“Ajax”

Themes

Quotations from Sophocles are taken from H. Lloyd-Jones (1994), Sophocles I: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus [Loeb Classical Library], Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA and London.

Quotations from Ritsos’ Ajax  are based on P. Green and B. Bardsley’s translation of the Fourth Dimension (Princeton N.J, 1993), unless otherwise stated.

 

Plot

Ritsos’ poem clearly draws on Sophocles Ajax and follows the main line of the story: a rigged vote results in Achilles’ arms being awarded to Odysseus; this leads Ajax to madness and to his attack on helpless animals. Ajax decides to commit suicide in disgrace. Whereas Sophocles’ Ajax is, at the moment of his suicide, filled with anger at his enemies and with a sense of helplessness at the inefficacy and irrelevance of the moral code he has espoused all his life, Ritsos’ Ajax decides to end his life as a result of a conscious and entirely free decision. Moreover, whereas in Sophocles almost half of the play focuses on the issue of Ajax’ burial (865-end), since the sons of Atreus persistently attempt to prevent the funeral, in Ritsos this debate is entirely omitted. Sophocles’ opening scene (the dialogue between Athena and Odysseus outside Ajax’s hut, after his foiled nocturnal attack on the Greek army) is also dismissed. In Sophocles’ play, Ajax appears in line 91, still raving and deluded, and is restored to sanity only in l. 333. Ritsos chooses to focus his poem on the moment when Ajax realizes his disgrace.

 

Page 217, Opening stage-directions

…in front of the door….Here, a feeble reflection spreads over the walls from the closed grilles. In the street can be heard the voices of fruit vendors, knife grinders, fishmongers, and little further down, on the shore, the sound of sailors scrubbing and tidying ships at their moorings.

 

Ajax’ monologue takes place inside a house (with doors and windows) and not in Ajax’s hut / tent (as in the Sophoclean play).

 

Page 217, Opening stage-directions

A huge, powerful man lies prone on the floor, amid smashed crockery, stewpots, slaughtered animals – cats, dogs, chickens, lambs, kids, a white ram tied upright to a stake, a donkey, two horses….He seems exhausted, as if perhaps he’s recovering from a night of drunkenness. On his face, a look of illness and distress, quite incompatible with, and especially ill-suited to, his physical dimensions, the bulging muscles of his arms, his thighs, his calves.

A similar description of Ajax is provided by Tecmessa in Soph. Aj. 323-7. The reference to the white ram that is ‘tied upright to a stake’ is a clear allusion to Aj. 236-40 (Tecmessa to the Chorus): ‘But he took up two white-footed rams….while the other he tied upright to a pillar’.

Yet, Ritsos diverges from the ancient play regarding the range of the slaughtered animals. In Sophocles, Ajax kills and drags to his hut only animals from the flock (53, 175, 234). Ritsos’ reference to such domestic animals as cats, dogs and chickens imparts a certain poignant familiarity to Ajax’ condition.

 

Pages 217, 218, 221, 225

Shut the doors, shut the windows

An apparent allusion to Soph. Aj. 579 ‘Bar the doors!’ and 581 ‘Close the doors quickly!’.

 

Pages 217-8

As for you, all your own

Slightest troubles you unload, magnified, on my back –

All your grumbling and whining:

[…]

Even when it was time for making love, at night, in bed, suddenly

You’d get mad that they left the clothpins in the yard

And the damp would rot them. Ah, you stupid creatures, that’s how

You drive us out of bed, out of the house, out of the world,

Out of your practical, clever brains, that are so taxed

With recipes for cooking, sweets, drinks, drugs; out

Of life itself with its small, sacred daily incidents,

With its small, tangible objects that give relief from the great intangibles.  

An allusion to Ajax’ reproach of women in Sophocles; ‘woman, silence adorns women’ (293); ‘It seems to me that you are thinking foolishly, if even now you plan to educate my character’ (594-5); ‘A woman is indeed a creature most prone to wail’ (580); cf. 585, 589 and 594.

