Theater of War: Sophocles’ Ajax at Vassar

Scene from previous Theater of War performances featuring Gloria Reuben and Jeffrey Wright. (Photo by Douglas Baz)

Scene from previous Theater of War performances featuring Gloria Reuben and Jeffrey Wright. (Photo by Douglas Baz)

We read about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the soaring rate of suicides in the military, but do we really know what it’s like to experience combat and then try to adjust to normal life? Is there a way for those suffering from the horrors of war to share their story and not feel so alone?

For Theater of War founder and artistic director Bryan Doerries, the answer can be found in ancient Greek tragedy, which he has discovered is a powerful catalyst in enabling veterans to share their experiences and build empathy among civilians. Theater of War, which was launched in 2008, has presented hundreds of dramatic readings of plays by Sophocles and other ancient Greek dramatists to military and mixed military/civilian audiences across the US and abroad. The wrenching emotion of the readings, which are performed by well-known actors – among them Mike Colter, Blythe Danner, Charles Dutton, Jesse Eisenberg, Kathryn Erbe, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Irwin, Gloria Reuben, Lili Taylor and Dianne Wiest – serves as a catalyst for the real action: the profound audience response.

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“It’s about permission: How many ways can we give you to talk about this 800-ton gorilla in the room?” Doerries said, speaking with Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods by phone from New York City, where his company is based. “It has none of the jargon of contemporary psychoanalysis. It’s a Trojan horse for delivering mental health awareness and performance.”

Theater of War has been so successful in its work with the military that Doerries has expanded his reach to projects addressing other pressing public health issues: end-of-life care, substance abuse, prison reform, political torture and domestic violence. “We’ve honed our methodology over time, having facilitated well over 350 performances in which we’re using theater as a catalyst for helping communities to address issues that are stigmatized,” he said.

The readings are based on his translations from the ancient Greek, which update the texts to a contemporary idiom. Famous actors, who welcome the opportunity to do something of service, help draw the crowds. “Many say this is their best gig ever.”

Theater of War’s reading of Sophocles’ Ajax on Sunday, November 3 at Vassar College will be attended by a group of West Point cadets as well as veterans from the area, including students attending Vassar College through the national Posse Program. A panel discussion following the reading will be comprised of two veterans, the spouse of a veteran and a mental health professional. Doerries will then ask the audience several questions gauging their reaction to the play.

Curtis Dozier, visiting assistant professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Vassar and the event’s organizer, invited Theater of War to the campus after watching one of its readings at Columbia University and being blown away. “The stories from children of soldiers killed and veterans struggling to recover are ones we don’t hear much,” he said. “Theater of War has not only opened new ways of servicing a specific text, it’s a story being retold every day in our own society. Sometimes it takes someone from outside the academy like Bryan to make that point in a strong way.”

Here’s what Doerries has to say about the relevance of ancient drama to contemporary war and other traumas, the impact on audiences, how he got the company started and upcoming projects, including a reading for the Japanese residents displaced by the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster:

 

Almanac: Why perform Ajax? What was the context of the original performances in ancient Greece?

Bryan Doerries: Ajax is about a combat veteran who in the ninth year of the Trojan war loses his best friend, Achilles, slips into a depression when he is passed over for an award, feels so betrayed by the chain of command that he goes berserk and tries to kill his commanding officer, enters into a dissociative state of mind and thinks a group of animals are men, slaughters the field full of animals, comes to consciousness over what he’s done, realizes he’s betrayed his own moral compass, and takes his own life.

We also have toured a reading of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, which is about an abandoned warrior left on an island for nine years because of a chronic illness. The Walter Reed scandal put Philoctetes in the newspaper headlines.

In the ancient Theater of Dionysus, the audience would have been 17,000 citizen soldiers, organized by tribe and rank, with the generals sitting in thrones in the front. Each spring it would convene to present plays dealing with topics touching on the experience of those who’d been to war. There’s a theory ancient Greek drama was a form of formalized training for late adolescents, matriculating people for military and civic service. It often deals with younger characters struggling with ethical theories impossible to resolve. Also, it’s believed the actors in those plays would have been combat veterans.

The Greeks have a word, miasma, which means pollution. In the ancient theater they would collectively shoulder the pollution of war. The plays had the function of shared experience, where it was permissible to show emotion. That’s what we’ve been doing.

 

Do you ever worry the play might be too intense and people won’t be able to handle it?

The overwhelming response in the audience is relief. The first element of what we do is performance; second is the members of the audience who have lived through the experience and are the first to speak, they’re the chorus: they’re building the bridge and giving people a chance to breathe; the third element is I go out in the audience and ask four or five questions about the play. The subtext is, “How did it make you feel?” But as the son of two psychologists, if someone asks me how I feel, I don’t want to talk about it. It’s a way of building awareness. The fourth is the resources. We draw attention to human resources, paper and electronic. It’s a novel public health campaign, because people look at these resources differently.

Anecdotally, there are at least 15 people I’ve met over the last four years who said, “This changed my life.” One said, “I talked to my wife for the first time about my experience of war.” A few months ago a guy at the Marine Corps base came to see another performance, and when I asked him why he was here again, he said, “The first time I saw myself in the character and checked myself into the substance-abuse program the next day. It saved my life.” Acts of violence planned on other people have been averted. People are studying the effects of our plays.

 

What led you to connect your love of ancient Greek drama with the military? How did you engage the Department of Defense?

As a struggling Classics major, I was long aware of the theory that ancient Greek theater was tied to military service and written during a period of great military conflict. Back in 2007, the newspaper stories and headlines I was reading seemed straight out of the ancient plays of Sophocles. I tried for a year-and-a-half to find a military audience, and finally met and befriended a Navy psychologist who worked with the Marine Corps. That led to a performance for 400 marines and their spouses in 2008 at the Hyatt in San Diego as part of the military’s first conference on combat stress. I brought Jesse Eisenberg, Bill Camp and David Strathairn from New York, and we performed my translations of ancient plays. Afterwards we had a 45-minute discussion period that lasted three-and-a-half hours. People stood up and quoted lines from Sophocles as if they had known it their entire lives – and they had, because this is their story.

The first person to speak was a military spouse, who said, “I’m the proud wife of a Marine and Navy Seal. Each time he came home from a tour of duty over a period of four years, it was just like Ajax dragging dead bodies into the house. To quote from the play, ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.’” I was bowled over. Stories about this experience of war aren’t captured by acronyms. Our modern psychological model doesn’t touch the moral and spiritual dimensions of war. The Greeks, though, had a vocabulary for it.

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