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• Last updated: November 20, 2020

Podcast #660: How Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Heal the Soul

When you think about ancient Greek tragedies, you probably think about people in togas spouting stilted, archaic language — stories written by stuffy playwrights to be watched by snooty audiences.

My guest today argues that this common conception of Greek tragedies misses the power of plays that were in fact created by warriors for warriors, and which represent a technology of healing that’s just as relevant today as it was two millennia ago. His name is Bryan Doerries and he’s the author of the book The Theater of War, as well as the artistic director of an organization of the same name that performs dramatic readings of ancient tragedies for the military and other communities. Bryan and I begin our conversation with what tragedies are, what this civic, religious, and artistic form of storytelling was supposed to do, how it was created by war veterans for war veterans, and how a civilian classicist ended up putting on these plays for current and former members of our modern military. We discuss how the ancient Greek tragedies depicted the depth and spectrum of human suffering, the intersection of fate and personal responsibility, characters who belatedly discover their mistakes, and the fleeting chance of changing behavior in the light of such realizations. Bryan also explains how the tragedies may have been a form of training for young people on how to grapple with the moral ambiguities that mark adulthood. And throughout the show, we dig into how tragedies, by showing people they’re not alone, getting them to confront uncomfortable realities together, and bridging divides, can serve as a transformative technology for collective healing, not only for military veterans, but anyone who’s dealt with trauma, loss, and the general confusions and hardships of the human experience. 

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Show Highlights

  • Athens’ 3 great writers of tragedy 
  • The difference between what’s happening on stage and what’s going on in the audience 
  • How tragedy helps us process grief and shared trauma 
  • The intersection of fate and responsibility 
  • Childhood, the sins of the father, and the shaping of our lives
  • The healing power of tragedies 
  • Do these plays offer more than just catharsis?
  • How these tragedies can help us navigate discomfort 
  • The powerful tale of Ajax 
  • The way that tragedies can touch people from every walk of life 
  • Where do we find the answers to the questions these plays ask?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here. And welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When you think about ancient Greek tragedies, you probably think about people in togas spouting stilted archaic language. Stories written by stuffy playwrights to be watched by snooty audiences. My guest today argues that this common conception of Greek tragedies misses the power plays that were in fact created by warriors, for warriors. And which represent a technology of healing that’s just as relevant today as it was two millennia ago.

His name is Bryan Doerries, and he’s the author of the book, The Theater of War, as well as the artistic director of an organization of the same name, that performs dramatic readings of ancient tragedies for the military and other communities. Bryan and I begin our conversation with what tragedies are, what this civic, religious, and artistic form of storytelling was supposed to do, how it was created by war veterans, for war veterans, and how a civilian classicist ended up putting on these plays for current and former members of our modern military.

We discuss how the ancient Greek tragedies depicted the depth and spectrum of human suffering, the intersection of fate and personal responsibility, characters who belatedly discovered their mistakes, and the fleeting chance of change of behavior in light of such realizations. Bryan also explains how the tragedies may have been a form of training for young people on how to grap with the moral ambiguities that marked adulthood. And throughout the show we dig into how tragedies, by showing people they’re not alone, getting them to confront uncomfortable realities together, and bridging divides can serve as a transformative technology for collective healing. Not only for military veterans, but for anyone who’s dealt with trauma, loss, and the general confusions and hardships of the human experience. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/theatreofwar.

Brett McKay: Bryan Doerries, welcome to the show.

Bryan Doerries: Oh, thanks so much.

Brett McKay: So you’re a founder of a production company, called Theater of War, where you put on and perform ancient Greek tragedies, but you also wrote about the experience in a book called The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. Let’s talk about your history with tragedies. When did you discover that you would be performing tragedies for different groups of people, soldiers, addicts, prisoners. How did you figure that out?

Bryan Doerries: Well, it was a gradual process. I studied Classics as a student undergraduate at Kenyon College in Ohio. And when I left school, I knew that there was a larger audience for these plays than the rarefied few of us who had the privilege of studying them. And had always believed that those who had lived the extremities of life, even if they’d never heard of these plays, might have something to say about them. And I got to test that theory out back in 2007, when I directed a series of readings of plays by Sophocles in hospitals. And it became pretty apparent after the first performance, when we engaged the audience of doctors and medical students and patients in a discussion, that they, in fact, knew more about the play than I did, even though I had translated it from ancient Greek.

And that was the first major revelation that set us, the company, on this path. The first major revelation that opened the door to the work that we’ve been doing now. This core value that the audience with skin in the game, the audience that has loved and lost, and been betrayed, and knows sacrifice, that has witnessed suffering and death, has more to teach us about these ancient Greek plays than we to teach them. So we started in hospitals and it was an avocation then. Something I was doing on the side of my professional life. And then in 2007, the Walter Reed scandal broke. You may recall, that was when our nation’s flagship medical army hospital, military hospital, was sort of exposed in a Washington Post story that showed how grossly under-funded and under-resourced it was to receive our troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

And on every paragraph, in every part of that article, I saw themes in the ancient plays that we’d already been performing in hospitals, and just got this idea that if I could simply put ancient war plays about the Trojan War that dealt with many of the themes I know that our… Or I had a hunch, that our service members and veterans were struggling with… That if I could put those ancient war plays in front of contemporary warriors that something would happen. I didn’t know what it was. And it was that hunch that led us to start seeking a military audience. And I didn’t know anyone in the military when we got started. I didn’t know how to talk to people in the military. I’d grown up in a military town in Newport News, Virginia, but I didn’t know anyone active duty. And to be frank, I’d protested against the invasion of Iraq in the streets in New York, and it felt pretty ineffective.

