Solace for Vets from Sophocles

Antonio Zanchi, "The Death of Ajax"

Antonio Zanchi, “The Death of Ajax”


Here’s a New Yorker story that confirms this blog’s deepest claims for literature: a group has been doing dramatic readings of Greek tragedies in order to reach out to veterans suffering from PTSD.

Robin Wright reports attending a dramatic reading of Sophocles’s Ajax on the eve of 9/11, along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a couple of hundred military officers and veterans and their families. Here’s what she witnessed:

They were rapt when the Emmy-winning actor Reg E. Cathey wailed in agony onstage, as Ajax, a great Greek warrior overcome with guilt, madness, and suicidal rage during the ninth year of the Trojan War. In a blind fury, Ajax slayed all the cows and sheep around him, believing they were the commanders who had betrayed him and his honor. He turned his home into a blood-strewn slaughterhouse. When he came to, he was overcome with shame.

“When a man suffers without end in sight, and takes no pleasure in living his life, day by day wishing for death, he should not live out all his years,” Ajax moaned. Tears flowed down his cheeks—and the play was only a reading. Moments later, Cathey enacted Ajax’s suicide. “No more talk of tears,” Ajax said. “It’s time,” and he lunged onto his sharpened sword.

Wright observes,

The ancient Greeks, who lived in the world’s first militarized democracy, at one point faced war on six fronts. They understood the toxic costs of conflict. Almost twenty-five hundred years ago, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides wrote tragedies about the human spirit shattered, corrupted, and abused by war. Sophocles, who was also a long-serving general, wrote Ajax. Catharsis was so integral to Greek military life that war tragedies were performed during annual theatre festivals for seventeen thousand troops, from lowly cadets to commanders, writes the author and director Bryan Doerries, in his 2015 book, The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.

The article then sets forth the devastating statistics indicating why the plays are still crucial:

Sixty per cent of veterans from the most recent wars now suffer a mental-health issue related to their military service, according to a survey, in May, by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Forty per cent have contemplated suicide—at least once. Twenty veterans kill themselves every day, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported in July, from the first comprehensive study of military suicides. The study scoured fifty-five million veterans’ records, from 1979 to 2014. (Suicides among female veterans increased by eighty-five per cent over that period.) Those figures do not include suicides among active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, which began to increase in 2005.

The idea for the dramatic readings was Bryan Doerries, who runs the group Theater of War and who has translated Ajax and Philoctetes, also by Sophocles. Here’s an account of performing the latter play:

At the 9/11 reading of the plays, David Strathairn, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor, portrayed Philoctetes, an injured warrior abandoned on an island by his own forces. “Earth, swallow this body whole, receive me just as I am, for I can’t stand it any longer!” he screeched, pleading. The pain “cuts straight through me. I am being eaten alive.” He depended on “a special herb” to diminish his anguish. 

“Oh, I am wretched!” he lamented. “Death! Death! Death! Where are you? Why, after all these years of calling, have you not appeared?” Unlike Ajax, Philoctetes was saved, after nine years of suffering, albeit mainly because his skills as an archer were needed for war.

Read the article to get a full account of the different responses to the readings but here ‘s one of them:

The first performance was for four hundred marines in San Diego, in 2008. In the public discussion afterward, as Doerries recounted in his book, Marshéle Waddell told the audience, “I am a proud mother of a marine and the wife of a Navy Seal. My husband went away four times to war, and each time he returned, like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into the house. The war came home with him. And, to quote from the play, ‘Our home is a slaughterhouse.’

At another reading, a veteran reported,

I suffer from combat-induced P.T.S.D.,” he told the audience, choking up. Isolation is a euphemism now for trying to deal with the horrors, agony, guilt, shame, and fear accrued in war. Those who suffer are often like Ajax, he said. “Sometimes we do things that we don’t recall.”

Yet another veteran quoted a line from Ajax at the grave of a friend:

He had spent the afternoon in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the area where those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. He was visiting the grave of a friend. From memory, he cited the lines from Ajax: “Cut my throat right here, right now, add me to this pile. End my suffering.”

There are also passages from Ajax that speak to the suffering of spouses, such as the words of Ajax’s wife, who tries to save her husband but cannot.

Often the most power part of the performances are the conversations that they engender afterwards. The article concludes with Doerries discussing his new appreciation for tragedy:

“It took a hundred performances for me to realize people want to talk about the darkest aspects of the human experience,” Doerries told me. “I had thought tragedies were an extreme expression of pessimism, depicting a world in which we humans barely apprehend the forces upon us—fate, chance, luck, governments, genetics, gods—until it’s too late, and we’ve destroyed ourselves and our families for generations to come.”

But why, then, he asked, did the Greeks hold three days of theatre festivals for a third of the population? “What if the purpose of tragedy is not only to wake us up to the fact that we can make a choice before it’s too late but also to connect us with each other—and understand that we can face it as a community?”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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