 

Page 217: I am the mighty one, the invincible one

Page 218 (the fearless one, you see)

Page 218: So here I am, then, the mighty one, the invincible one

An allusion to Aj. 364 (Ajax to the Chorus): ‘Do you see that I, the bold, the valiant, the one who never trembled in battle among enemies, have done mighty deeds among beasts that frightened no one?’ Note, however, that the way in which Ritsos’ Ajax refers to himself is imbued with certain irony and sarcasm. This inflexion is not evident in the ancient text.

 

Page 219

A white frost covered my eyes

An allusion to Soph. Aj. 51-3, where Athena recounts to Odysseus how she deluded Ajax, by casting ‘mistaken notions’ upon his eyes. In Ritsos the divine intervention is omitted.

 

Page 220

                                                                                                 And suddenly

I heard them from a thousand secret corners hideously calling my name,

my name, over and over, roaring in the pipes, in the empty jars,

in the toilet bowls, in the chimneys; my name—

some far off, with women’s voices, and others nearby, with a voice of thunder, 

mimicking my own voice ‘Ajax, Ajax, Ajax’,

with such stupid arrogance, ‘Ajax, Ajax’,

that I hated my name forever — oh, more, I wanted to hear it

    again 

An allusion to Soph. Aj. 430-3, where Ajax associates the pain exclamation ‘aiai’ with the etymology of his name: ‘Alas (αἰαῖ)! Who ever would have thought that my name would come to harmonise with my sorrows? For now I can say “Alas” a second time (δὶς αἰάζειν) [and a third (καὶ τρίς); such are the sorrows I am encountering].*’

However, in Ritsos Ajax comes to hate his name because of the delusions he has of the other Greeks jeeringly calling him out, not because he considers his name to be ominous, as in Sophocles. The number of times that Ajax’ name is repeated in Ritsos’ poem could correspond to the numeral adverbs ‘twice’ (δίς) and ‘thrice’ (τρίς) in the ancient text.

*Lines in brackets are spurious

 

Page 220

                                                                                               All night 

 you too lay in wait for me behind the door, yes, with my child –

 you showed me to the child, so he could see my collapse — no, no,

 you covered his eyes with both hands, so he wouldn’t see me.

 In the Sophoclean play, Ajax, having voiced his desire to die, asks to see his son, Eurysaces. Tecmessa informs him that she has sent him away, fearing that Ajax might hurt him (531, 533). Ajax first gets upset but then praises her for the precaution she took (536).

 

Page 221

                                                 I had nothing,

nowhere to hold on to, not even my own belt*

as if I were rummaging for it blind*. I knew, suddenly, that it had been

     cut short

and instead of it holding me, I held it in my hand

like the flayed tail of some unknown, improbable animal.

*Correction of Green and Bardsley’s ‘life’and ‘blind’ respectively

The mention of the belt brings to mind Ajax’s duel with Hector, briefly alluded to in Soph. Aj. 41, 661-3 and 817-8 (cf. Hom. Il. 7 206-310). The duel ended with the exchange of gifts between the two heroes; Ajax received Hector’s sword and Hector Ajax’s belt (303-5). Both gifts proved to be calamitous for their receivers, since Ajax committed suicide using the sword, and Hector was dragged by Achilles through the dirt by this belt.

 

Page 221

and Teucer missing somewhere in the mountains. I called out: Teucer, Teucer;

my voice didn’t reach him.

Τeucer, the young brother of Ajax, is the first one whom Ajax seeks, after realising his delusional, disgraceful act: ‘Ιt is Teucer I am calling! Where is Teucer?’ (Soph. Aj. 342)

 

Page 222

The heart of a man

 is a moist root in the earth — patient, hidden

 so deep — spring is near; it can begin to throw off shoots again.

A probable allusion to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon 966-7 (‘For while the root remains, foliage comes to a house, spreading shade over it against the dog-star Sirius’), where Clytemnestra employs similar imagery. [Ajax was written after Ritsos had finished his Agamemnon].

 

Page 222

I assure you I’m calm now — I long neither for the death of others

 nor for my own.

An allusion to Soph. Aj. 646-92, where Ajax reassures Tecmessa that he has reconciled himself with his deed and that he is determined to live with it. In both poems this reassurance proves to be mere pretence.   

 

Page 222

Fear of the enemy is nothing compared to fear of a friend

 who knows one’s hidden wounds and aims right at them.

