A Philoctetes for our times: from Kokoschka to The Peaky Blinders

by Abigail Akavia

Detail from the Laocoon Group

On permanent display in the MFA in Boston is a bust by Oskar Kokoschka, “Self-Portrait as a Warrior.” The sculpture is a dramatic head with bulging features: bridge of the nose, cheek bones, and creased brows. The eyeballs are painted azure blue, the parts around them bright orange. The head’s wrinkled features are highlighted by an unnatural yellow and raw red, which make it look like exposed flesh. The mouth is open. It is this last feature in particular that I found striking: the man portrayed lets out a “violent scream,” as Kokoschka himself puts it in his biography. The portrait, ridiculed when it was first shown in 1909 and later condemned by the Nazi regime as “degenerate,” is an image of torment. This artist-warrior figure of anguish, and the question whether (or how) he is giving voice to his suffering, reminded me of the ancient Greek hero Philoctetes.

A famed archer, Philoctetes was one of the warriors that embarked on the initial expedition against Troy. On the way, he was bit on the foot by a snake. The wound festered and became putrid; Philoctetes screamed in pain so badly that the fleet could not carry out the required sacrifices to the gods. Philoctetes’ suffering presence, in short, was so repulsive and disruptive that the Greeks had to get rid of him. They abandoned him on the island Lemnos, where he remained for ten years, periodically visited by bouts of pain. In the version of his story that has come down to us, a tragedy by Sophocles first performed in 409 BCE, Lemnos is uninhabited. The only thing keeping Philoctetes alive on this desolate place is a magical bow he inherited from his friend Heracles (i.e. the legendary Hercules), with which he preys on wild beasts and birds. Ten years after first leaving him there to fend for himself, the Greeks learn by prophecy that Philoctetes and his bow are necessary to take Troy down. Odysseus sets out to Lemnos to bring him back, with the help of the young Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. Odysseus, forever conniving, deduces rightly that Philoctetes would sooner die than help the Greeks, and concocts a scheme in which it is Neoptolemus’ job to trick Philoctetes into joining him.

To make a long story short, things do not quite go as planned, especially from the moment Neoptolemus witnesses Philoctetes’ excruciating pain. Sophocles’ play is a plot-twisting, complex exploration of the power of language in its various manifestations—sophistry, lies, pleas, inarticulate cries, and poetic invocations, to name some of the drama’s expressive linguistic media. What becomes of humanity when language is used to defy its proclaimed ends? Can language help restore trust and reintegrate into human community a man that has been so traumatized, physically and emotionally, that he can no longer envision camaraderie—no longer imagine any existence other than his beastly exile? Can this trauma be voiced, and responded to, in language?

In the mid 18th century, dramatist and philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published the essay Laocoon: On the Limits of Painting and Poetry, where he compares the representation of pain in visual and poetic media, and discusses the competing effects of verisimilitude and pleasure in these different artistic genres. He gives Sophocles’ Philoctetes as an example for a successful aestheticization of violent pain, in service of the play’s dramatization of compassion. On the other hand, Lessing writes of a Roman sculpture known as the Laocoon Group, which depicts Laocoon and his sons being attacked by sea serpents. Laocoon’s face, while not disfigured, clearly shows he is crying out (see image at the top of this page). But the statue, Lessing thinks, is too beautiful to truly portray the suffering of its subject. Laocoon’s body is the epitome of perfect Classical magnificence, elegant and pleasing even as he is fighting off the snakes. Frozen in time, the statue does not allow for a development in its subject matter. Because it is pleasurable to look at, and is, as such, an effective piece, it belies the pain it sets out to portray. 

The furrowed brows of the older man fighting for his life, and especially Laocoon’s lips parted mid-scream, nonetheless seem to be mirrored in Kokoschka’s sculpture, a self-portrait which he produced in his twenties. Making his expressively anguished figure seem much older than life, and calling it a warrior, it is as if he combined Laocoon and Philoctetes into one tortured screaming face: recreating a Laocoon that would be true to life in his suffering and also reflect the harrowing isolation of Philoctetes. Philoctetes—the epic warrior, a model of heroic conduct that has lost control over his circumstances and is condemned to unending torment—has been received in recent decades as a figure representing the difficulties combat soldiers face after battle and especially when they attempt to reintegrate into civilian society. Sophocles’ play has been adapted by and for veterans in several separate frameworks. It thus felt eerily prescient to me that Kokoschka would chose the particular image of the warrior as a figure of artistic anguish before the Great War. In any case, that Kokoschka’s public took offense at his “horrific” sculpture suggests a continuum with the debate that Lessing’s essay articulates, namely, what are the proper limits of aesthetic representation of suffering, when can they arouse at once pleasure and compassion, and, importantly, how does this aesthetic effect differ between artistic genres or media.

I’ll get back to the question of beauty later, as well as to WWI, but let’s pick up the issue of language. Sophocles’ version makes the theme of language and voice very explicit. From the moment he comes onstage, Philoctetes is obsessed with hearing the visitors to his island speak his mother tongue. He has been deprived of human interlocutors for years, and his experience of pain is inextricably bound with this deprivation. Several influential, post-Lessing readings of the play or its eponymous hero are concerned with the paradox inherent in his drama, that of expressing or representing the inexpressible: pain, a sensation entirely private and utterly horrible.

Johann Gottfried Herder’s 1772 Essay on the Origin of Languages takes Philoctetes as the paradigmatic man–beast, exemplifying how the language instinct springs from the need to vocalize intense feelings, even independent of another person that might offer compassion. But, though Sophocles’ Philoctetes is, in some respects, emblematic of Herder’s point about the primal quality of vocalizing emotion, it also undermines it. On the one hand, the frequency and intensity of tragic interjections with which the Sophoclean version of his story is strewn makes Philoctetes stand out in the extant tragic corpus as an extraordinary beast-like hero. But on the other hand, Philoctetes is consistently framed as a figure within, or searching for, dialogue. Sophocles molded Philoctetes’ suffering into a poetic form where Philoctetes acts and sounds in and through language, even in the formulaic, non-verbal expressions that tragedy affords. His Philoctetes is a hero that sings even as he screams.

