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Theater of War: Sophocles' Take on PTSD
11/08/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

The term PTSD is a comparatively new one, but battle stress is something as old as war itself. That was the message being underlined by New York-based theater director Bryan Doerries at a performance in a Portland High School theater Thursday night.  Professional actors retold part of a tale from ancient Greece, as a way of facilitating a community discussion about PTSD among veterans, their families and caregivers.  Tom Porter has more.

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l - r, Bryan Doerries, Zach Grenier, Mare Winningham

Left to right, Bryan Doerries, Zach Grenier and Mare Winningham, during a panel discussion Thursday at Portland High School.

For a little over half an hour, an audience of about 100 or so listened to the words of Sophocles, a playwright who was also a general. The story is that of the mythical warrior Ajax - words translated from the ancient Greek by Doerries himself.

FROM PLAY: "You loyal friends, you stood by me through the worst of times.  Do you see this way of destruction, full of {inaudible} and guts crushing on all sides?" "Sadly you are right, he has come unhinged."  

Bryan Doerries"So here's an ancient play written by a general 2,500 years ago that was perfomed for 17,000 citizen soldiers in a century that saw 80 years of war," Doerries (right) says. "And it deals explicitly with a great respected warrior, who in the 9th year of the Trojan War loses his best friend, slips into a depression, attempts to kill his commanding officers, fails and ultimately takes his own life."
FROM PLAY: "I will say it plainly, the face of the best warrior ever to be seen in Troy, who came from Greece and now lies here wallowing in filth, stripped of all honor."  
"It's a story about psychological injury. It's a story about the invisible wounds of war," Doerries says.

"You go into the mind of someone who is struggling with the idea of suicide and finally goes through with it," says Zach Grenier.

Grenier, who plays Ajax, is perhaps best known as attorney David Lee in the television drama, "The Good Wife."

Ajax suicideFROM PLAY: "These are last words you will hear Ajax speak.  The rest I shall say to those who listen in the world below."

"The play is about not only the horror of what Ajax goes through, but the horror of what his family goes through," Grenier says.

Reading the part of Ajax's wife and grief-stricken widow, Tecmessa, is two-time Emmy award-winner Mare Winningham.

FROM PLAY: Techmessa screaming.
Actor: "What was that sound coming from trees?"
Tecmessa: "Wretched, I'm wretched."
Actor: "I see the battle-won bride overcome with grief"
Tecmessa: "It's over friends, everything is lost."

Since 2008, Bryan Doerries' Theater of War project, has performed Sophocles more than 230 times to audiences across the world.

"I was a classics major in college," he says, "and believed that these ancient Greek and Roman plays had something relevant and important to say to us now."

Doerries says he grew increasingly frustrated reading the papers and seeing stories that could have been ripped straight out of the pages of these ancient Greek war plays.

"And I got this idea in my head - I wasn't the first peson to come up with this connection between ancient Greek drama and military service and military culture," he says, "but I was the first person crazy enough to put these ancient Greek tragedies in front of contemporary military audiences."

"It really bought me back to my recently coming home back in 2011," said Scott Hamilton, an active duty soldier with two tours in Afghanistan under his belt.

Hamilton was part of a panel that took the stage after the dramatic performance to share their thoughts, and help kickstart a discussion on themes raised by Sophocles more than 2,000 years ago. Hamilton says the anger of Ajax reminded him of his own anger issues that he had to deal with when he came home from combat.

It made me think that this is a problem that everyone has - and I do know that," Hamilton said. "But just to hear that that's what took place back then - it's very powerful."

For some combat vets in the audience, the performance brought some painful issues to the surface. "War is disgusting and dirty and I hope he was trying to bring that home to the people that didn't go," said one, his voice breaking.

Another veteran recalled how years of service as a Navy Seal once brought him to the brink of suicide. "I was going to end my life," he said. "What I'd been living with, and still living with everyday, is the shame and guilt." Guilt at still being alive, he says, when so many of his comrades over the years had perished.

Denise O'Connell is with Lunder Dineen Health Education Alliance of Maine, which sponsored this event.

"It's a powerful timeless message about what can happen to people," she says, "and it really, we hope, will raise awareness about how we can support returning veterans and their families who've been affected by war."

The suicide of Ajax that Sophocles wrote about is tragically all too common among warriors 2,500 years later, O'Connell says. According to an estimate released by the VA earlier this year, some 22 veterans take their lives every day.

Learn More about the Theater of War project.



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