Photo by Howard Korn
Bryan Doerries discusses how bringing Greek tragedies to service members opens up new conversations. [30:31]
Excerpt of Ajax.
Bill Camp: Ajax, Ajax! My name is a sad song. Who would’ve thought it would someday become the sound a man makes in despair?
Adam Driver: And now I must care for incurable Ajax. His mind infected by divine madness. Caught up in thoughts he unnerves his friends as we watch his greatest acts of bravery slip through his fingers.
Josephine Reed: That is Bill Camp and Adam Driver performing in Sophocles's play, Ajax. It's one of the Greek tragedies presented to active service members and veterans by Theater of War.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how Art Works.
I'm your host Josephine Reed.
It's often too easy to think of ancient Greek tragedy as something to endure during college—vaguely interesting but essentially dead words on a page with little to say to the living. Well, classicist and translator, Bryan Doerries is having none of that. Mindful that Sophocles was a general as well as a playwright, Doerries and other scholars hold that his military plays were written with veterans in mind as a way to help them heal from almost a full century of war. Doerries believed passionately that these ancient military tragedies would both speak to the experiences of today's service members and provide an avenue for them to share their own stories. Doerries is not just a man of vision; he's also a man of action. He went to work and the result is Theater of War. Theater of War presents readings of Sophocles' plays Ajax and Philoctetes to military and civilian communities across the United States and around the world. Bryan Doerries is the creative director and translator for Theater of War. I spoke with him recently about the project and asked him to describe it to me in greater depth.
Bryan Doerries: "Theater of War" is an innovative public health project that presents readings of Sophocles' ancient Greek tragedies about war; in particular a play called "Ajax" and "Philoctetes" to service members and veterans as a catalyst for conversations about timeless issues that service members face today, such as PTSD, suicide, and the impact of war on families and communities. The "Theater of War" is not a performance. It's not entertainment to be consumed, it's a catalyst. And its aim is to give permission to audiences, to talk about things that are very hard to talk about; to talk about stigmatized topics, and to come at it from an emotionally raw and honest place. It's really about how do we help people who've experienced the trauma of war return to our communities and heal.
Jo Reed: Where did the idea for Theater of War come from, Bryan?
Bryan Doerries: Well, I wish I could say I came up with the idea. The idea kind of came up with me. I was sort of the right guy at the right place, the right time. I studied classics in college at Kenyon College in Ohio as an undergraduate, and always believed that these ancient plays that I was studying had a larger audience to reach than the ivory tower. And when I graduated I went on to direct some- some of my own translations of ancient Greek and Roman plays, and was sobered by the reality that there was a very small audience, if any, that was interested in ancient Greek theater. So I set out to build an audience for my plays, for my translations.
Jo Reed: But what made you think service members in particular would be receptive to these plays?
Bryan Doerries: In the 2006/2007 range when the first real wave of reports of service members and veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were beginning to hit the front pages of papers, stories like the Walter Reed scandal in which many of our veterans were not receiving the medical care they needed, or stories or homicides, or suicides, or domestic violence, the killing sprees, stories of depression, and the sort of ugly uh.. pollution that comes back from any war, when I started to read these in the newspaper I began to hear echoes and see lines in the stories that seemed like they could be ripped from Sophocles' plays. And that's where I started to get the idea. I thought if I can put my translations of ancient Greek plays in front of military audiences, something might be unlocked in the plays, and something might be unlocked by the plays in the audiences.
Jo Reed: Bryan, You chose to present two plays by Sophocles: Ajax and Philoctetes.
Bryan Doerries: I did choose them, again, I felt like it's sort of the plays chose me. Until I was about twenty-six, twenty-seven years old I- I felt a passion that these plays not just those two in particular, but these ancient plays had something relevant and meaningful to say to contemporary audiences. But it was really Philoctetes that was the key that unlocked not just the performances we're doing for the military, but performances my company are -- is doing are currently doing for many other types of audiences. The play tells the story of a combat veteran much decorated who'd been to Troy to war many times before in previous deployments, and who, during the first wave, this first expedition to Troy, the beginning of the Trojan War, contracts a mysterious illness from a snake bite and is then abandoned by his own unit, his own friends, on an island, a deserted island halfway between Greece and Troy, where he lives for nine years waiting for the Greeks to return and bring him home. The play depicts extremely agonizing and violent scenes of pain and suffering. Not just physical pain, although there's plenty of that in the play as you watch the main character writhe in agony with this mysterious illness that comes in waves and sort of overtakes his body, but also the psychological suffering, the anguish of having been abandoned and betrayed by your own friends and by your own unit members in the military. Well, anyway, I was reading the stories about the Walter Reed scandal, and on every newspaper after that Washington Post story broke I saw pictures of Philoctetes. Men and women on stretches, waiting for treatment, abandoned on islands.
