“Philoctetes”

Themes

Quotations from Sophocles are taken from H. Lloyd-Jones (1994), Sophocles II: Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus [Loeb

Classical Library] Ηarvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, London.

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

 

Plot

Ritsos’ poem draws clearly on Sophocles’ Philoctetes, a tragedy about deception, persuasion and betrayal. (The same story was dealt with by Aeschylus and Euripides; Sophocles, however, was the first to introduce Neoptolemus and depict Lemnos as a desolate island.)

 The Sophoclean play runs as follows. En route to Troy, Philoctetes is bitten by a snake when he accidentally trespasses into the shrine of a Nymph on the isle of Chryse. Because of his ongoing howls and suppurating wound, the Greeks, advised by Odysseus, cast him out on the deserted isle of Lemnos. Ten years later, they return in order to fetch Philoctetes’ famous bow since, according to a prophecy by the captured Trojan seer Helenus, the weapon is indispensable for the fall of Troy. Odysseus persuades Neoptolemus to trick Philoctetes in order to ensnare him and get his weapon. Neoptolemus first complies with Odysseus’ instructions, but gradually starts feeling sympathy towards Philoctetes’ suffering and, even though he takes hold of the bow, eventually returns it back to him. Despite Neoptolemus’ pleas to follow him to Troy, Philoctetes steadfastly refuses to conform. At the end Heracles appears and persuades Philoctetes to return to Troy.

Ritsos follows the main line of Sophocles’ play (Neoptolemus is sent as an emissary to the desolate isle of Lemnos in order to persuade Philoctetes to return to Troy), but he also diverges from it on a number of points, thus imparting a somewhat different hue to his version. First of all, he omits the various emotional changes the two heroes, Neoptolemus and Philoctetes, go through in the course of the play and chooses rather to focus on the moment when the former confesses to the latter the real reason behind his arrival. Accordingly, Ritsos excludes Odysseus from his poem and omits the treacherous part that Neoptolemus is obliged to play in order to deceive Philoctetes. At the end of the poem, Ritsos’ Philoctetes (who is not exiled on Lemnos but willingly retires there) realises his duty towards his community and consciously accepts to follow Neoptolemus back to Troy.

 

Page 231 – Opening stage-directions

A summer afternoon

See Phil. 1340, where Neoptolemus reveals to Philoctetes that, according to Helenus’ prophecy, Troy will be captured ‘during the present summer’.

 

Page 231– Opening stage-directions

On a deserted island shore – Lemnos perhaps. 

Sophocles’ play also takes place on the deserted island of Lemnos (Phil. 1-2).

 

Page 231 – Opening stage-directions

One handsome, bearded, mature, with a virile intelligent air

Philoctetes’ description in the prologue comes into sharp contrast with his portrayal in Sophocles, where he is presented as a wild cave-dweller (225-6, 1321), with a foul wound, periodic attacks of pain (226-7) and a bitter grudge against Odysseus and the sons of Atreus (314-6, 1019, 1040-4, 1200-2).

 

Page 231 – Opening stage-directions

Here, outside a rocky cave, transformed into a home….

This piece of information comes into contrast with the description of Philoctetes’ cave in Sophocles; see e.g. 32-9, 159-60, 534. The transformation of the cave into a home is significant, in so far as it leaves it to be inferred that for Ritsos’ Philoctetes the cave was considered as a permanent dwelling.

 

Page 231- Opening stage-directions

At the back of the cave, from time to time, his weapons catch the light – the great shield, finely worked, with representations of the labours of Heracles, and his three famous spears – the only ones of their kind.

In Sophocles the central focus of concern is Philoctetes’ famous bow, a gift from Heracles. The bow also functions as a powerful symbol, which condenses the main themes of the play (trickery, deception, heroic action in partnership etc). Ritsos replaces the bow with Heracles’ shield and three spears. It is these weapons that Philoctetes fetches to Neoptolemus at the end of the poem and which are destined to capture Troy.

