Sophocles' Ajax

Sophocles' Ajax
Translated by Herbert Golder and Richard Pevear
Directed by Rush Rehm

Nitery Theater
Stanford University
April 4-7, 11-13

Cultural Olympiad at Emory
Cannon Chapel
April 18-20

Reviewed by Marianne McDonald
University of California at San Diego

Rush Rehm has made an addtion of his own to his production of Sophocles' Ajax: the scene where Odysseus tries to talk to Ajax when he visits Hades, but Ajax simply walks away in silence (Ody. 11. 541-567). Odysseus, we remember, was awarded Achilles' arms after the hero's death. Ajax was the better warrior, but Odysseus was the better negotiator, and in a way, awarding the arms to Odysseus was a vote for the arts of peace.

The translation of Sophocles' play by Herbert Golder (the editor of Arion and The Greek Tragedy in New Translations, Oxford Series) and Richard Pevear (the well-known translator of Dostoevsky) was freely adapted for simplicity. Many of the incisive images which Sophocles gave us were blunted for an audience which thrives on pure sound without meaning, and visual attractions. We live in a culture where we are so overwhelmed by data that we often prefer our relaxation time not to be invaded by 'meaning.' After Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in physics and Derrida's theories in philosophy (différence), building on ancients like Heraclitus (panta rhei, 'everything flows'), we now are inclined to question the possibility of determining fixed truth.

Rehm delivered what this audience wanted. The chorus writhed, danced, ran, jumped and flowed with the text, illustrating every image from eagles to love-making, making the words redundant and irrelevant. He treated the audience like 'barbarians' in the original Greek sense, namely those who do not understand or speak (Greek) civilized language, but instead say 'ba ba.' Language is not what counted in this production: the sound and visual medium have become the message.

The set was a tent which had diaphanous 'walls' of fine white cloth which allowed the light through - otherwise the stage was bare. The chorus, clothed in simple black and white, was composed of seven people who took all the parts except Ajax, who was well played by Dan Hunt, and the messenger, dramatically rendered by Rush Rehm. The chorus members put on a belt when they took a major role. A young woman played Ajax's son, Eurysaces. Tecmessa, Ajax's concubine and mother of Eurysaces, was rather weakly performed by Caroline Bicks, who whined after Ajax's death as if she were a five year old who had an ice cream snatched from her. But Jaroslow Truszczyski's played Teucros, Ajax's illegitimate brother, admirably. His Polish accent conveyed well the fact that his character was an alien, a man with an Asian mother, rather than pure Greek.

Teucros' mother was Hesione, the ill-fated princess of Troy, captured by Heracles who was waging war against her father for refusing to pay him for services done. Heracles gave her as a gift to Telemon, Ajax's and Teucros' father. King Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek war against Troy, taunts Teucros about his birth in Ajax, undervaluing Hesione, who was the daughter of Troy's king, Laomedon and sister of Priam. It was difficult to keep nobility straight in the ancient world, when slavery could happen to anyone whose city was conquered: princess today, slave tomorrow.

By the end of the play we understand why Odysseus was awarded the arms: because of his fair and ingenious negotiation. Ajax committed suicide from the shame of losing the arms, and further shame because Athena made him temporarily mad to stop him from killing the Greek leaders who had deprived him of his prize (Achilles' arms). Ajax's death was reminiscent of the suicide of Japanese heroes who committed Hara-kiri: Ajax knelt as he prepared for death, and when he fell on his sword, we had no doubt a hero was dying. This was no coward's death.

This is a great play, with admirable directing and staging; in spite of blunting the Sophoclean text for modern consumption, it still touches the heart and mind. It reminds us that we are all subject to time, but some of us act heroically; as Thomas Rosenmeyer says of Ajax, 'The hero does not count, he lives, and when life becomes a sordid business of ticking off days, he sacrifices life.' And as Ajax himself says in this play, 'The noble man must either live with honor or die with honor.'

Further Reading

Herbert Golder, 'Sophocles' Ajax: Beyond the Shadow of Time,' Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics.Winter, 1990, pp. 9-34.
------ ''Visual Meaning in Greek Drama: Sophocles' Ajax and the Art of Dying' in Fernando Poyatos, Non-verbal Communication.
Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1992, pp. 323-360.
Richard C. Jebb, ed. and trans. Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments: The Ajax, vol. VII. (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1967).
Bernard Knox, The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
Hugh Lloyd-Jones, ed. and trans. Sophocles' Ajax - Electra - Oedipus Tyrannus, vol I., Sophocles, Loeb Classical Library.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Thomas Rosenmeyer. 'Ajax: Tragedy and Time,' in The Masks of Tragedy: Essays on Six Greek Dramas. New York: Gordian
Press, 1971, pp. 153-198.

Marianne McDonald
University of California at San Diego

(Marianne McDonald's book Tales of The Constellations: The Myths and Legends of the Night Sky is available from the Michael
Friedman Publishing Group, ISBN 0-8317-7277-8.)