The Theatre of War (What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today)

 by Bryan Doerries

 A Book Review by Hugh O’Neill

“The Play’s the thing in which to catch the conscience of the king”- Hamlet, Act II, scene ii.

Theatre has long engaged our innermost concerns and is a way of exploring the darkest realms of our Humanity. Bryan Doerries, interviewed recently on Radio NZ (www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/20151209) was described thus:

Brooklyn-based theatre director, Bryan Doerries, is the founder of the ‘Theatre of War’ project, and the ‘Outside the Wire’ company which presents ancient Greek plays to returned soldiers, addicts, prison communities, and victims of natural disasters. He argues that the great tragedies of the Greeks can help a contemporary audience grapple with everything from the trauma of being in a conflict zone to end-of-life care. To date, over 60,000 service members, veterans, and their families have attended and participated in Theatre of War performances worldwide. Bryan Doerries’ book, is ‘The Theatre of War”.

In his book, Doerries’ relates how his own suffering and loss found resonance in 5th century BC Greek tragedies. He contends that Human reaction to trauma is indeed timeless: the horrors of war, violence, pestilence and disaster still affect us now as they did 2,500 years ago. His special insight – from a deep reading of Aristotle’s Poetics – is that tragic plays were written for a specific purpose which was to create catharsis or healing by revisiting these most painful private experiences and understand that one’s reaction is not unique, but is a normal (indeed healthy) Human response to inhuman suffering. The audiences of the time would have consisted mainly of veterans since the Peloponnesian Wars lasted some 80 years.

Doerries was not the first to note the parallels between certain characters in the Classical oeuvre and soldiers suffering what – post-Vietnam War – is labeled “PTSD” (hitherto known since WWI as “shell shock”): Dr. Jonathan Shay wrote “Achilles in Vietnam” on the parallels between veterans of both Vietnam and the Homeric epics. Shay has also noted Shakespeare’s accurate observations of PTSD by Lady Percy (Henry IV, Act II, scene ii). Thus Shakespeare has an intrinsic understanding of the effects of war on the mind, and how nightmares continued the disturbance long after the events occurred.

Labeling the condition a disorder – as Doerries and Shay seem to suggest – is wrong, since it adds further blame upon its victims and somehow makes them the problem, rather than the experience which caused it. Shay prefers the term ‘moral injury’ a condition most apparent when the individual’s moral compass is suppressed by authority (as in the infamous Milgram Experiment). Few of us can measure up to the presumptive verdict of Nuremburg i.e. it is no defence to say one was only following orders. Such few are pilloried as traitors and cowards and suffer the most extreme forms of persecution (Archibald Baxter’s Field Punishment No.1)

There is patently a serious problem for American society with some reports attesting that suicides post-Vietnam are almost double the 58,000 ‘killed in action’ (a.k.a. KIA). One figure cited for the current conflicts in the Middle East suggest a rate of 22 suicides each day. The problem is perhaps compounded by the success of battlefield medical care i.e. more survive horrific injuries which hitherto would have proved fatal. Furthermore, the true savagery of war is a political inconvenience, to be concealed from the general public: the real tragedy happens offstage. Men and women suffer physical and mental torment whilst society looks the other way. There are no winners in war – except the bankers and arms manufacturers.

Doerries has a scholarly, non-military background – despite the numerous bases which surrounded his home in Virginia. He was moved to ‘do something’ after reading of the plight of veterans in the rat-infested Walter Reed hospital. His efforts were galvanized by an article in the NY Times (Jan 13th 2008) by Sontag & Alvarez quoting Captain P. Nash describing PTSD in the Sophocles’ play about the Homeric Ajax. Depressed after the Trojan War, Ajax unwittingly slaughtered a herd of animals and then had fallen on his own sword. Doerries contacted Nash and eventually the scene was set for the first theatrical event: 4 actors reading aloud extracts from Sophocles’ works on Ajax and Philoctetes both of which plays addressed powerful feelings of injustice and abandonment (N.B. Sophocles was also a military general). The sparse acting focused more emphasis on words and emotions. One hour of theatre was followed by several hours of very democratic audience discussion led by Doerries: the play had provoked deep feelings and gave license to air private concerns in a public forum – not all of which made for comfortable listening – especially to those in command.

However, word spread and the “Theatre of War” performed for diverse audiences using a play specific to that audience. For the prison staff at Guantanamo, a performance based on Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” evoked the unexpected response that some identified with the tortured character of Prometheus whilst others saw themselves in his reluctant jailer Hephaestus, or his enthusiastic jailers Kratos (Power) and Bia (Force). The audience discussion was uninhibited despite the presence of a 4 star general; Doerries’ final question on the justice of Prometheus’ fate provoked one very senior lawyer to catharsis by his bitter denouncement of the US having lost all moral authority by refusing their prisoners a fair trial. It was this moral conflict given utterance which explained why so many identified with the fate of Prometheus, ‘chained to a rock at the end of the Earth’.

It is laudable that Doerries strives to re-Humanise those de-Humanised by war, military service, penal institutions etc. The masters of war and genocide must first dehumanize the perceived enemy, and then de-humanize their own people to fear, hate and kill the ‘enemy’. We saw this in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and in the increasing belligerence of the US Military Industrial Complex – as warned by President Eisenhower in his valedictory of 17th January 1961. The Peloponnesian wars were fought for existential reasons whereas US wars are fought for profit – irrespective of the consequences. The un-asked question in this story: who will provide catharsis for the countless millions of victims of war – the dead, maimed, orphaned and homeless? It may be unfair to expect this question from Doerries, but it must be asked nonetheless. Doerries has begun to speak truth to power which ability was the essence of Democracy –in the Greek sense of the word (Demos Kratos = people–power). Democracy flowered in Athens when a small hierarchical society, under existential threat, had masters and slaves literally pulling on the same oars. Today, the whole of Creation faces existential threat from Climate Change. “In the final analysis, we all live on the same small planet. We breathe the same air. We cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” (JFK 10/6/63)<--break->

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