Critical Overview

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There is almost no information regarding the reaction of fifth-century Greek audiences to Ajax. Sophocles was a popular playwright, and his plays would undoubtedly have been eagerly awaited. The fact that he was awarded a prize also signals the play's reception.

There are many reasons why the plays of Sophocles were so popular and why their popularity continues. One reason was his deft ability to reinterpret the ancient myths through exploration of the individual. In this, the earliest of his surviving plays, Ajax is presented as a flawed, yet heroic figure. His suffering is compelling and functions as the focus of the play.

Ajax is also unique because Ajax dies on stage. Traditionally in Greek tragedy, the action occurs offstage. Battles are fought and deaths do occur, but the audience learns of these events through the chorus, whose role it is to relate to the audience these offstage incidents.

Without the kind of action that modern audiences have come to expect, Greek audiences relied upon the power of language to create drama. Even before the development of drama, Greeks relied upon oral epics to provide much of their entertainment. The very stories that Sophocles drew upon for source material were rich in characters, battles, and spectacle, and their progression from oral tales to stage productions brought much excitement into the lives of the Greeks.

These stage productions were eagerly anticipated and drew huge crowds of upward to 14,000 people. Audiences were accustomed to sitting all day on hard stone benches, but even so, these plays had to be capable of holding the audience's attention. The grandeur of ancient myths, with their exciting heroes and battles, provided an important escape from the routine nature of Greek life. They also served to inspire Greeks by reminding them of the greatness of heroic leaders. This was especially important in the years following the great Persian-Greek wars.

Ajax is still performed occasionally, as it was during the fall 1997 State Theatre of Northern Greece season. The American National Theatre also staged a production in June and July of 1986. In this latter production, Sophocles' s play was moved into modern dress and staged as an American drama.

The setting of this production was sometime in the near future after America has just won a great victory in Latin America. The director, Peter Sellers, uses a courtroom and a trial as the means to explore this Greek tragedy. Ajax uses sign language, translated by a member of the chorus, to tell his story. He is covered in blood and communicates in ‘‘slashing, spattering signs,’’ and according to the reviewer, W. D. King, the effect is that of "estrangement." The cast is clothed in military uniforms, and they hold rank as according to modern military custom.

King is more of an observer than a reviewer, and he relates the actions on stage as a witness, mostly without critical analysis of the action. Ajax emerges as pathetic, as he does in the original play on which this modern adaptation is based. But by using the setting of a courtroom, Ajax becomes more centered on questions of responsibility.

With Athena as judge, her role in this tragedy seems amplified. As King observes, ‘‘She seats herself at the judge's table, and at once the feeling that there is a higher force in the world, beyond human understanding, and of ambiguous moral substance, takes hold.’’ This modern production of Sophocles's tragedy illustrates that these dramas still have a place in modern theater. Critics agree that there is a timeless quality in Ajax's emotional breakdown that transcends time and resonates with modern audiences.

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Ajax, Sophocles


Essays and Criticism