Anyone who attempts to translate Attic tragedy into English must surmount two major challenges. Tragic plots are rooted in a nexus of social, cultural, and theological assumptions that modern Western audiences do not share; and the stage conventions of tragedy (messenger speeches, the presence of the chorus, the long exchanges of stichomythia, etc.) are at odds with today’s prevailing belief that theater should strive for naturalism above all. How, then, to make tragedy relevant for a contemporary audience, without losing its distinctive qualities in the process? Keyne Cheshire offers a bold solution: in his version of Sophocles’ Trachiniae, Murder at Jagged Rock, he has changed the play’s setting from the rugged rocks of central Greece to the American West of the 19th century.
His rationale for doing so is intriguing. The “Wild West,” he argues in his Introduction (9–10), occupies a central place in the American imagination; it can be said to be the seat of our own native myths. Using it as a backdrop, then, will (he hopes) make Sophocles’ drama as gripping and psychologically compelling to a modern audience as it would have been to Athenian theater-goers steeped in the myths of Heracles.
Throughout, Cheshire has generally hewn closely to the Greek text, save in two respects: character-names and some plot elements are updated to reflect the new setting (thus Heracles is now “Herk Kilman,” Deianeira is “Deanna,” and the fatal robe has become a poncho); and the language of the translation is that of the Wild West as seen through the lens of popular culture, full of colloquialisms and folk idioms, and structured into loose hexameter lines. As he winningly admits (13), the use of such vernacular can come off as “hokey,” but it is his hope that the added cultural resonance of the new setting will subsume any initial misgivings the audience may have.
How well that hope is fulfilled will, inevitably, be a matter of each observer’s personal taste. The present reviewer could not help but feel that, overall, the attempt to make the play “relevant” is unsuccessful. Part of the difficulty may lie in Cheshire’s assumption that the Wild West is a universal cultural touchstone for Americans. In the mid-twentieth century, with its love for all things Western, that might perhaps have been true, but in the twenty-first, the mythos of gunslingers and cattle ranchers seems little less distant from our everyday experience than does the world of Sophocles himself. Our most pervasive attempts at mythmaking now look forward, not backward—toward the imagined futures of science fiction.
In any event, Murder at Jagged Rock sometimes edges perilously close to a parody of the pop-culture American West, rather than the mythic distillation for which Cheshire is aiming. Lines such as Deanna’s cry “No, if I’s to blame my Herk for gettin’ took/by that sickness lust, why I’d be off my rocker” (47) sound almost comical on the printed page. Perhaps, as Cheshire argues (13), such lines work better in performance, but to this reader, at least, they deflate what should be an atmosphere of continually mounting tension.
There are also certain infelicities introduced (perhaps inevitably) by the change of setting. Herk is now the son of “God,” not Zeus; yet Cheshire retains frequent references to “gods” in the plural. He contends (10) that the contradiction is useful, that it brings to the forefront the “foreignness” of the play—but is it not rather an artificially introduced “foreignness,” with little to ground it in Sophocles’ text? Perhaps less weighty, but still noteworthy, is an awkward bit of staging: “Deanna” shoots, rather than stabs, herself, yet she still (one would think unnecessarily) bares her breast beforehand (79–80).
Having said this, Cheshire’s technical ability as a translator/poet deserves plaudits. His handling of the choral odes, in particular, is highly skilled: he achieves the impressive feat of adding rhyme without creating awkwardness or distorting Sophocles’ meaning unduly. The plain-spoken power of the odes reminds one of Robert Frost: “Don’t know what to sing first,/don’t know whose fate is worse,/but pain,/it always needs a song to sing” (81).
It would indeed be intriguing to see Cheshire’s translation performed as a full-dress production (though the puzzling absence of line numbers would likely be a stumbling block to any would-be director). The re-imagining of Sophocles that he has attempted is remarkably bold and original; whether or not it wholly succeeds, he is to be commended for challenging us to see ancient tragedy through new and fresh eyes.