Wednesday, September 27, 2023


I returned tonight from seeing Theater of War's presentation of the ancient Greek tragedy Ajax by Sophocles live in Four Freedom's Park on Roosevelt Island.

The character of Ajax was well known in the classical world, and was mentioned in comedies as well as tragedies. For instance, in the Roman comedy The Captives by Plautus, the wily slave Tyndarus says of someone he accuses of acting crazy, "Dress him up in the proper costume and he'd be mad Ajax to the life."

The insanity of Ajax was a key incident in the Trojan War. After the armor of his friend (and cousin) Achilles was given to his enemy Odysseus instead of him, Ajax decided to kill the Greek generals who had made the decision based upon speech-making rather than prowess in battle. When he got to the generals' tent, however, the goddess Athena made him blind with rage.

Athena led Ajax to a herd of sheep and cattle, and then made him turn his anger onto innocent beasts rather than men. According to Sophocles's play, in a translation by Ian Johnston:

          He launched his attack against those animals
          and kept on chopping down and slaughtering
          the ones with horns by slicing through their spines,
          until they made a circle all around him.

When Ajax emerges from his madness and realizes what he has done, he is overcome with grief over the fact that he has disgraced himself. Actor Bill Camp played Ajax in the reading, generating an enormous amount of sympathy.

Equally moving was Amy Ryan, who played Tecmessa, the "war bride" Ajax captured in the siege of Troy, and who later bore him a son. Have lived and slept with Ajax for nine years, she cannot help but sympathize with him when he is brought so low that he contemplates suicide.

Though Ajax promises to bury his sword, he buries only the hilt, leaving the blade pointed up so he can fall upon it. In killing himself, he hopes to avoid dishonor, but causes tremendous grief to his half-brother Teucer, who was played by Ato Blankson-Wood. Teucer and Ajax share the same father, but Teucer's mother was enslaved in war like Tecmessa. He naturally protects Ajax and Tecmessa's young son, insisting that he shall be given his father's famous shield.

One of the remarkable moments in the play is when Ajax's mortal enemy Odysseus stands up to the generals and tells them that the warrior deserves an honorable burial in spite of everything he has done. As Odysseus, Jesse Eisenberg expressed regret over the death of his fallen rival and even offered to help bury him. Teucer declines this offer out of consideration for his brother, but still thanks Odysseus for the gesture.

Theater of War employed actual combat veterans for the chorus, with Eduardo Jany and Latoya Lucas portraying the sailors who traveled to Troy with Ajax. The fact that many of our nation's own combat veterans suffer from mental health issues, episodes of violence, and even thoughts of suicide was not lost on members of the audience.

The character of Tecmessa also provided an analogy for the family members of veterans, who have to deal with the repercussions of trauma experienced by their spouses and loved ones. The event was live-streamed, and if a recording was made, you might be able to watch it in the future.