Philoctetes: My son, I am Philoctetes, keeper of Heracles' bow. Whom the generals and Odysseus abandoned. Suffering from a snake bite, they left me here, to die in tattered rags, sleeping in a cave, starving without much food to eat. I only wish the same for them.
Bryan Doerries: And it occurred to me that through modern medicine we'd created the conditions to abandon veterans and individuals suffering from chronic illness like Philoctetes even longer on islands, and that perhaps the play was even more relevant now than it was in its own time. And so I got this passionate idea that I would go out and find a military audience. And I knew no one in the military at the time that I got this idea, and it took about a year-and-a-half to convince anyone in the military that performing Greek tragedy for active duty service members would be a good idea.
Jo Reed: Take me through that. It's not easy to crack the military if you're an outsider. How were you able to convince somebody there to give the okay. Which branch was it?
Bryan Doerries: The Marine Corp gave us our start and I think uncoincidental. The Marines are a values-driven organization, and some of the core values that they uphold and that they are trained and inculcated to you know, hold within them our ancient values, values that transcend time, like honor, courage, and commitment. And so it's not hard for the plays to translate for these Marine Corp audiences. Basically what happened was I spent about a year knocking on doors, sort of in ignorance, not really knowing how to go about finding a military audience, calling people, or writing letters, sending emails. Most of the doors were politely shut in my face, a few were slammed. Almost a year out I- I was beginning to give up hope that I would find an opportunity to do this. This was not my day job at the time, it was an avocation or hobby. And I was reading the New York Times in January of 2008, a series of front-page Sunday articles that were featuring and describing the invisible wounds of war and the onset of violence and suicide that was returning to our shores from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in that article in the New York Times there was a section called “an ancient connection” in which Jonathan Shay, the MacArthur award-winning writer and psychiatrist who wrote "Achilles in Vietnam", made a series of connections which I'd heard many time before by him and others between the ancient Homeric epics and contemporary war fighting. And those are all beautiful arguments, and Jonathan's a friend, and I was delighted to see him in the article. But just below where Jonathan had been quoted there was a quote by a Navy psychiatrist named Captain William P. Nash who was the head of combat operational stress control for the Marine Corp in 2008. And the quote was something like: "I begin all of my presentations on combat stress and PTSD with the ancient story of 'Ajax'." There it was in bright lights. I knew if I'd track down William P. Nash, Captain Nash, I might find my audience. And so I got on the phone and started dialing, and I looked up email addresses. And within about a day I'd heard back from him and he said in his email, "I don't know about giving you a big military audience, but how about presenting your translations as a plenary session for a conference in San Diego on combat stress or PTSD for four or five hundred Marines. And, of course, that was our first performance later that summer, and uh.. changed everything.
Jo Reed: The performances are very simple productions essentially they are readings. Why this simple structure?
Bryan Doerries: Yeah, it's deceptively simple. Really there- there are no frills. There a table with four or five chairs, four or five actors in their street clothes. The actors are reading from scripts. It's just a reading, so to speak. The reading it takes about fifty to sixty minutes, depending on which program we're presenting, what cut of a scripts. And uhm.. I guess I would describe the reading-- i- it's important for us to keep people's expectations as low as possible. And in some ways the slot that we're usually placed into in military contacts, the- the expectations certainly couldn't be lower because most of the time that slot is reserved for deadening PowerPoint presentations about the subjects we try to address. But people come in and they expect you know, when they hear the word reading to be bored out of their minds. But of course our readings are like readings on steroids. The actors are fully committing emotionally. They're attacking the text. They're assaulting the audience. It's loud, it's fast. It defies any, you know, received expectation of what a reading is or could be. And as soon as the actors are finished with their reading there's no fanfare, no curtain call. They immediately leave the stage. And they're replaced by the four members of the community in which we're performing. And those members usually include a service member who's deployed and usually seen combatin the conflicts in the last ten years in Iraq or Afghanistan, a veteran of the current wars or previous war, a chaplain or mental health professional, and finally a spouse or family member. And those individuals don't come having read "Ajax." They're just ordinary people who have lived the experiences of "Ajax" and "Philoctetes." And so what I asked them to do is respond from their guts in the moment to what they've heard and saw what they've heard and seen in the plays that connect with their own experiences personally and professionally. So for three or four minutes apiece in a very raw and unedited fashion they respond, and it's usually very emotional, and it usually frames the tone of the discussion that follows. And as soon as their done with their opening remarks, then I go out into the audience and I ask the audience a series of questions that we've asked audiences all over the country and the world, and the questions are about the plays, but the questions are really aimed at giving the audience permission, having seen these very emotional performances and heard these really raw and emotional responses by our panelists, to respond in a similar fashion. And so these town hall meetings are, is really the objective of "Theater of War.
