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The Sword, the Box, and the Bow: Trauma, (Dis)placement, and “New Canadians”

Lana Radloff

Bishop’s University

The sword, the box, and the bow are key visual emblems of impending action and symbols of revelation in Sophocles’ Ajax, Women of Trachis, and Philoctetes. Each one brings about or has the potential to cause the destruction of not only the plays’ main protagonists but also those around them. Ajax’s concubine-wife, Tecmessa, articulates the uncertain fate she and her son, Eurysaces, will face because of Ajax’s suicide, a reality she knows all too well as Ajax’s hard-won prize from the Trojan War. Philoctetes, the main character of his eponymous play, is also, like Tecmessa, a casualty of the Trojan War. He has been twice displaced: first through his abandonment on Lemnos by his comrades-at-arms and then through his return to “civilization” as epitomized in his final apostrophe to his Lemnian cave. Although he longs to return home, he must also face reintegration into his community and renegotiate his identity in light of his abandonment by society. Sophocles explores the psychology of refugees, migrants, and immigrants perhaps most vividly in the Women of Trachis. Deianeira’s poignant speeches highlight the plight of ancient Greek women, whose anxiety over impending nuptials is exchanged for the unpredictability of marriage as they await their husbands’ return from war. Her unexpected compassion for the young captive women from Oechalia, including Iole, the object of her husband’s desire, only heightens the immediacy of women’s concerns and their powerlessness in a world in which they have little agency. Although Deianeira commits suicide in a final decisive act, she is voiceless and hidden from view. Her suicide takes place off stage and in atonement for the destruction of her heroic husband, Heracles. 

The ancient Greek tragedian, Sophocles, was not only a playwright but also – like most Athenian citizens – a member of the military. Sophocles’ plays were publicly performed in Athens during the latter half of the 5th c. BCE, when internecine warfare was common. His first hand experiences with combat are reflected in his complex representations of ancient Greek military life for male citizen-soldiers, their loved ones left behind, and non-combatants. As Bryan Doerries (2016) and Jonathan Shay (1995, 2003) have illustrated, these issues transcend time and space; the trauma of combat and the (dis)placement of people affected by warfare are as prescient today as they were in antiquity. “The Sword, the Box, and the Bow: Ancient Greek Tragedy through a Modern Lens” was an end of semester public event organized by students in the Classics Department at Bishop’s University in Canada. Through staged readings of Sophocles’ Ajax, Philoctetes, and Women of Trachis and a discussion panel of academics (Psychology and Politics and International Studies) and non-academics (a former reservist in the Canadian military and a “New Canadian”), our aim was to raise awareness about the effect of trauma and warfare. Using this as a platform, students highlighted current issues related to warfare, as well as suicide, first responders, end-of-life care, euthanasia, and gendered experiences of trauma. Each performance was preceded by a short introduction by a student moderator that contextualized the passage within its play and explained the aims of the staged reading and its intersection with modernity. The event culminated in a discussion period between student participants, audience members, and panelists as a means to create a safe environment to initiate a conversation about the ways in which trauma affects communities in Canada and the world.

Session/Panel Title

Theatre of Displacement

Session/Paper Number

85.4

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