Ajax in Afghanistan, revisited


Professor Steve Esposito, a longtime member of the Core Humanities faculty and associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Classics, writes about a recent Core excursion to a new theatrical version of Ajax

This weekend, 85 Core students and 10 members of the Core faculty attended the very successful production of Sophocles’ Ajax at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square, directed by Obie-award winner Sarah Benson. It was great to see a play which we had read in CC101 brought so vividly to life. The staging, costuming, and acting were generally excellent and the pacing of the script was swift and strong. For those still interested in seeing the play, it runs until March 13.

The action never flagged, not least because of the fine performance by the buff  actor playing Ajax, Brent Harris, who brought forth superbly the emotional logic and poignant tragedy of the gigantic hero’s dilemma. An aspect of the play that came through with particular power for me was the way the war-captive wife Tecmessa (played by Linda Powell, daughter of former Secretary of State Colin Powell) physically touched Ajax as she begged him not to take his life. The rendering of Ajax’s suicide was powerful, though, as the play’s climactic moment, I wish it had been enacted at center stage rather than far off to the side.

One of this production’s most memorable scenes occurred when the trio of Teucer (Ajax’s half-brother), Tecmessa, and her young son Eurysaces hovered lovingly over the enormous bloodied corpse of Ajax, creating a sacred protective space around it. Their vigil was a reminder of the terrible costs of war—especially those borne by women and children—and of the unforgiving warrior code that war inculcates.

Finally, a word on the costuming. Seeing the actors in U.S. military garb and gear was a sorrowful reminder that too many young American men and women now replay the role of Ajax today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Ajax, they fight to kill, but why they must continue, after ten wearying years, to journey across the world to these far-flung killing fields remains tragically unclear. Sadly, too, like Ajax, these young men and women commit suicide with alarming frequency as the meaningless of their killing puts to flight the higher angels in their tender hearts.

Attending last night’s production made me even more eager to see the upcoming performances of Ajax and Philoctetes by the group Theater of War, on February 28 and March 7, also at the A.R.T.; both shows are at 7 PM. These two evenings will serve as catalysts for town hall-type discussions about the challenges faced by members of the U.S. armed forces, veterans, and their families and caregivers. Tickets are free, but reservations are required and can be obtained by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300 or by reserving them online.

Cast members Brent Harris, Kaaron Briscoe and Ron Cephas Jones in rehearsal. photo by Kati Mitchell for Playbill.com.

Cast members Brent Harris, Kaaron Briscoe and Ron Cephas Jones in rehearsal. photo by Kati Mitchell for Playbill.com.

Sophocles’ play Ajax is read in the first semester of the Core freshman Humanities, CC101: The Ancient World. Sarah Benson visited campus earlier this year, to give a talk sponsored by the Core; a profile of the director appeared last week in the Boston Metro. The A.R.T. website hosts videos featuring Benson and Ajax actor Brent Harris.

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