For Veterans Day, Reconnecting Soldiers with Theater

Adam Driver, from trooper to trouper

In honor of Veterans Day, veterans and current active duty service members were given free tickets this week to attend a one-night-only reading just for them of James IJames’ 2022 Pulitzer Prize winning play “Fat Ham” at Broadway’s American Airlines Theater. It was the latest activity sponsored by Arts in the Armed Forces, which was co-founded by Adam Driver. A three-year military veteran and three-time  Broadway veteran, Driver understands that the connection between soldiers and theater 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.

Also for Veterans Day, a 13-year-old company called Theater of War Productions presented a starry cast performing Sophocles’ “Philoctetes“—an ancient play about a young man who is sent to betray a decorated warrior who has been abandoned on a desolate island—as a prompt for discussion by an online audience of veterans and their supporters about healing the visible and invisible wounds of war, cosponsored by Disabled American Veterans

Founding artistic director Bryan Doerries is the author The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (Vintage Books, 2015.), which chronicles his work using Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, to help specific audiences grapple with trauma, much of it related to violence— starting with many thousands of U.S. military service members, veterans, and their families.

In the book, Doerries elaborates on Driver’s history lesson: “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.”

A third group of veterans saw “1776” for free, as part of TDF’s Veterans Theatergoing Program which was launched five years ago to allow veterans and their families “to experience the transformative power of the performing arts” at no cost.

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)

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