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