New Imagery for Ancient Greek Theatre:
Philioctetes, Pain and Male Hysteria

Dr. Rhona Justice-Malloy
Speech, Communication and Dramatic Arts
University of Central Michigan

The Philoctetes of Sophocles is a tragedy of deception, persuasion, and betrayal. Its themes are of loyalty and honor, duty to the gods and men. Young Neoptolemus must struggle with his desire for kleos (fame, reputation, being honored) and the realization of his physis (his nature). Odysseus is the consummate general, efficient, manipulative and devious. Philoctetes' conflict lies in his stubbornness and bitter pride. He is immovable before the logos (speech or suasion)of Neoptolemus, but finally must yield before the mythos of Heracles. All these men are soldiers. This is, in fact, a soldier's story.

Sophocles is an acute observer of the psychology of soldiers. I believe our appreciation of the tragedy is greatly enhanced when we come to the text with a knowledge of that psyychology. In this paper I will discuss first the concept of pain as it relates to tragedy and then I will discuss the relationship of the specific psychic pain of combat. I will end with the suggestion that a contemporary understanding of that pain may lead us to a reassessment of Philoctetes, the trauma of combat and the experience of pain itself.

Sophocles' Philoctetes (c. 409 bc.) demands our attention because it is so explicitly a tragedy of pain. Pain of course seems present almost by definition in tragic art, but Philoctetes is unique in that it takes pain as its explicit subject. In The Culture of Pain David Morris suggests:

Perhaps Sophocles' choice of subject helps to explain why today the play remains generally unread, unperformed, and all but unknown.Few ancient works seem more ripe for rediscovery in the postmodern era of chronic illness. Indeed, the action centers on a material fact that quickly assumes the dimensions of a major symbol Philoctetes throughout the play suffers from a visible, festering, deeply painful wound. (249)

Although this is not a wound received in combat it is a wound of combat, a soldier's wound, a soldier's pain. It is a drama about pain. 'Is there anything,' Descartes asked, 'more intimate or internal than pain?' To the modern mind, perhaps not. Physical pain is certainly a repeating theme and arguably a defining leitmotif of tragedy. If tragedy views suffering as intrinsically bound up with pain then what we call 'being' cannot be understood apart from the body. Physical pain by its very nature is corporeal. Often one can identify and observe a wound as the source of injury and evidence of pain. An injury of the mind, a psychological wound, must go through the process of being 'made flesh.' That is to say, from an empirical stance, physical pain is observable and the act of observation verifies its existence. Pain of the mind, tragic pain, must be realized in the body. This is precisely what Sophocles does in Philoctetes. My purpose in this paper is to make his pain more like our own, making the play more accessible to the modern performer and spectator, and to suggest that even so far removed from Sophocles' world, we do understand 'tragic' pain.

David Morris argues convincingly: 'The reason why doctors and writers and all of us should think about tragic pain is because, as a culture, (in the United States) we are rapidly losing an understanding of tragedy - which means that we are losing one important way of thinking about human life. It is easy today to regard tragedy as merely a vanished literary form: an oversized fossil, like epic' (255). As a culture we do not take kindly to the tragic vision.

'The real problem,' writes Morris, 'is not that tragedy has vanished or become impossible. It is worse than that. We no longer recognize tragedy when we encounter it...We sinply gaze with a numbed fascination at a meaningless set of actions we cannot comprehend -- then shift our attention elsewhere' (256). I take his point but in the wake of Oklahoma City, the killings of children in Scotland and so many other recent events of great violence, I must disagree. Pain, and tragedy, on occasion become the sites of encounter we can do nothing except witness in respect and silence. Silence does not always imply complacency.

I am not suggesting that Philoctetes means whatever I want it to mean. My goal is to promote a deeper understanding of both tragedy and Sophocles' mediation on pain, hopefully increasing the performer's and spectator's capacity to be disturbed by Philoctetes and reaching a deeper knowledge about the potential of ancient Greek drama to serve as an analog for our time. I offer a reassessment of the play and perhaps the meaning of tragedy itself in contemporary terms. In the extended mediation on human pain and suffering Sophocles presents in the character of Philoctetes, psychic pain is made corporeal in the form of male hysteria, once known as shell-shock, today known as combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A discovery emerging from new hysteria studies is that the diagnosis has been applied in many previous times and places, and in significant numbers, to men. What was once known as hysteria is a male malady too. We know that the disorder relates etymologically to the Greek word for uterus, hystera. In Graeco-Roman literature hysteria was directly linked to the workings of the female reproductive system. (Plato's Timaeus and certain Hippocratic texts.)

Beginning in the seventeenth century, with the change in the projected anatomical seat of the disease from the female reproductive organs to the brain, mind, or nervous system, a gender-neutral model of the disorder became a distinct theoretical possibility. (Charles Lepois, Physician to Henry II, 1618.)

The concept of male hysteria was well known by the end of the nineteenth-century when French alienists such as Briquet and Charcot abandoned the genital models of hysteria and realized that the disease could and did manifest itself in robust and vigorous men presenting all the attributes of the male sex and who had experienced traumas such as those of combat. Charcot developed a systematic pattern of phenomena that he called 'male hysteria' and centered much of his attention on the descriptive neurosymptomatology of the disorder. He described symptoms very similar to those from which Philoctetes suffers such as 'hysterical stigmata' or spontaneous bleeding, epileptiform agitation, periods of grands movements (including the famous arched back position), periods of passional attitudes (extreme emotions) and nervous withdrawal. Charcot also believed that the body surface of the hysteric revealed 'hysterogenic zones,' or points of sensory anesthesia and hyperesthesia, that upon compression could start or stop a hysterical seizure. Remember that Philoctetes cannot bear even the slightest touch of Neoptolemus while in the midst of a seizure.