 

Page 231

Respected friend, I was sure you would really understand.

An allusion to Phil. 403-6, where Philoctetes makes a similar comment to Neoptolemus, when the latter recounts the alleged offence inflicted on him by Odysseus: ‘You have sailed here, strangers, with a pain that commends you to me, and you are in harmony with me…’.

 

Page 231

We younger men

who were called in, as they say, at the last minute as though to reap

the glory already prepared with your own weapons,

with your own wounds, your own death,

we too have knowledge of it and acknowledge it, and we have, yes, we

too, have our wounds

in another part of the body –  unseen wounds,

without the compensation of fame and of the honourable blood

poured out visibly, in visible battles, visible contests.

Neoptolemus’ references to a last-minute call and a prepared glory echo his words in Phil. 343-7, where he explains to Philoctetes that he was called to Troy after Achilles’ death in order to finish up what his father has left unfinished: ‘They came for me in a ship decked with garlands, noble Odysseus and my father’s tutor, saying, whether it was true or after all a fiction, that the justice of the gods did not allow, now that my father was dead, that any other except me should take the towers of Troy’.   

The distinction between ‘we’ (younger generation) and ‘you’ (older generation) that crops up from the very opening of the monologue is evident in Sophocles as well, in so far as Odysseus and Neoptolemus could be seen as the embodiments of the experienced and novice soldier respectively.

Neoptolemus’ reference to ‘blood poured out visibly in visible battles and visible contests’ is imbued with a certain irony, considering that Philoctetes’ wound was not one received in battle. Nevertheless, Philoctetes was a soldier, just like all men of his generation.

 

Page 233 

I understand your own gallant withdrawal, respected friend,

with a commonly accepted pretext –   wound in the body,

Not in the mind or the spirit -a good excuse

that serpent’s bite (perhaps the serpent of wisdom?)

to let you stay alone and exist –  you, and no one else –

The reference to Philoctetes’ ‘withdrawal’ is in contrast with Sophocles’ play, where Philoctetes is abandoned on Lemnos because of his savage and ill-omened howls that prevented the Greeks from pouring libations and sacrificing in peace (5-11, 257, 260- 75, 600, 1031-4). Seeking retreat and freedom from everyday and communal constraints, Ritsos’ Philoctetes uses his gangrened foot as a kind of excuse, so that he may withdraw to his solitude.  

The reference to the serpent’s bite alludes to Phil. 267 and 1326-8, where a snake is also held responsible for Philoctetes’ wound.

The puzzling reference to the ‘serpent of wisdom’ could be an allusion to the Theosophists’ ouroboros ophis, the serpent that devours its own tail.

 

Page 233

And perhaps to meditate, in your solitude, on some revenge,

some recognition of yourself or, at least, the recognition

of the importance of your weapons.

In both plays Philoctetes’ weapons are indispensable for the capture of Troy. However, whereas Sophocles’ Philoctetes is informed about this first by the Merchant (604-13) and subsequently by Neoptolemus (1337-9), in Ritsos he seems to be aware of the weapons’ significance from the very beginning.  

  

Page 233

                                                                  And see how you ’ve been

       vindicated – 

I make no secret of that –  it’s for them I have to come, as you guessed – 

They will give victory to the Greeks at last,

(the oracle’s clear): your weapons, with my own hand.

Unlike Ritsos’ Philoctetes, who seems to speculate on the reason of the Greeks’ arrival at Lemnos, his Sophoclean counterpart is taken by surprise at their unexpected coming.  

The reference to the oracle brings to mind Helenus’ prophecy in Phil. 603-13 and 1334-5, according to which Troy could only be captured by Philoctetes’ bow.

Neoptolemus’ remark that both he and Philoctetes are needed for Troy’s capture is a clear allusion to Phil. 115: ‘you cannot capture it [sic. Troy] without the bow, nor the bow without you’; see also 920 ‘to go with you and conquer the land of Troy’; 1335 ‘and with this bow and with me you are revealed as the conqueror of the towers’; and 1434-5 ‘for you have not the strength to conquer the land of Troy without him, nether has he without you’.

