The anguished warrior cried out from across the ages.
"Train your eyes on those evil men, snatch them with your talons and, just as I die at my own hands, may they also be murdered by their own flesh and blood," ranted Ajax, a battered and betrayed hero of the Trojan War. "It's feeding time!"
The desperation and rage in those lines mark the chilling intersection where the mortal and the divine collide. Spoken by Alfred Molina, the passage was part of a reading this week from "The Theater of War," a new book by Bryan Doerries, a director and translator who has traveled the world to bring the poetry and moral lessons of Greek tragedy to American soldiers and their families.
The book is an insightful tale of Doerries' discovery of classical mythology and his evangelical-like zeal of turning plays written 2,500 years ago into salves for war, death, prison, illness and other suffering that can break, diminish or redeem us. Much of his attention is focused on the bravery, torment and ethical complexities of warriors such as Ajax, Heracles and Odysseus.
The eloquence of their ancient voices speaks to the modern age, as if each phrase edges toward revelation and the indelible force of tragedy. They transcend divisive political passions to reflect war's emotional and psychological trauma. The nature of killing has changed over the millenniums but the effect of war on the soldier is the same as when Sophocles wrote that Ajax went mad and committed suicide after the death of Achilles and betrayal by his generals.
"Sophocles' plays," read David Strathairn, who with Molina and Heather Goldenhersh recited passages at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, "emerge as a powerful tool, an ancient military technology to help those who'd been to war make meaning out of their fragmented memories and to evenly distribute the burden of what they brought back from battle upon the shoulders of all Athenians."
That burden was more evenly shared by the ancient Greeks than by today's Americans. Military service was compulsory during the time of Sophocles; today, less than 1% of America's population is enlisted. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become costly distractions, and the men and women who fight them often return to an isolated realm of PTSD, wrecked bodies and ruined families.
"The Theater of War" aims to narrow the divide between soldier and civilian, to lay bare — through verse and myth —- the horrors and transgressions of the battlefield. Ajax, Heracles and Achilles contended with fates, Furies and the scheming of gods. U.S. soldiers confront the whims of changing presidents, shifting public sentiments and numerous rotations to war zones.
"How can I say something that should never be spoken?" said Goldenhersh, reading the part of Ajax's wife, Tecmessa. "A divine madness poisoned his mind, tainting his name during the night. Our home is a slaughterhouse, littered with cow carcasses and goats gushing thick blood, throats slits, horn to horn, by his hand, evil omens of things to come. "
Such images make us recoil and often leave the soldier defined through pity and disgust. "We need to approach the warrior class with humility, not moral sanctimony," Doerries, who has translated plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus into English, said in an interview. "The purpose of tragedy is to wake us up."
Since 2008, Doerries' theater company, Outside the Wire, has staged readings for more for 65,000 American soldiers and their families in the U.S. and abroad. After one performance for Marines in San Diego, the wife of a Navy SEAL told the audience: "My husband went away four times to war, and each time he returned, like Ajax, dragging invisible bodies into our house."
It is that kind of shared discomfort Doerries wants to elicit in helping soldiers to understand themselves and civilians to empathize with service men and women. "We have a moral responsibility, regardless of our politics, to help," he said. Doerries has also brought Sophocles' depiction of Heracles' death — he wanted his son to kill him to end his suffering — to evoke discussion of medical compassion and assisted suicide at Harvard Medical School.
His fascination with Greek tragedy deepened at Kenyon College, where he was taught by religion professor and classicist Eugen Kullmann. Doerriers sought comfort in the classics after the deaths of his girlfriend to cystic fibrosis and his father to diabetes. He and his father, who believed in "inescapable fate," fought over Doerriers' belief that people can change their destinies.
Molina, who has starred in "Spider-Man 2" and "Love Is Strange," read this passage from "The Theater of War": "Thinking about the way my father interpreted fate, placing the concept at the center of his self-destructive, pessimistic worldview, I couldn't help believing that the objective of ancient Greek tragedy — and its grim depiction of humanity — was radically different from what we have imagined for thousands of years. Fate and free will are not mutually exclusive in ancient Greek tragedy."
After the reading to a nearly full house, Strathairn, an Academy Award nominee for best actor, who has worked with Doerries for six years, said Greek tragedy is "a conduit of dramatic literature that takes away all kinds of stigma. ... It's so universal."
Much of that emanates from the nimbleness and force of language. The Greeks conjured seas, lovers, deceptions, sirens, monsters, battles and the tricks of gods. They connected language to thought and thought to soul in sweeping narratives that spoke to patriotism, heroism and dangers beyond mortal control. In the stories of Ajax and others, said Doerries, we see that PTSD existed in BC and that moral injury — a betrayal to spirit and conscience — has a long history.
"The shadings and richness and depth of texture of that language is unrivaled," Doerries said of the Greeks. "In some ways we've regressed. ... We need to bring beauty back into the discourse of war."