Sophocles and the Marine Corps
It's an unlikely pairing to say the least, but translator/director Bryan Doerries is convinced that the ideal audience for many ancient Greek plays is a military one; that despite the 2,500 year gap between when they were written and the present, they're more relevant than ever. Bryan is a friend and writing partner of mine, and yesterday he invited me down to San Diego to a staged reading he's translated and directed of several scenes from Sophocles' Ajax and Philoctetes. But the venue wasn't some blackbox theater and the audience wasn't comprised of typical theatergoers; it was the Marine Corps' annual Combat Operational Stress conference, in which about 800 top brass gather to talk about how to handle Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the military. Four-star generals sitting down to hear actors from New York read ancient Greek plays? Yep -- and they loved it.
Of course, these weren't just any actors -- the cast was comprised of David Straithern, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Rodger Dodger), Broadway powerhouse Bill Camp and the talented Heather Raffo, whose one-woman show Nine Parts of Desire put her on the map a few years ago. And these weren't just any Greek plays: Ajax is about a hero who, psychically worn down after nine long years of war, snaps at a perceived insult upon returning home and goes mad, slaughtering animals as if they were men -- and finally, himself. Philoctetes concerns an injured man left behind years ago by fellow soldiers on a tiny island, whose wounds, both physical and mental, have only grown more chronic with time. (Would that I had video of the performances, I could share them here; suffice to say, the plays have aged well.)
The reason they're so relevant today -- especially to a military audience -- seems to lie in the fact that Greek civilization was not only the birthplace of drama, but was a highly militarized society, in which all able-bodied males were compelled to serve. Theatrical audiences were comprised mainly of men; therefore, by veterans. And the urge to tell stories, to create these dramas, came out of the need to share battle stories with one another. Moreover, Sophocles was himself a twice-elected general in the Greek army; he knew of what he wrote. And the military assembled for Bryan's reading responded with accolades, with heart-wrenching stories, and with a plea: if we can share our stories the way these people, who seemed to share our values, 2,500 years ago did, then we can start to relieve some of the psychic pain conferred upon us by war.
The BBC, AP and LA Times were in attendance; when these stories hit, I'll certainly be posting bits of them.
All the above photos I shot during a rehearsal; the performance itself was in panel format, seen below. Bryan Doerries is on the right, introducing the material.
UPDATE: here's a link to the Associated Press' story on the reading.