Charcot worked to de-emotionalize and desexualize the diagnosis. After him, Freud and Breuer noted the symbolic correspondence between individual and hysterical symptoms and wartime experiences. By World War I the response to combat trauma was called shell-shock or war neurosis. It was thought to be brought on in soldiers who found themselves immobile for long periods of time and who witnessed enormous loss of life. Its symptoms involved paralysis, blindness, mutism and amnesia. French doctors acknowledged the similarities between shell shock and the nervous symptoms described by Charcot a generation earlier.

Perhaps (at least for those of us who live in the United States) the most impressive traumatic event in recent times is the Vietnam War. And in 1980 a new name for the combat disorder appeared--Post Traumatic Stress Disorder --PTSD.

Diagnostic criteria for PTSD dictate that the soldier experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of himself or others and that the soldier's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror. In the case of Philoctetes, the wound he carries is not a direct result of combat but he has experienced or fulfilled the criteria for PTSD.

In his stimulating book Achilles in Vietnam (Atheneum, 1 994) Jonathan Shay describes the symptoms of combat PTSD. For the most part these sound like a character description of Philoctetes himself. They are:

1. loss of authority over mental function--particularly memory and trustworthy perception.
2. persistent mobilization of the body and the mind for lethal danger, with the potential for explosive violence
3. persistence and activation of combat survival skills in civilian life
4. chronic health problems stemming from chronic mobilization of the body for danger
5. persistent expectation of betrayal and exploitation; destruction of the capacity for social trust
6. persistent preoccupation with both the enemy and the veteran's own military/ governmental authorizes
7. Alcohol and drug abuse
8. Suicidality, despair, isolation, and meaninglessness. (xx)

Many of these symptoms can clearly be seen in the character of Philoctetes and the action of the play. Shay makes another very interesting point about combat PTSD, its treatment and the Athenian theater. He writes:

The ancient Greeks had a distinctive therapy of purification, healing, and reintegration that was undertaken as a whole community. We know it as Athenian theater.... The distinctive character of Athenian theater came from the requirements of a democratic polity made up entirely of present or former soldiers to provide communalization for combat veterans. The Athenians communally reintegrated their returning warriors in recurring participation in rituals of the theatre. (229-30)

The key elements of Shay's arguments are: the notable military backgrounds of Aeschylus and Sophocles; the prominence of military matters in the processions and the ceremonies held before and between theatrical events. This is important because in the broadest sense, learning the paradoxical logic of war over-turns every themis or commonly accepted moral principle of 'what is right' The soldier returning to a democracy must find some way to restore themis. Shay writes, 'The combat soldier who has been through betrayal grief, guilt, and rage comes home a Fury' (229-30) Shay speculates that the Athenian theater was the community's principal means of the veteran's reception and reintegration into the social sphere as Citizen. Modern culture, particularly for Vietnam veterans, does not have such a reintegrating mechanism however, modern psychoanalytic therapy, the practice of reliving emotional trauma in order to relieve emotional suffering is called catharsis.

In 1995, Jonathan Shay, Sallie Goetsch of the University of Warwick and Kate Mendeloff of the University of Michigan-Flint decided to test Shay's theories about Athenian theatre, as well as PTSD. They chose to adapt the tragedy as Philoctetes in Vietnam. Sallie as translator rendered Sophocles's text into appropriate American idioms and set the action in Vietnam during the war hoping that parallels with actual Vietnam veteran's experience would emerge. Though a 'work in progress' the production was quite successful and is even now being refined for another production.

Ironically, Sallie chose to leave the Greek in tact during Philoctetes' attacks of pain, since she felt there was no good English equivalent for apappapai, papa papa papa papai. These sounds themselves carry such agony. This is the sound of a wound. Despite Sallie's protests, in the Michigan production the Greek cries Of pain were replaced by Philoctetes shouting 'Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.' I questioned her about this and she wrote to me, 'Greek has an extraordinary range of pain-sounds. They have not so much meaning as overtones. Pappapai is more for physical pain than, say, otototoi, which is grief. They are nicely metrical and purely visceral and there are no English equivalents (English is a language in which sincere emotion is only conveyed by inarticulateness, which is its great failing).' She ended her letter with 'hope this helps' - and it did - sort of. English may not have the capacity to articulate pain as elegantly as other languages but our writers perhaps do.

I will conclude with a brief quote from the American novelist and playwright Joyce Carol Oates. Ironically, she very eloquently expresses the inarticulate nature of pain. She writes:

When you are in pain the pain is in you for the pain is
you... .When you are in pain the pain is in you and in the
space you inhabit which is the room or the world or all you
recall of either. When you are in pain you have nothing to
fear of vanity or sin or oversubtlety or hyperesthesia or
hypocrisy. When you are in pain and the pain is in you you
are without language and no one can pursue you into that
country for you are the pain and no one remains and even
the curvature of the earth and the slow dreamlike floating
fall of the moon through the sky and the myriad
constellations of the great sky have disappeared. (Where is
Here? 181-2)

Tragedy takes as it's function to show us what it is to live in a universe of inexplicable suffering: like Philoctetes to endure the unendurable. This Sophocles understood, and there is much we can learn from his understanding.

Works Cited

Barlow, David H. and V. Mark Durand. Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach. New York: Brooks/Cole, 1995

Micale, Mark 5. Approaching Hysteria: Disease and Its Interpretations. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995

Morris, David. The Culture of Pain. Berkeley: U of C Press, 1991

Oates, Joyce Carol. Where is Here?. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1992

Shay, Jonathan, M.D., Ph. D., Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. New York: Scribner, 1994