International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Trauma and World Literature - Combat Veterans Healing from Trauma through the Theatre of War

Posted 31 March 2015 in StressPoints by Howard Lipke, PhD and Harold Kudler, MD

A recent Harper’s magazine article entitled “You Are Not Alone Across Time: Using Sophocles to treat PTSD” described a program called Theater of War which has presented classical Greek plays to combat veterans with positive psychotherapeutic effect.

The title of this article powerfully expresses one of the ways in which the Arts are so valuable to humanity. Whereas the article focuses on presentations of the play, Aias(Ajax), other works by Sophocles and by other playwrights have been included in this project as its target audiences have expanded. Writing in Harper’s, Wyatt Mason describes the Theater of War Program as it has developed under the guidance of its co-founder Bryan Doerries:

First funded by the Pentagon in 2009 to the strategically modest tune of $3.7 million, Theater of War has staged more than 250 shows for 50,000 military personnel on bases from Guantánamo Bay to Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. In front of a full house of soldiers on Zama, the actors performed an ancient Greek play about war’s costs— Sophocles’ Ajax. In Zama’s audience were many soldiers who had seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan on multiple deployments; many were still dealing with battle trauma and post-traumatic stress. The play that would unfold before them tells of a soldier’s march toward madness and suicide—a warrior falling onto his own sword. The audience understood the connection implicitly…As Zama’s base commander, Colonel Vivian T. Hutson, told the crowd that spilled onto the theater floor, the play would address how “eleven years of continuous war” had left a legacy of “stress, sacrifice, and separation” on the nation’s soldiers. (p 57)

Mason goes on to say:

After the show on Zama, Doerries walked me through the crowd that came to the front to talk to him and the other actors. Doerries took the hands of soldiers, listening intently to their stories. A retired lieutenant with deeply bagged eyes and a black bristle of mustache was brought to the performance that day by his wife, an active-duty colonel. Since he’d gotten back from his tours in Afghanistan, he had refused to get the help his wife said he needed. But he confessed he’d broken down while watching Ajax unfold.

“Because of you guys,” he told each of the actors afterward in an improbably explicit but nonetheless persuasive moment of frankness, “I’m going to seek help. I’ve been in denial for three years.” (p 59)

If we may consider the play, Aias(Ajax), there are many passages which could resonate with the thoughts and feelings of combat veterans and their families.

We thought it might be helpful to share this passage from Aias which speaks of the motivation for the title character’s eventual suicide. Sophocles, himself a veteran, incisively depicts the intellectual and emotional upheaval which Aias is living through:

.. I must find some act that will prove
my nature and show my father
that his son was not born gutless.
To stretch your life out when you see
that nothing can break its misery
is shameful- day after day
moving forward or back from end line
of death. There is not joy in that.
Any mortal who warms his heart
over empty hopes is worthless
in my eyes. Honor in life
or in death: if a man is born noble,
he must have one or the other.
You’ve heard all there is to say
(p44)

While we may understand his reasoning, Sophocles’ play and the expert direction and acting to be found in the Theater of War project make it clear that there were other paths which Aias might have taken. Such is the power of great theater and the promise it may hold for combat veterans and, for that matter, for all of us now and in the future.
 

References

1.More commonly but less accurately known as Ajax, as Golder (2010) makes clear in his Introduction:
Golder, Herbert (2010) Introduction In P. Burian & Alan Shapiro (Eds,) The Complete Sophocles, Vol II, pp. 3 –24, New York: Oxford.
Mason, Wyatt (October, 2014), You Are Not Alone Across Time: Using Sophocles to treat PTSD. Harper’s Magazine, 57 -65.
Sophocles (trans. 2010) Aias (Ajax) H. Golder & Richard Pevear, Trans.) In P. Burian & Alan Shapiro (Eds,) The Complete Sophocles, Vol II, pp. 25-80, New York: Oxford.