Larry Gums: Translating Sophocles (Part II)

Carthage’s first mainstage production of the season was Sophocles’ Ajax. Yet, for being a play written in the fifth century, the dialogue may seem a bit out of place. This is because of an original, modern translation of the text done by Carthage alumni Melody Abbott and current student, Lawrence (Larry) Gums. The two set out to translate Ajax together as advocates for mental health and trauma victims (as well as speakers of Ancient Greek). Both Melody and Larry were kind enough to sit down with us at HC Carthage and answer some of our questions about their experiences. To read what Melody had to say, click here.

Trigger warning: This article, and sections it may link to, contains information about PTSD, depression and suicide that may be upsetting to some readers. 

HC: Why did you decide to undertake this project?

LG: From the 8 years of my military service, I’ve become too familiar with suicide and the “22 a Day” statistic. I’ve bared witness to soldiers taking their life both overseas and here at home. Stories are told of this epidemic throughout both the veteran community and our society as a whole - “I knew someone who,” or “I lost a friend who” is mentioned very commonly within our ranks. In an attempt to help the situation, the Department of Defense has invested money and resources to educate soldiers on how to cope with their symptoms, or how to reach out to a mental health provider if symptoms of depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts do occur.

These approaches haven’t worked, however, and it has become my belief that in order to address the issue of veteran suicide we needed to lift the stigma of coming forward, and remove the feeling of isolation and alienation that an individual might feel speaking to either a friend or a mental health provider. I, with the help of Carthage graduate Melody Abbott, decided to translate our own version of Sophocles’ Ajax in order to adapt it and bring it to the stage so that we could create a space to open up about trauma, experience, and pain without worry of repercussion or alienation.

HC: You collaborated on this with another student, Melody Abbott; why did you two decide to team up and what was it like working as a team together?

LG: On an archeological dig in Israel, Melody and I became friends. We knew each other from working on the theatre show Afghanistan/Wisconsin, but we never really spoke prior to studying abroad together. She saw some of the books I was reading - Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam and Bryan Doerries' Theatre of War - and became interested in the project. I remember offering Theatre of War to her, and a few days later approached me emotionally charged after reading a section about how Sophocles’ Ajax can be used as a device for soldiers to open up about suicide. We had an intimate conversation about the topic for a few hours and it was easy to tell that she needed this project in the same way that I did, and we decided to collaborate and undergo this process as a team.

It became very personal for both of us. We both had our own reasons for addressing the topic and that came with a lot of trust from both our parts. Melody would tell me about herself and her struggles while I would open up about topics with her that are normally saved for my “bad days.” Sections of the translation would go untouched for the fear of becoming triggered by the subjects contained within them for months before we would decide it was time. Melody would blaze through the Ancient Greek and create a translation that was formidable unless you understood high speech and poetry from the era of Shakespeare, and I would have to come in and remind her that people no longer speak that way and we needed something more colloquial in order for our audience to appreciate the message. At the end of the day, we made a great team, and it was an astounding experience.

HC: How did you and Melody decide on Ajax?

LG: In the summer of 2016, a young soldier in my unit walked out into a park, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Enough was enough. Speaking with some of my professors at Carthage, we thought we might be able to address aspects of PTSD and suicide through Ancient Greek tragedy and theatre. Ajax was chosen as a superb representation of a soldier who 2,500 years ago, experienced the same trauma that soldiers returning home face today. Written by Sophocles, Ajax follows a combat veteran from the Trojan War who, feeling betrayed and condemned by his own generals, seeks revenge against the Greek army after being denied honor, glory and the ability to heal.

Ajax was known as “The Shield” for always running into the fiercest enemy territories in order to protect the other Greek armies from the Trojan soldiers. On several occasions Ajax directly saved the lives of the other Greek commanders, along with both Greek generals, turning the tides of battle from loss to victory, always holding the line. Ajax earned the epithet “Ajax, strongest of the Greeks next to Achilles” for his raw strength, power, and unwavering commitment to honor and morality.

