The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today

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9780307959454: The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today

This is the personal and deeply passionate story of a life devoted to reclaiming the timeless power of an ancient artistic tradition to comfort the afflicted. For years, theater director Bryan Doerries has led an innovative public health project that produces ancient tragedies for current and returned soldiers, addicts, tornado and hurricane survivors, and a wide range of other at-risk people in society.

Drawing on these extraordinary firsthand experiences, Doerries clearly and powerfully illustrates the redemptive and therapeutic potential of this classical, timeless art: how, for example, Ajax can help soldiers and their loved ones better understand and grapple with PTSD, or how Prometheus Bound provides new insights into the modern penal system. These plays are revivified not just in how Doerries applies them to communal problems of today, but in the way he translates them himself from the ancient Greek, deftly and expertly rendering enduring truths in contemporary and striking English.
 
The originality and generosity of Doerries’s work is startling, and The Theater of War—wholly unsentimental, but intensely felt and emotionally engaging—is a humane, knowledgeable, and accessible book that will both inspire and enlighten. Tracing a path that links the personal to the artistic to the social and back again, Doerries shows us how suffering and healing are part of a timeless process in which dialogue and empathy are inextricably linked.

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About the Author:

BRYAN DOERRIES is a writer, director, and translator. He is the founder of Theater of War, a project that presents readings of ancient Greek plays to service members, veterans, and their families to help them initiate conversations about the visible and invisible wounds of war. He is also the co-founder of Outside the Wire, a social-impact company that uses theater and a variety of other media to address pressing public health and social issues, such as combat-related psychological injury, end-of-life care, prison reform, domestic violence, political violence, recovery from natural and man-made disasters, and addiction. A self-described “evangelist” for classical literature and its relevance to our lives today, Doerries uses age-old approaches to help individuals and communities heal after suffering and loss.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

9780307959454|excerpt

Doerries / THEATER OF WAR

Learning Through Suffering

I

In the fall of fourth grade, I landed a small role in a production of Euripides’ Medea at the local community college in Newport News, Virginia, where my father taught experimental psychology. I played one of the ill-fated boys slaughtered at the hand of their pathologically jealous mother. I can still remember my one line, which I belted backstage with abandon as several drama majors pretended to bludgeon me with long wooden canes behind a black velvet curtain—“No, no, the sword is falling!” The director, a short, fiery German auteur with spiky white hair and a black leather jacket always draped over his shoulders like a cape, would scream at the cast during rehearsals at the top of his lungs until we delivered our lines with the appropriate zeal. Whenever our performances reached the desired fever pitch, he would jump up from his chair and explode with delight, “Now veeee are koooooking!”

During daytime performances for local high school students, the boredom in the theater was as palpable as the thick layer of humidity generated by sweaty adolescents fidgeting in their seats, whispering and blowing spitballs in the shadows, waiting for the agony to end. Whenever I entered the stage, wearing a tight gold polyester tunic, which clung to my thighs and itched mercilessly under the unforgiving lights, I heard rippling waves of laughter move through the crowd. What’s so funny? I wondered, squinting into the stage lights. After the show closed, at the cast party, one of my fellow actors confirmed that the laughter had, in fact, been at my expense. Unaccustomed to wearing a tunic, I had provided the high school audiences with an extended, full frontal view of my underwear while perched atop a large granite boulder. Seeing my Fruit of the Looms was likely the most memorable event in those students’ mandatory encounter with Euripides.

Most of us probably developed an allergy to ancient Greek drama in high school, when some well-intending English teacher required us to read plays like Oedipus the King, Antigone, Prometheus Bound, and The Oresteia in rigid Victorian translation, or forced us to watch seemingly endless films featuring British actors in loose-fitting sheets and golden sandals declaiming the vocative refrain “O, Zeus!” from behind masks. If your early encounters with the ancient Greeks zapped you of any ambition to ever pick up a play by Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides again, you are not alone. Aeschylus is known for having written in his play Agamemnon that humans “learn through suffering,” but for most students, studying ancient Greek drama is just an exercise in suffering, with no apparent educational value.

Ironically, some scholars now suggest that attending the dramatic festivals in ancient Greece and watching plays by the great tragic poets served as an important rite of passage for late-adolescent males, known as ephebes. It is for this reason, according to the argument, that so many of the tragedies feature teenage characters—such as Antigone, Pentheus, Neoptolemus, and Orestes—thrust into ethically fraught situations with no easy answers and in which someone is likely to die. According to this understanding, tragedy may have been viewed as formalized training, preparing late adolescents for the ethical and emotional challenges of adult life, including military service and civic participation. In other words, the very plays that were designed thousands of years ago to educate and engage teenagers, to help transform them from children into productive citizens, have managed to bore them senseless for centuries.

One hope of this book is to administer an antidote to the obligatory high school unit on ancient Greek tragedy.

