U.S. Veterans Use Greek Tragedy to Tell Us About War

Inspired by the example of Theater of War, The New York Times Opinion Section created their own version of Sophocles' poetry. They asked a dozen or so veterans to read passages from two of his war plays and to talk about what the passages meant to them. They turned their readings and their comments into two videos.

The owner of our site Ancient Hellas also took part in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The ancient Greeks didn’t go to the theater just to be entertained. Aristotle believed that audiences saw themselves reflected in tragic characters and that the very act of watching a character’s downfall helped purge them of emotions like pity and fear, a process he called catharsis or, roughly, “purification.”

More than 2,500 years later, a young classics major named Bryan Doerries wondered whether he could help a growing and vulnerable population in need of catharsis: veterans of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom come home from combat with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.

His idea became a project he calls Theater of War, which has now staged more than 400 performances for veterans across the country. He asked high-profile actors, including Adam Driver, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, to read from the war plays of Sophocles. After the reading, the veterans in the audience talk about their own trauma and their trouble readjusting to civilian life.

The project has attracted thousands of veterans and their families as they try to readjust to life away from the battlefield. It isn’t an easy process.

“You create a permissive enough environment where people can speak truth,” Mr. Doerries said. “The Greeks have a word which means ‘balanced-mindedness,’ which was the ideal of the fifth century. So how do you rebalance the mind of an Athenian? Part of the answer is to give them the opportunity to vent and purge these emotions that can’t be bottled up.”

One, called “A Warrior’s Last Words,” is adapted from the play “Ajax” and shows Ajax and his wife, Tecmessa, as he contemplates suicide. The other video, “If Men Don’t Know My Story,” is a speech from the play “Philoctetes” (pronounced fill-ock-TEE-tees), in which a badly wounded soldier describes how the generals abandoned him on an island for nine years.

So instead of getting insights into themselves by listening to Greek poetry, these veterans are using the poetry to give us insight into their own experience.

“The first time I heard Ajax’s speech, it knocked me back in my chair,” said Jeff Hall, a retired Army commander from Oklahoma who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts after returning from Iraq. “It was me. I could see how he was betrayed in the text.”

Mr. Hall’s wife, Sheri, is the voice of Tecmessa in the video — the long-suffering spouse of Ajax, who lives in fear of her husband’s dark thoughts.

“She was walking around on eggshells and so were we during our time of Jeff’s PTSD onset, and the things going on with his anger and his depression,” she said. “It really spoke to me, especially with what she was dealing with. I was going through the same things.”

While Sophocles is better remembered for writing “Antigone” and “Oedipus Rex,” he was also a general in the Athenian Army and lived during the decades-long Peloponnesian War. He wrote “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for audiences that most likely included his army’s own soldiers.

“The theme that’s most prevalent in both plays is betrayal. And betrayal, I’d argue and many others have argued, is the wound that cuts the deepest,” said Mr. Doerries, who wrote a memoir about the creation of his company called “Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.”

Theater directors typically look for new material or new venues. Mr. Doerries has made a specialty of seeking out new audiences for ancient texts. He mounted a reading of the Book of Job for people affected by Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima nuclear accident and has done versions of “Prometheus Bound” for prison guards, including those at Guantánamo Bay.

But most of his work involves Sophocles and American veterans. In addition to his memoir, he has published his translations of Greek tragedies and even wrote a graphic novel about a United States Marine based on the story of Odysseus. He was recently named the public artist in residence by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Veterans’ Services. This weekend, he’s hosting another Theater of War event in New York at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

Gregory Gadson, a retired Army colonel who fought in the gulf war of 1991, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, is one beneficiary of Theater of War. In 2007, he lost both his legs above the knee from a roadside bomb blast in Baghdad. In our project, he reads the part of Philoctetes, the wounded soldier who is abandoned on an island by his army.

“On the surface, it sounds very simple,” said Mr. Gadson, who stayed on active duty after the bombing. “But it’s very deep, and having lived 50 years of my life, it’s very relevant today. It touches my soul.”

Many of the veterans who participated came from a military family, often going back generations. Jack Eubanks, who reads “Philoctetes,” comes from a long line of soldiers and is distantly related to George Washington. He was injured twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan, and spent more than three years recovering from his brain injuries, relearning to talk, read and walk.

Not all their wounds are physical. Jenny Pacanowski, who contributed to “If Men Don’t Know My Story,” said that the plays resonate with veterans still because Sophocles shows the pain of soldiers trying to balance their anger at the generals with their shame at failing to live up to their fathers’ examples.

“My father had me in boxing and kickboxing when I was 9. So he was raising a warrior,” said Ms. Pacanowski, whose father was a Marine.

“I can feel it in my chest,” she said about Sophocles’ insight. “It’s real for us.”


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