In Ancient Dramas, Vital Words For Today's Warriors Were the tragedies of Sophocles written for soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder? The artists behind The Philoctetes Project think so —

In Ancient Dramas, Vital Words For Today's Warriors

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. Now to ancient drama and the contemporary conversation about war. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek playwright Sophocles wrote about warriors suffering from the emotional stresses of battle. Many scholars believe those plays were performed to help veterans heal. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the drama of Sophocles may be once again serving that purpose.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: About 300 military men and women are sitting in a windowless Marriott Hotel ballroom, box lunches perched on their laps. Onstage, the panel is talking about a combat veteran who in a rage slaughtered farm animals.


BLOCK: (As Athena) He is the one you describe, the killer of cows.

BLOCK: (As Odysseus) A reckless gesture, but why did he do it?

BLOCK: (As Athena) Black bile, blinding rage over the arms of Achilles.

BLOCK: (As Odysseus) But what drove him to attack the animals?

BLOCK: (As Athena) In his mind, their blood was yours.

BLOCK: (As Odysseus) He wished to kill the Greeks?

BLAIR: Actors Paul Giamatti as Odysseus and Elizabeth Marvel as the goddess of war, Athena, performing a scene from Sophocles' play "Ajax." The venue was the recent Warrior Resilience Conference. The three-day event was designed to help military personnel deal with the emotional toll of war. Brigadier General Loree Sutton directs the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, which organized the conference. She explains why the presentation of ancient Greek tragedies.

BLOCK: To know that I am not alone, that I am not going crazy, that I am joined by the ages of warriors and their loved ones who have gone before me.

BLAIR: Performing Greek tragedies for a modern military audience was the brainchild of Bryan Doerries, a translator and director of Greek and Roman drama.

BLOCK: In a century that was beleaguered by, for the Athenians, 80 years of war, a form of storytelling, a form of therapy, a form of ritual purification arose in which playwrights who were themselves veterans - Sophocles and Aeschylus we know were veterans, Sophocles was a general - wrote plays that helped men reintegrate back into democratic life, that they would sit together and empathize with one another while watching plays about combat veterans suffering from what we know to be PTSD today.

BLAIR: Bryan Doerries calls the effort The Philoctetes Project. Philoctetes is a Greek warrior who's bitten by a poisonous snake just before the Trojan War. His generals abandon him on an island where he lives by himself in great pain for nine years. Bryan Doerries thought of the warrior when he read about the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal.

BLOCK: And on every front page in the country were pictures of modern Philoctetes waiting for treatment, abandoned on islands, just like the character in the play.


BLOCK: (As Philoctetes) Suffering from a snake bite, they left me here to die in tattered rags, sleeping in a jagged cave, starving without much food to eat. And I only wish the same for them.

BLAIR: This is the first time actor Paul Giamatti has participated in The Philoctetes Project.

BLOCK: It's an amazing thing that the military is so interested in these. It's really kind of wonderful.

BLAIR: Wonderful, says Giamatti, because of the rage the characters display against their military leaders.

BLOCK: The kind of central thing of all of these guys' agony is, how could you people have done this to me? I gave you my loyalty and my strength and everything, and you've turned me into a monster.

BLAIR: A lot of the people watching these plays at the Warrior Resilience Conference deal with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or have suffered from it themselves. In a panel discussion after the readings, Marshele Waddell, the wife of a U.S. Navy SEAL, talked about the impact of war on her marriage.

BLOCK: Each time my husband returned to me in body, and for that I thank God. But to this day, in his soul a war still rages.

BLAIR: Marshele Waddell says she related most to the character Tecmessa, who was married to Ajax, the Greek warrior who becomes almost psychotic after the Trojan War. In this scene, Tecmessa tries to get Ajax's fellow soldiers to intervene.


BLOCK: (As Tecmessa) Oh, you salt of the earth, you sailors who serve Ajax. Those of us who care for the House of Telamon will soon wail, for our fierce hero sits shell-shocked in his tent, glazed over, gazing into oblivion. He has the thousand-yard stare.

BLOCK: I'm very familiar with what Tecmessa refers to as that thousand-yard stare. My house, like hers, has also become a slaughterhouse. I want to underscore today that the aftermath of war is a battle that is fought on the home front.

BLOCK: When we, as warriors, fight, we kill and defend our country. But when we come back, we've established a new standard of friendship and trust and loyalty, and it extends to our fellow warriors, but not to our wives or husbands.

BLAIR: Retired Marine Corps Sergeant Andy Brandi, a Vietnam vet, had this question for Marshele Waddell.

BLOCK: What experiences could you tell us that we could tell the young spouses that we're talking to now?

BLOCK: There's no going back to what the couple had before combat. So what I counsel young women is that that's no longer on the map, so don't look for it. You have to find your new normal.

BLAIR: Some never find that new normal, and the Defense Centers of Excellence wants to help those families. This was the first Warrior Resilience Conference. They plan to make it an annual event. Bryan Doerries hopes to take The Philoctetes Project to more military audiences. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

NORRIS: We sent an NPR videographer along to that workshop, so you can watch scenes you just heard about. You'll find that at our Web site,

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