Αn allusion to Soph. Aj. 678-83, where Ajax muses upon the mutability of friendship: ‘for I have lately learned that our enemy must be hated as one who will become a friend, and in helping a friend I shall aim to assist him as one assists a man who will not remain a friend forever, since for most mortals the harbour of friendship cannot be trusted.’

 

Page 222

                             All the prizes

that belonged to me the others appropriated

by fraudulent lots and bribes; while I, as the fate of the Greeks was

   being decided,

threw into the helmet, not moist clods of earth

but my large, distinctive wedding ring, and was the first to go out

in hand-to-hand combat against the enemy. And when once more

they burned the ships, and smoke and flame rose to heaven,

so much you’d have thought the sea was on fire, when Hector

was charging furiously over the  trenches, again I

was the first to stand against him. Have the sons of Atreus forgotten about these things?*

they care only for plunder and prizes. So, let them share them out

with trickery, fear and deceit — until when? One day

they too will stand naked before the night and its long road;

the stolen shield —however beautiful and big— will no longer be of any

    use to them.

*Correction of Green and Bardsley’s ‘ The Atreidae perhaps don’t remember these things’

The references to the ‘fraudulent lots and bribes’ and the ‘stolen shield’ bring to mind the Judgement of Achilles’ Arms. Some kind of trickery during the voting is the main reason for Ajax’s anger both in Sophocles (445-9, 1135-7) and in Ritsos (pages 222-3), even though the actual contest is not described in detail in either case.

Αn allusion to Ajax 1266-1315, where Teucer reminds Agamemnon of Ajax’ honesty, when Hector challenged the Greeks to single combat. This incident is recounted in Iliad 7; there Nestor suggests that they draw a lot, and each of the contenders throws into a helmet a marked token for the privilege of fighting Hector (170-4). The owner of the first token to jump out when the helmet was shaken would be the winner. As Teucer points out, Ajax threw in ‘a token that was no runaway, no lump of wet earth, but one that was bound to leap first out of the crested helmet’ (Aj. 1285-7).

 

Page 222

So then, don’t grieve.

The sympathy that Ajax shows here towards Tecmessa brings to mind Soph. Aj. 650-4, where he also openly expresses (albeit fleetingly) his pity for her future plight as a widow.

 

Page 224

At that moment, the shadow of a bird passed before my feet — I didn’t

     lift my eyes –

remote sympathy and forgiveness. And I prayed silently

for a little calm – not glory, not glory. *

 

*Correction of Green and Bardsley’s ‘faith’

Unlike Sophocles’ Ajax, who commits suicide in resentment (387-90, 834-45, 854-9) because of the injustice and fraud inflicted upon him, Ritsos’ Ajax gradually curbs his anger and even manages to forgive his foes.

 

 

Page 225

How good it would be for you to shrink, shrink, shrink,

quite still, all curled up, covered over, hidden

under your fallen shield, it too corroded by rain and salt,

with its old heroic images all obliterated, and from inside

to tighten its strap, pulling it toward the earth till you become one with

    the ground.

In Sophocles, Ajax’s shield is a symbol of heroism and endurance (575-6), whereas in Ritsos it is described in a rather deprecatory way.

The imagery employed here echoes the parable used by Menelaus in Soph. Aj. 1142-6: ‘In the past I have seen a man of reckless speech urging sailors to sail during a storm. But one heard no word from him when he was in the grip of the storm’s attack; he huddled up under his cloak and allowed any sailor who wished to trample on him.’

 

Page 225

It would have been nice

 to preserve all these animals — the white ram especially

The reference to the white ram (here and in the opening stage-directions) is not coincidental, as Tecmessa in Sophocles’ play specifically refers the way Ajax tortured the two white rams that he dragged home (236-40). In Ritsos, Ajax’s wish to ‘preserve’ the animals, especially the white ram, is charged with irony, for as can be inferred from Sophocles’ play, Ajax thought one of these two rams to be Odysseus (see 104-10 and 236-40).

 

Page 225

Sufficient for me

that which I found, losing everything. 

