Though it ends on an image of uneasy forgiveness, Ajax revolves around a worm hole of irrationality—Athena takes extreme actions and makes uncompromising demands but still insists on the “balance” of the gods.
Ajax by Sophocles. Directed by Sarah Benson. Translation from the Greek by Charles Connaghan. Staged by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through March 13.
By Bill Marx
As in Oedipus, Sophocles makes use of detective work in Ajax, structuring this tragedy of derangement during the Trojan War around an inexplicable crime that needn’t be solved but cries out to be understood and perhaps forgiven, or at least seen as human. Making sense of self-destruction turns out to be a much more complicated matter than the cut-and-dried gods would like, and the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) production is effective in dramatizing Ajax’s pathetic fall as evocative of PTSD among soldiers, though the solid production ends up flattening the power of the play by sticking to this tunnel vision. For me, Sophocles’s majestic drama is as much about a surprising, hard-won empathy for the chaotic outsider than a study in victimhood.
Athena tells Odysseus who-dun-it in the first scene, detailing how fellow Greek warrior, the admired Ajax, set out to murder the Greek leaders while they slept, stopped by a spell of madness that sends him off to butcher animals (thinking they were his human targets) instead. To make sure that Odysseus is grateful for the favor she’d done him and his comrades, Athena renders him invisible to see the maddened Ajax gloat in delusive triumph, covered in blood, raving about how his gallant deeds were unrecognized by a corrupt leadership that deserved to be slaughtered.
In this astounding play-within-a-play (like Odysseus, the audience is invisible) Athena reacts to the sight of the insane Ajax with amoral self-congratulation, pointing to it as a lesson in respecting the gods or else. Instead of agreeing and shutting up, Odysseus dares disagree; he can’t help but see in Ajax’s irrational deed a mirror of his and others fragility, their tender hold on sanity and the tenuous worth of their military honor.
The rest of the script chronicles a chain of mortal reactions to Ajax, who wakes up from his sick delusion and slowly faces the folly and futility of what he has done, making the inevitable decision to kill himself rather than bear the disgrace, despite the piteous pleas of Tecmessa, the mother of his child, to remain alive, if only to provide for his family and loyal followers in the Greek camp, who will be without a defender. The chorus chimes in from time to time before Ajax’s half-brother, Teucer, wages a debate with the furious Greek leaders, Agamemnon and Menelaus, over whether Ajax’s body should be granted the honor of burial or left to rot.
It is a magnificent argument that poses (as Hegel would approvingly nod a tragedy should) “right versus right”—individual freedom versus collective order, past heroic deeds versus treason, political necessity versus mercy—capped by the nimble intersession of Odysseus, who uses his wiles to resolve the issue on the side of Ajax and against the gods and the Greeks, who want to punish and forget rather than commemorate and learn.
Though it ends on an image of uneasy forgiveness, Ajax revolves around a worm hole of irrationality—Athena takes extreme actions and makes uncompromising demands but still insists on the sane “balance” of the gods. Accordingly, Sophocles calls for a multi-tiered spectacle that jumps from the grand to the hysterical, the vengeful to the forgiving, the egotistical to the humble. Director Sarah Benson, the A.R.T cast members, and translator Charles Connaghan, via a serviceable translation that wavers between the politely formal and the prosaic, get at the play’s portrait of psychological breakdown and the community’s panicked response but never elevate the drama beyond that, providing a solid but never inspiring staging. The approach goes for documentary panache rather than mythic power.
As Ajax, Brent Harris delivers some emotional heights, but his performance is not sufficiently modulated to convey the peaks and valleys of the figure’s pride, despair, and agony. The rest of the cast (particularly Linda Powell as Tecmessa and Nathan Darrow as Teucer) also command dignity but never attain the necessary largeness, the compelling size and variety of rhetorical response the script demands. Perhaps because his role calls for less wide-ranging passion, Ron Cephas Jones’s well-spoken Odysseus comes off best, his reactions in the crucial first scene capturing the character’s horror, sympathy, bewilderment, and rebellion against the sadistic (?) action of the gods.
Part of the problem is that the performers have to fight against David Zinn’s cavernous set, a large military bunkhouse, with Benson sometimes inexplicably setting the action along the back of the stage— the actors come off as miniatures in a tin cave, dwarfed by a large, eviscerated carcass of a bull hanging on the wall and by large video screens overhead in which the chorus, taped comments from real-life Bostonians, comment on the action. For me, the best reactions from the electronic kibitzers were those that touched least on the earnest theme of the evening (the problems of returning vets, the mental disturbances generated by war) but evoked common emotional reactions, the kind of things that someone in the community might believably pipe up out of confusion. For example, the biggest laugh the night I attended was when one of the video people asked “What’s going on here?”
Despite the help of a large video image (contemporary directors don’t believe it, but there is a limit to what technology can do), the set works against the pathos of Ajax’s death on the beach, a scene set on a borderline between land and sea, life and death, that calls for a paradoxical sense of openness, of possibility as well as closure. The bloody image of the butchered animal, the fruits of Ajax’s dementia, shouldn’t dominate, as it does here. Sophocles’s complex notion of redemption, revolving around an act of homicidal madness that must be witnessed to be truly understood, is at the heart-breaking center of this rarely produced play. Intimations of this powerful vision is reason enough to appreciate the A.R.T’s flawed but still compelling production.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.