 

Page 233 

I nevertheless came primarily for you. And I wouldn’t accept your

    weapons

in exchange for my recognition or in exchange

for the deliverance that I offer you: that I will take you with me, on my

    ship,

with all your incurable wounds, with all your solitude –  what kind of

deliverance is that?

An allusion to Phil. 919-20 where Neoptolemus reassures Philoctetes that he cares first and above all for him and secondarily for his own glory: ‘First to save you from this trouble, and then go with you and conquer the land of Troy.’

The above passage also alludes to Phil. 524-9, where Neoptolemus promises to take Philoctetes onboard, in spite of his wound and consequent foul smell. However, whereas the Sophoclean Philoctetes is reassured that he will be cured at Troy by Asclepius (1320-34, 1437-8), Ritsos makes no such reference.

 

Page 234                                                                                                          

I was afraid, too,

that Father would get up in the night and find me in the corridor

Neoptolemus’ memories of his childhood and, more particularly, of his father are in contrast with Sophocles’ version, where Neoptolemus sees his father for the first time at Troy, after his death (Phil. 351). However, this detail  has also an autobiographical touch and seems to allude to Ritsos’ problematic and rather tense relationship with his father (cf. Prokopaki 1981,   and Kotti 1997).

  

Page 235

And Mother too, was a shadow, a diaphanous shadow,

ethereal and remote –  a tender presence

amid her enduring absence. The men,

on their way back from hunting, just before they reached the house,

saw, behind the trees, the western window,

which seemed to be hanging from the branches, in midair, by itself,

and there, in its darkened frame, Mother

as if she too were suspended, staring

far off at the sunset, as though gilded. The men believed

it was for them she waited, hungrily watching the road. Much later

we realised she was gone, that she was hanged.

The image of the hanged mother who appears to be alive, echoes Philoctetes’ words in Phil. 945, where he exclaims that he is actually dead: ‘and he says he [sic. Odysseus] will display me to the Argives, as though he were bringing a strong man whom he had taken by force, and does not know that he is killing a corpse, the shadow of smoke, a mere phantom!’.

It should be noted that the difference between appearance and actuality is one of the major themes of Sophocles’ play.

 

 Page 235

That’s how big my father’s shadow was, too; it darkened the whole house,

blocked windows and doors from top to bottom,

and sometimes I thought that in order to see the day

I would have to put my head under his legs –                

this scared me especially –  the feel of his thighs on my neck.

Even though Sophocles’ Neoptolemus never expresses feelings of fear and awe towards his father, the reference to Achilles’ shadow and the image of him sitting on his son’s neck ingeniously visualises the way in which everyone treats Neoptolemus in the ancient play. Neoptolemus is first and above all the son of Achilles, who is expected to prove himself worthy of his glorious father. It is not without significance that in Sophocles’ play he is always referred to as the ‘son of Achilles’ and not even once as ‘Neoptolemus’.  

  

Pages 235-7

Ritsos’ Neoptolemus embarks upon a long, tender and nostalgic contemplation of his mother who remains, though, unnamed. In Sophocles, Neoptolemus’ mother is mentioned only in 469, where Philoctetes begs Neoptolemus, in the name of his father, mother, and beloved ones, to take him with onboard. The description of the Mother also seems to have an autobiographical touch and to allude to Ritsos’ close and tender relationship with his mother.

  

Pages 238 -42

In these pages Ritsos lays significant emphasis upon the ideas of theft and deceit. Both ideas are prominent in Sophocles’ Philoctetes.  

  

Page 242

Those who once, stark naked, washed their horses on the shore

and rubbed their manes with light oil, both horses and men

gleaming in the brilliant mornings, these same ones

who danced in the evenings above the fires, their naked heels

[…]

and perhaps they envy

the young warriors for their beautiful innocence, for their daring,

their enthusiastic parroted eloquence, and perhaps most of all

for their heavy, shining hair, bursting with health and love.

