by Abigail Akavia
“I was surprised you didn’t start with Philoctetes,” my advisor tells me after my dissertation defense. In our institution, in the crowning moment of a student’s academic career, she is expected not only to publicly display sufficient knowledge in her research field, but also to narrate the ‘making of’ the dissertation topic. Indeed, Sophocles’ Philoctetes could be considered the play that brought me to graduate school to begin with. The dynamics of compassion, suffering, and language in this play are paradigmatic to the questions that shaped my research; a few years out of school, I still can’t (nor want to) get away from this play (and I even wrote about it here once before).
And yet, when presenting the retrospectively made-up timeline of how my research came together, the point where I claimed “it all started” was not Philoctetes, but Sophocles’ most famous play, Oedipus Tyrannus. I did so because I had the opportunity, while in grad school, to direct the play (we’ll call it OT henceforth), an experience that was quite unlike anything else I did as a student, and which was crucial for shaping my academic project. I knew I was interested in the Sophoclean chorus, but only through having to solve for myself the dramaturgical and choreographic ‘problem’ of putting a bunch of seemingly extra bodies onstage who lament Oedipus’ fate did I truly realize how dramatically pregnant this community of vocal witness-bearers is. Working on transforming the script into a performance was a turning point in my engagement with Sophocles, coalescing what I’d learned about his plays and my own interests and hunches about them into a tangible, clear perspective. I came to view the exploration of people’s (in)capacity to be with another person’s pain—or, in other terms, the community’s involvement and reaction to an individual’s tragedy—as one of the driving forces of Sophoclean drama.
In Sophocles, and perhaps in tragedy in general, the protagonist’s suffering is mirrored by a collective upheaval: trouble in their family, or their city, or the entire world-order. Sophocles’ OT famously deals with the moral causes for the plague ravaging Thebes—Oedipus’ own unwitting sins, of course—and the need for self-inquiry and reparation in order to undo its fatal course. The play starts with the physical suffering of the city of Thebes: women, children, men young and old, animals and crops. But the premise is one of a cosmological reaction to the misdeeds of man, and it is up to man—The Man, the exemplary leader, the exceptionally sharp-witted and empathic man—to put the world back into joint, so to speak. Except for the opening scenes which offer descriptions of the devastation caused by the plague, there is barely a reference to it later on in the play, and the question of the plague’s threat to Thebes quickly falls by the wayside as the spotlight turns to Oedipus’ personal tragedy. In Oedipus, leadership is the epitome of mankind’s arrogance and blindness to their own violent, destructive impulses, and, at the same time, the only solution for the suffering of the rest of us. This confluence of leadership, disease, and cosmic disorder explains why the play has resonated in our current global pandemic.
Thus, disease in OT becomes a metaphor more than a reality. The pollution (miasma), which the plague symbolizes and concretizes in the body, already pervades the scene as the play takes off. Gradually we see this as a transitive or mutual form of corruption rather than an infectious one. René Girard wrote that the play is structured around the reciprocity of violence. Similarly, Oedipus and Jocasta are equally carriers of miasma. It is not a question of Oedipus transferring his ‘disease’ to any other person; rather, simply by his entering into relationship with another person, the whole community becomes doomed.
Sophocles’ play Philoctetes offers a treatment of disease parallel to OT, or a negative of it. As far as physical suffering goes, no tragedy is more explicit than Philoctetes, which showcases a Trojan War-age hero writhing in pain, screaming, whining, pleading for his life, and cursing his enemies and his own fate. In contrast to Oedipus, our hero this time is blameless; to be exact, it is unclear whether he actually committed an offense against some minor deity. This possibility is hinted at in Sophocles’ version only to highlight that Philoctetes’ misdeed is incommensurate to his consequent suffering. What stands out about Philoctetes is precisely the experience of senseless, inhuman, unbearable suffering that he nonetheless endures. Almost as soon as he is infected, he is also ex-communicated, for he is a threat to the integrity of the society around him. His wound gives off a nauseating stench, and his constant screams of pain disturb any attempt to conduct normal religious ceremonies. His body and its excretions—the discharge from his wound, his very voice—cannot be contained, it spills over in excess. And yet physically, no one can become infected by Philoctetes’ disease. Indeed, it is entirely his disease: completely unsharable in its monstrosity, it defines his identity and existence throughout the ten long years he spends alone on a deserted island.
Whereas OT concerns a community that is forced to expel its ‘patient zero’ from within, in Philoctetes society is compelled to reintegrate the sick individual, to come in close contact with his excruciating pain and all the traumatic experiences, of the body and the soul, that reverberate within and around it. Philoctetes demands empathy to his pain even as he insists that it cannot be conceivable to another person, a stranger to his pain. Can this play, too, teach us something about our humanity in this age of pandemic and crumbling social ties? I felt compelled to assume the answer is yes.
My advisor was right, of course, in pointing to the centrality of Philoctetes to my engagement with Sophocles, because it is the incommunicability of his situation that propelled me to write about tragedy the way I ultimately did. In other words, Philoctetes is the paradigm for how I understand tragedy. If my bodily connection to OT was choreographic, so to speak, then Philoctetes’—or, to mention another Sophoclean prototype, Electra’s—insistence on empathy in the face of its impossibility was something I felt I could relate to, physically, on an even more personal level.
