Adapting on the Shoulders of Giants
“Which would you choose if you could:
pleasure for yourself despite your friends
or a share in their grief?” -Tecmessa
“Yet, I pity the poor wretch, though he’s my enemy. He’s yoked to an evil delusion, but the same fate could be mine. I see clearly: we who live are all phantoms, fleeing shadows.” -Odysseus
Quotes taken from Herbert Golder and Richard Pevear’s 1999 Ajax translation.
I want to start with a small confession. You know the cute ice breaker kind. You can join in the comments below. Things like “I like rainbow sprinkles,” or “Fried Green Tomatoes” or…
The dead intimidate me.
The longer dead the more intimidating.
Sophocles has been dead a very long time.
Homer has been dead for longer.
Ajax is so dead I’m not sure he’s real.
Now that’s decomposed.
Tyler Riley approached me for this project about seven months ago. He’s been a long time collaborator, friend, and terrifying judge whose performances I always try to support. We’ve been coworkers in several (at least five) performances and he always impresses me with his work ethic and dedication. So when he asked me if I’d be willing to write him a one man show I was both delighted and honored.
Until he told me the subject.
Then I faked the flu.
Tyler, in his senior year of undergraduate, was the title character in Ajax by Sophocles. Envisioned during the civil war and using a new translation Tyler brought this character to life onstage. He connected with this character and wanted to push those realizations further. He then waited until I was intoxicated and took advantage of my pliable nature.
What’s a friend to do?
Shown: A close friend punching me in the gut.
I was worried for a few reasons. My work on adaptations has been limited to complete (re)imaginings.
“Hey man. What if Troy was like… a battle during World War I. And… like each of the heroes was a fighter pilot. That’d be like deep right. The no man’s land and end of warriors…
“I imagine Beowolf set in a office building, where Grendel and his Mother are the vice president and the boss.”
“Oh, I see. A comedy. So without the swords and stuff…”
“There will be swords.”
But that’s not what was being asked. He wanted a story set in the time from a very focused perspective.
I had other reasons to be cautious. I’m not team Sophocles to be honest… that’s right my heart lies with… Euripides. I think Oedipus Rex is over rated (though I wouldn’t kick Antigone out of my theatre that’s a drama with some pathos if you know what I’m saying).
My deepest apologies to those who don’t get these jokes… and to the many who get them and don’t think they are funny.
The other element was more of a personal problem. Tyler, I believe, identified with the character because the two at core were very similar. Tyler has a sense of honor I admire but also a deeply intuited idea of Justice. A form of justice that has little patience with the equivocation of idle men. Justice is not something malleable or should be compromised and what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong.
That is… not me.
Behold the face of evil.
I see the world in arguments: selfish, selfless, helpful, philanthropic, well-done, badly worded and perspectives that tie it all together. I relate far more to Ajax’s rival than to the man proper. But a friend wanted something and I stand by my friends.
I started with the source material, Sophocles play and anything else I could get my hands on. I reread the Iliad, the section in the Odyssey when Ajax refuses to speak with Odysseus and tracked down a few other stories. I came to a few questions.
How does one write in the voice of a man who does not speak? Ajax is quite and let’s his actions speak for him… tough for a monologue show.
Which Ajax am I using? Like all of these heroes Ajax differs on the telling.
Who is Ajax to the others and who is he to himself?
I realized there were two basic descriptions of Ajax. The first is as this powerhouse, “heads and shoulders above the rest” capable of holding back armies alone. The other is as this honest but slow leader who cannot outfox or argue the men around him. He is treated as simple when he is just in fact honest.
So I needed two different languages to describe this man. I borrowed heavily from the epic poetry tradition to describe the Ajax of action. Ajax’s poetry is his body, his soul is made manifest through motion. These are the actions that live beyond time and mind. So whenever is he engaged in these moments for battle, revenge, or sex he is brought outside himself and the language reflects it. The play moves into third person.
This allowed me to have an Ajax who was not a very good speaker even in a one person show. When he is forced to speak to his comrades or fellow generals he cannot muster any of the power inside. He just knows it is unjust.
I owe so much to Tyler for making me dive into this and we have a reading going up in Times Square December 16th. We are practicing over Skype (love the internet age) and hope it goes well.
But as I believe in sneak peaks here is the first scene from Tyler Riley’s Ajax
Thank you and until next time,
Lane McLeod Jackson
Lights come up on Ajax. He is dressed in full regalia. Armor, weapons, etc. A majestic giant who digs frantically. He tears entire portions of earth hurling them to the side. After a moment he reaches the necessary depth. As he does this a song plays in the background. As the song progresses Ajax hears it and his attention is brought towards the audience. He begins to transform…
Just like Atlas standing tall. Weight of the world on these shoulders. Keep waring against these soldiers. Cause honor and glory tower above us all.
Beat. He stands facing the audience. He is now a warrior. The audience his enemies. They outnumber him a hundred to one but he is not afraid. He grins energized and ready to face the enemy.
Crack. Break. Twice a ton shatters in his hands as waves of Trojans break upon the tide. The Achaean ships cradled in their bay, the alter where fire joins water and gore tastes salt. Hector takes point, the point of his spear strikes, spills blood. His shield already bent, already tried by the boulder thrown at an earlier encounter.
