The rumble of Ajax’s voice cut through the air at Vassar’s Chapel on Sunday.
“It’s feeding time! Gorge yourselves on the generals…” he bellows.
The famed Greek warrior was seeking vengeance from the Furies against those who he felt had done him wrong and grieving for the death of his friend, Achilles. The line was one of Ajax’s last, as he soon impaled himself on a sword.
The dramatic reading from Sophocles’ Ajax was one of many powerful moments during Theater of War—an ongoing project that offers readings from the Greek tragedy along with panel discussions involving veterans and others who understand the social and psychological issues faced by those returning from war.
Panelist Jonathan Wood ’17, a retired U.S. Marine sergeant, combat veteran, and Vassar Posse Foundation scholar, says the reading offered a deep understanding of the politics that play out in the military, as well as the shame and grief shared by many soldiers upon returning from combat, often without some of the men and women who went into battle with them.
“It’s an environment that is completely dark,” Wood says. “You don’t feel worthy. How can you feel worthy when the best men aren’t here?”
After being wounded—and blinded for more than a year—myriad emotions bombarded him as he lay recovering. Left with your own thoughts of feeling alone and worthless and trying to process a reality that doesn’t seem to make sense, there’s also the thought that you should still be on the battlefield, he says.
And while a soldier’s suffering continues, the last thing he or she wants to do is burden an already burdened family, Wood says.
“You tell them what they want to hear,” he says. “You just don’t want to let people in—especially those you love the most—you don’t want to hurt them. I don’t want to talk about my stories.”
Theater of War, which has been produced hundreds of times at military bases, universities, and various other venues, was the brainchild of founder Bryan Doerries. If the discourse in Theater of War makes you uncomfortable, then it’s done its job, says Doerries, who uses a town hall discussion format to lay bare the psychological ravages of war.
“It should be painful to watch the performance and it should be painful to be in the presence of people who are actually suffering before us, who most of the day go around silently suffering but who are given permission, by virtue of this ancient story, to express something within them that most of us aren’t aware of,” he says.
In Greek legend, Ajax is an honorable man and leader during the nine-year-long Trojan War.
“He always tried to do the right thing, even in the fog of war,” Doerries says.
But the final actions and words of Ajax present a man who was overwhelmed by the demons of war—the loss of his friend, the political machinations that led to his feelings of dishonor, the sense of disgrace he felt in opposition to his father’s legendary military legacy.
These same feelings can be found more than 2,400 years later in soldiers returning today.
“I was reading, in newspapers every day in 2007, stories that had headlines that could be ripped from Sophocles’ plays,” Doerries says. “I felt this helplessness and desire to do something of service or to make a difference—and all I had were (my majors) Greek and Latin. Yet I got this idea in my head that I could take these ancient Greek war plays—that I believed spoke to those who experienced war—in front of contemporary service members and veterans, and that something would be revealed and something would be unlocked.”
After more than a year of working on the project, in the summer of 2008, Doerries says he persuaded a Navy psychiatrist to allow him to present Theater of War to 400 Marines and their families at a conference.
“When we heard the response, which lasted for hours—people stood up in that room and they quoted from the plays and they related the plays directly to their own experiences in the most intimate ways—I knew I had stumbled across a really powerful, ancient technology—something we had lost touch with in our culture and society today—that could be harnessed for good,” Doerries says.
Photo by Carlisle Stockton