And it struck me that, in reading the story in The Washington Post about veterans returning to substandard conditions at Walter Reed, that if we were complicit in the suffering of our veterans, if we ignored their suffering, that we would not have learned any of the lessons that our country had to learn during the Vietnam conflict. And one couldn’t simply protest against the war and then sit on one’s hands when faced with the suffering of veterans. The only thing to do is to try to engage with them and help. And all I had was Greek and Latin and a hunch, but it turned out it was… That we had stumbled across a very powerful ancient tool that was designed by warriors for warriors to do the very thing that we ended up doing with it.

Brett McKay: We’ll dig deeper into that experience and then how… You’ve also branched out to other areas as well, the other groups. But before we do, let’s talk about tragedies in general. ‘Cause I’m sure a lot of our audience, they probably had to read one or two tragedies in high school, Greek tragedies.

Bryan Doerries: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But just a big picture overview, who were the great, I guess they’re… What are they called? Tragedy writers, tragedians… Tragedians… How do you say…

Bryan Doerries: Tragedians…

Brett McKay: Tragedians.

Bryan Doerries: Is how you would say, yeah. There were three great tragic writers in 5th century Athens. There were others as well, but the main ones were; Aeschylus, known as the father of Greek tragedy, Sophocles and Euripides. And during the 5th century BC, alongside the rise of democracy in the Western world, arose a form of storytelling that at its core is inextricably democratic as well.

And tragedies involve stories about people with somewhat noble intentions learning too late of their own mistakes or blindness to the very thing in front of them, that if they had known, they certainly wouldn’t have done. And unfortunately, usually milliseconds too late, they learn of their mistakes and end up destroying themselves and generations to come. That’s what happens on the stage in Greek tragedy, but one of the contentions of our work is that there’s a big difference between what happens in the plays and what the plays evoke in audiences. And I would contend that ancient Greek tragedy is a form of storytelling that was designed to do several really important things. One, to communalize trauma, so the Greek saw nearly 80 years of war during the 5th century BC, and the audience would have been made of citizens, and the citizens were, by virtue of 100% compulsory service, they were also soldiers.

And so there was no one in the audience, when presented with stories about the Trojan War, that would have missed the themes, the real life, life and death stakes of the themes that were being performed for them. And there’s a theory that the audience was seated according to tribe, which is your military unit, you fight with your community, and according to rank with the generals in the front row, the strategoi and the hoplite cadet in the nosebleed section in the very back, and that 17,000 people would sit in this outdoor amphitheater on the South Slope of the Acropolis every spring, and for three days, they would watch these tragic plays by the three authors I’ve mentioned and others, one after the other, depicting trauma, and loss, and grief and betrayal, and suffering, and characters as I mentioned, learning too late and then discovering in the sort of final moments of the play’s how they’ve erred and the mistakes they’ve made and the habits they’ve formed that have accrued to become essentially what we now call fate.

And so this is, what happened in 5th century, and I think what we’ve missed about it is this isn’t the form of storytelling that was simply born to entertain, it was inextricably civic, religious, there was a huge religious ceremony that was enacted at the beginning of every City Dionysia Theater Festival each spring. It was legal. This is the same theater where people saw plays, this was a place where people went to hear the rhetorical arguments of lawyers and politicians. It was a theater for warriors and those who had experienced war. It was inextricably all these things and more. And when we see a Greek play, unfortunately, I think most of the time, we think togas, and sandals, and sheets and people worshipping gods that no longer exist, and sort of people often using translations that are from the 19th century, or at least sound like they’re from the 19th century, filled with antiquated language.

But these Greek plays were direct, efficacious experiences for those who’d watched them in the 5th century. And I would argue that the stakes of watching them were of life and death for those who were there, because the Greeks knew that there had to be a time, there had to be a place where those who had experienced war and trauma, and even at the end of the 5th century, a plague, a pestilence like we’re living through today that killed one-third of the Athenian population. There had to be a time and a place to collectively acknowledge the impact of violence and of trauma and of loss on individuals, but also on the community. And so the Greek plays, these ancient tragedies weren’t simply expressions of fatalism or grief on the part of the Greeks who were living through these experiences, they were gestures that were meant to acknowledge the collective toll these experiences had, and to provide people the opportunity to see their own struggles reflected in ancient stories. The Greeks were up to the same thing we’re up to now. They were telling stories about the Trojan War, which was as distant in their memory, collectively in their consciousness, as they are to us today.

Brett McKay: So you said, tragedy happens when a character realizes something. It’s called, I guess it’s peripeteia, where they… Anagnorisis?

Bryan Doerries: Yeah.

Brett McKay: When they discover something too late and they do something that causes their downfall, like sort of the stereotypical, I guess, Platonic form of tragedy that a lot of people point to is Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus Rex, if you’re from England, pronounce it that way.

