Tragedies Help Communities Heal from Timeless Wounds
One of the first people to speak after a Theater of War performance was a perfectly kempt military spouse with blonde hair, striking blue eyes, and a soft, unassuming voice. She leaned into the microphone, took in the crowd of nearly 400 Marines and their spouses seated shoulder-to-shoulder in a dimly lit Hyatt Regency Ballroom in San Diego, cleared her throat, and said: “I am the proud mother of a Marine, and the wife of a Navy Seal. My husband went away four times to war, and each time—like Ajax—he came back dragging invisible bodies into our house. The war came home with him. And to quote from the play, ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.’”
The Marines all held their breath, as if kicked in the gut with a steel-toed boot. In the back, a small group congregated around a cash bar, nursing Budweisers, staring at the floor and waiting out the silence. In the far back, there was even a dinner buffet, though no one seemed in the mood for eating.
Those Marines who had elected to attend the reading of scenes from Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes, or as one Marine called it, our “little skit,” had been attending a conference in August of 2008 on Combat Operational Stress Control, the Marine Corps’ way of referring to post-traumatic stress without pathologizing it. They had freely chosen ancient Greek dinner theater over tickets to a San Diego Padres game, and many of them had brought their spouses and girlfriends to the performance. The bar and buffet certainly helped draw the crowd, as did the presence of several well known actors, including Jesse Eisenberg and David Strathairn, but no one who showed up that night had any idea of what was about to happen.
Many of the Marines came expecting to see a fully staged reenactment of the 300 Spartans bravely standing down the Persian Army at the Battle of Thermopylae, featuring hack-and-slash swordplay and pyrotechnics. But when they discovered four actors in their street clothes sitting at a long table in front of microphones, wielding scripts instead of battle-axes or spears, many of them were visibly disappointed.
Sophocles’ Ajax tells the story of a fierce warrior who slips into a depression near the end of The Trojan War, after losing his best friend, Achilles. Feeling betrayed, when the Greek generals award Achilles’ armor to Odysseus, Ajax attempts to murder his commanding officers, fails, and—ultimately—takes his own life. The play tells the story of the events leading up to Ajax’ suicide, as well as the story of how his wife and troops attempt to intervene before it's too late.
Twenty minutes into the performance—as Bill Camp, the formidable New York actor playing Ajax, wailed and screamed about how he wished to kill Odysseus, “the thief who stole my honor,” and finally resolved that “a great man must live in honor, or die an honorable death,” before plunging himself upon the enemy’s sword—something in the audience seemed to shift.
All the Blackberries disappeared. Everyone in the room leaned forward and “locked on,” a military term that describes when service members stare intensely at something or someone without blinking for a preternaturally long period of time. Some Marines rested their heads in their hands, peering through the cracks in their fingers. Others gazed off into the distance, glazed over, but fully listening with every fiber of their beings. A few wiped tears from their eyes, tightly gripping spouses’ hands, while others smirked at certain words with uncanny recognition. It was if these ancient plays had finally found their intended audience, almost 2,500 years after they had first been performed.
In the Theater of Dionysus, where Sophocles’ plays premiered, as many as 17,000 citizen-soldiers gathered each spring to watch performances of tragedies that only those who had been to war, or cared for those who had been to war, could possibly understand. Following Sophocles’ lead, my company, Outside the Wire, has presented more than 200 readings of ancient Greek war plays in military communities throughout the United States, Germany, and Japan as a catalyst for town hall discussions about the visible and invisible wounds of war. And what we’ve learned over the past three years of touring is that when people see their own private struggles reflected in an ancient story, they open up and share some of the most personal and profound things—things they’ve never said out loud—let alone in front of an audience.
There is a theory that storytelling, and Greek tragedy in particular, arose in the western world from the need to hear and tell the veteran’s story—to help those who’d been to war make meaning out of their fragmented memories, and to evenly distribute the burden of what veterans brought back from battle upon the shoulders of the entire community. Sophocles was a general in the Athenian army. The actors in his plays would undoubtedly have been combat veterans. The Trojan War, at the center of many of the surviving plays, was as distant to the Athenians as the Athenians are now to us. Seen through this lens, Sophocles’ plays emerge as a powerful public health awareness tool, an ancient military technology that we are now harnessing to deliver a healing message to veterans and their families throughout the world. Or, as one combat veteran put it after an early performance of Theater of War, “Knowing that PTSD goes back to BC gives me the feeling I’m not totally alone.”
Many of the greatest humanistic achievements of 5th Century Athens—arguably, one of the most highly militarized democracies to ever inhabit the earth—were forged in the crucible of constant military conflict. Art and war were vitally and inextricably interconnected. Perhaps one of the most overlooked, and yet crowning, achievements of this ancient democracy, from which we have borrowed so much, was the wholesale use of the arts to communalize the experience of war. The Greeks knew that the arts had the power to convey the spirit of an ultimately indescribable experience. Through their plays, Sophocles and his contemporaries forged a common public vocabulary for openly acknowledging and discussing the impact of war on individuals, families, and communities.