This page comprises (1) YouTube audio of the 2004 lecture “Sophocles as Educator” (2) a selection of videos of the translator reading from the text in 2010, (3) photos and reviews from the 2011 theatrical production of Oedipus the Tyrant, and (4) an excerpt from the book’s Introduction.
11-1-2004 New York Institute for the Humanities Lecture:“SOPHOCLES AS EDUCATOR” (audio)
Selected videos from a podium reading (not the theatrical production) of “Three Theban Plays,” recorded at the Pondwater Arts Society in Covina, CA in 2010:
Production and Reviews
PRESS from the February – March 2011 production of Jamey Hecht’s translation of SOPHOCLES’ OEDIPUS the TYRANT:
“Jamey Hecht’s new translation of Oedipus the King just opened at North Hollywood’s Sherry Theatre in a lucid, traditional rendition called Oedipus the Tyrant, presented by the Porters of Hellgate and directed by Thomas Bigley… The strongest aspect, which should please translator Hecht no end, is the commanding articulation of the poetical prose.” –Steven Leigh Morris, LA Weekly
“Dr. Jamey Hecht’s new translation of Sophocles’ ancient tragedy expertly navigates Oedipus’ downward spiral… Hecht found such humanity and nuance in the words, the ancient text felt incredibly modern and relatable. There was a beautiful care and crafting to each moment of his characters that elevated these smaller roles into some of the most memorable of the production. Hecht’s performance was of a quality and detail that I rarely see on stage and so feel truly lucky every time I am witness to such a performance.” –Erin Daley, LA Theater Review
“Mr. Pasternak’s Oedipus is a complex mix of swagger and vulnerability from the outset. He manages to perfectly balance tenacity and determination with anxiety and doubt as he navigates his own undoing. Mr. Hecht turns in one of his best performances to date as he goes toe to toe with Oedipus as the seer Teiresias.”
–Susan Burns, Melpomene Blogs Back
“Hecht’s translation filled with double meanings will keep you entranced until the very end.” –Debbie Kagy, Tolucan Times
EXCERPT from the Introduction:
Greek tragedy is a kind of scripture that teaches us by showing, not telling, what we need to know. I call it a scripture because it is a religious discourse about human beings and their relationships to the divine realm of abundance and to the material world of scarcity. But it is also drama, a scripted matrix of interpersonal words and actions, as human and social as any conversation in the audience.
Like all drama, tragedy is about individuals, but it also speaks to public life – Thebes and Athens and Corinth are not just crowded places but living societies with their own crises, wounds, and needs. Oedipus himself is a gifted man, endowed with an intellectual power that exposes him to special dangers. But he is also the Everyman that Freud made him. Though most people are spared the crimes of patricide and incest, and though psychoanalysis may have been wrong to posit a repressed yearning for them in every heart, it remains permanently true that nobody is in complete control of his own destiny. Just as we, the audience, can read the very script which the characters must live out, so the Gods can read the fates which we must live out. Tragedy puts us (for once!) in the divine position of the invulnerable spectator, free to experience a safe terror as we identify with the endangered hero; free to feel a guarded pity for him insofar as we enjoy our blessed distance from his ruin.
It was Nietzsche who found life in this world so unjust and horrific that it “could only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon.” For him, Greek tragedy showed how the most grievous dilemmas and disasters have a wild beauty which only suffering reveals. There is a dangerous truth to this Nietzschean idea, because a misreading might allow interested opportunists to claim that all pain can be regarded as tragically beautiful, including whatever they or their leaders may choose to inflict. But tragedy is a picture of human suffering whose meaning inheres in its absolute inevitability; nothing could be more different from the sadist’s license to deliberate cruelty. Apollo destroys Oedipus: not the Sphinx, not Creon, not some invading army. In Homeric epic, Apollo physically strikes Patroclus between the shoulder blades, and soon the man dies in battle. In Sophoclean tragedy, the God wields the man’s own nature as the instrument of his destruction. Teiresias warns “Apollo is enough,” and in his eventual agony Oedipus combines this with his own responsibility:
O you who have done terrible things,
How did you endure the breaking of your eyes?
Which of the Gods had set you on?
It was Apollo! Apollo, O my friends —
That brought my wicked sufferings to pass;
But no one struck my eyes
But I myself in desperation.
