Sophocles to the rescue of tormented US soldiers

For a decade Philoctetes was alone on an island, abandoned by his comrades. Shortly before the end of the Trojan War, Ajax, a man known for his reason, went mad and committed suicide. Nearly two millennia after Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” were first performed on stage, the stories of the mythical warriors today form the basis of the Theater of War program, based in Brooklyn, New York, which since 2008 has presented excerpts of the works to more than 60,000 US military service members, veterans and their families, visiting American military bases all over the world and performing at public venues. In the discussion that follows each performance, soldiers and civilians share their own traumatic experiences as part of the process of catharsis through ancient drama.

“People who have lived what I would call life in mythological proportions, the experiences the Homeric epics describe, who have come into contact with life and death, and sacrifice, have loved and lost people, they have no trouble relating to these ancient stories because they are their stories,” Bryan Doerries, translator, writer, director and mastermind of the Theater of War project, told Kathimerini recently. “When they see themselves and their own personal struggle reflected in a play by Sophocles they feel a tremendous relief to know that they are not alone across time.”

Doerries firmly believes that the ancient Greek tragic poets had a very clear sense of purpose and of the mission they were serving. Sophocles was “a general” and his audience consisted of men in a country where military service was compulsory. There was, therefore, an immediate sense of affinity between the characters and the public. In the US, however, military service is voluntary and less than 1 percent of the population has an idea of what this entails, says Doerries, adding that this also makes it hard for their families to understand the experiences of soldiers who have served in a war zone.

“A lot of veterans feel like Philoctetes, a little bit dehumanized, because they do not have a community in which to belong,” says Doerries.

That sense of isolation is a key factor that exacerbates post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which in many cases can lead to depression, aggression and suicidal tendencies, explains the American writer.

Doerries likes to enlist top American actors to perform in the plays.

“We don’t use them because they are famous; we work with them because they are the best storytellers. The reason is because the power of what we are doing is happening in the audience, not so much on the stage,” explains Doerries, adding that the audience is often reluctant to participate in the process.

He would also like to acquaint more Americans with ancient Greek drama.

“Right now we have four productions of ‘Macbeth’ playing in New York, but we haven’t seen ‘Oedipus’ on Broadway since 1947. We adapt everything else about Greek culture – the architecture, the philosophy, the aesthetic, the ethics, dance – but we are still in our adolescence as a country with regards to Greek drama,” says Doerries.

After each performance the floor is given to members of the audience for a discussion which, according to the director, is the most important part of the project.

“We are used to seeing art as art and a discussion as a discussion, but this is a different relation between theater and audience that we are trying to forge,” says Doerries. “The performance begins with the actors reading these wonderful texts and finishes when the last member of the audience has finished speaking.”

Doerries is fascinated by ancient Greek drama, arguing that it “stabilizes all of the hierarchies.”

“It is such a kick in the gut, it is such a shock that all of a sudden the audience forgets the rules of engagement and etiquette, and people are just candid and open,” he says. “If you want to have a discussion about something that is difficult to talk about, like death, or something that divides us, like war, I would say, instead of trying to have a discussion on political terms, start with a portrayal of human suffering first and then have a conversation. I think this is what the Athenians were up to.”

Doerries first performed in an ancient Greek drama at the age of 8. He began translating Greek tragedies while he was at university and then presented dramatized versions of extracts of the plays at hospitals. In 2007, an article in the Washington Post about the conditions at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington DC made him think of Philoctetes.

“It seemed to me all of a sudden that through modern warfare and modern medicine we have created the conditions to abandon veterans like Philoctetes on islands of chronic illness for even longer than in the ancient world. I got this idea in my head that if I could perform ‘Philoctetes’ for a military audience, something powerful would happen,” explains Doerries.

The leg of the project presenting “Ajax” is part of a broader effort in the US to prevent suicides among soldiers and veterans, with Theater of War receiving funding from a long list of donors that includes the Pentagon and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The support from the Pentagon has prevented other partnerships from coming to fruition – such as the University of Oxford, which refused a request to perform there – but Doerries believes the benefits outweigh the costs.

“If you are looking for an anti-war statement, and I think in the Athenian world as well, look no further than the veterans talking about the experience of war. If you can get them to openly talk about it, it is far more powerful than a march or a rally or a demo,” says Doerries.

In August 2008, around 400 marines were presented with three scenes each from “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” and the discussion that followed was one of the most memorable Doerries has ever witnessed.

“They stood up and quoted lines, often from memory without looking at notes, and then related the lines with very personal and private experiences they’ve had; as if they’d known the play for their entire life, as if it was not the first time they had heard about this rarely performed play,” he recounts. The discussion, originally planned to take 45 minutes, lasted three hours.

“They stood up and revealed things they had never said in private in front of a crowd of 400 people. Sophocles gave them permission to do it,” says Doerries.

Doerries admits that he is not the first person to have made the connection between ancient Greek drama and the military service in ancient Athens. In fact, there is a whole field of study behind it.

But “I was the first crazy enough to try to do it,” he says.


The Theater of War project is run by the company Outside the Wire, which uses theater to address modern-day social issues. More information about the program is available on