Bryan Doerries: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But yeah, so Oedipus, he had a temper, he ended up killing his father and sleeping with his mother. And he realized it when it was too late.

Bryan Doerries: Yeah, I mean… So actually, it’s not Platonic, It’s the Aristotelian…

Brett McKay: Aristotelian…

Bryan Doerries: So Plato throughout all of the poets from the ideal republic…

Brett McKay: Yeah, Plato didn’t. Yeah. He thought they corrupted people.

Bryan Doerries: He believes… Yes. And this is an important point. He believed that his character, Socrates, based on the historical figure, argued that the reason the poet shouldn’t be in the Republic, they should be banned, is because they have the capacity to sway our emotions and make us do things we shouldn’t do or don’t wanna do. And while everything from ancient theater to contemporary advertising certainly plays upon those principles, I think there was something hugely missed in that gesture, and that’s that we can have the ethical conversations all day, all night about… And the policy conversation, but unless we’re grounded in the emotional and spiritual consequences of our ethical decisions and our policy decisions, I think it’s easy to lose touch with what we’re really talking about, and that’s what the Greek plays did, watching characters suffer on stage because of decisions they make in front of us, brings us into a consciousness of our own choices and their consequences, as well as the fleeting possibility of making a change before it’s too late.

So, Aristotle says yes. Again, Aristotle has a bunch of words that have been filtered down to us through high school English teachers mostly, and with all due respect to them, unfortunately, for most of us, we were kind of poisoned to Greek tragedy by those lessons and the ones you mentioned, peripeteia and anagnorisis are recognition and reversal, right? So this idea that when you’re watching a Greek tragedy, you watch characters learn something and then change their behavior, but often too late, and in the case of Oedipus, yes, he learns over the span of the play that he is the source of the contagion, the very plague that’s killing the people of Thebes because yes, he has fulfilled a prophecy that he sought to escape, that he would one day marry his mother and kill his father. Those things happened before the play began. So the real action of the play is the discovery of the thing that he was blind to all along. In the Greek, I am the contagion.

Brett McKay: But the interesting thing about tragedy, you mentioned it explores this idea of fate, but also personal responsibility, the intersection between the two ’cause a lot of times, the stuff that happens to the person that’s like the tragic hero or tragic character, they didn’t have, like they just sorta… They got dealt a bad hand, Oedipus, there were some prophecy, he had no control over that, and he had no clue that the things he was doing was fulfilling this prophecy, but yet he was still responsible for it, so how did the Greeks… What was going on there?

Bryan Doerries: Yeah, So Aristotle takes, for some reason, Oedipus and uses this as the ultimate example of Greek tragedy. Again, these, Aristotle’s poetics, which is what we’re really talking about right now, were like a pocket notebook of Aristotle’s with lecture notes scrawled into it, not a book, not a study, not an essay, but just some notes he had written, and somehow they’ve been sort of codified and just frame our understanding. Words like catharsis, which to me mean absolutely nothing, become the key words we use to talk about Greek tragedy, and fate is another one of those words, and tragic flaw is the other one which I try to talk about in my book. I think you’re really right to point out that the Greek plays are very much about agency, and they’re are also about forces at work in our lives that are bigger than us, that we don’t necessarily understand until it’s too late. We have lots of forces working upon us every day, Gods, governments, luck, chance, diseases, weather, and are we, as human beings, conscious of all those forces and their impact upon us all the time? Of course not, but we still have agency. We’re still responsible for our choices, and I think the thing that Oedipus actually suffered from that he didn’t deserve is not the prophecy.

He ran from the prophecy, and by virtue of running from it, he fulfilled it, and there’s something in that. It’s actually the fact that he was exposed or aborted as a child. His name, Oedipus means pierced foot, or pierced feet. It also means I know feet, because in Greek, the past tense of, I have seen, is I know, I have known, foot. So Oedipus is named after the very act by which he was aborted, exposed on the side of a mountain, on account of a prophecy that his parents had received that King Laius, his father, would be killed by his own offspring, and that early childhood trauma ends up defining his life, and it isn’t until the very last seconds of the play, when he realizes that his own mother had given him away, and his father had tried to kill him on the side of a mountain and then on the side of a road, and that Oedipus responded at that moment with overwhelming force and violence and killed the person who was trying to kill him, but everything in his life that he wasn’t really conscious of, had led him to this place where he would react with such violence, and I think there’s an insight in, of course Freud uncovers this and plays with it, and whole dissertations and books have been written about this notion that how we are treated as children by our parents, in some ways, is the inter-generational curse that gets passed down from generation to generation.

And we performed Oedipus a few years ago, in a Super-max prison, at Eastern Correctional Facility, where I taught a class on tragedy with 27 inmates who were all doing 25 years to life for violent, mostly violent crimes, and they wanted to talk about, when they heard and saw the play in the prison, the sins of the father. They wanted to talk about Laius, and how Oedipus’s father’s violence toward him as a child and as an adult shaped who Oedipus was, but even so, they wanted to talk about personal responsibility for their own crimes. Many of them were abused as children and yet that didn’t excuse the violence that they had committed in their lives, and therein lies, I think, what’s so powerful about Greek tragedy. It’s not about morals, it’s not about lessons, it is about ambiguity. It is about the moral grayness in which we’re all living. Are we responsible for our actions? Absolutely. Are we sometimes victims of forces that are well beyond our understanding? Of course. So how do we reconcile those two things, especially when it comes to things like violent crimes? And so that’s one of the core themes of the play.

