BMCR 2020.06.25

Looking at Ajax

David Stuttard, Looking at Ajax. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. x, 231 p.. ISBN 9781350072305 £85.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Stuttard’s latest addition to Bloomsbury’s growing ‘Looking at’ series offers twelve detailed and thought-provoking essays that analyse elements of what remains one of the most underappreciated Sophoclean tragedies. As Stuttard states, Sophocles’ Ajax is a play with which ‘[m]ost modern theatre goers will be unfamiliar’ (ix). I am not convinced this book will go far to address this gap in the knowledge of the general public, but this does not detract from the academic stimulation this book should inspire.

Stuttard’s first chapter explores the Ajax myth and its representation in art through some of the works of Exekias and the Kleophrades painter. Stuttard’s central argument, that Sophocles’ Ajax was influenced by the visual arts, is valid and highlights the interconnected nature of mythological media. The argument must, of course, rely on some conjecture. For instance, the pairing of two amphorae by Exekias – the famous board game with Achilles, and Ajax preparing his suicide – may not be unreasonable to suppose (21), but it is not yet based on anything more than our own desire to link them.

Swift’s contribution focuses on Ajax as a hero, emphasising the purposeful Homeric allusions in Sophocles’ play. The manipulation of Homeric heroism by Sophocles is blunt but effective. Swift identifies how Sophocles uses Homeric precedent and pushes it further, emphasising Ajax’s arrogance, stubbornness, and his devotion to outmoded notions of personal glory as opposed to the democratic ideology shared by the audience.

Mills’s chapter focuses on the shield of Ajax, offering a new interpretation to the often-translated epithet of Ajax as ‘bulwark of the Achaeans’ – a term that is long standing, but rather archaic. By emphasising Ajax’s role as the ‘shield of the Achaeans’ (43), the physical object serves as a constant reminder for just how far he falls from grace between his glorious duels with Hector, to the moment of his suicide. Wyles follows a similar direction through a fascinating analysis of Ajax’s sword. The multiplicity of symbolic interpretations is rightly highlighted as indicative of Sophocles’ skill as a playwright. What makes this examination all the more interesting is the central importance of the sword as a prop in the play, raising the as yet unanswerable question of just how did different audience members interpret the suicide scene.  Chapters 5, 6 and 7 all concentrate on the character of Ajax himself. Melzer’s focus on the sounds of lament uttered by Ajax is illuminating and offers a visceral appreciation of Sophocles’ portrayal of Ajax’s emotional turmoil. The aural experience of an audience member is hard to reconstruct, but Melzer’s approach allows us to at least appreciate how a ‘deluge of inarticulate emotion’ can convey the greatest of emotion on the stage (74). Garland’s chapter examines the suicide of Ajax and offers an assessment of classical Athenian cultural norms and values. The lack of reference to the suicide when Ajax’s enemies debate whether or not he should be buried is notable.  Garland observes, but does not attempt to answer, the long-standing question of whether the suicide occurred on stage, in full view, or off stage. Unfortunately, without answering this question, we can never truly appreciate the full impact Ajax’s death had on the audience. Seaford’s short chapter begins with a brief exploration of Ajax’s social isolation but moves the focus on to scriptural references to mystery cult activities and a fascinating examination of the cosmic unity of opposites (91). Emphasis is always given to the play, focusing on such things as the visual aspects of hero cult associations, which means that the actual hero cults dedicated to Ajax are not fully explored. We do not get a sense of how the audience’s relationship with the persisting cults may have affected their interpretation of the climactic scenes in the play.

Chapters 8 and 9 explore the character of Tecmessa and her role within the play. Roisman’s chapter offers a critical insight into the character, focusing on the relationship between Tecmessa and Ajax. Roisman highlights the complexity of Ajax’s character, and how this manifests in his interaction with his captive ‘wife’. But it is the woman herself who takes centre stage in this chapter, and rightly so. Roisman shows how multi-faceted Tecmessa is within the play, moving between being a central character to becoming a silent figure on the stage as the plot swirls around her. Esposito’s chapter engages with many of the themes from earlier chapters. The focus on grief offers important crossovers with Melzer’s chapter; his focus on Tecmessa compliments that of Roisman; and his exploration of the suicide scene reminds us of the discussion by Garland. For Esposito, Tecmessa is shown to be grieving, and scholastic critique that emphasises a lack of lament on her part has overlooked a ‘silent lamentation’ (126). On the issue of the suicide, Esposito is non-committal but shows a strong leaning towards the death occurring on stage (119-120).

