This is the ninth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.
The mask in the center of the picture, the one with the eyebrows painted on, was created specifically for my face out of plaster. There was a cast and there was lying on the floor very still for like 30 minutes and it was a whole thing. I wore the mask in a production of Oedipus Rex several years ago, when I got to play the very best role I’ve ever played and will likely ever play: the Shepherd.
For real. The Shepherd. Hear me out.
The larger play about the tragedy of King Oedipus is a foundational work of Western literature in which we see the gradual tightening of the screws until Oedipus breaks. It begins with a plague. Someone suggests that the plague has struck because they’ve never caught the man who murdered their former king, Laios.
The Shepherd gets one scene. One. Oedipus summons him to explain his part in the mysterious tale of Laios’s murder. The Shepherd resists and resists and does everything he can to give Oedipus a way out from hearing the truth. Oedipus insists, though. He has sworn to find the murderer and cut out his eyes, and he won’t stop until the murderer is found.
What’s so brilliant about the Shepherd is how efficient and tight an arc the character has. In my copy, he appears on five pages. In those pages, he goes from being no more than a powerless old man playing up his unreliability, to a captive who’s been cornered and is scrambling for way out, to a vengeful actor who strikes down his king, knowing that it will cause the only society – the city – he’s ever known to collapse.
When it becomes clear that he must either tell and watch his world collapse, or keep his secret and be killed now, the Shepherd makes a choice. If he’s going to die, at least he’ll choose the manner of his death. Then, for once in his life, he rises up. He takes down a whole city with his words.
I pitied the baby, my King,
And I thought that this man would take him far away
To his own country.
He saved him – but for what a fate!
For if you are what this man says you are,
Then no man living is more wretched than Oedipus.
It’s a glorious moment to play.
I’d love to hear about other great turning points in the stories you love. Movies, plays, novels, all of it.