Jo Reed: How did that first audience respond?
Bryan Doerries: The first time we scheduled one of these performances, that performance for 400 Marines in San Diego, we scheduled the town hall discussion to last 45 minutes, and it lasted several hours and had to be cut off near midnight. And at one point I remember looking out into the audience and seeing 40 to 50 people lined up to come up to the microphone. And each person who came up this first time spoke unbelievably well, and almost like perfectly rhetorically structured monologues in which they had always woven in or used a quote from the play as a point of departure for their comment, as if they'd known the plays their entire lives. People felt all empowered to speak the truth of their experience. And it was then that I knew that we had stumbled across something extremely powerful and ancient; perhaps something that in spite of the simplicity of the format you know, with we performed these events, something we've lost touch with in our culture, which is the power of what theater can do.
Jo Reed: Let's go back to the plays for a moment. Sophocles himself was a general, correct?
Bryan Doerries: So what we know is that Sophocles was a general. We think he was elected general twice, and in the ancient world you were in the fifth century Athenian army you were elected to be a general strategos. And he all of the three major tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, we presume had some form of military service in their background. Aeschylus, you know, on his grave it didn't say: "Here lies the greatest playwright of the western world." His gravestone read "Here lies a man who fought in the battle of Marathon." Sophocles was a general. And of course in that time the citizen body of Athens was conscripted into compulsory service. And so uhm.. it's presumed that as many as 17,000 citizen soldiers comprised the audience that watched these ancient plays. And so then it comes of no coincidence that in a century in which Athens saw nearly 80 years of war, that some of the plays that have survived, the 2,500 years' period since they were written, dealt explicitly with topics that only those who've been to war or those who'd cared for those who've been to war could possibly understand.
Jo Reed: You already talked about the play Philoctetes; would you mind telling me the story of the other play by Sophocles that you present, Ajax?
Bryan Doerries: Sure. "Ajax" is the story of a extremely brave and decorated ancient Greek warrior who at the end of nine years of non-stop battle, of nine-year deployment, after losing his best friend Achilles, slips into a depression and into grief. And when betrayed by his commanding officers who end up giving his best friend's armor to Odysseus, another warrior who he feels doesn't deserve them, slips into what can only be described as a dissociative state in which he, filled with rage, attempts to kill his commanding officers and then ultimately kills animals, mistaking them for the men he comes to kill. When he wakes up from that dissociative rage he realizes that he's stained his family and disgraced his unit, and ultimately Ajax takes his own life. The play is about that, but it's also about his family, his wife, his son, his troops, trying as hard as they can to stop Ajax from harming himself when he wakes up and sees what he's actually done.
Jo Reed: I would imagine that Ajax opens up a tremendous amount of dialogue about the impact of PTSD on the families of service members returning from war.
Bryan Doerries: Yeah, the remarkable thing about Sophocles, I see Sophocles as much as a playwright and a producer health professional. He brought 17,000 citizen soldiers together and seated them at an outdoor amphitheater in the center of the city of Athens during a century in which Athens saw nearly 80 years of war. And then he told them the story, the Homeric story, a version of the story, of Ajax, in which he takes us into the mind of a soldier who's contemplating suicide. And one of the most remarkable scenes in this play is a scene in which everyone leaves the stage, which is never done in Greek tragedy. The chorus leaves, and the actor playing Ajax is left alone onstage brandishing a weapon, praying to his gods as he contemplates killing himself. And ultimately he kills himself onstage, which is almost never done in ancient Greek tragedy. So Sophocles goes so far as to stage the violence of the suicide. So all these things to me support this notion that he was trying to bring attention to an issue that his community was facing.
