Ajax: Parallels between Ancient Greek and Contemporary American Warfare

Back in the spring, I missed a chance to see a performance by the Boston-based American Repertory Theater of Ajax, an ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles. I also missed a chance to see the panel-discussion edition of the play manifested in Theater of War. I didn’t miss this show on this very rainy evening (incidentally the 70th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor) at Boston University’s Tsai Center; the show was the company’s 188th production.

The production consists of dramatic readings by four actors of 5 scenes chosen from either Sophocles’ play Ajax or Philoctetes. Following the readings is a panel discussion (with audience participation) about various sobering issues portrayed in the play. Essentially, the point of the show and the organization (Theater of War Productions) is to portray (through these ancient texts) the trials and wounds (both physical and psychological) that modern day soldiers suffer. By using theater as a medium through which to address these issues, civilians, soldiers, and military families can open a vigorous dialogue, protecting veterans from stigma and bringing these often distanced military wounds much closer to home. Here is a PBS video describing the show.

The version I saw tonight featured readings from Ajax. The readings were very dynamic; I greatly enjoyed the performances of actors Jason Bowen, Reg E. Cathey, Thomas Derrah, and Brooke Hardman, featuring as well narration, acting, and mediation by artistic director Bryan Doerries.

The discussion covered possible reasons Sophocles wrote such a play, how veterans feel about discussing the many horrors they often live in combat territory, and how families cope with the distance and inability to directly aid in the healing process.

For me, as a psychology researcher in the VA hospital in Jamaica Plain, I was surprised at the amount of audience members who discussed the taciturn nature of soldiers returning from deployment. One of the panel speakers, Major Craig Giorgis, mentioned how it sometimes takes time for veterans to be ready to speak about their issues. One must be patient until then.

I think that makes a lot of sense. Often, when working with older veterans (think Vietnam and Korean War) who come to complete research studies, I encounter participants who barely wait to walk through the door before sharing incredibly personal and often traumatizing experiences from their deployments. It seems when presented with a neutral and (to them) clinical setting, they feel more enabled to drop the shield and share about their experiences. Perhaps this is what the honor-bound society of Sophocles lacked; trained and nonjudgmental individuals prepared and eager to hear about soldiers’ military experiences, and ready to help them work through said issues without any hint of shame.

In any case, don’t miss the show if you get a chance to see it. It’s well worth it.

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