Brett McKay: No, I mean, if you read all the tragedies, that seems like to be that, that ambiguity is the reoccurring theme, and a lot of them, you see this moment where the character, the main character of the play, basically asks, and they’re asking the chorus, basically, what am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do now?

Bryan Doerries: Yeah. Yeah.

Brett McKay: And I think… And then that’s why they’re so… That’s why they’re so… People resonate, ’cause we’ve all had those experience in our lives, like, “What am I supposed to do now?” ‘Cause you weren’t dealt… You were this rotten hand, but you’re still responsible and you’re clueless about what to do.

Bryan Doerries: That’s right. And maybe that’s the human… That’s what it means to be human, or maybe that’s what it means to be an adult, to be sort of almost conscious of these forces that are at work upon us, almost able to surpass them, but ultimately, you know, it’s a crap shoot, and yet we’re still held responsible for what we end up doing, so I think there’s another theory I really like by this guy, Jack Winkler, who was a Princeton classicist, who asserted this idea that Greek tragedy was a form of training for young adults, for sort of late adolescents, called ephebes. There were 19-year-olds who were matriculating into military service, but also into civic life, and that’s why according to this theory, so many of the Greek plays feature characters who are young, the adolescents, Antigone, Orestes, Electra, Ismene, Neoptolemus, Hyllus, the list goes on and on, thrust into ethically impossible situations for which there are no right answers, and by which they will be haunted for the rest of their lives, no matter what they decide to do.

The theory about ephebes or young people being the center piece of Greek tragedy even goes so far as to assert that the chorus itself may have been performed by late adolescents, so that the framing of how you heard the play and that exchange about what I should do would be seen through the lens of young people wrestling with these issues. I don’t think we as a society have a vehicle for training people for the moral ambiguity of adult life, but the Greeks convened 1/3 of their Athenian population each spring to watch all these plays, if you’ve follow this theory, to train young people for what it means to be an adult, and that means facing down ambiguity.

Brett McKay: Well, can we talk about the dynamic between the chorus and the characters? So the tragedy, one thing that seems to be unique about tragedy is that it’s all action.

Bryan Doerries: Yeah.

Brett McKay: The tragedy doesn’t happen unless something happens. It’s not like a novel where there’s internal dialogue and there’s character development, like something has to happen, and then it seems like the chorus is there to provide context for the action.

Bryan Doerries: Yeah, and I think… Well, there’s a number of functions of the chorus, but what I like about theater and what I like about tragedy in particular, is you’re right, it is action. There is no other thing, the action is the thing. And that’s why plays don’t mean anything, they do something, that’s why tragedies do something, and even the word drama comes from drao in Greek, means to do, to act. So you don’t describe a character, you learn about a character through their choices. Oedipus makes a series of choices on stage and off, and that’s what forms the character, or your impression of who the character is, and I think that’s become a sort of unwritten rule of character development anyway, that the action is the most powerful tool for understanding a character. Of course, in novelistic forms, other forms, you have other tools as well.

The chorus is this amazing intermediary, this bridge between the world of the audience and the world of the play, and so, yes, the characters in the plays, in the scenes, often sort of turn out to the chorus in these sort of ethically complex situations and say, “What do I do?” In one of the places we recently performed, there’s a character named Hyllus, who’s been asked by his dying father Heracles to essentially kill him by euthanizing him and burning him alive, because he knows he’s been poisoned and he wants to die a specific way, and Hyllus’s response is, “If I’m loyal to you, then I am disloyal to myself and my sense of what is right. Is that the lesson that I am to learn?”

And he’s saying it to Heracles, but he’s also saying it publicly for a chorus to hear and respond to. And that’s where I think we get the model of communalization, this idea that like, sometimes when you’re in the military or you are a protester, or you work in a hospital, or you’re a caregiver for someone who’s dying, you find yourself in a position where you feel you’re the only person who’s ever felt this alone, or this much anguish at a choice that you have to make, and what Greek tragedy does is to sort of lifts those choices up out of isolation and places them in the company of other people who then, in terms of the chorus, but then the audience that’s watching that the chorus is sort of the stand-in for, have to wrestle and collectively shoulder the burden of the consequences of the choice that the character ultimately makes.

There are scenes in which through dramatic irony, the audience and the chorus are both complicit in the suffering of a character. They’re aware that they’re consuming the suffering of a character, and that raises all kinds of questions about our relationship to suffering, and I think, you follow the logic of the chorus as a proxy for the larger audience all the way out into the world of the 17,000 citizen soldiers who were sitting in the theater of Dionysus, and all of a sudden tragedy appears not to be just an art form where people are telling stories, it actually is a technology for collective healing, where the message is, if there were a message, “Hey, you don’t have to shoulder the burden of these decisions alone, for our military, we sent you to war, so you, soldier, you don’t have to shoulder, share the pollution of the moral ambiguity of what you did on behalf of our country, with us, we’ll sit here and we’ll bear witness to the truth of that moral ambiguity, not by having you have to narrate it to us up on stage, but by these stories that make it easier for all of us to relate to the challenges you faced.”