Αn allusion to Ajax’ final words to his comrades in 691-2, as he departs for the fields in order to commit suicide: ‘and perhaps you shall learn that, even though now I am unfortunate, I have been preserved’.

 

Page 225:  I’m going down to wash in the river, to wash my sword.

Page 228: I’m going to wash myself, wash my sword –

An allusion to Soph. Aj. 654- 6, where the hero wishes to wash his sword off the animal blood. In Sophocles, however, the washing of the sword is also expected to placate Athena’s anger: ‘But I shall go to the meadows by the shore where I can wash myself, so that I can clean off the dirt upon me and escape the grievous anger of the goddess’.

 

Page 226

If I was vanquished, I was vanquished

 not by men but only by the gods.  

An allusion to Tecmessa’s words in Soph. Aj. 970: ‘It is the gods that killed him, not they [sic. the sons of Atreus] no!’

 

Page 226

No victory, no defeat is ours alone

A probable allusion to the Chorus’ words in Soph. Aj. 383: ‘Εvery man laughs or laments according as the god gives’.

Cf. Teucer’s words in Soph. Aj. 1036-7: ‘I would say that these things, and all things at all times, are contrived for mortals by the gods’.

  

Page 227

Only our death

 is the equal of each one of us

 

*Many editors consider these lines spurious.

An allusion to Soph. Aj. 854-5*, where the hero addresses death: ‘Death, death, come now and look upon me! But to you I shall speak when I am with you.’

 

Page 228

Tell Teucer – 

Actually, where is Teucer? Teucer? Teucer!

Ritsos’ Ajax asks for Teucer as he leaves the house to commit suicide. This invocation to Teucer alludes to Soph. Aj. 826-30, where in his suicide speech Ajax asks the gods to inform his brother about his death. However, whereas the Sophoclean Ajax’s major concern is what will happen to his corpse (see also 688-9, where he admonishes his companions to ask Teucer to ‘care for him’, meaning to arrange for his burial), Ritsos’ Ajax shows no such concern. In fact, even though he seems to be about to leave a message for his brother, his sentence is left unfinished.

 

Language 

Pages 217, 220, 221, 225, 228

Woman (Γυναίκα)

The way in which Ritsos’ Αjax addresses Tecmessa echoes his attitude in Sophocles, where Tecmessa is never called by her name, but always by the invocation ‘Woman’ (γύναι); see Soph. Aj. 293, 685, 652. Τhe Chorus also addresses/refers to Tecmessa in a similar fashion (268, 903, 940).

 

Page 217

A white ram tied upright to a stake (ἕνα ἄσπρο κριάρι δεμένο ὄρθιο στὸν πάσσαλο)

An allusion to Soph. Aj. 237-40: ‘Βut he took us two white-footed rams (ἀργίποδας κριοὺς)….while the other he tied (δήσας) upright (ὀρθὸν) to a pillar’.  

 

Page 218

Here I am, in a heap on the floor; and my

        enemies

 laugh (περιγελᾶνε) at me, laugh (κρυφογελᾶνε) in secret  

Ritsos’ Ajax knows that his deed has turned him into a ‘laughing-stock’ and he repeatedly refers to himself as the target of the Greeks’ malicious laughter (cf. p. 225: ‘Let them laugh (γελοῦν) as much as they want, the Atreidae’). Similar remarks occur in Sophocles’ play: γέλωτος (367); γέλωθ’ (382); ἐπεγγελῶσιν (454).

 

Page 219

Even my shadow (σκιά) has abandoned me

Αn allusion to Aj. 125-6, where Odysseus declares that humans are ‘nothing more than phantoms or an insubstantial shadow (σκιάν)’. Seen in conjunction with Odysseus’ remark, Ajax’ confession is imbued with an even more tragic tone. 

 

Page 223

 moist clods of earth (νωπούς σβώλους χῶμα) 

 Τhe noun ‘σβῶλος’ serves as a verbal allusion to Soph. Aj. 1286, where Teucer tells to Agamemnon that Ajax didn’t use ‘a clod (βῶλον) of wet earth’ when Hector challenged the Greeks to a single combat.

