Dramaturgy with Three Men on an Island

Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow:

“The Philoctetes of Sophocles is far from being his most popular play. The myth itself has not been one of those which have excited the modern imagination. The idea of Philoctetes’ long illness and his banishment to the bleak island is dreary or distasteful to the young, who like to identify themselves with men of action with Heracles or Perseus or Achilles; and for adults the story told by Sophocles fails to set off such emotional charges as arc liberated by the crimes of the Atreidai and the tragedies of the siege of Troy. Whatever may have been dashing in the legend has been lost with the other plays and poems that dealt with it. Philoctetes is hardly mentioned in Homer; and we have only an incomplete account of the plays by Aeschylus and Euripides, which hinged on a critical moment of the campaign of the Greeks at Troy and which seem to have exploited the emotions of Greek patriotism. We have only a few scattered lines and phrases from that other play by Sophocles on the subject, the Philoctetes at Troy, in which the humiliated hero was presumably to be cured of his ulcer and to proceed to his victory over Paris.

There survives only this one curious drama which presents Philoctetes in exile a drama which does not supply us at all with what we ordinarily expect of Greek tragedy, since it culminates in no catastrophe, and which indeed resembles rather our modern idea of a comedy (though the record of the lost plays of Sophocles show that there must have been others like it). Its interest depends almost as much on the latent interplay of character, on a gradual psychological conflict, as that of Le Misanthrope. And it assigns itself, also, to a category even more special and less generally appealing through the fact (though this, again, was a feature not uncommon with Sophocles) that the conflict is not even allowed to take place between a man and a woman. Nor does it even put before us the spectacle which may be made exceedingly thrilling of the individual in conflict with his social group, which we get in such plays devoid of feminine interest as Coriolanus and An Enemy of the People. Nor is the conflict even a dual one, as most dramatic conflicts arc so that our emotions seesaw up and down between two opposed persons or groups: though Philoctetes and Odysseus struggle for the loyalty of Neoptolemus, he himself emerges more and more distinctly as representing an independent point of view, so that the contrast becomes a triple affair which makes more complicated demands on our sympathies.

A French dramatist of the seventeenth century, Chateaubrun, found the subject so inconceivable that, in trying to concoct an adaptation which would be acceptable to the taste of his time, he provided Philoctetes with a daughter named Sophie with whom Neoptolemus was to fall in love and thus bring the drama back to the reliable and eternal formula of Romeo and Juliet and the organizer who loves the factory- owner’s daughter. And if we look for the imprint of the play on literature since the Renaissance, we shall find a very meager record: a chapter of Fenelon’s Télémaque, a discussion in Lessing’s Laocoon, a sonnet of Wordsworth’s, a little play by Andre Gide, an adaptation by John Jay Chapman this is all, so far as I know, that has any claim to interest.

And yet the play itself is most interesting, as some of these writers have felt; and it is certainly one of Sophocles’ masterpieces. If we come upon it in the course of reading him, without having heard it praised, we arc surprised to be so charmed, so moved to find ourselves in the presence of something that is so much less crude in its subtlety than either a three-cornered modern comedy like Candida or La Parisienne or an underplayed affair of male loyalty in a story by Ernest Hemingway, to both of which it has some similarity. It is as if having the three men on the lonely island has enabled the highly sophisticated Sophocles to get further away from the framework of the old myths on which he has to depend and whose barbarities, anomalies and absurdities, tactfully and realistically though he handles them, seem sometimes almost as much out of place as they would in a dialogue by Plato. The people of the Philoctetes seem to us more familiar than they do in most of the other Greek tragedies; and they take on for us a more intimate meaning. Philoctetes remains in our mind, and his incurable wound and his invincible bow recur to us with a special insistence. But what is it they mean? How is it possible for Sophocles to make us accept them so naturally? Why do we enter with scarcely a stumble into the situation of people who are preoccupied with a snake-bite that lasts forever and a weapon that cannot fail?”

Ulysses and Neoptolemus Taking Hercules’ Arrows from Philoctetes (François-Xavier Fabre, 1800 Oil on Canvas)

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