Theater of War presents readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes to military and civilian communities across the United States and Europe. These ancient plays timelessly and universally depict the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon warriors by war. By presenting these plays to military and civilian audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury, increase awareness of post-deployment psychological health issues, disseminate information regarding available resources, and foster greater family, community, and troop resilience. Using Sophocles’ plays to forge a common vocabulary for openly discussing the impact of war on individuals, families, and communities, these events will be aimed at generating compassion and understanding between diverse audiences.
It has been suggested that ancient Greek drama was a form of storytelling, communal therapy, and ritual reintegration for combat veterans by combat veterans. Sophocles himself was a general. At the time Aeschylus wrote and produced his famous Oresteia, Athens was at war on six fronts. The audiences for whom these plays were performed were undoubtedly composed of citizen-soldiers. Also, the performers themselves were most likely veterans or cadets. Seen through this lens, ancient Greek drama appears to have been an elaborate ritual aimed at helping combat veterans return to civilian life after deployments during a century that saw 80 years of war.
Plays like Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes read like textbook descriptions of wounded warriors, struggling under the weight of psychological and physical injuries to maintain their dignity, identity, and honor. Given this context, it seemed natural that military audiences today might have something to teach us about the impulses behind these ancient stories. It also seemed like these ancient stories would have something important and relevant to say to military audiences today.
Theater of War Productions has presented over 300 performances of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes for military and civilian audiences throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. We have performed at military sites as diverse as the Pentagon, Guantanamo Bay, Army posts throughout Germany, VA Hospitals, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, homeless shelters, high school auditoriums, theaters, and churches. Our audiences have included service members and veterans from the US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Special Forces, National Guard, and Reserves, as well as high-ranking officials from the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Each reading has been followed by a town-hall style audience discussion, which has been facilitated with the help of military community members. These have been arresting, emotionally charged events, in which service members have spoken openly about their experiences in combat and at home. To date, over 60,000 service members, veterans, and their families have attended and participated in Theater of War performances and discussions.
Through a generous grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation in collaboration with the USO, Theater of War expanded the scope of its programs to engage mixed civilian-military audiences in dialogue about the seen and unseen wounds of war at twelve prominent theaters across the U.S. Please click on our Theater Partners link for more information.