“Philoctetes Variations”


The Greek warrior, Philoctetes, who inherited Heracles’ poisonous bow and arrows, is on his way to Troy when a snake bites his foot. The wound suppurates, giving off an unbearable stench. Philoctetes’ so-called friends avoid him and it is on Agamemnon’s direct order that yesterday’s hero is banished to the uninhabited island of Lemnos for the ten years that the Trojan war raged.

If this myth didn’t exist, the Wooster Group’s much acclaimed actor, Ron Vawter, could have written it. Not only was Vawter once a U.S. soldier (a contemporary warrior after all), but for someone with AIDS the ancient myth can easily become a metaphor for the experience of living with the disease today. Using three variations of Sophocles’ original tragedy, Vawter and two Belgian actors (Dirk Roofthooft and Viviane De Muynck) performed one of the most disturbing plays ever. The first part, written especially for this occasion by John Jeserun, is a strange mélange of poetry and CNN-style language, relating both the bare facts and the personal impact they have on Philoctetes.

From the very moment Vawter appeared on stage you never knew when reality took over from fiction. Is it that honesty is unbearable or was Vawter using our prejudices to take us in? In either case the result was disconcerting. Short of breath, staggering, supposedly forgetting his lines but always present, Vawter forced you to accept his extremely personal thoughts and pain without veering into the pathetic.

The second part was less realistic and for that reason even more disturbing: in a pool of blood, Vawter sat in a wheelchair flanked by Odysseus and Neoptolemus. Heiner Müller’s original German text was practically unintelligible; a hearing aid helped Vawter to remember the beautiful but sometimes hermetic and complex lyrics. Addressing his fellow performer, Vawter asked, “Viviane, can you read my part? I feel like today I want to hear it instead of play it.”

As disturbing as this was, the final chapter was still to come. What was billed as an excerpt from a novel by André Gide was transformed by Vawter into a Vaudeville in which the actor became a tyrant, telling his colleagues what to say and do, the three actors taking turns at lying in a coffin, the macabre setting for a hilarious epilogue. Almost as an aside, Vawter showed the spots covering his entire body, declaring “this is what it is all about,” once again blurring the line between fiction and reality.

Afterwards, amid timid applause, the boyish smile of the actor seemed to say: “Fooled you, I was only playing. I am not gone yet.” In a sense, this was the boldest statement an artist can make about living with AIDS. Ron Vawter died shortly after “Philoctetes” premiered.

Jos van den Bergh