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Philoctetes, The Theater of War and Their Implications On Mental Health by Vanessa Marino

Posted by on Monday, October 5, 2015 in News, , , , , , .


The theater of ancient Greece was many things: a literary competition, a Dionysian religious rite, and a place where citizens gathered to see plays that were directly influenced by everyday occurrences in their lives. It was through these portrayals of human suffering and sociopolitical issues, that the audience was able to achieve a collective catharsis. It was the last of these issues in which translator Bryan Dorries was most interested. Trained as a classicist and theater director, and scarred by witnessing the suffering and death of his girlfriend and his father, Doerries sought in these old plays methods of dealing with unhealed wounds (NY Times). He persuaded the United States Military in 2008 that post-traumatic stress might be addressed by exposing troops to the works of classical dramatists. He focused on his translations of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes and performed them for the first time in front of 400 marines. The post-production discussion went on for over three hours before Doerries cut things off and led to the government’s agreement to stage a hundred additional performances What began on military bases gradually spread to scores of American communities where people were hurting and where theater could make a difference.


Doerries’ Theater of War Project speaks to a larger social issue, the acceptance of post-traumatic stress as a real disorder in need of treatment. The road to the Theater of War project was not an easy one; generals and other military personnel were hesitant to admit that their actions were responsible for causing this illness, especially when the repercussions were not easily seen. The military’s acceptance of Theater of War makes the acknowledgment of pain easier, as though those who are affected are not suffering alone. Both Philoctetes and Ajax perpetuate these notions. These characters were both soldiers—Ajax afflicted by an invisible madness that led him to slaughter a herd of animals (thinking they were the Greek leaders), and Philoctetes bitten by a snake and abandoned by his fellow soldiers. It’s easy to see how both of these plays and their characters would appeal to soldiers coming back from overseas. Like PTSD, Ajax’s madness is invisible, he suffers because of a curse inflicted by the gods, but the other characters in the play can’t understand why he is behaving the way he is. After Ajax has discovered what he’s done, he goes to commit suicide, despite the protesting of his brother and concubine, Tecmessa. Both attempt to prevent the inevitable, but Ajax is too stubborn and ashamed to listen to their council.


Philoctetes explores similar issues. Upon receiving his injury that will not heal, his fellow soldiers abandon him and he is left on an island, alone. When help finally does arrive, in the form of Neoptolemus, Philoctetes is hesitant to accept it, believing it to be all part of a cleverly crafted ruse. The continuing themes of a wound that will not heal and the paranoia that has developed from isolation as a cause of this wound all depict the same symptoms of PTSD. However, it is the aftermath that could prove most compelling to the soldiers, for Philoctetes is rescued after he finally accepts Neoptolemus’ assistance. Like PTSD, if an individual is unwilling to allow their loved ones to help them, they could easily end up like Ajax leaving their family members to grieve for their loss.


I have been a military brat since birth, with both my mother and boyfriend serving on active duty. They have lost friends and comrades, and the sharing of these losses is difficult for them to express. Like Neoptolemus, you can offer assistance, but many times you’re met with the same stubbornness Philoctetes exhibited. This is what makes The Theater of War project so effective; it reaffirms several of the ideas and emotions these soldiers are feeling and places them into a historical context. These were problems that people approximately 2400 years ago were dealing with, giving PTSD a legitimacy that people often refute. This is a real disorder, with lasting affects on not only the person experiencing it, but their family. The Theater of War, has a simple, yet enthralling stage production and attracted several big name performers such as Paul Giamatti and Jesse Eisenberg. Doerries could have mimicked the tragic nature of the plays and used ornate, somber decorations or made the production larger than life to fit the mythical setting, but instead the actors read from printed versions of the play while sitting at a table. It makes everything feel more normalized, as if the audience is holding a conversation with the actors while still being able to be completely engrossed by the material. It is fitting that the post-discussion portion of the plays, run for so long for the entire atmosphere of The Theater of War lends itself to acceptance and conversation.


The Theater of War project is a great step in the exploration of mental health issues. It allows us as a society to engage in a discussion about the consequences war has on our community. Hopefully with the growth of Doerries’ work, soldiers and other individuals impacted by traumatic events will be able to be like Philoctetes and accept the help of those who are willing to give it.





Shapiro, James. “‘The Theater of War,’ by Bryan Doerries.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 Oct. 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.


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3 Comments on “Philoctetes, The Theater of War and Their Implications On Mental Health by Vanessa Marino”

I like the phrase “acknowledgement of pain” in the contrasting contexts of Philoctetes, Ajax, and returned soldiers. In the Greek play, the character Philoctetes could not keep his mouth shut because of the pain. Ajax could not explain his pain with words, but was so distraught he killed animals and wanted to kill himself. A returning solider has a pain that blends the two Greek characters. The pain has a magnitude so great that he or she wants to scream and moan, but there is also an element of pain that is not fully understood or able to be expressed. There is a silent torture that others cannot see or hear unless the soldier chooses to express it if he or she is able.

