March 24

Anniversary of the controversial 2003 production of Oedipus Rex at Graysonville University

 

He couldn’t believe he was taking another class taught by Dr. Bennet Sibley.  Eric had vowed to avoid the old guy like the plague, ever since the awkward academic dishonesty charge of his freshman year — a legitimate charge, but he could never figure out how Sibley caught him.

He couldn’t figure out how Sibley managed to punish him, either.  Eric earned an “A” on the essay he’d bought off the Internet, the teacher was all smiles when handing back the marked paper…yet later, an unfamiliar guilt overcame him, visiting his dreams, distorting them.  It was like being haunted.  The only thing that helped was to write his own paper as replacement for the fraudulent one.

Eric scored a “C” on the rewrite, and was happy for it.  At least he could sleep again.

When his advisor announced he needed another English class his final semester, and Sibley’s Advanced Classical Drama was the only seminar that fit in the Tetris matrix of his senior schedule…well, Eric actually considered staying an extra semester to avoid the possibility.  But Mom already booked an island getaway as his graduation present, followed by a cushy job in Dad’s firm, so it seemed best to stay on track.

He convinced himself he’d be all right.  He would sit in the back of the classroom, keep his head down.

Write his own papers.

So far his strategy had worked.  He was passing the course, just barely, and his nights were mostly calm.

Last night, however, he had a good reason for missed sleep.  The Graysonville University team was ahead in their division, for the first time in years, and the whole school exploded in spontaneous celebration.  Drinking, dancing, shouting at the night sky as if they’d already won the championship.

Little wonder, then, if most people forgot to finish their reading for Sibley’s class.

Everybody was familiar with the Oedipus story, anyway.  Shouldn’t be too difficult to bluff through it.  Besides, Sibley liked to quote his favorite lines from memory — those excerpts would give them enough context to get through the hour.

Eric took his seat at the back of the room, removed his sunglasses and tried to hold an aching head steady.  The rest of the class looked similarly hungover, and he wished he could warn them to stay attentive.

You don’t want Sibley to get mad at you.  You really don’t.

When the professor entered the classroom, he dropped a stack of thick books on his desk with a gun-shot thud.  Almost in unison, students in the first two rows put their hands over their ears and groaned.

Sibley began in a booming baritone, arm raised like an opera singer as he recited the opening lines of the play.

You’d never think a guy as old as Sibley would have such a loud voice.  Eric was certain the other students were wincing.

Smile, he thought.  Let him see you appreciate the words, the performance.

A few more lines, then Sibley lowered his arm.  “What comes next?”  His glance took in the whole room at once, then singled out a few students in turn.  In response, the targeted students began to flip pages in their anthology.  “Don’t look at your books,” Sibley said.  “Look at me.”

Hands froze over the wrong textbook pages.  Eric wished for some fresh air, but all twenty students were crammed into a windowless internal classroom.  He felt sick to his stomach.

“Then I will tell you,” Sibley prompted them in the Messenger’s voice.  “Plain words from Delphi’s god.”  He shifted from a performance voice to a teacher’s, mixing in phrases from the play.  “Something about defilement, hmmm?   A curse that battens on the land of Thebes, was it?  To be banished, eh, Mr. Strasson?”

Eric almost jumped out of his seat at mention of his name.  “Their king,” he said quickly, his head throbbing in response to his own panicked syllables.  “Their old king, and the new one.”

Sibley nodded, as if considering whether to accept the answer.  “You could be more specific.”  He turned to Kelli, usually so well prepared.  “Miss Lachey?”

Dodged the bullet, Eric thought.  She’ll be able to finish the answer.

“I apologize, Dr. Sibley,” Kelli said. “I wasn’t able to finish the reading.”

Oh God, the honesty gambit.  Would it actually work?

Sibley leaned back, his chest swelling as he took a deep breath.  The half-beard on his chin jutted out, gray bristles almost alive with indignation.  “Not finish?  We’re only on the first page.

Their teacher again scanned the room, meeting blank, wincing expressions.

If they only knew, they’d be wincing in fear.

“I see.”  Sibley nodded, went to the stack of books on his desk and slid a small stack of papers from beneath the top volume.  “I think a demonstration is in order.”

