How ancient Greek tragedies help those who have suffered trauma and loss

Twice a general in the Athenian army, Sophocles turned to writing plays in his 80s.
Twice a general in the Athenian army, Sophocles turned to writing plays in his 80s. Courtesy photo

“The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today” by Bryan Doerries (Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $26.95)

“All That You’ve Seen Here Is God: New Versions of Four Greek Tragedies, Sophocles’ ‘Ajax,’ ‘Philoctetes’ and ‘Women of Trachis’ and Aeschylus’ ‘Prometheus Bound’ ” by Bryan Doerries (Vintage Original, 480 pages, $16.95, paperback)

When Bryan Doerries lost his 22-year-old girlfriend to cystic fibrosis, 20 months after she had received a double lung transplant, he turned to an unlikely source for solace: ancient Greek tragedies. A self-described aspiring theater director and amateur classicist with an abiding love for Greek plays, he discovered that “tragedies have something urgent to show us about ourselves, something that we desperately need to see.”

And if tragedies could illuminate the moral and spiritual dimensions of his own trauma and loss, then surely they deserved to be shared with others who had suffered equally. And so Doerries created a theater troupe that gave readings of his translations of four Greek tragedies to combat veterans, hospice nurses, cancer patients, social workers, corrections officers and more.

Not only were the tragedies hard to watch – actors screaming in agony, pleading with the gods to release them from their pain – but they spurred often uncomfortable (though ultimately cathartic) discussions. Once, that is, audiences recovered from their initial, stunned silence.

Called Theater of War for its mission of staging plays first for soldiers who had returned from combat, the operation ran into stiff resistance from military brass intent on preserving a rigid hierarchy of command. It also drew skepticism from Doerries’ colleagues and friends. When he told them that he planned to present translations of ancient Greek tragedies to infantry soldiers and Marines on military bases throughout the United States, “they looked at me with bewilderment and concern.”

But as an “evangelist” for tragedy, and driven by reports of mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., Doerries spent the first year of his project showcasing Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for military physicians, psychiatrists, generals and high-level Department of Defense officials.

Sophocles proved to be the perfect persuader. Before he became a playwright in his late 80s, he was a retired general in the Athenian army, twice elected to that rank, and weighed down by guilt for the men he had lost in his campaigns.

His tragedies, therefore, “were incredibly violent – depicting massacres and suicide on stage – and featured aggrieved warriors expressing unbridled rage: rage at fellow soldiers, rage at their command.”

Confronted with the anguish, misery and psychological distress that resounded throughout Sophocles’ plays, the U.S. military officials were able to experience something palpable and real about war, something that transcended the past 2,500 years.

In a word, they were hooked.

And so Theater of War gave its first performance at Junction City to the Big Red One in 2009. What became clear then, and was reiterated at military bases around the country later, is that “no one among us is invulnerable to the invisible wounds of war.” Equally clear: By conveying the spirit of necessarily indescribable experiences, the plays possessed the power to give warriors of all ranks permission to bear witness to the truths of their profound brokenness and the brutal burden of daily combat.

New view of tragedy

For centuries, tragedy has been defined by the categories in Aristotle’s “Poetics”: A great man with a tragic flaw commits an act so monstrous that the scale of his misdeed inevitably costs lives and ruins generations.

Doerries duly takes his cue from Aristotle, as we might expect, but he is convinced that tragedy can become a forceful tool for positive change, “one whose vast and untapped potential for propagating healthy responses to stress remains wholly underestimated.”

Arguing that the Greek term “hamartia” means “error,” not “flaw” – more a matter of missing the mark – Doerries sees tragedies as depicting characters making mistakes rather than succumbing to some inherent defect in their moral and psychological makeup.

Likewise, the notion of fate in Greek tragedy has been misunderstood, in Doerries’ estimation. Fate is not mutually exclusive of free will, as the popular interpretation holds; on the contrary, free will is required to fulfill an individual’s destiny.

Thus, as in ancient Athens, tragedies for Doerries still play out in a gray zone between ignorance and responsibility.

But even more important, they aim to arouse powerful responses in those who witness them, including pity and fear, to help cultivate “sophrosyne,” a healthy, balanced response to personal suffering and the suffering of others.

“Tragedies are designed not to teach us morals but rather to validate our moral distress at living in a universe in which many of our actions and choices are influenced by external powers far beyond our comprehension – such as luck, fate, chance, governments, families, politics, and genetics. In this universe, we are dimly aware, at best, of the sum total of our habits and mistakes, until we have unwittingly destroyed those we love or brought about our own destruction.”

‘Death oh Death come now and visit me.’

Doerries’ account of his performances with Theater of War is at once an impassioned history lesson, a manual of therapy for the afflicted and a deep analysis of the power of ancient Greek tragedy.

For all its heartfelt excellence, however, “The Theater of War” is outshined by the translations themselves. Doerries delivers potent, spare, inspired and hard-hitting versions of Sophocles and Aeschylus that bring them roaring into the 21st century, capturing the horror and nuance of undeserved suffering.

He is particularly strong in staging the painful, debilitating death of Heracles (Hercules for the Romans) in Sophocles’ “Women of Trachis.”

Now that I am

the one moaning

on the ground,

clutching my

sides in pain,

will one of you

please come

quickly and visit

me with a sword

or a torch?

Taken as a new literary endeavor, the translations can easily stand on their own. But joined with “The Theater of War,” they testify to the power of myth to bring “our lives into contact with something deep within us and larger than ourselves.” Something that can withstand the ravages of war and desolation. Something that can defy injustice: the indomitable human spirit.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or