The first thing you learn in school about tragedy is that it tells the story of a good and prosperous individual who is brought to ruin by some defect in his or her character. This traditional reading of Greek tragedy goes something like this: Blinded by pride, or hubris, Oedipus ignores the warning of an oracle, unwittingly murders his father and sleeps with his mother, and—though he manages to save the people of Thebes from the bloodthirsty Sphinx—ultimately turns out to be the contagion that is plaguing his city. Conclusion: Oedipus was a great but flawed individual who was deluded by power and crushed by external forces beyond his grasp. We love stories about well-intentioned, flawed characters, because they make the most compelling drama. Also, as Aristotle pointed out, we take no pleasure in watching morally flawless people suffer.

But the ancient Greek word commonly translated in textbooks as “flaw,” hamartia, more accurately means “error,” from the verb hamartano, “to miss the mark.” Centuries later, by the time of the New Testament, the same word—hamartia—came to mean “sin,” fully loaded with all its moral judgment. In other words, tragedies depict characters making mistakes, rather than inherent flaws in character. I know that I miss the mark hundreds of times each day. I often have to lose my way in order to find the right path forward. Making mistakes, even habitually and unknowingly, is central to what it means to be human. Characters in Greek tragedies stray, err, and get lost. They are no more flawed than the rest of humanity; the difference lies in the scale of their mistakes, which inevitably cost lives and ruin generations.

At the same time, being human and making mistakes—even in ignorance—does not absolve these tragic characters of responsibility for their actions. Had they fully understood what they were doing, they most certainly wouldn’t have done it. But they did it all the same. It is in this gray zone—at the thin border between ignorance and responsibility—that ancient Greek tragedies play out. This is one of the many reasons that tragedies still speak to us with undiminished force today. We all live in that gray zone, in which we are neither condemned by nor absolved of our mistakes.

What is so utterly flawed about the idea of the “tragic flaw” is that it encourages us to judge rather than to empathize with characters like Oedipus. Tragedies are designed not to teach us morals but rather to validate our moral distress at living in a universe in which many of our actions and choices are influenced by external powers far beyond our comprehension—such as luck, fate, chance, governments, families, politics, and genetics. In this universe, we are dimly aware, at best, of the sum total of our habits and mistakes, until we have unwittingly destroyed those we love or brought about our own destruction.

It is not our job to judge the characters in Greek tragedies—to focus on their “flaws.” Tragedy challenges us to see ourselves in the way its characters stray from the path, and to open our eyes to the bad habits we may have formed or to the mistakes we have yet to make. Contrary to what you may have learned in school, tragedies are not designed to fill us with pessimism and dread about the futility of human existence or our relative powerlessness in a world beyond our grasp. They are designed to help us see the impending disaster on the horizon, so that we may correct course and narrowly avoid it. Above all, the flaw in our thinking about tragedy is that we look for meaning where there is none to be found. Tragedies don’t mean anything. They do something.

Another concept that gets drilled into our heads in high school is “fate.” The word for fate in ancient Greek—moira—means “portion.” In Greek antiquity, Fate was worshipped in the form of three goddesses: Clotho, the “spinner”; Lachesis, the “allotter”; and Atropos, the “unturnable.” Fate was older and more powerful than all the gods combined, and the entire cosmos was subject to its laws. No one lived above it or beyond it. Yet the Greek concept of fate, as it is encountered in Greek tragedy, is much subtler than many of us generally understand. In tragedy, the concept of fate is not mutually exclusive of the existence of free will; nor does the ancient idea of “destiny” negate the role of personal choice and human agency. In fact, as in the case of Oedipus, human choices and actions are required in order to fulfill an individual’s fate or destiny.

In 1976, the year I was born, my father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, an insidious, cruel disease that dismantled his mind and body slowly, almost imperceptibly, over a period of thirty-three years. In spite of the diagnosis, he adamantly refused to adjust his lifestyle, though he knew this choice would eventually come at a deadly cost. The nerves in his feet died first. Then the bones in his ankles collapsed. Then came the incurable lesions, the festering sores, the bouts of colitis, the kidney failure, the daily dialysis treatments, the kidney transplant, the septic infections, the endocarditis, the blindness, the dementia, the seizures, the horrifying hallucinations, and finally—after much suffering—a protracted, terrifying death, during which he believed a gaggle of black, ravenlike demons were swarming all around him, waiting to take his soul to hell.

The word diabetes comes from the Greek verb diabaino, “to run through.” The name derives from the signature symptoms of the disease, an unquenchable thirst combined with a constant need to urinate. Water “runs through” diabetics. The condition results from a deficiency in the pancreas, which normally produces insulin, a hormone that regulates sugar levels in the blood. Without enough insulin, sugars run wild, causing, among other symptoms, extreme thirst while steadily choking off the blood supply to nerves and tissues. Ultimately, over decades, the disease leaves no organ unscathed.

