Honoring Veterans Day with General Sophocles

The most enduring theater of Western Civilization was created by combat veterans.

“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.”

So wrote Bryan Doerries in ‘The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today‘, a book that chronicles his work as founder and artistic director of the company Theater of War Productions, which since its founding fourteen years ago has used Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus to help thousands of U.S. military service members, veterans, and their families grapple with trauma.

“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.”

In honor of Veterans Day — which was originally created to celebrate the end of the fighting in World War I on November 11, 1918 (on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month), below are three videos from Theater of War: a brief excerpt of “Ajax” performed by Keith David in a production of the play that took place on June 12, 2023, and then a panel discussion about the play in 2018 about how the play relates to current-day military veterans and their spouses. This is followed by a 2023 Zoom recording of the full play “Philoctetes” featuring Willem Dafoe, Jason Isaacs, Nyasha Hatendi and a chorus of veterans, which leads to reactions to the play by veterans and others.

Sophocles’ Ajax tells the story of a fierce warrior who is passed over for recognition by his command after losing his cousin Achilles in battle during the Trojan War. Feeling betrayed, Ajax attempts to murder his superior officers, fails, and—ultimately—takes his own life. The play tells the story of the events leading up to Ajax’ suicide, as well as the story of his wife and troops’ attempt to intervene before it’s too late. The play also depicts the devastating impact of Ajax’ suicide upon his wife, son, brother, troops, and chain of command.

Sophocles’ Philoctetes tells the story of decorated warrior who is abandoned on a deserted island because of mysterious chronic illness that he contracts on the way to the Trojan War. Nine years later, the Greeks learn from an oracle that in order to win the war they must rescue him from the island. When they finally come for him, the wounded warrior must overcome nine long years of festering resentment and shame in order to accept help from the very men who betrayed him.

Author: New York Theater

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

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