Ajax knows, left alone, that he must out perform the spear. The sword. Even the seven layered shield won’t do. These tools insufficient to the task, so splinters breaking on his skin a ship mast, his flag, becomes the lance to break the backs of Trojan scum, these rats.
Hector senses danger before he see’s the rig tipped spear. Priam’s prime’s mind still keen even as the desire to let leash- to bleed these Greeks for his own mistakes. His people and kin’s crime.
But Ajax still is but one man. No Hercules, or Theseus, simply a giant among pygmies. The only god of battle living is self-exiled, the crime arrogance or melancholy. Achilles, the lion whose pride was diminished by one, Bresis. Claimed by the King of Atreus who dooms his supposed destiny with yearly blunders. And Hector longs to make this mistake Agamemnon’s last. So he must pass Ajax, send him to his death.
The Trojans split to several ships. Spears, swords, shields, and fire. Burn the Greek vessels over the water that brought them. But Ajax cries- He leaps or’ the ship closest, and the next, lands three abreast and forces his weapon out. The men who stand in the way of fate are broken. Rendered inside out, cast into each other, skulls cracking heads as they meet in bloody embraces. Helmets turn coat as they fly off their masters red stained hair. Ajax retracts his mast for a second spring. The aim nearer this time to Hector whose own divine mind causes him to bend out the way. Ajax breaks another bakers dozen and this time whips the mast side to side, twice. Snapping backs of formation minded men whose shields front and center were woefully misplaced.
His newly minted weapon has outlived its use, split and splintered, among the shattered dead. Time to reload. This ship smaller than his own will still do the deed and he cannibalizes another mast to save the hull.
Hector has already changed approach, when Ajax leaps to another ship. The Archers and strong armed spear men keep a living distance from The Greater and let their missiles fly. More of these find their mark in his flanks and flesh. But he is no longer just the Eldest son of Telamon. He is the idol. The new living god of death who preforms miracles in battle. He replaces the solemn son of Peleus. Replaces Achilles. He is Ajax and Hector is now his too face. Another spear flies from Hector’s hand causing the Giant to drop his new mast. Unarmed except for Hector’s own old blade at Ajax’s side, now in hand, and Ajax steps knowing the two will end their rivalry, immediately.
Except- a horn blows and Hector spurns their fate. The old lion returns. Achilles, forcing time to move at his pace. So that all are fated to watch him move. Beautiful, powerful, sensual, man and woman, unbearded, full of grace. Except not. The armor that draws the eye is right. The technique still belongs to the highest Myrmidon but the man who wears it falls short. Short of power, of honor, the inherent aura required to take on the mantle of gods. To be their champion- not their instrument. Otherwise the role of man is not worth the pain it must entail.
The other who see’s a discrepancy is Hector. Priam’s prime son prays that whatever spat took place has weakened his foe. But Ajax knows. He see’s….
“Don’t,” Ajax says. “Face me.”
But Hector goes for the throat and cuts the false god down. The Lion’s Pride diminished a second time, Patroclus stolen from Achilles by death. A fake idol dressed like a doll in gods armor. Ajax moves to defend the body, the armor, gifted to men by those who demand their allegiance. Their worship. The Armor must not be taken by those who would disgrace it. Ajax lays his shield over the cub as Hector overwhelmed by the Acheans now return his thunderous blows. The Trojan understands fate has changed its mind and sounds for the retreat. Ajax lifts the small cub and feels the touch of God. He hears his fellows thank him, congratulate him. They say he won the day. He stopped the fall. He…(He speaks in another voice)
Ajax looks at the crowd. They have changed. They are now the other princes and thinkers. His fellow Greeks who have left for troy.
(Slowly with deliberation)
I am sorry your honors. I was lost… in my memories. Ajax? Yes, of course that… is my name. Well… technically, I’m Ajax Telemon known as Ajax the Greater so I am distinguished from my cousin, Ajax Locrian. I am Prince of Salomis and captain of 12 vessels sent for the return of Helen and her treasure. Uhhhh…. I stand ready to hear what judgment my fellows have made.
Why you, Ajax? Why should you be gifted the honor of these arms?
Why should I wield Achilles armor? Is that a question I’m supposed to argue?… Don’t I give some sort of demonstration? How am I supposed… Argue my own worth without… diminishing it.
Give examples. What have you done to earn this armor? Come now you must-
But you were there! We were all there. We’ve been together the entire time.
Do you think the armor should be yours?
Of course. I would not stand here if I didn’t think me best. I am not in charge of this decision. If I was it would be already on these shoulders.
We’re getting impatient.
I… what about the time… on the ships. When I stopped the enemy… well not alone… but I was very… helpful… No! I was important. That battle- people came up to me and said. They couldn’t win it without me. You said that King Agamemnon. At the ships when I broke our masts to keep them… back. Or in the duel with Hector. I injured him. He didn’t beat me. I’m…
I was under the impression the Armor would be given to the most worthy.
Odysseus, is also a brave man.
(In a rage)
Yes, Odysseus can be very brave when he’s picking off distracted men from a distance.
A mistake he understands this
I did not mean to imply. I just mean to say… he’s an archer… You yourself have said…
I deserve the armor. You know I do. What can I say? I’ve never depended on words. You’ve always wanted my arms. Let me defend them.