In the ninth year of the Trojan War, Achilles was killed fighting within the walls of Troy. Ajax, his good friend and cousin, recovered Achilles’ body and fought through the countless Trojans in order to ensure he was not desecrated and could be given a proper funeral. During Achilles’ funeral games the Greek generals, Agamemnon and Menelaus, claimed that whoever was the overall victor in the various competitions would be awarded the prize of Achilles’s golden armor, crafted by Hephaestus himself; the ultimate symbol of glory and recognition for accomplishments on the battlefield. Ajax won all physical competitions by a landslide, showing that he undoubtedly should be awarded the armor. However, there was one final competition, a speech, in which Ajax, who was never a talker, stood up and proclaimed, “I am Ajax.”

Thinking this was enough for the crowd and his Greek generals, Ajax stoically walked off stage and considered himself the victor. Next was wily Odysseus who, with the help of the goddess Athena, moved the audience to tears speaking about his love and admiration for Achilles, giving the audience the ability to grieve. Odysseus was proclaimed the victor, and Ajax was devastated. Feeling betrayed and angered, Ajax decided the only way to prove that he was truly the greatest of them all was to attack the generals in the night and kill them for their betrayal. Athena, however, showed up and cast a spell of madness on Ajax diverting him to slaughter the sheep, goats, oxen and herdsmen that were won during the sack of Troy.

The adaptation follows the aftereffects of this story and showcases a combat veteran who feels lost and betrayed, struggling with his own self-worth after all his accomplishments on the battlefield were undone, now amounting to nothing.

"Where can I go? / Where can I run? / All of this land hates me, / All of these people despise me. / I must find some way to show my father / That I am not some gutless boy."

Ajax is a representation of every combat veteran who comes home after war, and is easily be transferred to the stage in order to parallel our own modern stories. In short, this story could have been ripped from yesterday’s news.

HC: What are some of the most satisfying moments in watching the production?

LG: Hearing Ajax say the line, “Athena and her bitch, Odysseus,” with spite, venom, anger and hatred. Odysseus is the worst.

HC: How does it feel knowing this script will come to life in the theatre?

LG: It’s honestly and truly astonishing. This whole process has been powerful. Working with the cast and crew has been amazing as well. The actors have dedicated themselves to portraying their roles and staying true to their characters and motivations. I’ve seen so much work and improvement; it’s been my honor to be involved with them. Martin McClendon, our director, has been amazingly supportive through everything, constantly assisting in whatever way he could. Our voices have been heard and honestly considered by everyone involved since this project began, and I couldn’t be more proud of each and every single person involved. It’s truly an experience of a lifetime.

HC: Was there anything you were particularly excited for or nervous about in the planning of this production?

LG: Oh hell yeah! What if it’s terrible? What if the message falls flat? What if no one gets it and our adaptation means nothing? What if the community can't connect? What can I do to fix this? How can I get an audience to understand the struggles of Ajax and veterans today? It’s so nerve-wracking that I’m constantly in a struggle to fix every single detail so I can mitigate these concerns to the best of my ability. It’s stressful, but damn it’s been rewarding.

HC: Does this play take on even more, or special, meaning because of your own involvement in the military?

LG: Very much so. This adaptation is not so much of a scholarly attempt at translation as much as it is an attempt at portraying meaning, intention and action behind Sophocles’ work. I’ve tailored it for my military community so veterans in attendance can better project themselves into the characters and understand themselves as Ajax. I want them to be walking a mile in the boots of someone they know, or someone they’ve lost, so that they can better understand this illness and how to approach it. Military members, and especially combat veterans, are a tough crowd to get to open up emotionally, but I’m hoping this production can move them forward so that we can better prepare our soldiers for their battles ahead and their struggles upon returning home.

Thank you, Larry, for taking the time to share your story with us.

Your last chance to see Ajax at Carthage College and support your hardworking peers is Saturday, October 13th, at 7:30 pm in the Wartburg Theater.