It is Sophocles’ particular representation of pain, with its poetic transfiguration, that drew and continues to draw the attention of literary and cultural critics. Elaine Scarry influentially described pain’s “resistance to language,” citing Philoctetes among those rare fictional representations of bodily pain. Susan Stewart has dubbed the recurring theme, or paradox, in lyric poetry, of representing suffering in isolation, “the Philoctetes problem.” In the case of Sophocles’ play, the problem is solved by the repetition inherent in the myth: the howls of pain that led to his abandonment and exile on Lemnos, and with which Philoctetes’ life re-sounded ever since, must be heard again in order to, literally, recall him into the world of men. Stewart explicitly takes issue with Herder’s view, which “underestimated the human capacity to internalize the recognition of others,” essentially arguing that Philoctetes continually experiences the frustration of his unanswered cries, and that this frustration is part of what is voiced therein. It is through poetic repetition and representation, which Philoctetes himself embodies on stage, that his voice gains a response and, thereby, mutual intelligibility is ultimately ensured. In a concluding remark about poetics in general, Stewart claims that lyric poetry expresses “the good faith in intelligibility.” In an article responding to Stewart’s definition of lyric poetry in these terms, Paul Alpers suggests that this task of cementing intelligibility through a poetic recalling and vocalizing of another’s suffering is characteristic of the pastoral mode. 

What is remarkable about Sophocles’ poetry is that it encompasses these different poetic genres (lyric and pastoral) within the dramatic. To offer just a taste, there is one particularly striking moment from the play’s opening-song, which serves as the chorus’ entrance prior to Philoctetes. Even before Philoctetes appears, the stage resounds with traces of his suffering. Responding to the sounds he makes as he approaches, which the chorus can purportedly hear onstage, the chorus imaginatively expands on his horrible experiences. Yet the chorus strangely specifies that he is not singing a bucolic song of the reed like a rustic shepherd. Even as they negate it, they raise the original image of the pastoral mode as a model for understanding his voice. At the same time, they are properly singing pastoral, for they invoke another’s suffering. Philoctetes’ pain, embedded in their song, is construed as a form of lyric suffering: as the voice of the suffering I addressing the (absent) other. Sophocles’ dramatic poetry thus raises the option of hearing Philoctetes as a singer and poet—as one, that is, whose suffering is transformed into beauty.


In light of these resonances, an unlikely reincarnation of Philoctetes in popular culture has suggested itself to me recently in Thomas Shelby, the fictional leader of the Birmingham-based crime gang “The Peaky Blinders,” in the BBC television series of the same name (mild spoiler for the fifth season ahead). Tommy, portrayed by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, is a decorated WWI veteran, who ambitiously takes his family-run “business” from gypsy street-band to multi-million dollar trans-continental drug operation, while also contributing to charity and becoming a popular British member of parliament. On the face of it, Tommy is much more Odysseus than Philoctetes: cunning to a fault, a man of great rhetorical abilities that can win over any opponent, no matter how high or low their social standing; a man who can take another’s life at the blink of an eye if that would be expedient. At the same time, the show works hard to cement him as an unquestionably moral agent. For one, he is a staunch patriot with the medals to prove it. In the latest season, Tommy’s target is a rising fascist politician, whose sermons of seething hate are warmly received; these scenes are clearly meant to resonate uncomfortably with our current cultural-political climate. Tommy’s plan is to pretend a fascist alliance in order to bring the evil bastard down, in his most Odyssean twist yet.

In contrast to the dividing message of fascism, Philoctetes-like Tommy stands for an old-school type of heroism, an unwavering color-blind brotherhood in arms. Indeed, the hard core of the Peaky Blinders are Tommy’s brother, Arthur, and a few other friends who all fought together in Flanders. Tommy and Arthur also both struggle with PTSD, though Arthur’s case is much worse. Where Arthur suffers from bouts of raging drunkenness, Tommy suffers from the inability to let go of an almost megalomaniac sense of responsibility. As a result, he is constantly trying to right wrongs in ways that lead to further loss of innocent lives. This warrior mentality, together with his Romani roots, are what mark his suffering as one of perpetual exile: exile from his own people, from a sense of home, from himself. On top of the self-imposed exile and PTSD, what makes Tommy Shelby a Philoctetes for our days again relates to the question of genre. “The Peaky Blinders” is a visually stunning work of television. And one of its most striking features is Cillian Murphy’s face, a face vaguely androgynous and almost painfully gorgeous to look at, both in its structure and expressivity. 

It may not come as a surprise that before watching the first season of The Peaky Blinders in 2013 I was not familiar with Murphy’s looks from his more popular work in the Batman movies; I consequently spent the entire season enthralled and genuinely perplexed by his beauty. I remember simply thinking, what is this face? Where Arthur is just a regular OK-looking guy, and his psychosis manifests in a slouchy, hunched-shoulder posture and an occasional limp, Tommy Shelby is consistently magnificent. This makes his bouts of suicidal anguish, and his rare audible screams, all the more frightening. The latest season deepens the cracks in his beautiful heroic figure; here is a man who has already seen too many men die, who realizes that warmongering hate is being fanned by the most wicked of speakers, and who is trapped in a version of masculinity that does not allow for a less murderous way forward. A Philoctetes fit for 2019, his shot nerves shielded by a pair of perfect blue eyes.