The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was not impressed by the academic scholars who studied ancient Greek and Roman texts in the 19th century. “[N]inety-nine philologists out of a hundred should not be philologists at all,” he once wrote. His basic objection was that scholars sequestered in their studies often lacked experience of life. They could opine endlessly on trivial and technical aspects of philosophy, tragedy, and history, but they tended to miss the deeper human meanings of these works.
A new book by Bryan Doerries, “The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today,’’ endorses Nietzsche’s notion: Those with the most experience of loss and anguish are best able to offer insights into ancient texts that dramatize such afflictions. A director and translator, Doerries founded a project called Theater of War that presents performances of ancient Greek tragedies to veterans, service members, hospice workers, prison wardens, disaster victims, and cancer patients.
His compelling, raw book is both memoir and manifesto; he chronicles his own gradual discovery of the power and relevance of Greek tragedies while also championing their social utility. His story begins with an inspiring professor at Kenyon College who encourages him to study ancient Greek. By his senior year, he mobilizes some friends to build a makeshift amphitheater on a hill near campus in order to stage a production of Euripides’s “the Bacchae.’’
His narrative takes a darker turn after he graduates. He falls in love with a young woman with cystic fibrosis and after a brief romance watches her slow and painful death. By his late 20s, the age at which Nietzsche thought it was first possible to have the maturity to appreciate ancient texts, he decides to organize readings of Sophocles’s “Philoctetes’’ and “Ajax’’ for active-duty service members.
The response from soldiers and their families is immediate and overwhelming. Some of the book’s strongest sections describe how Greek tragedy helped combat veterans to articulate and clarify their experiences. “ ‘What is morale-boosting about watching a decorated warrior descend into madness and take his own life?’ ” Doerries asks one soldier who speculated that Sophocles wrote the tragedy “Ajax’’ to boost morale among Athenian troops. “ ‘It’s the truth,’ ” the soldier replies.
Doerries sees in Sophocles’s “Ajax’’ the suicide of a combat veteran who feels dishonored by the Greek generals’ siege of Troy. He reads the “Philoctetes’’ as a case study of the rage and despair of a soldier abandoned by his army. Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Bound’’ is a meditation on solitary confinement and unjust punishment, while Euripides’s “Madness of Heracles,’’ in which the hero kills his wife and children after mistaking them for enemies, dramatizes the psychic traumas of combat.
Such insights capture something essential about Greek tragedy: Unlike contemporary theater, these works aspired to serve religious, political, and even therapeutic functions in ancient Greek society. Not only can the shared viewing of tragedies promote “the purification of potentially dangerous emotions,” it can also “communalize the experience of war.” These ideas on the cathartic and social functions of tragedy date back to Aristotle, but Greek tragedies today are usually produced more as curiosities than as urgent, indispensable texts that can spark civic debate and psychological healing.
At points Doerries’s readings become reductive; some passages come close to suggesting that the sole, or at least the best, purpose of Greek tragedy is to elicit emotional reactions from combat veterans. But these works depict and illuminate a much broader range of human experience and psychology. It’s also debatable that the genre is as fundamentally optimistic about the possibility of human change as he implies.
But it is undeniably powerful to hear the wife of an army major relate to the lines of Sophocles’s character Tecmessa, the wife of Ajax, who pleads with her husband not to take his own life. Just as striking is a contemporary news story about a disturbed veteran who kills innocent animals after returning from war — a sequence that mirrors the plot of “Ajax.’’ Across a gulf of two and a half millennia, the Greek tragedians can still help us know and cure ourselves.
THE THEATER OF WAR:
What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach us Today
By Bryan Doerries
Knopf, 284 pp., $26.95
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.