Okay, we only have seven plays by Sophocles, so dividing them up into categories probably does not do much, however I will do that anyway. The three categories that I propose are the Theban plays (namely the ones that deal with Oedipus and the fallout from that rather sticky episode), the war plays (which I will get to shortly) and Electra. Yes, I know, Electra is only one play, but as far as I am concerned, it simply does not fall into either of the other two categories, so I have put it into a category of its own.
Anyway, the Philoctetes is one of the war plays (simply because it is not Electra, and does not involve Oedipus or any of the mess that arose from it). Each of the war plays (and remember that Sophocles wrote much more than what we currently have) seem to deal with a different impact of war. As I have indicated previously, if you were Greek, male, and young, it was highly likely that you were either at war, or if you were still alive, have been at war, so in many cases these plays are much more relevant to them, than they are to us who sit on our couches watching The Hurt Locker and going, 'Wow! That was an awesome movie!'.
Hey, I'm not knocking The Hurt Locker, it is an awesome movie, but lets just say that Sophocles' war plays are pretty much an ancient version of The Hurt Locker. In fact, each of the plays seems to deal with a different aspect of war and its effect upon the soldier (or his family). Ajax deals with the betrayal of command as well post traumatic stress disorder; The Woman of Trachis deals with the family that is left behind while the male is off to war; and Philoctetes deals with those who are disabled, left behind, and forgotten. The thing about these three plays is that they are just as relevant today as they were back then when we are dealing with people that have been personally affected by war, whether it is the soldier that has been screwed over by Donald Rumsfeld, the war wife who has to put up with the fact that the two years that her husband was supposed to spend in Iraq has been stretched out to eight, and the solder whose legs have been blown off by a road-side bomb and then thrown into some veteran's hospital and pretty much forgotten.
As I have previously mentioned, this play is about the plight of those who have been disabled in war and have been forgotten. Okay, Philoctetes was not actually disabled in a war, he was bitten by a snake on the way over to Troy, but he was forgotten. As we are told, the Greeks were so putrefied by the ulcer that developed on his ankle that they dumped him on an island and snuck off in the middle of the night. This is something that many disabled people, especially those who have become disabled during there life, have to face day in and day out. People love people who are perfect and shy away from those who are not. Hey, even I find it difficult to relate to disabled, and my favourite person in the world is mentally disabled.
This is more so when we consider people going into political positions. Take Franklin Delano Roosevelt for instance. He suffered from polio and could not walk, however he had to hide this fact from the American people because of the prejudice he would have faced when running for president. In fact I am told that he would be wheeled onto the stage out of sight of the audience, and would hold himself up on the podium for the entire time he was speaking so that people would not think he was disabled. Seriously, that takes a lot of strength, particularly since his legs were not able to support his weight.
Now, ancient warfare was very up close and personal, and as I mentioned, pretty much every male would have to go to war. The big difference is medical science. If you suffered a nasty, disabling wound back then you were more than likely to be left to die because there was pretty much nothing anybody could do. It is different these days as we are able to stabilise these fatal wounds so that those who suffer them are able to live, however it is unlikely they will live a fruitful life. Vietnam was notorious for attacks that disabled, as opposed to killed, soldiers, and then they would return home to have to eek out a meagre existence.
One thing about Philoctetes is that we are given a glimpse into the mind of the man who has been disabled and forgotten, and the anguish and the pain that he goes through being rejected. What is worse is that when they realise that he is the only one who can save them, they come running back to him as if all were forgiven. Have you ever felt like you have been used, and the pain that you feel when people who mock and ridicule you suddenly come running back asking you for your help? Well, that is the position that Philoctetes is in.
Many have criticised the play for the Deus Ex Machina that appears at the end, but one can almost see the Christian allegory that is within it. Remember, Jesus says that we should love our enemies and bless those who curse us. Well, this seems to be what Heracles is saying. In this play the forgotten and despised one becomes the saviour of the Greeks, in the same way that it was foretold that the despised and rejected suffering servant would be the harbinger of salvation.
Look, in the end this play is not going to make the disabled soldier's life any easier, nor is it going to magically cure him. However what it is going to do is to help him, and us, understand the pain that one feels when one is rejected because of their disability. This is not something new, and we can be assured that in the audience when the play was first performed there were many people in the same situation as Philoctetes. This play does not offer a solution, but it does offer comfort.