Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
An old question asks: If you could invite five historical figures to dinner (and could speak their language), which five would you pick?
My answers change all the time. The Greek tragedian, Sophocles, remains on or near my short-list.
He was born at Colonus, a village just north of Athens, around 496 BCE. He died 90 years later a "hero" - not for his writing or service to Athens. He built an altar for Asclepius, a healing deity who, many believed, helped ward off a plague. This kindness made Sophocles a Dexion, a hero to be worshipped for protecting Greek soil.
In Oedipus at Colonus, the most cursed man in Greek tragedy achieves similar status. Bernard Knox: "though he does not become a god, [Oedipus] becomes one who is no longer human, one who belongs to the realm of those unseen powers that preside in mysterious ways over the destinies of men and nations."
Sophocles served Athens as a treasurer, as a general in the campaign against Samos, and as a commissioner.
He wrote over 100 plays. Only seven have survived, including Antigone, Oedipus Rex (staged at MiraCosta College, November 9-19), and Oedipus at Colonus (Lee Breuer's acclaimed reimagination, Gospel at Colonus plays the the Educational Cultural Complex, October 19 through November 4). In 30 competitions, 24 of his plays won the laurel. The other six finished second.
He called his plays "the painful ingenuity of my invention." No one considered him a writer in the modern sense. He won competitions for being "The Teacher" - a holistic accolade: he was a maker of the entire event: script, rehearsal, music, and guiding a production through to completion.
But that's not why I'd invite him to dinner. His characters act as if they carry the Acropolis of Athens on their backs. They exist in an inimaginably stern universe, ruled by irrational forces, and become sucked into their destinies as if dive-bombing into a black hole.
Yet, after his death, tributes praised him beyond the skies for his many achievements and for his temperament.
Phrynichus, a comic poet: "Blessed is Sophocles, a happy and fortunate man, who died after a long life...he came to a beautiful end and lived to see no evil day."
Whoa! Whoa! He wrote about extreme human suffering - and what? Never had a bad day?
Okay, there's a legend (that many poo-poo): one of his sons took old Sophocles to court claiming his father had become too mentally incompetent to handle his affairs. Sophocles rose and read from a play he just finished, Oedipus at Colonus and convinced the court he was still at the top of his game - at age 90!
Aristotle quotes a fragment from one of Sophocles' lost plays, says it sums up his outlook: "It is fairest to live justly, and most profitable to live healthy, but the sweetest is to have a bit of love each day."
Very nice. But then in the Republic Plato says Sophocles only became happy when he escaped "that wild taskmaster, love."
Mr. Sophocles? Welcome. Pull up a chair [snaps fingers at a horde of officious servants: "some wine for our distinguished guest"].
Say, Mr. S., could we talk about happiness?
More like this:
- Gods don't take sides — Nov. 17, 2014
- The Chorus and Choreography Rule in Oedipus Rex at MiraCosta College — Nov. 12, 2012
- Through Pity and Terror — Oct. 24, 2012
- Lost Pain — Feb. 27, 2008
- Dimitrios Kyranas in Athens, Greece — May 3, 2007