Anti-patriarchal adaptation of ‘Electra’ features powerful performances but ultimately resists a feminist retelling
“My cries are wings: they pierce the cage.”
Theater of War Productions presents Sophocles’ ‘Ajax’ at Miller Theatre, wrestles with impact of war through dialogue across campus and across time
In lieu of a set and props, the horror of the scene is painted on Tecmessa’s face. Her husband, the warrior Ajax, is reeling from the death of his friend Achilles in the Trojan War. To add insult to injury, the army’s generals have passed him over for the honor of receiving Achilles’ armor. When his rage and grief drive him to despair, Ajax falls on his sword. After lamenting over his mangled body, Tecmessa turns to the audience, asking, “Who will lift him?” Her shift in focus is apt. The real play, after all, is in the audience....
We Columbians—at least, we CCers—consider ourselves amateur philosophers. There is nothing we love more than when, in a Lit Hum class, a discussion of determinism's implications for moral responsibility in Oedipus Rex erupts. But, how good are we really at philos-sophos—the love of wisdom? As we slog through last-minute Lit Hum revisions before midterms, let us pause and realize what our Columbian world would look like to one of the great ancients. Sophocles would have a great deal to say—about the way we take our classes, the way we discuss moral outrage, and about the cynicism and skepticism that pervade our minds. An irony at play here is that a 21st-century Sophocles would have required several blue moons to come and go before he was admitted to our dear old Columbia. Art majors and financial engineers are one thing—a young man with an ennobling vision of the tragic beauty of human suffering might well be overlooked. Leaving that aside, what would Sophocles have to praise and to criticize about our campus culture and our campus conversation (or lack thereof)? First of all, the praiseworthy: Few of us (that I know of) are mother-marrying-parricides. Most of us are hospitable—not as lavishly as a true Greek host, but welcoming nonetheless. We don't risk our lives to sail the wine-dark to take a guest home, as the Phaiacians did for Odysseus, but what Carmanite would refuse a Furnaldian a sampling of the snacks from the latest care package from home? And, though we do not introduce ourselves with a lengthy discussion of our fathers' military exploits, we do respect the glories of the past. We walk beneath Homer and Twain's names every day and dedicate the heart of our campus to a Pantheon-like imitation. But Sophocles would have questions for us. Where is our passion, our desperate quest, for the truth? Oedipus follows the trail of the truth about his past wherever it leads him, painstakingly piecing together clue by clue until the heart-rending verdict comes to light. Where in Columbia do we have that kind of commitment to intellectual enquiry? Most of us—myself included—would rather Sparknote the last few books of the Iliad than trudge through the grimy exploits of Achaians and Trojans in search of those few kernels of beauty. When faced by the world's tragedies—when we are reminded of the uncomfortable reality of colossal suffering in the Horn of Africa or of entrenched poverty in American cities—we become Jocasta, complicit because we murmur platitudes about "income inequality," unable to confront these evils. Greater respect for the wisdom of the past could enrich our public discourse, allowing us to conceptualize something beyond the slogans, anger, and power plays that characterize so much of our politics, from Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party. Sophocles also has a radically higher standard of leadership than we could ever articulate. Oedipus is both a great man and a good king. He is bold and courageous—he keeps his promises, and his suffering people look to him in their hour of need. We, on the other hand, bemoan our president's cycling during a hurricane but have given up expecting any fulfillment of campaign promises. When Oedipus made a promise to bring a murderer to justice, the people of Thebes held him to his word—to the bitter end. It is not that the leaders of fifth-century Greece were any more virtuous than Vladimir Putin or Nicolas Sarkozy or Barack Obama. But the Greeks could speak confidently of a standard, a law of true justice, by which to judge their leaders' actions. Antigone can appeal to a law that transcends any edict of Creon. In our day, we would do well to remember the voices of the past. Literature Humanities is the story of our civilization, of our ancestors. And the questions these authors raise are questions of humanity—questions of truth and courage and justice. These are timeless questions that we can and must ask ourselves to justly evaluate the concerns of our own day. The author is a first-year in Columbia College....