Tecmessa: In the dead of night, when the lamps no longer burned, Ajax found his sword and moved to the door. Naturally, I objected. “Where are you going? No messengers come calling for help, all of the soldiers are asleep, please come back to bed.” He turned to me and firmly said, “Woman. Silence becomes a woman.” I've heard that before, and I know what it means, so I quit asking questions. And he left without saying a word. Whatever happened then, I cannot say.
When service members and veterans and families see this play they immediately know what it's about. The first time we did it the first person to speak at that performance, I was re- referencing earlier, was a woman. And she stood up and she said, "Hello. I'm the proud mother of a Marine and the wife of a Navy Seal. And my husband went away four times to war just like Ajax. And each time he came back dragging invisible bodies into our house. And “our home is a slaughterhouse,” to quote from the play. The war came home with him. And when someone does something like that, when a spouse gets up and speaks the truth of her experience, bears witness, it creates a space where other spouses feel comfortable doing the same.
Jo Reed: Bryan, why do you think theater in particular and art in general can serve as a catalyst for people? What do you think it enables in us?Bryan Doerries: Well, with theater there's something direct and visceral, and I think it affects us on a just a base neurological level. In our audiences I often see people who have been made to come. You know, they say in the military when you have an audience like that they're “voluntold” to attend. And so you're looking at an audience of say 500 Marines, and they're looking at me in my arty glasses and my trim-cut suit, and I'm talking about Greek tragedy in this, you know, somewhat effete way, and I'm looking at their expressions and I can tell that they're thinking about all the different ways they might disembowel me before I finish my introduction. And then ten minutes into the performance, when Ajax comes out of his tent, or uhm.. when Athena appears, or when Tecmessa, Ajax's wife, is howling for his man to come help mount this intervention to stop her husband from killing himself, all of a sudden you look out in the audience and there are 500 Marines all sitting forward in their seats, and doing what in the military is called locking on, which means staring without blinking for an hour. And there's something about live theater that is something alchemical, something neurological, something transcendent that erases and dissolves boundaries and hierarchies temporarily, something about theater that is extremely conducive to creating a safe space for people to respond in this human way. The idea behind our work is that after we've all had a shared experience of suffering, no matter who we are or what our background, once we've come together and we've had this experience of being assaulted by these actors performing these ancient plays, for about an hour or maybe an hour and a half afterwards, I don't know, our walls come down. And with theater, and with ancient theater in particular, there's also another great advantage which is to say with these audiences where the stakes are career ending in some instances to get up and say, "I have PTSD," or "I've been depressed," or "I've thought about suicide," or "My spouse has thought about suicide," the stake couldn't be any higher. To create an environment where people feel comfortable doing that, the ancient plays are really handy at that because one can watch "Ajax" and feel all the emotions of the play, and stand up during the town hall discussion and simply say, "I really related to the scene in which Ajax said, "The great man must live in honor, or die an honorable death." That- that really spoke to my core values. The idea of death before dishonor is something that, you know, my grandfather told me about or-- someone could say that. Someone could also stand up and say and step out from behind the archetype and behind the metaphor and behind the character and say, "You know, I was really moved by that because I am Ajax." And we hear that kind of response either way, you know, 50 times in a given town hall discussion. You can simply talk about the play and everyone in the audience knows that you're speaking from a personal perspective without in any way endangering or revealing something that could be hurtful to you and your family. So that's how our format works. I think in general the arts are healing to veterans and to the communities we've- we've visited because they tap into that reminds us of things that…a good example is we were performing at a military base, an Army base for a warrior transition unit. And these are soldiers that are being transitioned usually out of the Army and medically boarded out, but during that time they are treated at as if they're their own specific unit. And after the performance, this Army soldier came up to me and he said, "I didn't feel comfortable speaking during the discussion. But I wanted to tell you, Bryan, that I think Sophocles wrote these plays to restore humanity to individuals who for whatever series of reasons felt that they had lost it along the way. I think he wrote these plays t- to restore our humanity." And I think art has the potential and the capacity to help restore humanity, because it almost reflexively involuntarily it taps into something that reminds us that we are human.
