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Performances of Greek tragedies help heal the invisible wounds of war

A "Theater of War" performance at Columbia University in 2011.
Theater of War

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Sophocles's "Ajax" is the story of a soldier who returns from war suffering from an unseen wound. 

While the ancient Greek drama is thousands of years old, the themes have proved an effective way to address the costs of war for military veterans today.

Theater of War Productions translates plays from ancient Greek and performs them for service members across the country. 

Bryan Doerries, the artistic director for Theater of War Productions, says the performances are designed "as a catalyst for getting [veterans and their families] to speak openly about some of the timeless experiences of war — what we now call post-traumatic stress, alcohol and substance abuse, suicidal ideation, survivor's guilt, the impact of war on families."

The idea first came to him back in 2008, Doerries says. He personally didn't know anyone in the military, but reading stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that "seemed like they could have been ripped from the pages of Sophocles" gave him an idea.

"I had this hunch that if I could put these ancient Greek war plays in front of audiences that had lived the experiences they described, something powerful could happen," Doerries says. "Hopefully something healing would occur."

The response, Doerries says, was more personal than he could have imagined. Doerries described the reaction from the first performance that was done for a room of 400 Marines in San Diego.

"[One woman] stood up and she said, 'Hello, I'm the proud mother of a Marine and the wife of a Navy SEAL. My husband went away four times to war — each time he came back, just like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into our house. And to quote from the play, our home is a slaughter house,'" Doerries said.

While the plays may not be the kind of therapy sought by everyone, Doerries says they do open the door for conversations that may not have happened otherwise.

"Many people feel ashamed. They feel it's a career-ending gesture, especially in the military, to admit that they're struggling with an invisible wound," Doerries says. "So the purpose of what we do is to give voice to that and to give a communal experience where people can see ... that they are not alone. Not alone in the room, not alone across the country, and the world — and most importantly, not alone across time."

A list of upcoming "Theater of War" performances is available here.

"Theater of War" is featured in this month's issue of Harper's Magazine.