And yet they too set off once with charming naiveté

and the secret vainglorious ambition to change the world.

The distinction between the younger and the older generation –  the innocence and the passion of the former and the shame and weariness of the latter – echoes the dialogue between Neoptolemus and Odysseus at the beginning of Sophocles’ play. See especially lines 96-9, where Odysseus confesses to Neoptolemus that he used to think like his younger companion when he was young, but that life taught him otherwise: ‘Son of a noble father, I too when I was young had a tongue that was inactive but an arm that was active; but when I come to put it to the proof I see that it is the tongue, not actions, that rules in all things for mortals.’

 

Page 242  

Other times, at high noon, during a pause in the battle,

or on the march, when a halt was called, we knew at once that we were

thirsty – 

nothing else: we were thirsty. We gave no name to water and our thirst;

we only bent down, embarrassed, to quickly retie our sandals,

and thus, bent over, we looked out, retaining

an inverted image of landscape, men, people like ourselves,

a deceptive image, forgivable, transparent, broken,

as if reflected in water. And there was no water. We were thirsty.

The reference to thirst brings to mind Phil. 715-9: ‘Pour soul, who for ten whole years lacked even the pleasure of the wine cup, and would ever look to find a stagnant pool and make his way to it!’ However, it is more likely an allusion to the barren islands (Lemnos, Makronissos, Gyaros and Leros), where Ritsos was kept as a political exile during the Civil War (1946-9) and the dictatorship of the Colonels (1967-74).     

 

Page 244

Perhaps you too, on such a night, amid the countervailing

voices of your fellow warriors, could hear, clearly,

the absence of your own voice –  as I did, that time with the full moon.

Yes, I heard myself not shouting; and I stayed there

immobilized among them all, all alone. Among even my best friends, all alone

in a great lonely circle, on a very high threshing floor,

and I could hear with terrible clarity the voices of the others, and at the

    same time

I could hear my own silence. From up there

I observed for a second time the brightness of our weapons. And I

    knew.

Neoptolemus’ reference to his loneliness and silence brings to mind Phil. 15, 53 where he is instructed by Odysseus to follow his orders and stifle his own voice. See also his remarks in 908-9: ‘O Zeus, what am I to do? Am I to be doubly convicted as a villain, by wrongful silence and by shameful speech?’

 

Page 245

But you are your weapons, the honors won

through labor, friendship, and sacrifice, a gift from the hand

of him who strangled the Seven-headed one, who killed,

the guard of Hades. And you saw it

with your own eyes, and you experienced it*: your legacy

and your perfect weapon.

*Correction of Green and Bardsley’s ‘asked for it’

An allusion to Phil. 670, 801-3, where Philoctetes’ weapons are associated with Heracles, even though this piece of information belongs to the traditional story of Philoctetes’ myth and does not constitute Sophocles’ own invention.

 

Page 245

Alone, you hung your empty shirt in a tree

to deceive passers-by into saying: ‘He’s dead’;

and you, hiding behind the bushes, heard

how they believed you were already a corpse, so you could live

through the whole range of your senses;

Philoctetes’ wish to stay on Lemnos comes into contrast with Sophocles’ play, where he openly denounces his solitary exile and repeatedly expresses the desire to leave the island (see e.g. 468-73, 486-87, 1070-1, 1081-6)

 

Page 247 

Only in this way

will we gain victory. This will be

my victory –  and yours too, I mean. It will be the victory

of all the Greeks together, and their gods. What’s to be done?

only such victories exist. Let us go.

[…]

Come. We need you not only for the victory but, above all,

after the victory

[…]

Your own

Knowing, gentle smile will be a light for us,

Your own forbearance and silence a compass.

In Sophocles, Philoctetes’ return to Troy is associated merely with the capture of Priam’s city and the Greeks’ victory. In Ritsos Philoctetes’ usefulness is extended beyond this: through his wisdom and serenity, he will be able to help and guide the Greeks even after the victory.   

