The Secret Lives of Words

Staying as productive as Sophocles and Lear

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An episode of NPR’s “Morning Edition” last month featured a short but inspiring interview with Norman Lear on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Best known as screenwriter and producer of the highly successful ‘70s and ‘80s sitcom series “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” and “The Jeffersons,” the Oscar-nominated Lear has been recipient of Emmy and Peabody awards and countless other recognitions.

More recently a reprise of Lear’s 1975-84 CBS hit “One Day at a Time,” this time focusing on a Latino family in L.A., aired from 2017-20, first on Netflix then on Pop/TV Land, ending only because of the COVID pandemic. Still going strong, the newly minted centenarian has plans for producing a reboot of his syndicated TV cult classic, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” which aired originally amidst considerable controversy from Jan. 1976 to July 1977. In last month’s interview the elder statesman ambitiously asserted, “When something is over, it is ‘over’ and we are on to ‘next’.”

A similarly popular and prolific show-biz figure in ancient Greece was the Athenian playwright Sophocles. If there had been screens in those days, he surely would have been a screenwriter too. Like Lear, Sophocles wrote comedic scripts called “satyr plays,” typically replete with sexual innuendo and gas-passing jokes, and nearly all of them, sadly, now lost. But his forte was tragedy, and the best known of his more than 100 productions is his horrific “Oedipus the King,” aka “Oedipus Rex,” still widely read in schools and colleges.

The play dramatizes the tale of Oedipus, who, abandoned to die as an infant, was rescued, and later, through a bizarre set of circumstances, grew up  to return to his homeland, and, unknowingly, slay his father and marry his mother - a different sort of “all in the family” plot, but a “situation” for sure. Doubtless Netflix or Amazon would have made a movie of it, if it hadn’t already been done a time or two, most notably in 1967 by the acclaimed Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, which has received high praise both from critics and audiences.

Something else the Athenian and American writers share in common is their extraordinary productivity into old age. The Roman statesman and polymath Cicero relates an anecdote about Sophocles in his book “On Old Age” (written when Cicero was 62, the Latin title De Senectute is connected to our words SENior[ity], SENescence, and even SENate, in origin a council of elders).

Sophocles, near the end of his life at age 90, was hauled into court by his sons for neglecting the family’s estate by spending too much of his time writing. When called upon to defend himself, the author pulled out a copy of the Oedipus sequel he had been working on (“Oedipus at Colonus”) and recited it dramatically to the jurors. Upon concluding his reading, the charges were immediately dismissed - his art winning the day.

Elsewhere in his treatise on aging Cicero observes that, while our physical abilities diminish as we age, our intellect often remains intact and our knowledge, wisdom, and even our moral posture and influence can continue to grow. At one point he quotes a remark of the Greek law-giver Solon as a model for us all: “I grow old learning many things every day.”

Cicero stresses the importance of physical as well as intellectual exercise, of course. And another influential Roman, the 2nd -century A.D. satirist Juvenal, wrote that, rather than praying for a long life, all a person should strive for is “a healthy mind in a healthy body,” mens sana in corpore sano. Great advice, I’d say, and so my suggestion is that as you age up, like Sophocles and Norman Lear, you consider writing a play, or maybe your memoir (as my wife Alice is doing), or possibly even the occasional newspaper column. But be sure to get up from that computer now and then, for a brisk walk, pausing here and there to smell the roses.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin and Classics at the University of Georgia; his latest books are “The Secret Lives of Words,” a collection of his widely distributed newspaper columns, and “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are.” He and his wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.

classics, Sophocles, Norman Lear, aging

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