War Is Hell, as the Greeks Well Knew


Seats were filled in the Stephanie P. McClelland Drama Theater one September afternoon by veterans of two worlds. Half the audience members were longtime veterans of the theater, mixed with the Juilliard Drama Division student body. The other half were veterans of war, from World War II to the present, mixed with a select group of students from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The equilibrium created the perfect audience to hear the latest translation of some 2,400-year-old Greek plays grounded in war.

Alumni Elizabeth Marvel and Bill Camp in a reading from Sophocles' Ajax.

(Photo by Jessica Katz)


This was the intended goal set out by director and Greek translator Bryan Doerries and myself three months prior to this event. Mr. Doerries had contacted me after reading a New York Times article about a Camp Pendleton monologue and jazz show that I had organized last January. Prior to studying at Juilliard, I served in the Marine Corp with 1/1 Weapons Company 81’s platoon, and it has been my goal over the past few years to reintroduce theater to the military community. When I spoke with Mr. Doerries, he told me of his efforts assembling readings for the past year or so of his latest translation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes. Over the course of these readings, Mr. Doerries found himself investigating a theory that was put forth by author Jonathan Shay (Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character), namely that “Athenian theater was created and performed by combat veterans for an audience of combat veterans; they did this to enable returning soldiers to function together in a democratic polity…”and that, through these plays, a sort of treatment in coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.) was created.

The idea of a civilian/theater community literally sitting side by side with a military community, listening to Greek war plays being read by actors, piqued our interest, needless to say—and a date was soon set for September 16 to bring this reading to Juilliard.

Mr. Doerries opened the afternoon’s proceedings, stating that, even though these plays were written long ago, “they still speak to us today, perhaps with greater urgency than ever before.”

Three scenes from two plays by Sophocles, Ajax and Philoctetes, were then read—plays that have the most overt references to P.T.S.D. Ajax tells the story of a general whose mind is “infected by divine madness,” as the play describes it—a man who falls from being the greatest warrior who lived to being a “killer of cows” that he mistakes for enemies. He feels abandoned by his men, isolated from his wife, and alone in a world he has fought to protect.Philoctetes tells a similar story of a soldier marooned on an island, abandoned by those closest to him when they decided that a snakebite injury had rendered him useless.

Reading at this performance were Broadway veterans and Juilliard alumni Bill Camp (in the roles of Ajax and Odysseus) and Elizabeth Marvel (as Tecmessa), alongside Academy Award nominee David Strathairn (as Odysseus and Philoctetes), fourth-year students Joanne Tucker (Athena) and myself (Neoptolemus), and a chorus that consisted of nine students drawn from all four years of training.

Following the reading, a panel discussion took place with aforementioned author Jonathan Shay, IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America) founder Ray Kimball, and Jason Forrester, director of policy at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who all spoke of the importance of P.T.S.D. awareness. “It’s always important to remember you’re not alone, that you have a community,” said Mr. Kimball.

The dialogue then shifted to a sort of town-hall style “open mike” format, in which the audience could express their thoughts and ask questions. When fourth-year drama student Sheldon Woodley asked the panel members what they thought about the healing power of theater for returning veterans, Dr. Shay replied that, in his opinion, “the most potent healing function of the arts is the doing of it,” not the viewing of it. But one veteran in the audience disagreed, proclaiming, “It helped today!”

When the afternoon had to come to a close, that didn’t mean the conversations stopped. It became apparent that whatever thoughts and feelings the plays had conjured up were being taken into the hallways, into the elevator, and—I can only hope—out the door.

For more information on the history and future of this project, please visit philoctetesproject.org.


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