Type 2 diabetes is a fitting metaphor for the human condition as portrayed in ancient Greek tragedy, and for the interdependence of human action and fate. Those who are diagnosed with the disease often possess a genetic predisposition to develop it. It is written into their DNA, like an ancient intergenerational curse. And yet what diabetics choose to do with the knowledge of their condition has a direct impact upon their lives, and upon those who love them. Thus, in spite of the “curse” of their disease, diabetics still play a role in shaping their destiny. How they behave and the choices they make help determine the course their lives will take. Many are able to control their blood sugars through a combination of drugs, diet, and exercise, extending their life spans and delaying the progression of the disease for decades. But as many as 60 percent of type 2 diabetics do not adhere to the recommendations of their doctors or faithfully take their medication. This is primarily because diabetics do not experience the negative effects of eating junk food, not exercising, and allowing blood sugars to fluctuate for years. It is also because the medical regimen for most full-blown diabetics involves daily injections of insulin and constant monitoring of sugars with needle pricks to well-worn fingertips.

Fate refers to the cards we were dealt, the portion we were given at birth. Tragedy depicts how our choices and actions shape our destiny. No one ever said that change was easy, but my father believed it was impossible. He often told his experimental psychology students that when it comes to human behavior, what passes for change is no more than a fantasy, an illusion. This was his long-formed, heavily entrenched conviction, based on years of research, working with human beings and rats.

Nothing infuriated me more than to listen to him rationalize his own self-destruction with this specious argument. His unwillingness to acknowledge even the remote possibility of meaningful change fueled some of our worst fights and forever drove a wedge between us.

In the heat of one memorable argument, he eyed the collection of Sophocles’ plays I had under my arm and asked, “Don’t you believe in fate, Bryan? All those Greek plays end in disaster, no matter what the characters try to do.”

Like Oedipus, my father was adopted, but he wasn’t told until much later, so he spent the entirety of his childhood believing that his adoptive parents were his biological parents. And like Oedipus, he discovered who his biological parents were near the end of his life, when it was too late to act upon this knowledge and avert his own self-destruction. In Sophocles’ version of the Oedipus myth, a Corinthian man, in a moment of inebriated indiscretion, accuses Oedipus of being a bastard, planting the seed that, decades later, bears fruit in the horrifying realization of his true identity. When my father turned sixteen, it was his grandmother, Hattie, who took him aside and casually, one might say cruelly, shattered his world by telling him he was adopted.

Decades later, while searching for a viable kidney donor for my father, we found out who his biological parents were. As fate would have it, they both worked at the Catholic hospital in Fairhaven, New Jersey, where he had been born. My father’s father had been his pediatrician, a Spanish immigrant, who had indulged in an extramarital affair with a Puerto Rican nurse. My father’s adoptive parents, who were in their forties and had been unable to conceive, were more than willing to help the physician and the nurse sweep their dalliance under the rug by taking the baby off their hands. Had it not been for my great-grandmother’s loose lips, they might have perpetuated the myth that he was their son for the rest of their lives.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanic Americans are at a “particularly high risk for type 2 diabetes.” My father’s fate, as it turned out, was something he could have, at the very least, deferred, had he investigated the identity of his biological parents. But like Oedipus, he did not really want to know the truth until it was too late. When Oedipus discovers who his parents were, he gouges out his eyes with golden pins from his mother’s gown and stumbles off into the desert to die. My father drank a chocolate milk shake and slipped off into sugar-induced oblivion.

A week before my father died, frail and demented, at the age of sixty-six, I flew down from New York City to visit him at a nursing home in Virginia, a few blocks from where I had grown up. I brought him a chocolate milk shake from Monty’s Penguin, the local diner we had frequented during my childhood. Though neither of us wanted to say goodbye, we both knew it was the last time we would see each other. After a long day of reminiscing and grappling with unanswerable questions, we eventually ran out of things to say.

The sun had already set, though I hadn’t noticed its absence until after the room faded to black and the floodlights outside poured through cracks in the blinds, crisscrossing the floor. We sat in the darkness for an in­determinate time and looked at each other with understanding and regret. Finally, after my father closed his eyes and slipped back into semiconsciousness, I tossed my coat over my shoulder and slowly approached his bed, bending over to look at him one last time, to take in his face, so I wouldn’t somehow forget its contours after he was gone.

Suddenly, without opening his eyes, he reached up and grabbed my arm, pulling me toward his face—contorted in a rictus of horror—with the desperation of a drowning victim. Clamping down with all his remaining strength, he sobbed: “The same thing is going to happen to you, and to your brother! It’s fate. It’s fate!”

It’s his dementia talking, I told myself, not him. But it was also a curse.

As a child, I often spent afternoons observing him train his advanced psychology students in a small laboratory a few blocks from our house. Among the many wonders ...

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