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The Ajax Project: An Interactive Exploration an est/la & warrior bards project

An Introduction

What is the Ajax project?

AJAX – An Interactive Exploration is a new kind of theatre, re-imagined for the age of coronavirus, and geared toward using the arts as part of a process of healing. A collaboration of EST/LA and the Warrior Bards, this project offers an internet audience the various tools and ideas needed to explore Sophocles’ classical play AJAX in a number of ways. There are videos of excerpts of the play performed by U.S. military veterans available to view as well as proposed designs that visitors to this site can use to flesh out what the play might look like if it were presented live. Accompanying the performance segments and the design elements are commentary from veterans on what the text means to them as well as comments from designers on why they made specific artistic choices—and how this might be put together in a stage performance. Finally, there are resources available for anyone who desires to know more about the themes of AJAX, including the trials of homecoming and re-entering the larger community, transitioning from war to peacetime, PTSD, and the shift in identity from hero to civilian.

What is EST/LA?

Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA (EST/LA) is a theatre company whose mission is to enable and empower our membership of theater artists to develop their unique, artistic voices and create new American plays that reflect and positively affect the greater community around us. In addition to productions, EST/LA presents several festivals throughout the year that reach out to engage specific members of our overall community.

What is Warrior Bards?

Warrior Bards is a project for veterans that is funded by the Arts in Action initiative at the University of Southern California. Using ancient Greek tragedies as a jumping off point, the program offers veterans an opportunity to study the classical texts and use them as a way to explore their own experiences of war and homecoming.

An overview with William "Greg" Thalmann, Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature, University of Southern California

Sophocles and the History of the Play

Sophocles (c. 496 BCE to 405 BCE) was one of the most celebrated Greek dramatists of his day, a frequent winner of the annual theatrical competitions held in Athens as celebrations of the god Dionysus. At the time, Greece had a citizen army, with mandatory military service for men, and these festivals were most likely attended by an all-male audience; therefore the plays were performed for soldiers and veterans of the ongoing wars that engaged the Greeks for over 100 years. Born into a wealthy family, Sophocles himself was a warrior and became a general around 441 BCE, serving in the military campaign against Samos. Of the 120+ plays he has known to have written, only seven survive in their entirety, with the most well-known of his work being ANTIGONE and the trilogy featuring Oedipus. Frequent themes in Sophocles plays take on the rightful actions of citizens, divine law versus civilian law, and war and the aftermath of war—and the difficulties of integrating back into society having been a hero.

AJAX, the Play

When Achilles, the great Greek hero, is killed in the Trojan War, his armor is to be presented to another soldier. Ajax, as the greatest of all warriors, expects that the armor will be awarded to him. But the top brass give Achilles’ sword and shield to Odysseus instead. Ajax, deeply wounded by this slight, plots revenge against the other Greeks, but Athena intervenes to protect Odysseus, her favorite. She causes Ajax to fall into a hallucinatory state where he believes that a flock of cattle and sheep—the Greeks’ spoils from victory over the Trojans—is in fact the Greek army. He brutally slaughters half of the animals and brings the rest of them back to his encampment where he intends to slowly torture them and kill them in vengeance. As Ajax comes out of his deluded state and starts to realize what he has done, his wife Tecmessa fears that he will harm himself or someone else out of desperation. How will he survive the humiliation of going from celebrated war hero to the murderer of sheep? As Ajax comes to terms with what he has done, he plots to kill himself—for there is no other honorable choice as far as he is concerned. The play deals with justice and injustice, the ideas of heroism, and calls to mind PTSD and the mental difficulties of returning from battle into a community that may not appreciate the sacrifices that have been made.

The Hero’s Homecoming

Over and over in the Greek tragedies, the dramatists attempt to come to terms with the impossibility of returning from combat intact. How does a human being go from the rules of war to the policies of peace time? How is killing in one situation viewed as an act of bravery when in another setting it is simply brutal murder? How does a person who has experienced war begin to explain their experience to those who have not? How does a person behave heroically—and what happens when honor is lost? What damage does combat cause to the human spirit? These themes from the ancient plays resonate with veterans and their families and communities today. AJAX – AN INTERACTIVE EXPLORATION is an attempt to use the literature of the past to enlighten the community of the present.

THE EFFECTS OF WAR

To explore the rest of The Ajax Project, including performances of scenes by our veterans, history of the play, production designs, and more, please return to the top of this page.

To stay up to date on all of our projects and programming, and to make a donation to support our work, please visit our website: estlosangeles.org

Credits:

Created with images by jim gade - "untitled image" • Anastasia Taioglou - "Sunrise in Greece"