Dancing with Philoctetes: Reflections on Pain and Remembrance
My adaptation of Philoctetes was performed in Leipzig in early March, 2020, as COVID19 was shaping up to be incontestably catastrophic and just before Germany implemented drastic measures to contain the pandemic. Soon after the premiere, we realized we would not be able to complete our scheduled run. But even more obvious now was how pertinent the play suddenly was in view of the global health crisis. Philoctetes, so explicitly about empathy and pain, offered itself up as a litmus test for Sophocles’ relevance, for the value of theater tout court. The pandemic forced those of us with the privilege of health and security into a state of avid, almost grateful, self-reckoning. And what could be more of-the-moment than Sophocles’ picture, through Philoctetes, of the undeniable ethical demand of empathy? Philoctetes shows us how physical suffering warps the soul and can only be bearable through the recognition of others. And yet, it is barely bearable—and sometimes, nevertheless, unbearable. Philoctetes’ is the ultimate plea to be-with despite all the reasons not to, and despite being-with not being enough.
As a huge Philoctetes-shaped void opened up in my life where rehearsals and make-up tryouts and fittings and sound-checks and people, so many people, so many people I could hug, so many faces I could kiss, used to be but were now banned —I found myself sitting in the dark on the floor of my kids’ bedroom, waiting for them to fall asleep, stunned, exhausted, grieving. Willing myself to believe that there is, must be, a lesson in all this. Sophocles is your teacher, I tell myself, his characters are, well, not quite your friends, but they’ve been through a lot with you. You are used to thinking things through with them. Wait a while. Listen. Write about it. Go back to Sophocles and you will get an answer. You will feel it in your body.
But an answer failed to materialize.
Now, more than a year later, I have a self-imposed deadline to finish this book which is, purportedly at least, about Philoctetes. I am, again, starting from Philoctetes. Coming back to the memories, the smells, the retellings, the made-up self- narratives. The visceral experiences.
Coming back to the literal deadline.
This book includes my original version of Philoctetes, adapted from the Greek of Sophocles, and an essay about loss and grief, pain and memory, dancing and not-dancing.
It is currently under review by Tangent.