 

Page 223

When Hector

was charging furiously over the trenches (τότε ποὺ ὁ Ἕκτορας /χυμοῦσε ἀκράτητος πάνω ἀπ’ τοὺς τάφρους)

A verbal allusion to Soph. Aj. 1279-80: ‘and Hector was leaping high over the moat’ (πηδῶντος ἄρδην Ἕκτορος τάφρων ὕπερ)

 

Page 228

What a beautiful day – O sunlight, golden river (Τί ὄμορφη μέρα – ὦ φέγγος τοῦ ἥλιου, ποτάμι χρυσό)

The coda of Ritsos’ poem is a clear allusion to the ultimate words uttered by Sophocles’ Ajax in 855-6, just before committing suicide: ‘But you, light of this bright day, and you Sun riding in your chariot, I call on’ (Σὲ δ’ ὦ φαεννῆς ἡμέρας τὸ νῦν σέλας, / καὶ τὸν διφρευτὴν Ἥλιον προσεννέπω); cf. Soph. Aj. 859: ‘O light’ (ὦ φέγγος) 

 

 

Mythic Characters

In Sophocles’ Ajax there are 8 dramatis personae (Athena, Ajax, Odysseus, Tecmessa, the Messenger, Teucer, Menelaus, Agamemnon, and the Chorus consisting of Salaminian sailors) and 3 mutes (Eurysaces, Slave, Herald). Ritsos keeps only two characters: Ajax (the only speaking character) and Tecmessa (a mute person). Although unnamed, both mythical figures are recognisable through the information that Ritsos provides in the prologue and epilogue, as well as through the content of the monologue itself. A few of the other characters are also mentioned in passing:  Teucer (twice invoked by name), Eurysaces (referred to as ‘child’ both in the opening stage-directions and the monologue), and the sons of Atreus, that is Agamemnon and Menelaus (once collectively invoked as the ‘Atreidae’ and once referred to as ‘my enemies’). Odysseus is not directly mentioned but is vaguely alluded to in the poem.  

 

Ajax

In both Sophocles and Ritsos, Ajax is portrayed as a man of great stature, huge and powerful; enraged and deranged because of the bestowal of Achilles’ arms to Odysseus, he attacks and kills helpless animals, in the deluded belief that he is slaying his enemies. Realising the depth of his disgrace and devastated by his deed (in Ritsos, Ajax is lying prone on the floor, exhausted, wearing a white nightshirt covered with blood, and with a look of illness and distress), he decides to commit suicide. Yet, there is a huge difference between the two heroes: whereas Sophocles’ Ajax decides to put an end to his life in order to reconstitute his honour, Ritsos’ Ajax does so because he realises the vanity, emptiness and insignificance of worldly glory. Accordingly, in contrast to Sophocles’ Ajax, who dies in anger and bitterness against his enemies and full of anxiety regarding his posthumous glory, Ritsos’ Ajax dies entirely free from any such concerns. 

 

Tecmessa

In the opening stage-directions Tecmessa, Ajax’s concubine in Sophocles, is adumbrated as ‘a woman with foreign features, pale, sleepless, frightened, and perhaps secretly angry’ (p. 217). She is standing in front of the door in an odd pose, as if she was hiding a small child behind her — obviously, a veiled reference to Eurysaces, her son by Ajax (p. 217). Whereas in Sophocles’ tragedy Tecmessa plays a prominent role and pursues a number of independent actions (she removes Eurysaces for the reach of his deranged father (530-5), attempts to stop her husband from committing suicide (585-94), urgently asks the Chorus to find Ajax and save him (809-12), and covers his dead body in order to protect it (915-24) in Ritsos her role is passive and restricted to that of an attentive listener.

 

 

Bibliography

Prevalakis, P. 19923. Ο ποιητής Γιάννης Ρίτσος. Συνολική θεώρηση του Έργου του, Athens, 396-402.

Sapoutzaki-Argyraki, M. 2008. Μορφές πολεμιστών σε αρχαιόθεμους μονολόγους της Τέταρτης Διάστασης του Γιάννη Ρίτσου: oμοιότητες και διαφορές με τα αρχαία πρότυπα, 2008 [Unpublished MA Thesis submitted to the Department of Theatre Studies, University of Patras] http://nemertes.lis.upatras.gr/dspace/handle/123456789/1301

 

 

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