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Metamorphosis of Ajax(*), via the Pentagon

By Michael J. Smith on Tuesday July 27, 2010 12:26 AM

Sophocles' Ajax is seldom performed these days. The reason is not far to seek: to our way of thinking, the protagonist is a bloated overweening brawler, a Bronze Age steroid-crazed gym rat, who literally goes insane because he feels he's been dissed in the allocation of war plunder, and takes out his fury on a bunch of hapless quadrupeds before eviscerating himself with his own sword (and not a minute too soon, one is tempted to murmur as one reads through this very forbidding and hard-to-enjoy text).

Hard texts are of course worthy of study, and there might be ways of reading Ajax which could be illuminating in understanding Sophocles' world or even, perhaps, our own.

But to paraphrase von Rauffenstein: Alas, poor Sophocles. His problem play has been taken up by the Pentagon -- for $3.7 million dollars -- and is, apparently, box-office boffo on Marine bases:

Greek classic resonates at Camp Pendleton

Combat veterans, and their loved ones, say the themes of Sophocles' 2,500-year-old play are painfully familiar. It was staged as part of the Pentagon-sponsored Theater of War project.

Bryan Doerries, director and founder of the project, said Marines tend to be his best audiences, possibly because of their intense focus on the "core values" of honor, courage and commitment.

Under a... contract with the Pentagon, Doerries has brought his productions to dozens of U.S. military bases and other locations including the Pentagon, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a shelter for homeless veterans, the Naval War College and various conferences.

The goal of the project is to show troops and their families that their problems are universal...

Now this is a disservice to "troops and their families." A vicious lie, in fact. Their problems are not "universal". They wouldn't have these problems if they hadn't gotten mixed up with the military. They would have had other problems, sure. But not these problems. Vexing problems, no doubt. But those problems, I bet, wouldn't have led to severe personality disorders on quite such a scale as the LA Times story, quoted above, depressingly reports.

I'm kinda losing my detachment here. I spent some time, when I was a lot younger, stumbling my way through a few of the ancient texts. I came to love the old boys, in my upper-bleachers amateurish way, very deeply.

But by God I would rather that every scrap of Sophocles had been burnt in the library of Alexandria, rather than that the poor man should have his words used by the Pentagon to purge the pity and fear of its ill-used "troops", and their hapless families, so they can keep on keepin' on with the vile unspeakable murderous enterprise of empire.

It's only the truth that can make you free. Making the patsies feel better is part of the con artist's game. But feeling bad, when things really are bad, is Nature's way of telling you to get out of Dodge.

Some of my erstwhile colleagues in the Classics Brigade of the Credentialling Division are pathetically glad that their specialty is getting funded from such a bottomless slush-fund as the military budget. $3.7 mil! That's a lot of tweed jackets!

Okay, guy's gotta pay the rent somehow. But there's a side of me that wants some ex-Marine Ajax to show up, heavily armed, in his classroom, and take out a few harmless domestic animals.


(*) With apologies to Sir John Harington -- though he might have seen some similarities between his jakes and ours.

Comments (16)

In other words: "Follow the flattery." -- Leslie Savan

It's a Pentagon marketing campaign.

Amazing. Depressing. Typical.


Perhaps purging the fear and pity of his own time's ill-used soldiers was part of Sophocles's original intent.


i thought ajax was a foaming cleanser
a cathartic for steel caps

of course any mention of stroheim gets my nod of approval



Quin -- That pity-and-fear thing is, of course, Aristotle's explanation of what the tragedians were up to. There's no reason that I know of to think that the tragedians themselves had any such thing in mind.

In particular, what Sophocles might have had in mind with Ajax is especially hard to fathom, for me anyway. It's a real problem play.

In his world, soldiering was a routine civic activity, and returned soldiers were not expected to be traumatized -- probably wouldn't have been well-thought-of if they were. Nor were they particularly ill-used -- they were pretty much coextensive with the citizenry. So reading Ajax as a play about PTSS seems anachronistic.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with anachronistic readings. They can be useful. But in this case the question would seem to be, Useful to whom?


Wonderful stuff about Erich von S. I didn't know. I love these self-inventers. Patrick O'Brian, who has been for the last ten years my second-favorite writer, after Anthony Trollope, is one of that ilk. Such a luxuriance of imagination that it can't help spilling over into autobiography.


Where is the guy with the "blood tweeds" screed?



At about 8min 30sec von Stroheim tosses a baby out of a window while raping Lillian Gish.

Al Schumann:
Where is the guy with the "blood tweeds" screed?

You mean Fred Bethune? He's being held for ransom by the notorious Cardigan Cartel. They've threatened to expose him to the video lecture series produced by Larry Summers, who is known in economics circles as El Chupacabra. It's... not a clean way to die.