Jo Reed: Well from that performance in San Diego, you ended up collaborating with the Department of Defense. How did that come about?
Bryan Doerries: Shortly after that initial performance of "Theater of War" in 2008 someone said you should really talk to this general named Brigadier General Loree Sutton, who at the time was the founding director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. And so we did a performance at a conference for the DOD later that year. And the conference was, you know, high-ranking officials, and many generals, and all the people in the corps deco community that were coming together to address these issues. And that went extremely well, and that resulted in a series of conversations at the sort of highest levels of mental health within the military. And you know, I don't know, maybe a couple of months after that I found myself sitting around a table with 15 or 20 people high-ranking officers from every service. We even had someone from the NEA with us, Jon Peede, who'd been to some of our performances. And we also sat around the table and rolled up our sleeves and said, you know, "What would it mean to take this idea and take it to scale." By the end of the meeting we were talking about, "Well, what would it mean if we did 200 performances at 100 military bases or posts across the country?" We got a contract, and uh.. over a one-year period we did 100 performances, uhm.. more than 100 performances at military sites throughout the country and the world. And we've now presented "Theater of War," you know, 202 times. We performed in Japan. We performed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We've performed in military sites throughout the U.S.
Jo Reed: Well, you've been at this for awhile. How has Theater of War evolved over the years?
Bryan Doerries: Oh, boy. Well, so we have a number of projects now that have grown out of "Theater of War" that address pressing public health issues and social issues through live theater and discussion. And our company is now fully through-- evolved, and the name of the company is Outside the Wire, and that's in reference to a military term which refers to when service members go out the parameter fence of the forward operating base into places of danger. And in some ways all of the audiences we now perform for, whether they're hospice nurses or in prisons, or service members or addicts going to clinics, these are people who live at the extremities of life and who face danger and death on a daily basis. So the exciting thing is that methodology of "Theater of War," the sort of hard-won lessons of facilitating 200 of these events and directing them, has resulted in our applying that very same set of ideas to other social issues.
Jo Reed: Give me an example. Tell me about a project you're working on now.
Bryan Doerries: "Theater of War" has now spawned a new military project called Rum and Vodka where we've been to a lot of military site where one of the core issues they also want to discuss in the community, aside from psychological injury and combat-related combat stress is substance abuse, especially alcohol abuse. And so in response to that we developed a project called Rum and Vodka, which is selections from Conor McPherson's play, "Rum and Vodka," the Irish playwright. It was the first play he wrote when he was 20 years old living in Dublin. And it's about a 24-year old struggling with alcohol abuse, and who over the span of three days cheats on his wife, and loses his job, and drinks something like 53 pints. We just came back from a trip to Kuwait and Qatar, where we performed for the Third Army, soldiers who were about to transition back to the United States after having been deployed for a year or more. Some of them had been in Iraq and pulled back in December. And the idea behind performing at that time for those soldiers was to engage them before, as the general who brought us over there said, "They return to the land of the open bar." So here's a general in the theater of war in Kuwait and Qatar, who is using theater in a way I think very similar to Sophocles as a prevention tool, as a tool for raising awareness. And it, you know, it's seamless. I think the military understand it because this was a military technology that the civilian world has co-opted and turned into sort of a cultural experience. You know, it was pretty early in the process where I realized that I translated the play from ancient Greek and I thought I knew what it was about. But in fact the play was written in a code and that I as a civilian needed military audiences to translate for me.
Jo Reed: And on that, we'll leave it. Bryan, thank you so much.
Bryan Doerries: Oh, you're most welcome. Thanks for the opportunity.
That was Bryan Doerries, he's the creator, director and translator for Theater of War. For more information about Theater of War, go to outsidethewirellc.com
The current issue of the magazine NEA ARTS is focused on arts and the military. You can check it out at arts.gov – You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from Philoctetes performed by David Straithairn
Excerpts from Ajax performed by Adam Driver, Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel. Both used courtesy of Theater of War
Excerpts from “Valley of Hope” from the album When the Rivers Met written and performed by A. J. Racy and James Peterson, used courtesy of Lyrichord.com
The guitar music was written and performed by guitarist Jorge Hernandez used courtesy of Mr. Hernandez.
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Next week, Christopher Paul Curtis tells us how he moved from the assembly plant to becoming an award-winning author .
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.