Dirty Garments of the Athenians
With Inspired Musings From the Quotations of SophoclesInto the saltus fullonicus, Sophocles carried three full bags of bloody garments. Filled with the twisted actions of corrupt Athenians, the bags seeped disease and betrayal.
He had secretly traveled by night, carrying wool robes that once draped those of power and privilege. Now in the washroom, Sophocles saw children standing in large vats filled to the brim with filthy water. This was where the Greek clothing was communally stomped, cleaned and pressed by hands and feet of children.
Staring at the disheveled children, Sophocles saw little feet stomping not the grapes of celebration, but the pressing out from between little toes the thin watery blood of rulers transgressions. Hideous men and women of this broken land; Oh, the irony of the future of Athens!
A complex play of significant stakes began. At the washroom perimeter, children stomped, stomped, stomped out stains. Tasking down the prior day’s laundry, clothes were laid aside for retrieval. Wool clothing with every wash became of lesser value, but in this case, Sophocles knew a conspiracy left the unclean robes priceless.
One woman alone was responsible for the demand that Sophocles clean all the robes. Certainly the children would talk of crimson water. Certainly stains from unnatural things would make all the other white clothes sick with pink, pitiful evidence of villainy. Certainly, the disgust of the children over filth lightly bubbling at their feet would bring the attention of the superintendent. There was a sick simplicity to these Athenians. Future generations would be caught up in the sheer audacity of current spiritual frauds.
Two of the garments were that of a young judge and an official. In charge of judging a festival for playwrights, the contest would be influenced more by garments than words in a play. Having lost at the festival before in competition against Aeschylus, a temptation formed in Sophocles. He could engage in a preordained festival win improperly, yet become what would be the rightful father of Greek tragedy. But as a tragedian, Sophocles knew well that moral reality was a grail of sorts. Out-paced by a desire for an award as playwright, a whisper came to him through the din. Covered by sounds of playful splashing, his deepest voice arose within and said, “Not since being wrong about my play Triptolemus have I ever felt the sense that it is as though I am writing a play that is of my own tragedy. This time, having written a play on the matter, I must find a way to break out of this parthenon I have been thrust within. To perform someone else’s death play from stage has profoundly burdened me. Their stage is not my home. I cannot even speak one word from it.”
Along the far wall was the drop for dirty clothing. Giving the laundry over to be cleaned would present a pickup tag with his very name. This way, within a matter of two hours, clothing would automatically be clean with blood stains being found. Sophocles would have to lie to the superintendent. If he left the robes to be washed and said nothing about where the stains had come from, he would be embroiled as an accomplice. Leaving the laundry with an explanation, and hard justice would prevail. He would clearly lose the contest in exchange for witness. To lie and protect what was the cause of the stains would promise his life lived forever with an award of shame. The clapping hands of the officials could be heard through a mist of the mind. Washed garments would help Sophocles beat Aeschylus, but leaving laundry to be cleaned was a lie.
It was unlikely, but uncertain that Sophocles would naturally win the playwriting contest as Aeschylus dominated Athens creatively. There was still a chance for a righteous prize of some sort. To not prompt the robes to be washed meant more than losing just an award for excellence. Influence and secret gossip would do harm to Sophocles. Other men needed to protect the perceptions of their humanity as valiant and noble in nature.
The garments were worn by aristocrats? Sophocles had known them for more than a decade. A single tyrant leading a disastrous hierarchy had become the highest villain. Love was corrupted by an environment of darkness and filth. Gossiping backstabbers surely would arrive to embroil him publicly. A thought as if from a future playwright whose sympathy came from experience echoed out, “There is but a way forward that is most true”. And then after, from the play itself, its wicked characters screamed, ”Even you, Sophocles!” as they stabbed away in an ironically backward play.
Blood clotted on the bag. Once nearer to the stomping area, Sophocles unaware, set the bags down into runoff water from the cleaning barrels. The underlayer of the bag soaked in warm water, and blood from within went straight down the drains.
Demanded silence of any outsider’s upheaval, a political patriarchy sought collaboration, collusion, and suppression of any form of justified communication of the longstanding matters at hand. Sophocles remembered Sophilus, his father, who had been fashioning armor while a young family of Attica. Great wealth quickly fed into Sophilus’s hands, but Sophilus before his success had learned, through suffering, things of character. Before Sophocles had written a single word, Sophilus had shown him what people were capable of. Family wealth created a closeness to those in power. Prophetically expressed from Sophilus to his son, the investments of integrity manifested in a son’s resilience against the forces of temptation to resign any core principles of goodness. In Hellenotamiai as successive treasurer of Athena, Sophocles, like his father, managed national finance. He became a tragedian, searching for the true motives of men of power. Money from dark pools of spending replicated bad ideas of bad men and the transfer of corrupt wealth skirted the public’s knowledge of all effects of corrupt disbursement far beyond word on the street.
Where was goodness? Integrity. Honor. Authority. Self-respect. Losing with righteousness.
Water and thoughts were splashing about everywhere as Sophocles finally stepped out for his internal soliloquy.