An entertaining note on a real goatsucker:

Predation by the Chuck-will’s-widow upon migrating warblers.
from The Wilson Bulletin -- Sept. 1967, Vol.79 , No.3

-That the Chuck-will’s-widow (Caprimulgus carolinensis) captures birds was known to Audubon (1859. Birds o/ America, 1:154) who suggested that the species might he “carnivorous.” Subsequent reports of bird-capture have shown his supposition to be, to an extent, valid (see e.g., Bent, 1940. U.S. Nat/. Mm. Bull. 176:506.) and have, as Terres (1956. Auk, 73:290) expressed it, indicated that the Chuck-will’s-widow may be “a seasonal if not regular eater of small birds.” Additional evidence of the seasonal aspect of its predatory habits is herewith presented.

A Chuck-will’s-widow, found dead during the morning of 18 October 1961 in Miami Shores, Dade County, Florida, was brought to Mrs. Arthur Gasche of that municipality who presented the specimen to me. Wedged tightly into the throat of the caprimulgid, its head well down into the esophagus, was a male Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Death of both birds would seem to have been by suffocation. During preparation of the two as study skins for the University of Miami Kesearch Collections (UMRC), further pertinent information was obtained.

The Yellowthroat, weighing 12.9 grams, contained much subdermal fat. In its stomach were small insects. The Chuck-will’s-widow, a female, weighed-apart from the Yellow-throat-121.4 grams. It likewise contained considerable fat. In the stomach of the Chuck-will’s-widow was a nearly intact male Cape Warbler (Dendroica striata). Only the warbler’s skull, from which the feathers and skin loosened when the bird was removed from the stomach, gave evidence that digestion of it had begun. Remains of this warbler weighed approximately 8.0 grams. (The combined weights of the two warblers, incidentally, are equal to about 17 per cent of the weight of the Chuck-will’s-widow minus its warbler content.)


Certainly I doubt Sophocles was explicitly going for pity-and-fear-- I was just copping your phrase. But I think it's quite reasonable, and not at all anachronistic, to entertain the possibility that Sophocles was dealing with the issue of war trauma in this play, at least obliquely. Perhaps "Athena's trickery", which causes his cattle-killing hallucinations, is Sophocles's way of expressing mental illness in a time that didn't use words like "PTSS".

It's true, there are many ways in which our own values don't match up with ancient Greeks, but I imagine that war trauma is universally human, regardless of culture. And let's not forget, soldiers who return home traumatized today aren't particularly well thought of here, either.

I get your point about how the Pentagon is trying to help people feel like the problems for soldiers of the current war(s) are just the same problems of any war. Then again, to a large extent, I think this is actually true. Anyway, regardless of the Pentagon's intent, I'm not sure that any play's long-term effect on the audience, if any, is easily predicted.


guys, all they're asking for is 30 of these, and then I get to go home. Make sure you get 5 in the "paunch fit" for Larry.
Please hurry


i suspect fb staged this snatch
like frank sinatra junior staged his
back in the 60's

just so he doesn't have to present
' wynne godley's spread sheet capitalism '
part two --the heart of matter--

on stage at ceasar's vegas
while tony roberts is just down the strip
at the bellagio

Al Schumann:

I dunno, Owen. The kidnapping fits the Cardigan Cartel's known modus operandi. The ransom itself is crazy -- did you see that sweater? Who but madmen would want it? And, who but madmen would kidnap an economist known for associating with impecunious lefties?

Al Schumann:

You know, from an Austrian perspective, this makes a great deal of sense. I think the CC is counting on us to go to the government for help, and as we all know government initiative crowds out private enterprise. What private enterprise might the CC dread? Why... ours! The private enterprise of the People's Republic of SMBIVA, LLC. That's where MMT comes in. We can issue our own, sovereign sweaters; provided of course we can find people to wear them. And provided we makes sure to retain our limited liability status.

Owen, I think I'm ready to do an economics post based on this understanding. All those hours hitting the books will finally pay off. There's a slight risk my understanding will do to Fred what El Chupacabra's video lectures could not, but I feel a power coming on me.


as usual kindly avuncular electric Al
has taken the baited hook here

there is no cardigan cartel comrade Al

uncle milty freeeeeedman
even the possiblity
of such a cartel
way back in 1975

take it from ole mycroft paine
FB is hiding out under an overturned canoe
somewhere near his lake cottage
up in cobalt ontario

the vegas wise guys are comin' FB
they don't like breech of contract
and to think you'd dare pull this
after you had the audacity
to steal
their top secret
power point flash animation
dollar sign casino circular flow diagram

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