fb-pixel Skip to main content

On the ancients, creativity, and mental illness

Bryan Doerries is the founder of Theater of War, a project that presents readings of ancient Greek plays to service members, veterans, and their families to help them initiate conversations about the visible and invisible wounds of war.Theater of War Productions

Bryan Doerries’s new translation “Oedipus Trilogy: New Versions of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone” includes three Greek tragedies because he believes that they should be read together as one epic, one that is especially relevant in the time of COVID. “Oedipus the King” was first performed in 429 BC during a plague in Athens. Doerries is the artistic director for Theater of War Productions, which presents dramatic readings of classic Greek plays as a way to address trauma, for example producing works in rural communities overwhelmed by opioid abuse or urban neighborhoods struggling with gun violence.

BOOKS: What are you reading?


DOERRIES: I’m reading Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life” about fungi. For fiction, I’ve been going through William Styron’s novels over the past few months, such as “Lie Down in Darkness, “Tidewater Morning” and other books. Also I finally got through one of my pandemic reads, Roberto Bolano’s “2666.”

BOOKS: What started you on your Styron kick?

DOERRIES: I’m from Newport News, [Va.,] which was also his hometown. Because of the pandemic I think I was feeling nostalgic and having turned 45 I was curious how they would read.

BOOKS: Which book did you change your mind about the most?

DOERRIES: Probably “Lie Down in Darkness,” his first book. Here’s a young person who would mature into a much more even-keeled writer just swinging for the bleachers in every sentence. I also reread his memoir, “Darkness Visible,” which people I know who have struggled with depression say gives the most accurate description of that condition.

BOOKS: Have you gone on streaks with other authors?

DOERRIES: Over the pandemic I also did that with Simone Weil. She wrote this amazing text “Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks.” I was just galvanized by her thinking, not just about antiquity and her struggles with her faith, but also with her radical politics.


BOOKS: Do you usually read a nonfiction book and a novel at the same time?

DOERRIES: Yes. I also listen to a lot of audio books. I’m having a conversation with Margret Atwood about my work so I just listened to “The Testaments.” In “The Handmaid’s Tale” she described elements of the world in which we are currently living in the United States and then in “The Testaments” she puts that on steroids.

BOOKS: What made you pick up the book on fungi?

DOERRIES: I read a terrific review in The New York Review of Books. Some of the fungi he describes encourage a symbiosis and collaboration that we need. You can’t see the world the same after you read that book. However, I don’t read a lot of general science. I read more biographies, memoirs, and some history.

BOOKS: What was the last great biography you read?

DOERRIES: “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire” by Kay Redfield Jamison. I’d been reading Lowell’s poetry over the pandemic, mostly “Life Studies and For the Union Dead.” I’m interested in that relationship between mental illness and artistic creation. I notice a theme is emerging, books about mental illness. I’m the son of two psychologists!

BOOKS: When did you read your first Greek play?

DOERRIES: In elementary school. I played one of the children who is killed by his mother in Euripides’s “Medea.” I still remember my lines. Then in college I majored in classics and studied Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. I was very influenced by reading these ancient languages and they give access to the thinking of ancient people.


BOOKS: Which play has helped you the most personally?

DOERRIES: Right after college, “Philoctetes” by Sophocles, which is about a chronically ill veteran who’s abandoned on an island by his men. There’s a scene in which a young caregiver, faced with abject suffering, must make an ethical decision. It was as if the play had been written for me as someone who’d lost his girlfriend and been her caregiver.

BOOKS: How did the pandemic influence your reading?

DOERRIES: We transitioned to Zoom, which freed up a lot of time. After a production, it’s far more restorative to read alone in a bathtub rather than crammed in the back of a plane. I had more concentrated reading time and there was something hugely comforting about receiving books in the mail. We rented a house upstate, and at the start of the pandemic my little bookshelf was empty. By the time we moved back to the city, it was full.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.