But the most significant milestone of 2004 is far older than any centennial, older and grander than even Oscar Wilde's 150th birthday or the 400-year anniversaries of "Othello" and "Measure for Measure," which arguably may be this year. The date is even more uncertain than that of the composition of Shakespeare's plays, but 2004 could well be the year to commemorate the contributions of the man whose influence on the theater was far greater than Shakespeare's for 2,000 years before the Bard first set quill to parchment: Sophocles.
Long proclaimed the greatest dramatist of all time -- author of Aristotle's model for perfection, "Oedipus the King" -- Sophocles just might be 2,500 years old this year. Unless it's next year. Nobody knows exactly when Sophocles was born. His life is dated backward from his reported age at the time of specific achievements and the generally agreed-upon notion that he was 90 when he died in 406 B.C., not long after having dressed his actors in black to mourn the death of his longtime younger rival Euripides.
His birth year is usually given as 496 or 497 B.C., which would make his 2,500th birthday fall right about 2004 or '05. (If you're doing the math, remember that there was no year 0, so 2004 years ago was the year 1 B.C.) Either way, any lack of international efforts to take note of such a momentous milestone would be puzzling.
Perhaps it's Euripides' fault. Edgier, more realistic, more experimental in structure, more cynical in theological matters and at times downright sentimental, the youngest of the three great ancient Greek tragedians always seems to become more popular during times of social uncertainty. With his insightful representations of political sophistry, passionate antiwar tragedies and profound looks at the arrogance of power ("The Trojan Women" is only the most obvious example), Euripides' tragedies seem particularly apt for our era.
Given how many more of his plays survived the ravages of the centuries after Athens' fall -- 19 out of a total 92, compared with only seven of Sophocles' 123 plays -- it's only natural that there would be more productions of Euripides. But that doesn't explain the greater number of high- profile stagings of late of his best-known works over those of Sophocles. Unless, of course, the recent increase in productions of "Medea" over those of "Oedipus" says something about how we view our mothers.
Or, perhaps, it all means that we're overdue for a Sophoclean revival, and his 25th centennial would seem a perfect excuse to begin one. It would be hard to overstate his importance to the development of drama. Born into a society dominated by tragedy as Aeschylus wrote and staged it, it was Sophocles who introduced scene painting and the all-important third actor.
Where Aeschylus added a second actor, inventing dramatic dialogue, Sophocles' third actor allowed much greater dramatic depth and complexity -- making it possible to have two compellingly opposed reactions to a speech. The result can evoke a riveting tension, as in the different reactions to a messenger's news expressed by Oedipus and his mother. Perhaps the greatest master ever of dramatic structure -- the spare, expertly balanced, relentlessly suspenseful structure of "Oedipus" remains a model to this day --
Sophocles excelled in the depth of dramatic moments embodied in solid characters.
He was immensely popular in his day, winning 18 first-place prizes in the annual dramatic competitions (as opposed to the more controversial Euripides' five) and never finishing worse than second. He was also a well-loved and prosperous member of Athenian society, elected to several public offices and serving as a priest of the healing god Asclepius, which doesn't mean he avoided his share of personal trauma.
According to one possibly apocryphal, but at least 2,000-year-old, tale, Sophocles' son sued to have the playwright declared incompetent so he could assume his father's estate. The 90-year-old Sophocles read to the court passages from the play he was writing at the time, "Oedipus at Colonus," and the judge dismissed the case.
Surely someone like that deserves some sort of 2,500th birthday celebration. Not that Sophocles has ever been completely ignored. "Antigone" and "Oedipus the King" ("Oedipus Tyrannus") have always had their share of productions, if not quite as notable ones as "Medea" has had of late. "Oedipus at Colonus" was gloriously revived in Lee Breuer's dynamic gospel version two decades ago, and "Electra" is occasionally staged, though not as often as Euripides' version.
Whether Sophocles' three other extant tragedies -- "Ajax," "Philoctetes" and "Trachiniae" ("Women of Trachis") -- are prime candidates for revival is up to individual artistic directors to decide. All are good reads, given a good translation. Each involves one of Sophocles' trademark intransigent, morally certain characters (think Oedipus, Antigone) wrestling with forces of fate or society. Each should leave the reader energized and intrigued.
Whether or not Sophocles gets his due in some form of worldwide commemoration is irrelevant in the long term. His work has endured more than five times as long as Shakespeare's already, forever ready to emerge from the mists of time like Loewe's "Brigadoon." Like Moss Hart, he didn't take it with him. Compared with Sophocles' ability to resist the ravages of time, Peter Pan is a piker.
And I really hated the movie too ...