Moreover, the reference to Philoctetes’ ‘gentle smile’ and ‘forbearance’ are in contrast with Sophocles, where he leaves Lemnos filled with bitterness and hatred against Odysseus and the sons of Atreus, whom he considers responsible for his ten-year misery and plight (791-5).

 

Page 247

The ten years have already passed.

Sophocles’ Philoctetes also spends 10 years exiled on Lemnos island: see 312, 715

 

Page 248 – Closing stage-directions  

He rises calmly, fetches his weapons from the cave, surrenders them to the Youth, lets him go ahead, and follows him toward the beach.

In Sophocles, Philoctetes violently refuses to go to Troy, when he finds out about Neoptolemus’ deceit and Odysseus’ plans (997-1000, 1195-1200). It is only after Heracles’ appearance that he is compelled to disregard his desire for personal justice for the sake of the common good. Ritsos omits the ex machina ending; his Philoctetes willingly and consciously decides to return to his community.  

  

Page 248 – Closing stage-directions  

The serene bearded man takes the mask and lays it on the ground. He does not put it on. Little by little his face is transformed.  It becomes younger, more positive, more present. As if copying the mask.

In Sophocles, Philoctetes refuses to return to Troy, for fear that the sons of Atreus and Odysseus may inflict yet more suffering and pain upon him (1358-60). In Ritsos, he consciously decides to reintegrate himself into his community. He even rejects the mask that Neoptolemus offers him. Ritsos’ Philoctetes decides to return in as ‘authentic’ a manner as possible – without hiding his face and pretending to be someone else.

  

Language  

Page 231 / 233

Respected friend (σεβάσμιε φίλε) 

An allusion to Phil. 671 where Neoptolemus calls Philoctetes a ‘friend’ (φίλον); see also 1385.

 

Page 233 

I make no secret of that (δὲ θέλω νὰ κρυφτῶ)

Αn allusion to Phil. 915, where Neoptolemus makes a similar declaration: ‘I shall hide (κρύψω) nothing from you!’

 

Page 241

a false bridge, certainly, made of wood and bitter cunning (πικρὴ πανουργία)

 A possible allusion to Phil. 927: ‘hateful masterpiece of dire villainy’ (πανουργίας δεινῆς τέχνημ’ ἔχθιστον)

 

Pages 255-7

Κλέφτη, κλέφτες, αἰώνιας κλοπῆς,  ἔκλεψαν, ὑποκλέψουμε, ἔκρυβε, κρύβονται, etc

Sophocles employs a plethora of words that indicate deceit, fraud, concealment and theft, some of which are used by Ritsos as well; see e.g. Phil. 57 (κλεπτέον), 77 (κλοπεύς), 1025 (κλοπῇ), 1272 (κλεπτέον); 588, 743 (κρύψαι), 909 (κρύπτω), 915 (κρύψω);  cf. 100, 108-9.  

 

Mythic Characters 

In Sophocles’ Philoctetes there are 6 dramatis personae: Odysseus, Neoptolemus, Philoctetes, the play’s chorus consisting of Neoptolemus’ Sailors, a Merchant and Heracles. Ritsos keeps only two characters: Neoptolemus (the only speaking part) and Philoctetes (a mute person). Although unnamed, the two heroes are recognisable through the information that Ritsos provides in the prologue and epilogue, as well as from the content of the poem per se. A couple of other characters are also fleetingly mentioned: Heracles (mentioned by name in the prologue and twice alluded to in the monologue) and Neoptolemus’ sailors (referred to both in the prologue and epilogue).