And so all of a sudden, when we perform for very diverse and mixed audiences, one sees that audience members are relieved to discover that they’re not the only people on the planet to have felt this alone, and I think that’s the… I think that’s the purpose of the chorus in Greek tragedy, so that these things don’t happen in a vacuum. And so if the characters can sort of share the burden and the pollution of what they’re facing with other people.

Brett McKay: Well, this idea that tragedies are technology of healing, you make this point that oftentimes the amphitheater was connected to, like I guess, we call it the doctor’s office or the temple where you’d go to get healed physically.

Bryan Doerries: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Like there was… They saw the connection there.

Bryan Doerries: Definitely, I mean, look, I don’t… I’m not speaking as an academic or a scholar when I say that, but there are other people who’ve made this argument and some terrific articles and books about this subject. When I went to the Theater of Dionysus for the first time, I stood in the Temple of Asclepius, which is the very place where people went to get healed. And by the way, the Temple of Asclepius was moved in the late 5th century directly adjacent to the Theater of Dionysus, so that when you’re standing in the temple, the ruins of the temple, where people… The clinic where people went to be healed, you can hear because of the architecture with the clarity of Bose noise-canceling headphones, what someone’s saying on the absolute other side of the amphitheater, even if they’re whispering, and that’s not an exaggeration, if you know the architecture of amphitheaters. Amphitheater in Greek means the place where we go to see in both directions, the amphi in both directions, theatron, seeing place.

And it’s where I go to see you and you go to see me, and where we go to see ourselves reflected in the characters and where we go to see our own struggles reflected in ancient stories, and where by virtue of the mediation of storytelling, we can see ourselves and see each other. And that that was directly adjacent to the very place where individuals went to get healed. I mean, I don’t need more of an argument than the work that we are already are doing, but it just seems that Greek tragedy is as refined a technology and an advancement as Greek architecture or Greek philosophy or the other huge advancements of the classical period in almost every field and the power and the sort of proof of what I’m saying is that I can take a Greek tragedy, dust it off, translate it into a vernacular that feels more direct than most translations, put it in front of just about any audience from any culture, and it has… That audience almost predictably has the same response. And so it is a technology, it is a tool that like an external hard drive, once you plug it into the right audience, it knows what to do and the audience does as well.

Brett McKay: So what do you think is going on with the healing process? I think you mentioned earlier like this idea, I think a lot of people, this idea, that the tragedies were healing because you get catharsis. So you watch this really sad play, you see someone, they have a downfall and you cry, you feel pity, you feel fear, you sort of puke out all your emotions, have a really, a really, like a big, big messy cry, and then you can go on your life and do your thing. You don’t think that’s what was going on.

Bryan Doerries: Yeah. I just think catharsis is one of those dime store words that doesn’t really mean anything, and we all sort of have different definitions of it. It sort of… It’s sort of a New Age word that really has taken hold in the 21st century. I don’t think it means much. I’m not really interested in catharsis.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Bryan Doerries: I don’t know what it means, so I don’t even know how to be interested in it. I hear that definition, that it’s again in Aristotle’s lecture notes, he wrote that the aim of tragedy was catharsis. He was writing 150 years after the 5th century dramas that I was talking about were performed in Athens, so again, he didn’t have direct contact with Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus and what was actually happening. He’s speculating 150 years later, and he’s saying the aim is catharsis, and that’s a purgation of pity and fear or a purification of emotions.

So either it means that you throw them up as you said, and then all of a sudden you’ve purged yourself of those emotions or that there’s sort of a healthy balance to carry around of those emotions, pity and fear are not necessarily negative emotions, but they have to be sort of purified through this process of collectively engaging with these stories. That’s kind of interesting, but I actually think just from experience and practical experience in terms of what we do, I’m less interested in catharsis and way more interested in something else which is… In the early days, I thought that performing these ancient plays for people who had experienced trauma whether it was military or prison or sexual assault or people who’d experienced death and dying or natural disasters or addiction, that what we were after by performing the plays was empathy, and that’s another sort of dime store, nickel word, it’s not really… It doesn’t mean much, it’s an invention of the late 19th century.

What I think is critical about it is… I went thinking that the objective was empathy, and later learned that actually, well, empathy is a by-product of performing these really extreme stories of people suffering and learning too late that in fact, the most productive thing that we do is make people uncomfortable. And if the actors committed to the actual level of emotion that’s required of these, by these ancient plays, they would do things that really weren’t acceptable. And the commercial or non-profit theater and film and television, they do something that wasn’t ultimately consumable or even appropriate in most places. They would express a sort of form of suffering that was… Be unclear, whether they were suffering or the character was suffering. They would do something that would make not only people uncomfortable but cause us all to sort of scan for the exits. And so the note that I give actors before they go on stage, when they’re performing Greek tragedies for audiences that have experienced trauma and loss is make them wish they’d never come.

