Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

U.S. Veterans Use Greek Tragedy to Tell Us About War

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Bruce Headlam has a good column in the NY Times, with video (at the link):

The ancient Greeks didn’t go to the theater just to be entertained. Aristotle believed that audiences saw themselves reflected in tragic characters and that the very act of watching a character’s downfall helped purge them of emotions like pity and fear, a process he called catharsis or, roughly, “purification.”

More than 2,500 years later, a young classics major named Bryan Doerries wondered whether he could help a growing and vulnerable population in need of catharsis: veterans of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom come home from combat with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.

His idea became a project he calls Theater of War, which has now staged more than 400 performances for veterans across the country. He asked high-profile actors, including Adam Driver, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, to read from the war plays of Sophocles. After the reading, the veterans in the audience talk about their own trauma and their trouble readjusting to civilian life.

The project has attracted thousands of veterans and their families as they try to readjust to life away from the battlefield. It isn’t an easy process.

“You create a permissive enough environment where people can speak truth,” Mr. Doerries said. “The Greeks have a word which means ‘balanced-mindedness,’ which was the ideal of the fifth century. So how do you rebalance the mind of an Athenian? Part of the answer is to give them the opportunity to vent and purge these emotions that can’t be bottled up.”

Inspired by the example of Theater of War, we have created our own version of Sophocles’ poetry. We asked a dozen or so veterans to read passages from two of his war plays and to talk about what the passages meant to them. We turned their readings and their comments into two videos — one about a soldier’s suicide and the other about living with injury.

One, called “A Warrior’s Last Words,” is adapted from the play “Ajax” and shows Ajax and his wife, Tecmessa, as he contemplates suicide. The other video, “If Men Don’t Know My Story,” is a speech from the play “Philoctetes” (pronounced fill-ock-TEE-tees), in which a badly wounded soldier describes how the generals abandoned him on an island for nine years.

So instead of getting insights into themselves by listening to Greek poetry, these veterans are using the poetry to give us insight into their own experience.

“The first time I heard Ajax’s speech, it knocked me back in my chair,” said Jeff Hall, a retired Army commander from Oklahoma who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts after returning from Iraq. “It was me. I could see how he was betrayed in the text.”

Mr. Hall’s wife, Sheri, is the voice of Tecmessa in the video — the long-suffering spouse of Ajax, who lives in fear of her husband’s dark thoughts.

“She was walking around on eggshells and so were we during our time of Jeff’s PTSD onset, and the things going on with his anger and his depression,” she said. “It really spoke to me, especially with what she was dealing with. I was going through the same things.”

While Sophocles is better remembered for writing “Antigone” and “Oedipus Rex,” he was also a general in the Athenian Army and lived during the decades-long Peloponnesian War. He wrote “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for audiences that most likely included his army’s own soldiers.

“The theme that’s most prevalent in both plays is . . .

Continue reading.

See also the excellent book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 May 2017 at 9:32 am

Posted in Art, Books, Military

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