The God creates the conditions for the crimes which the man commits; then the man, by way of his noble character, punishes himself. This passage is special because it repeats Homeric motifs – the question “which of the Gods,” followed by the answer “Apollo,” comes from the opening of the Iliad, and the image of a blinded man who attributes his mutilation to “No one” comes from the Cyclops episode in the Odyssey. But the ethical structure is distinctly Sophoclean. In Antigone, the tyrant Creon issues an edict that criminalizes pious acts which the heroine then performs, through her noble character; she opts for the punishment when she commits the crime, and makes no effort to avoid capture. Near the end, she tells Ismene that “I chose to die”; but a little later she says Hades is leading her to the banks of the river Acheron, then says that Creon is leading her captive. The God, the self, and the other are brought into a special, disastrous kind of contact that irreversibly changes the people without changing the God at all.
In Oedipus the Tyrant, we’re told of Laius that “fate drove down into his power,” but we also hear Oedipus describe the stick-fight that killed the man. In Antigone, the ruined Creon says “the God struck down into my head.” But in the same speech he takes the personal and human responsibility we recognize from the protagonists of the other plays: “The blame of it can never move / And be affixed to some man’s guilt, away from mine! / It was I…” It is crucial that the person at the center of the story be disposed to tragic suffering by his or her nature. What is irresistible is not simply the might of the God, nor the epistemic traps of logical entailment that comprise the plot; it is the performed fact of the person’s life as he or she lives it. The truth here disappears if we hide it in the word “character”; nobility is not some constraint that forces Oedipus to wound himself, Antigone to break a bad law, Creon to keep his word at all costs. Nor is it a magical property resting on a shelf in the mind until the circumstances warrant its use. It is an ethically strong moment that becomes aesthetically compelling when viewed from the safety of the amphitheater or the library. Tragic decisions are made at the peril of one’s own moral life. The willingness to endure meaningful suffering – no matter how futile – is the only route to the salvation (literally, “saving”) of that moral life without which meaning is impossible.
Whatever we mean by “ancient Greek religion,” it wasn’t organized around a written text or a central holy site. Neither a private devotional practice nor a doctrinal enterprise with expansive, world-dominating ambitions, it was a wide range of local and pan-Hellenic cults, articulated in a common stock of stories (myths) and a diverse array of sacrificial rites, divinatory procedures, prayers, and social-economic pieties. Terms like “Hinduism,” “Sufism,” and “Shinto” share this quality of necessary convenience at the expense of explanatory rigor; each is just a point of departure for a more demanding survey of the cultural plethora it denotes. While historical evolution tends to codify and homogenize every cultural formation, the formative period generally bristles with variation, syncretism, and a fertile cross-pollination that makes the beginnings more difficult for historians to extrapolate.
Theater emerges in the Western world in the mid-sixth century B.C.E, when Athenian religion undergoes one of its many transformations. Although the origins of drama have fascinated scholars for centuries, our understanding of this mystery is likely to remain permanently incomplete. The starting point is a God, Dionysus, whose worship was long thought to have come into Greece from outside, somewhere in the Eastern regions that are now Syria and Turkey, perhaps by way of Thrace. While this God has special relevance to several different domains of Greek cultural life, Dionysus is most fundamentally the God of wine. He may have gained a reputation for Eastern origins because of the wine trade from Phoenicia to Greece (“Phoenikos” is a color word that means anything from red to purple – the colors of grapes and of the various dyes for which that region was famous).
This tradition of a non-Greek origin for Dionysus has recently been complicated by the discovery of what seems to be a very ancient Greek form of his name inscribed on two tablets from the Mycenean period, one from Pylos and one from Khania on the island of Crete. Greek culture begins around 1650 B.C.E. with the permanent Mycenean domination of that island, followed by the successful military expedition against Troy that probably took place around 1185 and which Homer immortalized in the Iliad. Our knowledge of the Myceneans rests largely on the happy fact that they left a record of the economic basis of their civilization. While that record is mostly limited to the non-literary archives of the great palaces that dominated Mycenean society, it does contain small traces of the larger cultural picture, including the names of the most ancient Greek divinities like Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and Athena. Still, as Robert Drews has argued, the Greeks are themselves a people or peoples who migrated into the Aegean region as part of the Indo-European expansion during the second millennium B.C.E. So the pantheon can be rather crudely described as a combination of two classes: Gods who were common to the entire Indo-European family that spread over a vast area, to Ireland in the west and India in the east; and local, pre-Indo-European Gods who were picked up by proto-Greek migrants en route to the Aegean and during the process of eventual settlement. Neither of these fits with the idea of uniquely Greek origins for Dionysus nor for any other God.