When suffering is incommunicable, it can cause frustration for both sides of the attempted communication. My ultimate example for this crisis of empathy draws not on pain per se, but rather on its reverberations in contemporary medicine. When my sister was undergoing chemotherapy, she once tried to describe to me one of the side effects of the treatment. She said: “I feel cold on the inside. I open my mouth, and cold comes out.” The look on my face apparently betrayed my perplexity—hopefully not too much horror—rather than whatever empathic recognition I should have mustered for such a statement, for my sister asked: “do you get what I mean?” and quickly answered her own question: “no, you don’t.”
Sophocles’ plays are populated by figures who ask others to “get” their pain, and these others fail to offer recognition, or the precise amount, kind, and shade of it that the suffering protagonist is hoping for. Hello, Electra, you of the fucked up sibling-hood. Please approach. You, too, are imprinted on my body.
The chapter on Electra was the first one I completed. In a dissertation-writing workshop with my peers, led by a faculty member, I recall speaking of my difficulty to get the chapter done. I linked it to a sense of not liking Electra, but also somehow identifying with her. The professor jokingly asked: “what, do you hate your mother?” No, that wasn’t it… but, I wanted to tell her, like Electra I am caught up in grief that won’t let go. And at the same time, like her siblings I know what it is like to stand in front of the closest person to you in the world and not fathom how they experience their pain, not understand the choices they make to manage it. In an unbelievable fluke of cosmic indifference, my brother was very ill that same winter, and for a few very bad months, the possibility of us losing him as well was real. Coincidentally (or was it?), I had a severe rash all over my face and upper body for several months. It was not my first winter in the American Midwest, with sub-freezing temperatures and heating systems that parch your skin; I had not recently changed soap or laundry detergent or used a new hair product. No apparent external reason for this rash. I went from doctor to doctor, specialist to specialist, in an effort to get a diagnosis, a plausible cause for this allergic eruption. There was none to be had; the verdict was: stress.
In my personal history, Electra is linked to that winter where I wore an inexplicably reddened and puffy face. Electra is written in my body’s memory as the anxiety, not just over the possibility of losing my one remaining sibling, but that we two would be doomed to repeat the misunderstanding and absence of empathy that come with such life-threatening pain. Empathy’s impossibility, despite love and care and sorrow, despite our shared DNA. The skin on my face screamed against this potential fate, yearning for that unattainable place where “let him be” (it is his pain) is also “be with him.”
During the months before the plague hit, I was engrossed in preparations for a theatrical production of Philoctetes. We went ahead with the first weekend of shows, which we could not have afforded (financially or mentally) to preemptively cancel before theaters were officially shut down, but the inevitable was on the horizon. A closed-knit cast who sing throughout the performance (our adaptation was a “musical”), a small and consequently often packed theater-house, touching actors’ faces backstage to double- and triple-check our too-ambitiously-conceptual makeup scheme, receiving congratulatory hugs after the premiere, going dancing after the third show to celebrate a successful first weekend—all of this exhilaration, all of this intense social proximity very, very far from my normal routine life. And all of it colored almost immediately afterwards as potentially life-threatening. It was now the antithesis of what was morally demanded of us, for own health and safety and especially for the vulnerable around us.
You think you put up a play about empathy and disease? HAH!
I found myself imploring my actors to “stay home, save lives,” bowing out of social get-togethers with them, and asking the board of our community theater to consider canceling the next scheduled shows even before it was mandated by the state. Theater was no longer the right thing to do. I found myself sitting in the dark on the floor of my kids’ bedroom, waiting for them to fall asleep, thinking: there is a lesson in all this. Listen. Wait. Pay attention. Write about it. Philoctetes in the Age of Corona. Go back to Sophocles and you will get an answer. You will feel it in your body.
But an answer failed to materialize.
It was like reaching out to a religious authority, and returning with skepticism.
Yes, I could wax idealistic about the need for recognizing that our similarities are greater than our differences. But you don’t need Sophocles for that. Sophocles does not give you an easy sense of community. With apologies to Aristotle, who would likely consider Philoctetes a not-very-good play, Sophoclean tragedy is not really cathartic. For it presents us with situations where we realize that, even though we do our best to fight for our sense of community and to recognize our shared humanity, still it doesn’t quite work out.
Philoctetes in the age of Corona: there is no precedent for “caring is distance.” Tragedy, like theater as a whole, is based on people coming together. Sophocles probes the limits of what is too close to be bearable or comfortable but without ever suggesting that a void between us would be better.
And so, I listened, and waited. And what was emerging can best be put as a paraphrase of Sabrina Orah Mark (in the best thing I’ve read in a long, long while):
Fuck theater. Theater is over.
But we still have our bodies.
Philoctetes’ wound is in his foot. It was only when I worked to put the play onstage that I realized this much more immediate point of connection for me (no ill siblings or psychosomatic symptoms): I too have an irrevocably wounded foot, a vestige from intensive ballet training in my youth.
I opened every rehearsal with meditative-like instructions, asking my actors to focus on their feet: Philoctetes cannot walk on both feet, but you, all of you, whether you are playing an abled or crippled character, please feel the weight of your body on your feet. Thank your feet for carrying you, all day every day. Focus on your “beautiful, healthy, functional, trustworthy” feet… until my actors were making fun of me, trying to add continuously more adjectives to this string of feet-praise, reminding me if I forgot one of my regulars.
I focus on my feet.
We will step out of this eventually.