A reading quiz.  It had to be.  Sibley took a fountain pen from his shirt pocket, then sat at his front desk and scratched a few marks on the top page.  Perhaps he was adding new questions, crossing out ones that were too easy.

Head down, he scribbled some more.  The whole room was silent, save for the thunderous scrape of his ominous pen.  For a moment, it seemed he’d forgotten where he was, forgotten his students were waiting.

Then he lifted his head, stared at the room over the black rim of his glasses.  “Mister…”  He scanned the rows.  “Mister…”

The gaze reached the back of the room, like a spotlight scanning the yard for an escaped prisoner.  Eric held his breath.

“Mr. Cole, I think.  Come up here, please.”

Exhale.

Dr. Sibley stood, waving the paper to let the fountain ink dry.  “You all need to understand.  These ancient plays are more vital than you think.”

Matthew Cole rose from his seat, walked slowly to the front of the room — careful not to upstage his professor until Sibley was finished speaking.

“Sophocles used techniques that are relevant even today.  Carefully structured phrases in a classical amphitheatre are far more important than some random catch in a modern-day university stadium.  Come here, Mr. Cole.”

Poor Matt stood next to Sibley now, forlorn — a stark contrast to the whooping partier he’d been last night.

Sibley folded the sheet of paper, his fingers pinching the crease, reinforcing the fold as he spoke. “I’m going to require a bit of acting from you, Mr. Cole.  The instructions are on this page.”  He pointed to the closed classroom door.  “Take twenty paces down the hall before reading it.  Come back when you’re ready.”

Matt accepted the paper, opened the door, and stepped out.  His sneakers squeaked on the hall tile as he headed away from the room.

“Now, while our amateur thespian is rehearsing, I’ll explain the concept.”  Dr. Sibley closed the door, then crossed back to the front of the classroom.  “Sophocles was a master at building tension.  Throughout Oedipus, the audience knows what is going to happen, and dreads it.  But the most horrible, violent events of the play happen offstage, and are reported by a messenger.  If you’d bothered to read the play, you’d know what those events are.”

He paused for effect, then continued.  “Maybe that offstage approach doesn’t seem so exciting to your young minds, used to movie blood and gunfire and explosions.  But I assure you, when the messenger enters to announce what Iocaste has done to herself, what poor, doomed Oedipus does in response…the effect is electric.  Absolutely electric.”

Sibley ceased speaking then, and entered the student rows.  He went to Matt’s place, now empty, and took his seat as part of the audience.

Eric watched from the back row, the teacher’s overweight frame at the small desk, his slight gray curls and the thinning spot at the crown of his head.

They all waited.

Nothing.  And then the squeak-scuff of sneakers far away, then quickly down the hall.  Matt’s shadow fell across the frosted glass of the closed door, and it almost seemed like he was going to crash through it.

The door opened, and Matt raced into the room.  He was out of breath, reluctant to speak.

He raised the paper close to his face.  The page rattled with the shaking of his hands.  “Oh, students of Graysonville,” he said.  “What horrors I have to relate, what dreadful tidings I must share.  Our country has…”

Matt wasn’t an actor, by any means.  But Eric had never seen the guy so serious.  He pronounced the archaic phrasings with such utter conviction.

As if he believed them, and dreaded to deliver his awful message.

“Continue,” Sibley prompted from his seat in the audience.

The door was closed.  The classroom had no windows.  What if, in the midst of Sibley’s lesson on classical acting, an unthinkable tragedy had actually occurred?

Eric’s head pounded.  The room grew warmer.

Matt dropped the paper, continued citing from memory.  “The grief you will feel,” he said.  “The evil I must bring into light of day.”

Sibley applauded.  “Bravo.  Electric, as I said.”  He twisted in his seat to scan the rest of the classroom.  “Don’t you agree?”

Warmer.  The air stifling, a pressure pounding in Eric’s head.  Outside these academic walls, he could feel it, believe it: the world spinning towards its inevitable end.

 

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Author’s Note: This story is a sequel of sorts to a previous Dr. Sibley story, “Flannel Board,” which appears in my mini-collection, Four Legs in the Morning, available at the following Amazon link:  https://www.amazon.com/Four-Legs-Morning-Norman-Prentiss-ebook/dp/B008B93WXO