 

Philoctetes

Both Ritsos’ and Sophocles’ Philoctetes spend ten years on the barren island of Lemnos. Unlike his Sophoclean counterpart, however, who has a savage appearance, is reduced to wild intransigence, and suffers from periodic attacks of acute pain, Ritsos’ Philoctetes is a ‘handsome, bearded, mature’ man with a ‘virile intelligent air’ (p. 231), who willingly retires from his peers and community life in general. Even though he remains silent throughout the poem, Ritsos portrays him as an ascetic and superior figure, rather than as a pitiable and helpless victim. Accordingly, his overall presentation does not evoke indignation at his suffering, but admiration for his heroic/philosophical stance, his endurance and resistance.

 

Neoptolemus

In Sophocles, Neoptolemus is presented as an immature and novice nobleman, whose character undergoes some development as the play progresses. Ritsos’ Neoptolemus is presented as acutely aware of and true to his own nature (physis) and nurture throughout the poem. Unlike Sophocles’ Neoptolemus who, at least at the beginning, does not have a voice of his own, Ritsos’ Neoptolemus not only has a voice, but he shares with Philoctetes his inner thoughts and torturing dilemmas. In the opening stage-directions Neoptolemus is presented as a ‘robust youth, with burning, searching, passionate eyes’ and features that recall those of Achilles (p. 231).  

 

Heracles

Whereas in Sophocles Heracles’ role as deus ex machina is crucial for the play’s resolution, in Ritsos Heracles is of secondary importance. In the prologue he is referred to in association with Philoctetes’ shield, ‘finely worked with his labours’ (p. 231).  In the monologue he is alluded to twice in relation to his funeral pyre and the weapons that he bestowed on Philoctetes as a reward for the latter’s lighting the pyre that released the hero of his mortal coil.   

 

The Sailors

Neoptolemus’ sailors are off-stage but audible both in the prologue and epilogue. In the opening stage-directions their role is rather neutral: they simply ‘bathe, exercise, wrestle’ on the shore of Lemnos. In the closing stage-directions their role is more prominent as their song, ‘a straightforward popular song, full of ropes, masts, rowers, stars, much bitterness and manliness and endurance’ plays a more significant role, as it incites Philoctetes to follow Neoptolemus to Troy and reintegrate into the Greek camp.

 

Bibliography

Ailianou, E. 1991. “Ο “Φιλοκτήτης” του Γ. Ρίτσου ή Η ώρα της Σιωπής”, Nea Estia 130: 90-93.

Bien, P. 1975. “O μύθος στα νεοελληνικά γράμματα και ο “Φιλοκτήτης” του Γιάννη Ρίτσου”, in Γιάννης Ρίτσος: Mελέτες για το έργο του, Athens.

Christodoulou, Th. M. 2010. “Ζητήματα μυθικής μεθόδου. Ο μύθος του Φιλοκτήτη στην Τέταρτη Διάσταση του Γιάννη Ρίτσου”, Νea Epoche 306: 62-73.

Kotti, A. 1997. Ένα σχεδίασμα βιογραφίας, Αthens.

Leivaditis, T. 1975. “Γιάννη Ρίτσου: “Φιλοκτήτης”. Υπόδειγμα μιας αληθινά μεγάλης ποίησης”, in Γιάννης Ρίτσος: Mελέτες για το έργο του, Athens.

Maronitis, D. 2006. “Από τον Φιλοκτήτη του Σοφοκλή στον Φιλοκτήτη του Γιάννη Ρίτσου”, Εnteukterio 75 (Oct.-Dec.) ?

___________ 2008. “Φιλοκτήτης του Γιάννη Ρίτσου: Πρόσωπα και προσωπεία” in Α. Μakrinicola and S. Bournazos (eds) Ο Ποιητής και ο Πολίτης Γιάννης Ρίτσος, Benaki Museum, Athens, 45-52.

Martini, L. Fortuna neogreca dei Filottite, Padova 1974.

Prevalakis, P. 19923. Ο ποιητής Γιάννης Ρίτσος. Συνολική θεώρηση του Έργου του, Athens, 352-58.

Prokopaki, C. 1981. Η πορεία προς τη Γκραγκάντα ή οι περιπέτειες του οράματος, Αthens.

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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