Actors Use Classic Greek Tragedies To Connect With Modern-Day Warriors

Oct 9, 2015

A Theater of War performance at Columbia University in 2011.
Credit Theater of War

Veterans perform tragic Greek plays for audiences of that include military combat veterans.


Reading lines written by Sophocles 2,500 years ago, Alfred Molina bellowed at a rapt Los Angeles audience:

I call upon the Furies/ those long-striding/ dead maidens who/ avenge humans/ see to their endless/ suffering: witness/ how the generals/ have destroyed me!

Wednesday was Molina's first night performing with a company called Theater of War, and he owned the terrible anguish and anger of the betrayed Greek warrior Ajax.

The reading was part of a project that brings ancient Greek tragedies to a new audience: military combat veterans.

This particular evening at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, was open to the public as a promotion for the new book, "Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today," written by the group's founder, Bryan Doerries.

Doerries has traveled to military bases across the world — from Qatar, to Kuwait, to an Air Force base in Okinawa — staging stripped down, no-set readings of classics like Ajax for service members, veterans, and their families.

 "When people have come into contact with death, and when they’ve lost people they’ve loved, then these ancient stories speak to them directly," he said after Wednesday's performance.

He says those in the audience are able to connect their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with those of warriors from long ago.

At base after base, Doerries tells the crowd the same thing: "If you related to anything in these ancient tales, you’re not alone in this room, you’re not alone across the country, most important — you are not alone across time."

In the past seven years, Theater of War has reached 65,000 people through more than 350 performances around the world.

But one stands out: a performance in Germany where, Doerries said, he had an epiphany of sorts.

It was during the question and answer session that follows each reading.

Doerries typically asks similar questions of each audience. That night, like many, he asked why the group thought Sophocles, a general in the Greek army at the time, wrote the tragedy Ajax.

A young soldier stood up and surprised Doerries, saying:"I think Sophocles wrote this play to boost morale," Doerries recalled.

"What’s morale boosting about watching a great warrior come unglued after losing his best friend and try to take his own life and succeeding?" he asked.

"Because it’s the truth," the soldier replied without waiting for Doerries to finish. "Because it’s not being whitewashed, and because we’re all sitting here together shoulder to shoulder acknowledging it."