But there’s another sense in which Dionysus can be thought of as a stranger to the human world. Whereas other Gods sometimes bring safety and assistance – as when Hermes gives Odysseus the antidote for Circe’s destructive magic, or Ino brings him a veil that magically prevents drowning – Dionysus has a chaotic, boundary-breaking influence. He’s the God of everything that threatens rational conscious choice: wine, religious ecstasy, orgiastic violence (other than war, of which Ares and Athena are the sponsors), orgiastic sex (other than the emotional attachments governed by Aphrodite and Eros), and the strange form of possession that constitutes theater. His alternate name is Bacchus, and the Baccheia were a wilder form of his cult, fully available only to women: every other year, bands of female worshippers left the sane, rational, male precincts of human society and entered the savage, ecstatic, female and borderless realm of mountains and wilderness in a shared Dionysiac trance that made them Mainades, “madwomen.” The more civic forms of piety toward Dionysus were regulated in various seasonal festivals: the Oschophoria, a celebration of wine and vintnery with a procession that carried grapevines; the Anthesteria, a flower festival involving drink from various sacred vessels as well as singing and story; and the two dramatic festivals, the Leneia and the Greater Dionysia. Worship of Dionysus seems to have involved countless forms of movement between categories, the stable borders of which are civilization’s most basic achievement: the female and the male gender roles, the demos (common “people”) and the aristocracy, the urban and the natural, the raw and the cooked. Building on the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, structuralist interpreters of Greek tragedy such as Charles Segal have explored the way Sophocles contains the explosive energies liberated by this aspect of the Athenian psyche.
From various sources including Aristotle, it appears that the Dionysia began as a ritual dance performed by a chorus of fifty men moving in a circle; they spoke or sang a kind of poetry called dithyramb, probably in unison, punctuated by the speech or song of a single chorus leader. In 534 B.C.E., an historically real individual named Thespis invented drama by stepping out of the chorus – without ending or leaving its activity – and engaging it in dialogue. It was presumably this advent of dialogue that turned ritual into theater, and not the mere addition of a new, separate stream of discourse beside the chorus. In talking to the chorus leader and his followers while remaining inside the symbolic frame of Dionysian sacred space, Thespis became an actor. Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized this continuity between the pre-thespian and the tragic phases of civic Dionysiac practice. He claimed that even before the supposed dialogic event of 534, dithyramb already involved the same kind of possession we associate with an actor possessed by a character: for Nietzsche, the fully entranced chorus leader entered the role of Dionysus.
Through the agency of an enlightened despot named Peisistratos, Thespis’ innovation brought about a regular, annual competition in the dramatic art. Each year, three chosen poets submitted four works each – three tragedies and a “satyr play,” a brief comedy featuring lustful, drunken beast-men. A public official selected the competitors from a larger pool of applicants in an audition process held months in advance, and appointed a prosperous citizen to pay the costs of hiring and organizing the chorus. We’re accustomed to a form of theater in which producers hope for a financial return on their investment, and audience members pay to be entertained on an evening of their own choosing. The ancient theater was completely different in this regard. Just as the hero is both an individual and a figure for the whole society and ultimately for mankind in general, so the audience member is an individual social person who is also much more than that. Whatever the level of religiosity remaining to it in the fifth century, the festival of Dionysus was a profoundly civic occasion; it connected Athenians to one another and situated their political community in the cosmos at large. All male citizens (and probably their wives as well, though this remains controversial) came to the performance, and the society was just small enough that the enormous outdoor amphitheater seems to have been adequate for the purpose – in his Symposium, Plato estimates an audience at thirty-thousand. Christian Meier has described the problem-solving dimension of tragic drama, in which Athens grappled with otherwise intractable dilemmas of public affairs. In the Freudian tradition (unscientific, but always interesting), it makes sense to compare this political aspect of tragedy with the role of dreams in the psychic economy of each man or woman. What Freud called “the dream-work” is a confrontation of issues for which the conscious, waking mind is ill-equipped. On this analogy, the person’s rational mind corresponds to the rational debate pursued in the Ecclesia (“public assembly”), while the tragic consciousness does something like the dream-work of the culture that produces it. Christopher Gill and C. Fred Alford are among the scholars who make fruitful use of the psychoanalytic legacy in divergent ways.