And I know that sounds sort of ridiculous and counter-intuitive, I don’t mean bore them to death or cause them to leave because they feel disconnected from the material, but what I really mean is push the performance to such a place where we’re all so uncomfortable that we wanna leave. And then with our model, and this didn’t happen in the ancient world, at least not in the same direct way, we stop the performance and we have a conversation, in the Theater of War model, that lasts just as long as the performance. Sometimes we’ll only do a scene and we’ll sort of just break the play and then we’ll interrogate it, but if we are pushed as an audience to a place of total discomfort, and this is really helpful in our current environment, these are politically divisive, possibly violent environment we’re living in right now, no matter what divides us, at least we can share in that discomfort. We can acknowledge that we were all uncomfortable, and then in the discussion that follows in our model, we can interrogate, well, why are we so uncomfortable? What’s so frightening or makes us so uncomfortable about these things that have been portrayed to us in the play?

And with our model, we’re not saying to the audience, this is you. We’re performing these ancient texts that seem quite strange, I think to most people, we’re just creating a space where people can reflect on, “Well, what do you see of yourself in this?” And when people are asked and invited into that process of sort of seeing themselves in an ancient story, they open up and they connect in ways that… I mean, look, when we first got started, it was seen as a career-ending gesture in the US Military to raise your hand and say, “I’m struggling with an invisible wound.” People just wouldn’t do it. I mean, Congress had appropriated billions of dollars to address the mental health epidemic on their hands, and yet no one was availing themselves of the resources, but we could get a room full of a thousand Marines just returned from Iraq or Afghanistan to open up, and short of giving those Marines a psychotropic drug, I really doubt you’re gonna get a 1,000 Marines to open up in that way.

And so one has to then reckon with the fact that when I say Greek tragedy was a technology, I mean, it is a psychotropic, mind-altering experience when actors commit to the psychic anguish, to performing the psychic anguish that these characters are in. It changes our cognition. It opens us in ways that I think very few things can, and that’s the thing that we’ve lost touch with as a culture, because we’ve commodified storytelling. Stories are to be consumed in our culture, but what we’re trying to create with Theater of War is something that can’t be consumed, and that makes us incredibly uncomfortable.

Brett McKay: Well, speaking of doing this performance for veterans, the play you guys… And you did several plays for them, the one that you talk about in the book is Sophocles’ Ajax. For those who aren’t familiar, what’s the big picture story of Ajax and why did you think that story would resonate with veterans?

Bryan Doerries: So Sophocles’ Ajax is a play about a decorated warrior named Ajax, who in the ninth year of the Trojan War, after endless fighting, after losing many of his men, after the sheer exhaustion of all these years of fighting, loses his best friend Achilles in battle. And then is betrayed by his commanding officers when they give Achilles’ armor to Odysseus, to another man. And it’s the combination of exhaustion and trauma and loss and grief, and then I think the final straw, betrayal, that causes Ajax to break. And Ajax is called unbendable in the Greek, unbreakable, he’s known to be the strongest of all Greek warriors, and all of a sudden in this story, the strongest of all Greek warriors snaps, and he goes and tries to kill his commanding officers while they sleep, and he is visited by a kind of dissociative, berserk madness that’s brought upon him by Athena, and mistakes animals in the surrounding fields for the enemy, for the people he came to kill, the generals, and he slaughters this field full of animals with the precision of a great trained warrior. And in so doing, he enters deeper into this dissociative and berserk state, and he actually begins to believe the animals he’s killing are really the men he came to kill, and he drags them back to his house and tortures them in front of his wife and his son.

And the play is about what happens when he wakes up from this madness, from this break with reality that’s come from all of these, this accrual of all these conditions in which he’s been living and trying to survive, and so in the play, Ajax is confronted by his family, who can tell that, as he’s coming to consciousness of what he’s done, he’s thinking about taking his own life, and they bring in his troops and they confront him and try to stop him, and in spite of all their efforts to mount this intervention, to keep Ajax from harming himself, he convinces everyone that he’s okay, and he slips away with his weapon, which he was given by his enemy, Hector, the Sword of Hector, and he goes down to the salt marshes by the sea, and he impales himself on his enemy’s sword. And this is the only instance in extant Greek tragedy where someone takes their life in this way, onstage. Violence typically takes place in Greek tragedy offstage, and then something is wheeled on, the scene is brought out, but in this instance, Ajax, this great warrior played by an actor who would have been a combat veteran, ’cause everyone served, takes his own life onstage, impaling himself on the sword, calling out for the deaths of the generals who’d betrayed him, and does it only feet from the generals who are sitting in the front row of the Theater of Dionysus.

And the second half of the play is about what happens after he kills himself and the impact it has on his family and his troops and his chain of command, and on his brother who arrives milliseconds too late, and whether he should be buried or not, and that becomes the central sort of struggle and theme of the play, and I gotta tell you, we knew it resonated, we knew that it would touch upon themes that the military had experienced. We got our first opportunity to find out what would happen when we were invited back in 2008, to perform Ajax for 400 marines and their spouses in San Diego and brought some well-known actors from New York and LA to perform, David Strathairn and Jesse Eisenberg, and this wonderful Iraqi-American actress named Heather Raffo and just monster of an actor, New York actor named Bill Camp.

And we performed at a breakneck speed and scheduled a 45-minute discussion afterwards, and the discussion lasted three and a half hours and had to be cut off at midnight. And people in that audience stood up and recited lines from Sophocles’ Ajax from memory as if they’d known the play their entire lives and related what they’d heard in the play to harrowing stories they had never shared in private, let alone in front of 400 of their peers in this environment in which it was seen as career-ending to do so. And at one point, I look back and there were 50 people waiting to speak at the mic, and we realized at that point that we had stumbled across a very powerful ancient military tool.

