Theater of War Heals Through Greek Tragedy at Brooklyn Academy of Music

NEW YORK – “Theater of War’ is the creation of a theater company called Outside the Wire. It was first funded by the Pentagon in 2009 as an “innovative public health project that presents powerful dramatic readings a catalyst for town hall discussion in military communities about combat and deployment related stress,” according to the program for the most recent presentation of the Hellenic Humanities Program, an endeavor of the Onassis Cultural Center NY in conjunction with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
On September 28 Outside the Wire Artistic Director Bryan Doerries and Producing Director and four passionate actors presented “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” two plays by Sophocles about some of the more harrowing incidents of the Trojan War. It was for the general public, few of whom come into contact with soldiers in our era of volunteer armed forces.
More than 200 people filled the Fishman Space for the 274th performance.
There was no scenery, no visual elements help bring ancient Ajax’s battlefields or the deserted island of Lemnos, where Philoctetes was abandoned to mind. The audience came to understand the power of 2500 year old words to heal through the dramatic skills of Reg E. Cathey, Frances McDormand, Jake Gyllenhaal and David Stathairn.
Ajax, a great Greek warrior near his breaking point after nine years of bloodshed, snapped when he was not awarded Achilles famed armor. His anger turned to murderous rage directed at the Greek military leadership, which was saved at the expense of Ajax’ madness. Athena clouded his mind, causing him to vent his murderous rage on farm animals.
When Ajax came to himself overwhelmed by shame, he ignored the pleadings of his wife, he walked off and impaled himself on his sword.
“Ajax, Ajax…my name is a sad song,” Ajax said of its resemblance to the plaintive cry “ai, ai.”
The story powerfully echoes modern cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Everyone has heard of PTSD, but few fully grasp its life-altering power – for victims and their families.
The second play tells the tale of Philoctetes. While sailing to Troy, a snake bite caused him constant agony and emitted a horrible smell. For the sake of the army’s morale, Odysseus left him behind on deserted Lemnos.
“Death, death, death where are you? Why after all my years of calling have you not appeared,” he screamed.
Doerries made the point that he reduced Philoctetes’ blood-curdling outcries from 15 minutes to just a few, and reminded that Sophocles knew that in the first rows of the theater, just a few feet from the actors sat Athens’ generals.
The plays were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Doerries with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Geraci, Brigadier General Loree Sutton, and combat veterans Susanne Rosignol and Fahah Khan.
Geraci explained that he is bi-lingual in this context: he is both an officer who witnessed in Afghanistan what was being discussed, and a licensed mental health provider now engaged in research to help veterans with the transition back into civilian life.
He spoke about how the plays reflect the challenges and pain experienced by today’s soldiers and said the play binds us across time on a deep personal level which Carl Jung called the collective unconscious.
“We are on a warrior’s journey, we are transformed by the experiences that were shared with you this evening,” he said, and highlighted veterans’ challenges by emphasizing that “it takes all your energy to keep the emotions down.”
“The other option is to let it out and share the pain and anger with others in your life,” in a way that is conducive to “post-traumatic growth,” and that is how programs like “Theater of War’ work.
All the panelists noted the importance of institutions and the people in veterans’ lives reaching out to them, helping them share their experiences.
Geraci said two elements are needed for healing to take place, 1) Society must be willing to take responsibility – “yes we sent you there and we will help to re-integrate you” and 2) Someone to share one’s pain with.
Rosignol spoke of the long journey of healing and the need for understanding from the people who see soldiers attack themselves in their sleep, and those who share their bed.
Khan brought up the terrible toll of suicide: Harper’s reported that 8000 veterans took their own lives last year.
During the town hall meeting that followed, Doerries asked the audience what they thought Sophocles, a general himself, was aiming at. The suggestions included forcing his fellow generals to understand the effects of their decisions, and getting the Greek soldiers and veterans – the play’s audience was comprised of males, the Athens’ citizen soldiers – to open up about their experiences to facilitate their healing.

PHOTO: David Strathairn, as Philoctetes, Jake Gyllenhaal as Neoptolemos and Reg. E. Cathey as Odysseus in a dramatic reading of Sophocles’ Philoctetes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


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