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X-Rated Sophocles: Alice Tuan’s Ajax (por nobody)

From: Helios
Volume 38, Number 2, Fall 2011
pp. 181-191 | 10.1353/hel.2011.0010

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Alice Tuan’s fantasia on Sophoclean themes—Ajax (por nobody)—falls within that category of modern receptions that seem, at first glance, less ‘inspired’ by ancient tragedy than dedicated to tragedy’s demolition. Like Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love, Tuan’s Ajax takes an already challenging genre and exaggerates its characteristic components—assault, mutilation, transgression—to the point of theatrical collapse.1 Though incorporating gay and lesbian themes, Ajax is not, strictly speaking, a gay or lesbian appropriation, but positively queer; by queer, I mean art that “powerfully problematize[s] a wide range of socially constructed and arbitrary regimes of the ‘normal’ and the ‘natural.’”2 As we shall see, queerness is not a substitute for amorality—one can have both a queer and a highly moralistic reading of a text—but it shunts aside the duality of hetero/homosexuality in search of other, competing discourses of sexuality (including discourses informed by ethnicity, power, race, and class). As it happens, a ‘queered’ classical text can comment perceptively and even breathtakingly on modern sexual mores and hypocrisy, and Tuan’s particularly radical transformation of a canonical Greek tragedy does just that.

A 2004 production of Tuan’s Ajax in Austin, Texas, provoked an immediate and vociferous critical response. One review read, in part:

[Ajax is] a sick & twisted work of brilliance . . . In a perverse and utterly bleak sort of way . . . it’s as funny as hell. Listen: Somewhere out there, in the vast world of art, there lurks a vile plague known to mortals as Thomas Kinkade. This is its antidote.3

It is striking that a play adapted from Sophocles could be interpreted as an antidote (in Greek, a pharmakon) to another artist, in this case a devoutly Christian artist specializing in scenes of natural and family harmony. What sort of play was this? The production in question—as presented by Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Company—was, unusually, ‘just’ a staged reading and the reason for such a curious presentation soon made itself clear. Ajax features so many acts of sodomy—involving so many implements and so much bloodshed—that it is in fact legally, ethically, and (one hopes) physically impossible to perform as written. And in that profound impossibility inheres a radical queerness, as an evening of ‘fun’ involving four porn stars and swingers devolves into a Sophocles-inflected rumination on the nature of sexuality, taboo, and fame in American Los Angeles. Tuan’s clever use of classical allusions and stage techniques grounds the play in the most ancient of performance traditions even as it pushes the boundaries of contemporary sensibilities concerning sexuality and orientation.

As an artist, Tuan has navigated the often tricky transition from a graduate program—under the mentorship of Paula Vogel at Brown—to a professional playwriting career and head of the “writing for performance” program at CalArts in Los Angeles;4 her plays have been produced domestically and internationally, including productions at Berkeley Rep, the Melbourne Fringe, and the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky. Though much of her writing concerns the Asian-American experience, Tuan’s Ajax seems rather to investigate what might be called the pornographic American experience. Indeed, Ajax is unlikely to be fodder for community theaters any time soon; it is so transgressive—in all senses—that it can really only be played as a piece for voices, with an actor reading the stage directions as a type of narration.5 For instance, a sample stage direction from early in the play: “[Jesse] opens [Alma’s] towel, licking a line down her spine. His tongue follows her buttock crack down to the inside. He eats” (58). Or, in a similar vein: “Offstage, Alma sodomizes Jesse with the gun” (82). In Salvage Vanguard’s production in Austin, the actress playing the narrator, Lee Eddy, stole nearly every scene: the stage directions were so over-the-top and so uncomfortably graphic that the response was (usually) awkward laughter from the audience. The presence of the narrator also helped, on a broader interpretive level, to complete the inversion of ordinary tragic conventions: while Greek tragedy often narrates—such as during a messenger speech—such narration...

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