“The certainty of a supreme eternal being beyond Zeus and all the gods of our nation. These gods are nothing more than mere mythology! The universe and a supreme being over it with ways and means. I can not, and will not be the dispenser of the future through some sick ordained arrogance. I am burdened within my freewill and desires. Much of who I am is rooted in my fear of doing wrong. Reverent purity! Every word. Every deed? Who can honor such a life? How to abide in Heaven? Who am I if as less than zero? Against my heart and conscience? To allow this? My own family, like Oedipus, fated to be doomed for generations. I know war. Nothing good -none with an honorable victory. The board has been shaken. The pieces have fallen. I was involved in the response to catastrophe through the Athenian expeditionary force. It was brought to ruin in no time. Spiritual destruction; did I learn nothing from the Peloponnesian Wars? I never accepted any of the invitations. Not one. Not by any foreign rulers who so quickly invited me to attend their own courts! What praise! Did I seek it from them? Whose praise is most worthy? That of men?
I will leave the history of my final choice to a future playwright. One of my sons, Lophon, I pray, will know and speak the truth above the truth after my days. It will display that I am not the cause of this tragedy should it be realized on Earth. I am so narrowly drawn in. A rope is around my wrists, my feet, and my neck. May my son’s play show that I survived as a naked man with white robes left to be discovered beyond my public shame. May the children in the saltus fullonicus press my garments with their feet and think nothing of the natural white color bleeding no blood. Let Aeschylus win instead. In Dionysia an Archon will bring a Strategoi to decide the victor of the contest. With no true competitor, rightfully or not, a pre-eminent playwright in Athens may fairly come to be. The fullness of Aeschylus. The painful ingenuity of my own inventions will play out to his benefit. I am changing to which is most expressive of the best character. It is that which I desire to be beyond the stage so dominated by power and fraud.
Oh my son, Lophon. That you have named my grandson Sophocles! Had I wished I’d never been a playwright and asked you to find a better name for your son! I will lose my rightful win in the contest, for surely I could beat Aeschylus all on my own this time by talent alone. Be it not for the preordained promise of success with the evidence suppressed it could be proven. I could lose and let these red robes drag them to their natural demise. Yes, I would have won the contest, later, and celebrated. Plutarch the judge’s advisor could fix it! He could verify the win on merits. He could turn to the public instead and show this corrupt offer from judges.
But to embroil Plutarch in a game of artistic righteousness? How could I ask him to put his own hard-won namesake within the framework of a corrupt people. That is something I cannot ask of him. It is in fact, something I must warn him against. He is a good man and would be willing to risk his reputation, but if only I could tell publicly how corrupt they all are and not cause him to be shamed by being ill-prepared in a confrontation with a powerfully fruitless and relentless association with an old evil.
All are dirty. Plutarch and people like him deserve to be innocent of this filth. Just because the man is in the job at hand does not mean he must become innocently filthy. It is as if my life has become part of the collapse of a political structure in a nation where I do not serve. It is the woman that confidently tries to throw my conscience and heart to the dogs below her own tower. She desires a choice of ill-gotten gain in order to quash the desires within her own breast. Hers has become a heart set to ruin me and save the unjust. She is the one that filled the bags with the bloody wool. She is the one who begged me to have their filth cleaned. She is the one I loved who has made me question my ultimate choice of goodness. Evil and a lesser evil is the demanded engagement. That is simply the most painful tragedy. It is placed within the larger tragedy I cannot isolate myself from because it is the prison of their desires. A series of rippling meta-tragedies may spin out of control and through to the public. They will. Yes, they most certainly will.
Perhaps a play will be written about even me. Maybe a historian will write a report and a play will come to be all of itself. Yes, it is true, I feel as though I am writing a play that is of my own tragedy. I have seen what these people will do. They tell blatant lies and even deny they ever said something though proof exists. They use what is near and dear to me as fodder and have worn me down over time with actions nontechnical to the words from their mouths. They charm me to confuse me as the confusion continues to weaken me. Projection. The alignment of people against me, telling me and others that I am quite mad. As if I had never written a play! They tell me that good people I trust are made of deception. This is impossible.
Oh how I have given up on Zeus so many years ago in search of the true being! I am not the Savior for those made of darkness. I know what I know. There is now a God who is real now to my heart and with a name, He has never needed to tell me. He is beyond my own heart. He is beyond the love I expect. He is a source, the only source of goodness that can rescue, and I have come to believe that, as a little boy, I had found him. That as a man, I have found the boy I once was again and I have become aware that He was always, always.
All of Greece has given me a myth with no true God. What wasted time! All of Greece is a tragedy and no longer my home. I have no bed but the stone slab, and I will gratefully pick this God with no name. Until He tells me His name, I will hold fast to whatever goodness remains in my broken understanding. In the end, it is He that will uphold me in His embrace. I now, in my nakedness, rechoose Him. I do this not out of desperation. He is all that is left, and that is everything. May He save these false rulers from themselves, for I cannot. It is my love that conflicts with that which I know to be true.”
Finishing his part in the play, Sophocles walked out with nothing in hand. A message from him would be sent back to each of the wearers of white robes turned red. The notice gave them less than two hours to retrieve dirty garments or leave them to be found limp, wet and rotten.
Sophocles had no claim for the bags. Now naked in Athens, he would soon be mourned by the Athenians who would eventually cheer the play written by his son, Lophon. The last words of the play were clear. “Sophocles knew no misfortune.”
It is I, Lophon, who has written these very words as the son who so loved his ruined father.
Copyright Nov. 5, 2019, Ruby Lion Press and B.D.Kuchera