The first plays I read in Greek as a college Classics major, some four decades ago, were titled Ajax and Philoctetes, both by Sophocles. My classmates and I dutifully hacked our way through them in thrice-weekly class meetings, as our professor gently chided our mistranslations. Something drew me powerfully to these two dramas, but it was not until four decades later, when reading Bryan Doerries’s extraordinary The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, that I understood what it was.
To read Greek tragedy in Greek as an undergraduate, or to teach undergraduates to read it, as I now do, is a peculiar endeavor. The plays themselves are intense, visceral records of agonizing experience: Ajax presents the suicide of a warrior who had gone mad; Philoctetes depicts a solitary hermit driven to despair by a wasting disease. Yet the classroom discussion of these dramas must, in most college Greek courses, focus on issues of verb tense, noun inflection, and metrical scansion. The central fact of the plays—their ability to reach the deepest levels of human pain—sits there for all to see, yet rarely gets mentioned.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about this dilemma in his essay “We Philologists.” Himself a professor Classics in the 1870s, at Switzerland’s University of Basel, Nietzsche derided his colleagues for teaching Greek texts in a way cut off from lived experience. He saw around him too many professors like the one whose legend is passed around in grad schools—a bloodless don who began his Sophocles seminar by describing Oedipus Rex as “a masterwork, filled with fascinating grammatical anomalies.”
Bryan Doerries was taught by a very different sort of man, a wizened sage named Eugen Kullman, who told him “The secret of reading is to close the book.” An undergraduate encounter with Greek opened up doors for Doerries that I, at a similar stage, was only dimly aware of. “These plays don’t live on the page,” he writes in The Theater of War. “They demand to be enacted or staged…. We must experience them in order to understand them, because tragedy is less a literary form than a blueprint for a felt experience.” He turned his efforts toward translating the plays in a stripped-down, bare-knuckle style, and then, after college, to directing them.
Nietzsche argued in “We Philologists” that the young were untempered by suffering and therefore should not read Greek tragedy. Doerries, in The Theater of War, gives him the lie. His diabetic father’s slow collapse, and the agonizing death of his girlfriend, Laura Rothenberg, from cystic fibrosis—both are described in this book’s riveting first chapter—made the sufferings of Sophocles’ disease-ridden hero all too real for him. He turned to the play Philoctetes following Laura’s death, first translating it in his own spare style, then coaching teams of actors in dramatic readings of selected scenes. Eventually he brought those performances to medical centers, where those who dealt daily with death and dying could see and discuss them.
It was at one such venue—appropriately enough, the Philoctetes Center on New York’s Upper East Side—that I first attended one of the tragedy-based events that Doerries has pioneered, and I have been to several others since. I use the term “events” advisedly. Doerries, and the actors who work with him, do not offer a traditional performance, but rather a spur to discussion and self-exploration. The dramatic reading occupies no more than an hour, after which a panel of respondents takes the floor and, finally, members of the “audience”—who by now are more participants than observers—are invited to connect the play’s content with their own lives. Doerries, wireless mic in hand, moderates these discussions with enormous grace and skill, reassuring attendees that they can safely give voice to intense emotions.
From Philoctetes, with its focus on illness and physical pain, Doerries soon moved to Ajax, a play concerned with the mental suffering and madness of a mistreated Greek warrior. Doerries began to “lock on” (a Marine Corps term he borrows in the book) to the links connecting this play, and indeed all Greek tragedy, with the traumas suffered by combat veterans. After all, he reasoned, most of Sophocles’ original audience had seen service in the long and brutal Peloponnesian War, and Sophocles himself was twice chosen to serve on a board of 10 generals. Doerries thus took his Ajax to a Marine Corps conference on combat stress, and a highly volatile chemical reaction was unleashed.
A top Army psychiatrist who saw that event gave Doerries’s outfit, now called Theater of War, her full support, and Doerries won a year-long contract to tour military bases around the world. He discussed Ajax with many troubled vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and may have saved some of their lives. His book interweaves tales from this journey with episodes from Doerries’s own life and moving discussions of the plays he cherishes—his “blueprints for felt experience,” his conduits for connection and compassion.
Some of my Classicist colleagues will no doubt have problems with this book. It privileges a primal-scream version of tragedy, in which actors are said to “shred their vocal cords,” over the subtler art form we know it once was. In his presentation of the plays here, and in performance, Doerries strips away choral odes and many other complexities to home in like a laser beam on the hero’s suffering. But it is through that intensity of focus, Doerries convinces us, that we can find permission to feel our own pain. To see his productions today, or to see Greek tragedy through his eyes, is to become measurably healthier and more human.