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What can Sophocles teach today's wounded heroes?

Can words written by a Greek playwright 2500 years ago during a lifetime that spanned from the savagely fought Persian Wars to the horrific Peloponnesian War shed any light on the circumstances facing today's American soldiers returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan?

At first one is tempted to say no, the art of war has changed immeasurably since the era of the Greek heroes, as has over a hundred generations of killing technology.  But the longer one reflects on these changes, the clearer it becomes that some aspects of war have hardly changed at all.  What are today's Predator Drone aircraft or roadside improvised explosive devices with their controllers ensconced in remote locations but real world 21st century versions of the elliptical plot device referred to by Aristotle as the "apò mēkhanḗs theós," or what the Roman poet Horace later dubbed "deus ex machina,"--what we today might call the "god in the machine."
Young men and women--most of whom serve out of a sense of honor and duty rather than a specific ideological commitment--are still horribly damaged and disfigured, often in close firefights and sometimes even hand to hand combat.  And even if they survive relatively unscarred physically, many return behaviorally and psychologically damaged in ways that may not at first be apparent: ways we have come to associate with the term "post-traumatic stress disorder."  No one who enters into a combat zone comes out completely unchanged; the horror of war and its memories haunts some men and women for a lifetime.
According to New York City based writer, translator, and director Bryan Doerries, sharing the experiences of warriors from classically antiquity with the soldiers of today can not only bring keen insights into the existential situation of the warrior, it can also facilitate open discussion of deep rooted anxieties and fears soldiers are often conditioned to suppress while on the battlefield as a survival mechanism.
Since 2005, Doerries--a University of California at Irvine trained classicist and scholar--with a particular interest in the work of Sophocles, has headed what he calls the " Philoctetes Project," which is also known within the military and its various support organizations as Theater of War Productions, LLC
In what began at first as a thought experiment, Doerries scripted, produced and directed a series of staged readings of two of the seven Sophocles plays that have survived from antiquity and deal directly with the figure of the wounded hero: his Ajax--thought to be one of the playwright's early works dating back to as far as 450 B.C., and his Philoctetes--believed to be the great tragedian's final work written in his late 80's during the height of the Peloponnesian War.  Philoctetes was first performed at the Festival of Dionysus in 409 B.C., where it won first prize. Sophocles died at age 91 in the winter of 406/405 B.C.
Designed initially for presentation in seminars and workshops for medical and mental health professionals, caregivers, and students in order to give them a broader understanding of what returning soldiers experience as they rejoin their families and civilian life, the project evoked such a powerful response from its highly-targeted audience that Doerries was able to recruit professional actors--including several of the top names in the New York City theater community--to participate in the readings. 
Enlisting such accomplished film and stage actors such as Paul Giamatti, Terrence Howard, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor, Gloria Reuben, Jeffrey Wright and Charles S. Dutton brought considerable media attention to the Philoctetes Project, and eventually interest of the military itself, which approached Doerries in 2008 with the Iraq insurgency in full swing and casualty figures mounting to develop a series of performances of his adaptations of Sophocles for military communities across the United States.  This past month, the Philoctetes Project completed its first tour of United States military communities abroad, with staged readings of Ajax and Philoctetes at Army, Air Force and Marine facilities across Germany.  On a earlier leg of what has become an endless round of touring, Doerries and his company visited Daemen College and Buffalo's New Phoenix Theater on November 15th and 16th of 2008.
"These ancient plays timelessly and universally depict the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon warriors by war. By presenting these plays to military audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury and open a safe space for dialogue about the challenges faced by service members, veterans, and their caregivers and families," Doerries has written in his introductory material to these performances. 
Developing a rationale that owes much to his reading of Greek tragedy's ritual aspect in Aristotle's Poetics--specifically, its capacity to effect a "purification" or "cleansing" that (by some interpretations) has an actual physiological "purgative" quality known as catharsis (from the Greek infinitive kathairein)--Doerries suggests "that ancient Greek drama was a form of storytelling, communal therapy, and ritual reintegration for combat veterans by combat veterans. Sophocles himself was a general. At the time Aeschylus wrote and produced his famous Oresteia, Athens was at war on six fronts. The audiences for whom these plays were performed were undoubtedly comprised of citizen-soldiers. Also, the performers themselves were most likely veterans or cadets. Seen through this lens, ancient Greek drama appears to have become elaborate ritual aimed at helping combat veterans return to civilian life after deployments during a century that saw 80 years of war."

"Plays like Sophocles' Ajax and Philoctetes read like textbook descriptions of wounded warriors, struggling under the weight of psychological and physical injuries to maintain their dignity, identity, and honor. Given this context, it seemed natural that military audiences today might have something to teach us about the impulses behind these ancient stories. It also seemed like these ancient stories would have something important and relevant to say to military audiences," he maintains.
Sophocles' Ajax is the play Doerries and his company use to facilitate discussion of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other difficulties returning veterans have in adjusting to family and civilian life.  In the play, one of the greatest heroes of Homer's Iliad is dishonored and irrationally angered because the fallen Achilles' armor is awarded to not to him, but to the wily Odysseus. He vows revenge against the Greek leaders who have disrespected him, but is tricked into violent, delusional actions by Odysseus' protector Athena that only lead to his further public humiliation.  In the tragedy, the angry, confused and dishonored Ajax impales himself upon the sword given him by the great Trojan hero Hector, who he had dueled to a stalemate in the Iliad. 

Philoctetes, by way of contrast, is a play that explores the psychology of the disabled warrior, alienated and seemingly ostracized by his own peers and family, as he or she attempts to recover from his or her injuries and damaged sense of self-worth.  In Sophocles' version, Philoctetes--who was bequeathed Heracles' sword in return for the favor of lighting his funeral pyre--but bitten by a poisonous snake en route to the Trojan War and abandoned by Odysseus on the island of Lemnos (presumably to die of the festering) suddenly finds himself back in demand when it is prophesied that the Greeks will not prevail without arrows aimed by Heracles bow.

Each Philoctetes Project reading is followed by a "town hall" style audience discussion with the producer and actors which is facilitated with the help of professional caregivers and military community members. "These have been arresting, emotionally-charged events, in which service members have spoken openly about their experiences in combat and at home," Doerries told arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown in a recent PBS Newshour feature.  To view the entire 8 minute segment on one such Philoctetes Project performance in Arlington, Virginia, visit Using Drama to Understand and Heal the Wounds of War | PBS NewsHour.
--R.D. Pohl


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