Sophocles was a general. Sophocles was a general in the Athenian army, he was elected general twice. I doubt he got elected for writing plays but who knows, and the audience was military in the ancient world, it was citizen soldiers and they were seeing… They had seen 80 years of war over a single century and here is a play that so explicitly speaks to the moral suffering of veterans. When all of these things accrue and we’ve come up… It’s taken us 2500 years to come up with an acronym like PTSD which barely scratches the surface of the moral and psychological and spiritual complexity of what veterans return from war and struggle with. But the plays somehow get at it without the jargon of medicine and without the psychoanalytic blah, blah, and that opens audiences up.

The invitation that we give to military audiences is talk about the play. We don’t ask them to talk about themselves, but… And everyone can have a valid interpretation of the play even if we radically disagree about what that interpretation is and that creates this environment where people would really come forth and they say things like… The first person who spoke said she was a military spouse that night and she said, “Hello, my name is Marseille. I’m the proud mother of a Marine and the wife of a Navy SEAL, and my husband went away four times to war and each time he came back just like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into our house. And to quote from the play, “Our home is a slaughterhouse.” And when she did that in front of 400 Marines and their spouses, she gave all the spouses in the room permission to voice their hidden anguish and pain by way of the play and that’s, in fact, what happened. And what happens every single time we perform Ajax for people who’ve experienced the extremities, not just of war, but of violence and trauma, it works every time.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And that’s a great example because war is one of those things where… Obviously, you don’t like war but if you’re soldiers, what you signed up to do. And there’s these costs that come with it. You have… There’s that intersection of fate and personal responsibility, and that’s a heavy heavy… You’re putting all these situations like, “What am I supposed to do? What’s the right thing to do?” And the tragedy, it sounds like, gives them… Lets them know they’re not alone in this.

Bryan Doerries: That’s correct.

Brett McKay: 2500 years ago, Sophocles felt it, Greek soldiers felt it. This is nothing new and there is some comfort in that, I guess.

Bryan Doerries: Right. That’s the thing, if I have observed one thing over close to 1800 performances across the last more than 12 years, it’s that people who’ve experienced loss and trauma universally feel alone like, “No one could possibly understand my pain.” And you hear veterans say that all the time, “No one can understand what I’ve been through, except the people who were in the exact place I was in at the exact time when this traumatic thing happened.” And that is a totally understandable position to take. But I think what Greek tragedy can show us is that, “Well, maybe we won’t understand, we can never know the material circumstances that led to your trauma.” Many people have experienced things in their lives that have led them to feel the same type of isolation and in that isolation, they can understand something deeper than just the material circumstances that led you to this place.

And so we’ve had people, in our performances, especially for diverse audiences, people on the receiving end of war. Middle Eastern people stand up and talk about their experience. We have people who’ve experienced sexual trauma, people who have experienced… Been kidnapped, people who have lost family members in accidents, people who have been abused, and all of a sudden in the discussion, you see that all these different communities of trauma are actually one community. It’s all co-centric circles, rippling out of the same sort of point of impact and we’re all within those circles even if the thing that led us to feel so alone was different.

And I think that’s really the power. It’s actually… You could say you’re not alone, that’s sort of a pithy thing people say all the time, “You’re not alone.” There’s a big difference to being told you’re not alone and actually realizing that in this amphitheater where I’m seeing you and you’re seeing me, and we’re seeing ourselves reflected in these stories, I’m not the only person in the room who feels this way. And I think that’s what Greek tragedy has to offer. It’s not the only form of storytelling that can do this. There are many other ancient cultures that were after very similar ends and, it’s just that the Greeks spent a great deal of resources in the 5th century BC as they were building their democracy and as they were prosecuting enormous wars. They spent a great deal of their resources developing this technology.

Brett McKay: So we talked about… If you’re a veteran, go see Ajax performed, so you’ll probably resonate. But even if you’re not a veteran, there is a tragedy probably out there that you would resonate with. One that connected with me, that you talked about in the book, is that… You mentioned earlier, the scene with Heracles and his son, I think it’s from Women of Trachis, where Heracles asked to be… Like, “Son, kill me.” Now, this is all about end of life stuff. Now, let’s set aside the idea of active euthanasia and assisted suicide, but family members are faced with that situation of what to do. Let’s say you have a family member, a dad, partner, child, they’re on assisted feeding, respiration and you have to make that decision like, “Do I pull the plug or do I not?” And there’s no right answer. You don’t know what to do. And that scene from that tragedy, they experience that same feeling.

Bryan Doerries: Yeah, we did a performance yesterday of that very scene for Doctors Without Borders, which is, I’m sure you know, is an organization that has doctors all over the world, inside countries where sometimes it’s hard to penetrate, offering free medical care. And during COVID, it’s been especially instrumental as an organization, and one of the doctors in the discussion really honed in on this idea that that scene really is about the moral suffering and distress of being asked to end someone’s life or to help them, to aid them in dying. In the Greek, Heracles says to his son, “I’m asking you to be my iater, my doctor by burning me alive.” And so, in a profession where people swear an oath, a Hippocratic oath to do no harm, many doctors and nurses and other types of medical professionals find themselves in positions, as we do, as family members and caregivers, where we’re being asked to do something or be complicit in something that we’ve been trained not to do, or that our moral framework tells us not to do. And yet something in us tells us that it’s the right thing to do.

