Another in what’s become more than an occasional series. Bryan Dorries’ The Theater of War is among the most harrowing and uplifting books I’ve read. It mines a variety of modern applications for Greek tragedy. Like its subject, it achieves its purpose by taking readers to the depths of fear, anger, despair. Then Dorries clears out the detritus of those human emotions. One can debate whether he achieves catharsis, the aim of Greek tragedy.
But before I ever got to the stories of the veterans and active-duty military personnel who have benefited from the productions, I had my own days of wallowing in regret. You see, I was a theater major in college and studied ancient Greek. I’ve been walking around wondering why I didn’t pursue one or both. Then perhaps I might have been the one to bring Ajax and the other plays to audiences who could truly benefit. It didn’t take long to overcome the regret about not pursuing Greek, but I still mourn giving up my first love, theater.
That mourning grew painful when I read the NYTimes article, “On the Margins, With a Front-Row Seat.” It describes how Michelle Hensley’s barebones company Ten Thousand Things stages productions of Shakespeare and other classics. Among other adventures, she brings Waiting for Godot to prisons with a woman playing Vladimir.
So with all that regret washing around, I dove into the stories of PTSD, violence against self and others.
Theater of War opens with the story of Ajax, a decorated veteran of the nine-years war against Troy. His best friend Achilles has died in battle, and the authorities reject Ajax for the honor of receiving the dead man’s armor. Grief and pain smother him until he kills a herd of cattle, which he believes are humans. Feeling he has disgraced himself, Ajax commits suicide.
When Dorries was launching script readings, he asked his military audience why General Sophocles wrote the play. A “junior enlisted soldier” responds, “He wrote it boost morale.” When pressed, the man says, “It’s the truth … we’re all here watching it together.” With that, Dorries puts his theme out front as “a message for our time. Sophocles didn’t whitewash the horrors of war. … [b]y presenting the truth of war to combat veterans, he sought to give voice to their struggles and to convey to them they were not alone.”
Dorries continues the tradition with his own translations of the plays. The dialogue appears far clearer, more realistic, and less obscure than any translation I’ve ever read. He also frames the work with his own personal tragedy, describing the brief life and tormented death of his girlfriend from cystic fibrosis at age twenty-two.
As Sophocles did, Dorries personalizes the effect of war and loss on family members, wives in particular. He makes clear that the wife of Ajax was in fact a “battle bride” or prize of war, forced to choose between slavery and “marriage” to the man who had killed her brothers and father. Just as Ajax’s suffering and death can uplift the spirit of the military person, Tecmessa’s reaction to him and his moods helped the wives speak their truth as they watched the men they loved turn into people they didn’t recognize and in some cases threaten or harm them and their children.
Though they seem unrelated, the final two sections of Theater of War add new dimensions. Dorries brought Prometheus Bound to Missouri corrections officers and Women of Trachis to hospice workers. Each group has a potential connection to his original audience of active and former military people. The plays offer a necessary insight in to our current situation. In the Aeschylus tragedy, Prometheus the god brings fire to humans. For his crime he is chained to a rock and subjected to what Dorries terms “extreme incarceration.” Prometheus refuses to bow to authority despite the infliction of never-ending pain. The corrections officers do not react in the same immediate and compelling way as the soldiers did, but the account nevertheless provides a telling commentary on the state of our society.
The short final chapter, framed around Sophocles’ Women of Trachis has immediacy and even more global appeal. Heracles returns home once again in triumph, but this time he brings a pretty young woman. Thinking she has a love potion, his wife sends him a cloak permeated with the blood of a centaur that Heracles had killed years before. In fact the blood acts like a flesh-eating bacteria. Heracles begs his fellow soldiers and others witnessing his suffering to kill him. Everyone, including his son, declines. I have been on the receiving end of that request though in less direct form and never want to experience it again. With Dorries as his interpreter, Sophocles brings it home in a way that is excruciating and necessary.
My only hesitation in this magnificent work: Maybe I needed to watch a performance because, as mentioned above, the catharsis that is the promise of the Greek plays never arrives.
Despite that reservation, this is a book for the ages. Anyone with any interest in veterans or military affairs, the theater, prison reform, or the hospice movement, or even just a passing interest in ancient Greece must read The Theater of War.