In time of war, ‘Ajax’ resounds with modern audiences

“Ajax, Ajax…my name is a sad song. Who would have thought it would someday become the sound a man makes in despair.”

The title character of Sophocles’ play “Ajax” is a Greek hero–the strongest of them all–who falls into a funk upon returning from the Trojan War.

The play was written 2,500 years ago, but producer Phyllis Kaufman of the New York troupe Theater Of War, says modern soldiers who have been in combat have no trouble seeing themselves in the characters.

“When men and women are living lives of mythological proportions, these ancient Greek dramas are very relevant to them,” said Kaufman.

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Actor David Strathairn will join performers from the People’s Light and Theater in Malvern to present a staged reading of “Ajax” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. U.S. soldiers in the audience will be asked to participate in a discussion about trauma and depression following the performance.

Sophocles’ more famous plays, such as “Antigone” and “Oedipus the King,” deal with civilian issues and universal psychological circumstances. Sigmund Freud even named a complex after one of them. “Ajax” is relatively obscure.

“It’s not a play that is performed as much, partly because it has such a firmly military context,” said Penn classics professor Sheila Murnaghan. ” ‘Ajax’ is gaining currency now because of people’s interest in combat trauma, the sense of being betrayed. “Theater of War reflects the fact that ‘Ajax’ seems particularly timely now.”

The story of the play involves a celebrated warrior, Ajax, who comes home from nine exhausting years of war. When he gets home, he is denied the honor of receiving the armor of his fallen comrade, Achilles. He feels betrayed.

“The play shows Ajax suffering with issues–ultimately deciding to take his life,” said Kaufman. “Although his wife and family and troops rally around him to prevent him from making that decision.”

In the story, his family and friends are unsuccessful in preventing his suicide.

Theater of War has produced ancient Greek tragedies more than 150 times on military bases across the country. Kaufman says that many times the participatory audiences have wanted friends and family members to be part of the discussion. The performance at the Penn Museum will be the first time the Theater of War will include civilians in the audience.

“Ajax” will be presented at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Saturday at 2 p.m. The performance is free.

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