Bryan Doerries conducts the Theater of War

Bryan Doerries conducts the theater of war

Put war veterans, civilians, actors and a 2,000+ year-old play together in the same room and some powerful things happen. Bryan Doerries' Theater of War project does just that.

For an hour or so yesterday, PopTech attendees were transported to ancient Greece, where a wounded solidier is almost, but not quite, mortally injured in a cave where he has languished alone for nine years. For those unfamiliar with Sophocles' play Philoctetes -- the character of Philoctetes has been abandoned by his commander and fellow soldiers and left on the island to die. An unfortunate snake bite has him screaming in pain, fetid, rotting. His wound makes him difficult to be around and his leader sees him as a burden. In this shortened adaptation of the story, years later the commander orders a young soldier to return to the island and trick Philoctetes into relinquishing a bow that has been bestowed with special powers. Meeting Philoctetes, who is so grateful to see him after so much time alone and in pain, the young soldier is torn between his sense of duty and the bond he is forming with his new, albeit injured friend.   

a vet watches from the crowdThe play, written so long ago by Sophocles (who was himself a general) still resonates deeply today. After the performance, two young war veterans joined a VA psychologist on a panel to discuss their interpretation of the play and draw parallels to their own lives and work. The audience, which included invited local veterans and their family members, joined the conversation and collectively we explored the play's themes of isolation, pain and dignity.   

In the original version of the play, Philoctetes' primal screams go on for a full and uninterrupted twenty minutes. Our audience experienced a much shortener version of that re-enacted agony, but it still made a powerful point. In the same way the post-performance talk got us thinking, it was that scream that got us feeling.

From the play:

Poor man. I pity him:
 isolated and alone,
no one to nurse him,
he talks to himself,
sharing his body
with a brutal disease.
How does he do it?
The gods work well
when men suffer
endlessly and die.

Sophocles' Philoctetes
Translated by Bryan Doerries

Doerries refers to the isolation that many returning vets feel as "the wound that never heals". Both of the vets and the pyschologist on the panel spoke about dealing with this particular type of anguish. Only by feeling a connection with others does this pain begin to recede.

Doerries closed the session by reminding us that none of us are alone. We were brought together during the session through our shared conversation, and brought together across time through the immortal words of a soldier who has long since left the Earth.     

Images: Thatcher Cook for PopTech

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