McCallum-Barry’s chapter concentrates on a theme raised by Swift’s chapter, heroic ideals and their presentation to a democratic Athenian audience. It is no surprise that the heroic ideals of individual glory, elite status by birth, and personal prowess, would have jarred with democratic ideology. Interestingly McCallum-Barry also identifies sophron, or restraint, as a key attribute missing from those characters that epitomise the old-fashioned heroism (namely Ajax, Agamemnon, and Menelaus). By looking toward the ‘lesser mortals’ of the play, this chapter brings the Chorus to the forefront of the discussion and shows just how important they are in setting the tone for Sophocles’ story. Levett on the other hand focuses on Odysseus, the great hero who fails to conform to the traditional ideals. Odysseus’s reaction to Ajax’s mania is one of empathy, and directly at odds with the glee expressed by Athena herself. Levett suggests that Odysseus’s role as observer creates a parallel with that of the audience, who in turn may have mirrored Odysseus’s reaction to Ajax (149). If this is the case, then Sophocles used Odysseus to create his desired emotional response from the audience in a very clever and nuanced way. Of course, as Levett rightly observes, such a claim is built on supposition, but it is an interesting thought experiment nonetheless.

The final chapter before the translation of the play is Cole’s exploration of the reception of the play through the lens of post-traumatic stress disorder. Cole begins her chapter with a good over view of the Universalist and Relativist positions that exist in the PTSD in ancient history debate and, wisely for the task at hand, concludes that the lack of clear evidence for PTSD in the ancient world does not negate its usefulness as a framework within which to interpret Ajax (154). The chapter then focusses on three modern performances of the play, examining how they transformed Sophocles’ work to engage with modern concerns. Most revealing is Cole’s observation on how little the three modern performances engaged with the fate of Ajax’s corpse. Cole is surely correct when she asserts that there is scope for further reception that incorporates the families of veterans and the disconnect between military and non-military people. The volume ends with an engaging translation of the play by Stuttard.

While the book offers a seemingly well-rounded approach to the major themes of the play, both as literature and as a physical performance, there is one thematic omission that becomes somewhat of an elephant in the room. Considering that the Introduction and the book’s synopsis on the back cover both mention the growing interest in Ajax as an exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is perhaps a bit surprising that there is no single chapter dedicated to his mania. Indeed, for the prevalence of PTSD in the background to this book, and Cole’s insightful exploration of the reception of the Ajax through this prism, it raises the question of why the themes of madness or trauma are not dealt with properly. PTSD, and the historical debate surrounding it, must not be allowed to become a token insertion into works such as this, for the sake of topicality.

Having said that, the volume offers a fresh and insightful take on some very well-trodden themes in the play. Overall, Looking at Ajax presents a detailed introduction to Sophocles’ play that will benefit students and scholars alike.

Authors and titles

Introduction – Ajax, Bulwark of the Greeks (David Stuttard)
1. Some Visual Influences on Sophocles’ Ajax? (David Stuttard)
2. Ajax the Hero (Laura Swift)
3. Shield of the Achaeans (Sophie Mills)
4. The Power of Ajax’s Sword (Rosie Wyles)
5. The Sounds of Ajax’s Grief (Alyson Melzer)
6. Ajax’s Suicide (Robert Garland)
7. Looking at the Isolation of Ajax (Richard Seaford)
8. Tecmessa (Hanna M. Roisman)
9. A Grief Observed: Tecmessa and her Sadness – Work in Sophocles Ajax (Stephen Esposito)
10. Heroic Values and Lesser Mortals (Carmel McCallum-Barry)
11. Odysseus and Empathy (Brad Levett)
12. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Performance Reception of Sophocles’ Ajax (Emma Cole)

Translation of Sophocles’ Ajax by David Stuttard