus was played by Darrell James.

Through the class, drama students were able to approach the play with a degree of study they rarely have time for during a usual production, while classics students could consider the transformation of the words on the page into a performance. "I think it was the ideal teaching situation, the deepest kind of teaching one can imagine," says Kitzinger. "It doesn't matter what it is you're studying, but somehow you have to make it yours in a way that's more than just a mental exercise."

Kitzinger now finds herself at the end of her academic career and has been thinking about what it will mean to no longer teach. She knows it is time to think about doing other things, but she will miss teaching. "It hasn't been for me a thing of highs and lows; it's been always a process that changes, and I'm never bored," she says. "I think there are very few jobs that are stimulating and constantly changing, where you can demand as much of yourself as you want an never feel you're doing it right. That's the other reason you're never bored: it never feels as if you've figured it out."

Boggs is a former VQ editorial assistant. She currently writes, edits, and lives in New York City.