The untraditional delivery of the script in order to be an experience that promotes dialogue reminds me of the Sojourn Theatre’s goals. This project fits well into what Michael Rohd shared with us about the possibility for theatre to be so much more than just entertainment. By showcasing it in a way that grabs the attention of non-typical theatre-goers, this art form can have an unparalleled significance beyond the performance. The topic is something the audience cares strongly about, even if it is difficult to grapple and far from fun. There are many other ways that theatre can express the consequences of war. In this case, the Greek play is not a direct storyline of war trauma, but the story we are trying to tell can be infused into the original plot. Hundreds of years ago, mental illness was not at all well understood. Yet by applying the diagnosis of PTSD to Ajax and using that to explain his homicidal and suicidal actions and thoughts seems to work. A similar prompt of mental illness could take place from creating a play that combines documentary, interviews, and live action of a fictional war story. Or a cast could perform a show that consists of entirely monologues by each character that weave together to build a complex story of relationships and developments after war. A play could tell a story of the present condition of paranoia and resistance to talk or seek help, but slowly reveal the background of how that character became distraught through a series of flashback scenes. There are countless ways to incorporate these very important discussions into a piece of theatrical work. The beauty of using an ancient Greek story to have this function lies in the comfort that these were issues other people struggled with years and years ago. There is peace in the feeling that they are not alone in this.

I went through a traumatic experience, but did not feel the full effects of it until four months later. When the insomnia, anxiety, and attacks of sobbing struck and I could no longer keep my experience a secret, I could relate to the suffering of Ajax and Philoctetes. My situation had nothing to do with war, but a different facet of trauma. By utilizing the underlying emotions and struggles of a story, a theatrical play can help people going through those same experiences even though the surface level causes are different. It reminds me of literal action versus essential action that we discussed in class. While the superficial elements of stories between the Greek play, soldiers, and my traumatic experience all vary, the three lead to similar deeper feelings. By all the hurting parties relating to each other on that deeper level, there is an inherent comfort and ease in talking about the problems that remain once the initial trauma is over.

Lia Van De Krol on October 14th, 2015 at 3:19 pm

Bryan Doerries backstory and reason for bringing Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes to the US military is inspiring. He has brought to light the issues of coping with emotional wounds to a larger audience. After his first production in front of marines, the lengthy post-production conversation Doerries lead proved how much people, especially soldiers, need to discuss human suffering. Fortunately, the government recognized soldiers’ need to converse about the emotional implications of soldiers returning home from war, especially post-traumatic stresses, allowing the Theater of War project to reach military audiences. As Vanessa states, PTSD is an invisible illness. In Sophocle’s production, Ajax struggles with his invisible issue of remorse and shame for killing sheep and cattle, which ultimately led to his suicide. This parallels the troubles some soldiers face when dealing with the guilt of people they may have killed people during combat. PTSD’s invisibility makes it more difficult to see the affects of the disorder, which has caused the awareness of PTSD and other mental illnesses to be minimal in our society. However, the Theater of War project has helped bring discussions about mental illness to the forefront. With mental illness awareness on the rise, individuals may feel more comfortable discussing their own issues and may be more receptive to receiving help. The Theater of War project is a positive approach to promoting mental illness awareness and hopefully leads to fewer incidences like Ajax’s.

quanla on October 20th, 2015 at 4:52 pm

What seems incredibly poignant about these productions is their ability to communicate what can be so untranslatable about war and the pain soldiers experience. I imagine so much of the daily life of a soldier is so different from life once they return home that connecting with and processing the experiences of war can be quite difficult as they are so out of context. Plays like Ajax and Philoctetes and put these experiences back in context and allow the audience and especially those who have been in combat to unpack their feelings by relating to certain aspects of stories and characters and not by delving into their past. I’m sure memories and feelings of war can be quite painful and being given the space to easily identify with a character who has felt a similar pain would be extremely cathartic. These plays exhibit many characters espousing different emotions one who has experienced battle could be feeling and through them, they are able to tell the story of war in a very real way. War in our current culture can often be glorified and the stories and characters may not end up reflecting what real soldiers feel and the reel emotions are lost in the CGI and the carnage. Sophocles’ play dismiss all that. They quickly cut to the issues at hand and seem to be stories specifically aimed at contextualizing the parts of war not often talked about. And what could be a simpler way to begin the healing process for people who have seen, done, or felt horrific things than to tell a story. A story that begins to give a voice to those who have lost their voice in the cacophony of war.

Zephyr Zink on October 20th, 2015 at 11:25 pm

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