And that struggle, that internal struggle, is one that I experienced as someone… When I was in my early mid-20s when I lost my girlfriend to cystic fibrosis and was her principal caregiver over about a six-month period in the East Village in New York City, and she’d had a double lung transplant. And it was failing and she had dozens of surgeries during that time and experienced a level of pain and anguish that I just didn’t know was possible. I didn’t know that it was possible for life to be prolonged in such a miserable way for so long, and yet in spite of that she transcended those circumstances over and over again and found light and life and a way of living in spite of it. And, as a caregiver in my early 20s, I was just sort of ill-prepared for what I was being asked to do, which was not just… When you look on helplessly while someone is suffering it’s impossible, unless you’re a psychopath, to not feel like you’re complicit in that suffering. We all wanna help people who are suffering, especially when they’re in our presence.

Well, the scene in The Women of Trachis is as much about the conflict that young person feels, being asked to help his father die, as it is the conflict of the person who’s suffering, in this case Heracles, who describes and voices in his suffering almost equally a will to live and a will to die at the same time. He wants to die as much as he wishes to live. And that was something we talked about with Doctors Without Borders yesterday, that that’s possible, that one can both wish to die and wish to live as forcefully as the other, in the same moment, almost like a cord of feelings that are contradictory. And again, here we are back in that incredibly ambiguous, gray, morally complex place that I would say characterizes adult life. That that’s what it is. That’s where we live. That’s where we’re currently living.

Brett McKay: And to reiterate, I think we’ve kinda hit this but I wanna make this clear, the point that you make is you can’t read these plays and expect to find an answer to these problems.

Bryan Doerries: No, the answer isn’t… It’s not in the play. The answer is in the audience. And that’s to say the answer is in the collective act of bearing witness to war or to trauma or to loss. The answer is in the act of staying in the room no matter how uncomfortable it gets. The answer… The action of the audience is not passively to listen, but to… In our model, but I think in the ancient model too, to bear witness and to offer their interpretations and their truths and perspectives, even if they’re radically different. I think that is not coincidental that the center of Athenian democracy is a form that continues to reinforce over and over again our interdependence as human beings, and I think that’s also at the heart of it. The plays depict situations that frankly are pretty dispiriting and hopeless and fatalistic, but that’s not the end of the story.

The end of the story resides in what the audience chooses to do about it, and I think in each story there is a fleeting possibility of making a change. But what the Greeks knew and what people have been to war know, and what people who have experienced loss know is that that possibility is not guaranteed and it is fragile, as fragile as human happiness or our existence, and that we have to work really hard to remain conscious enough to take advantage of that opportunity to make a change before it’s too late. And if we’re not awake, if we’re asleep at the wheel, we’ll miss it and we’ll be like the characters in Greek tragedies, learning too late and then having to feel complicit, not just in our own suffering but of generations to come.

Brett McKay: So, people can read the tragedies but, as you said, these were made to be performed. Do you have any recommendations on performances that people could watch or listen to to help them get an idea what this was like?

Bryan Doerries: Yeah, so to be clear… Yeah, we don’t release recorded versions of what we do because as you probably gleaned from this conversation, what happens in the theater is about being present in the moment with other people. So, it’s the simultaneity of the experience and the risk proposition. The actors take the risk of performing Greek tragedy with minimal rehearsal in front of an audience that’s been in the military, for instance, made to watch it, and they call it voluntold in the Greek… I mean in the military, voluntold in the military to watch the play. And you can actively see people thinking about how they could do us harm in the first five minutes. But 45 minutes in, people are sharing their stories and they’ve taken ownership of the exchange of the ancient play and something transformative occurs. So, we moved to a Zoom-based model in May of 2020 because of the pandemic. Our first performance was Oedipus the King, and we had 15,000 people tune in from 48 countries.

And since then, we’ve presented 14, 15 other performances on Zoom across a whole series of tragedies, from Greek tragedy to Shakespearean tragedy, to the Book of Job from the Old Testament, and we continue to do so. We have performances next week and, whenever this airs, there will be performances that week as well. If you simply go to our website, theaterofwar.com, spelled the American way, E-R, theaterofwar.com, and you go on our schedule, you’ll find all the upcoming events. All of our work is free but our work takes place in the moment. It’s not to be consumed. So, you can’t stream it or download it, you have to make the commitment of being present with other people who are experiencing it at the same time you are. And I recommend coming to see our work ’cause we have an incredible cast of over 250 well-known actors who are at the top of their craft, who weekly join our ranks to try their hand at these incredibly powerful and challenging plays and to learn from audiences who always know more than we do about what these plays are really about.

Brett McKay: Well, Bryan, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for this time, it’s been a pleasure.

Bryan Doerries: Thank you so much, Brett. I really appreciate the opportunity, thanks for helping us spread the word and for taking a deeper dive into the book, I really appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Bryan Doerries, he’s the author of the book, The Theater of War. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, theaterofwar.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/theaterofwar where you can find links to resources, you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code, manliness, at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you’ll start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding all who listen to the AOM podcast, put what you’ve heard into action.

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