Soldiers and Artists, from Ancient Greek Drama to Veterans Day

On Veterans Day, it’s time to call up Adam Driver, three-year military veteran and three-time  Broadway veteran, who  understands the connection between soldiers and artists goes back thousands of years. “The birth of theater was from a military environment. The Greeks — Aeschylus, Euripides, all these elected generals — wrote plays for a culture that was at war,” Driver has said In talks about his journey from marine to actor. Driver  founded Arts in the Armed Forces, a nonprofit that brings theater to the military. Other non-profit groups that help veterans pursue  the arts either as a vocation or an avocation:

United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance (USVAA)

Veteran Artist Program (VAP)

Society of Artistic Veterans (SocArtVets)

And then there’s Theater of War Productions, which is presenting a free virtual production today at 7:30 p.m. of Sophocles Philocetes. Details

How Greek Tragedies Help U.S. Soldiers


Bryan Doerries is the author of The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (Vintage Books, 2015.) It chronicles his work with his company, now named Theater of War Productions, presenting plays, primarily those by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, to help specific audiences grapple with trauma, much of it related to violence— including some many thousands of U.S. military service members, veterans, and their families.

Doerries believes “ancient Greek drama was a form of storytelling, communal therapy, and ritual reintegration for combat veterans by combat veterans. Sophocles himself was a general. At the time Aeschylus wrote and produced his famous Oresteia, Athens was at war on six fronts. The audiences for whom these plays were performed were undoubtedly composed of citizen-soldiers. Also, the performers themselves were most likely veterans or cadets. Seen through this lens, ancient Greek drama appears to have been an elaborate ritual aimed at helping combat veterans return to civilian life after deployments during a century that saw 80 years of war.

“Plays like Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes read like textbook descriptions of wounded warriors, struggling under the weight of psychological and physical injuries to maintain their dignity, identity, and honor. Given this context, it seemed natural that military audiences today might have something to teach us about the impulses behind these ancient stories.It also seemed like these ancient stories would have something important and relevant to say to military audiences today.”

And indeed they have.  After the very first performance in 2009, a colonel remarked: “These plays were written long ago, but they describe people I know.”

Howlround marks this year’s Veterans Day without a roundup of relevant articles and videos:

Artists and Otherwise, an essay by Jonathan Wei, describes learning about the relevancy of artists through work with veterans. You can watch a performance from Jonathan’s company, the Telling Project, here.

 In “Feast of Crispian,” Paul Gagliardi interviews a nonprofit theatre company in Milwaukee that works with military veterans.

 Listen to Bryan Doerries, interviewed by Michael Lueger on The Theatre History Podcast in 2017, sharing stories and context for his project, Theatre of War Productions.

 Leilani Squire shares a perspective on engaging in the playwriting process with a veteran community. 

 From Europe, in “The Importance of Military Theatre in Europe,” Tammie Pollard writes about the Army Entertainment Program and its benefit to service personnel and their families. “

Veterans Day has always been special to me because my father was not only a U.S. military veteran; he was born on Veterans Day,  which was originally called Armistice Day, a day set aside to celebrate the end of World War I; the armistice was signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Congress named it Veterans Day in 1954, intended to honor all U.S. military veterans.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply