Ancient Dramas, Modern Hurts

Ransom Riggs

A few months ago, I wrote about my friend Bryan Doerries' staged readings of ancient Greek dramas for military audiences around the country, and how absolutely contemporary the post-war hurts and traumas suffered by Ajax and Philoctetes -- the dramas' physically and mentally wounded protagonists -- seemed to everyone who watched. I regretted not being able to share a video of the performance here, because that's where the power of the project really lies, but this week NPR sent producer Elizabeth Blair to a reading at the Department of Defense, and she brought along a camera crew.

The story aired yesterday on All Things Considered, and it's archived here. I wish I could embed the videos here, but regardless you must check out the second video, of John Adams star Paul Giamatti giving a tear-down-the-house performance of one of Bryan's scenes. (I'm usually impressed by Giamatti's performances; that he can generate this much passion in a staged reading is even more impressive.) Also, the story sheds more light on the project's genesis:

The Philoctetes Project, which brought the plays to the Warrior Resilience Conference, is the brainchild of Bryan Doerries, a translator and director of Greek and Roman drama. Philoctetes is a Greek warrior who gets bitten by a poisonous snake just before the Trojan War. When his injury makes him a liability, his generals abandon him on an island where he lives by himself — in great pain — for nine years. When the veterans-care scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center made headlines in 2007, Doerries saw parallels. "On every front page," Doerries says, "there were pictures of modern Philocteteses, waiting for treatment, abandoned on islands, just like the character in the play. And all of a sudden it became a revelation that this play was about a wounded vet who was waiting for treatment and had to accept it from a medical establishment he no longer trusted." That anguish and mistrust runs through Sophocles' character Ajax as well. At the end of the Trojan War, Ajax feels he's been badly mistreated by the military. He grows depressed, possibly psychotic, and attempts to kill first his generals and then himself. "It's an amazing thing that the military is so interested in these [plays]," says Giamatti, who points out that from one perspective, both Philoctetes and Ajax can seem anti-military. The title characters, he explains, essentially rail at their superior officers: "'How could you have done this to me? I gave you my loyalty and strength and you turned me into a monster.'"