Book Reviews - Autumn 2015

The Wisdom of the Ages

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Looking to the classics to steel yourself against life’s cruelties

Panelists at a 2009 Theater of War event at New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital perform Sophocles’s Ajax and Philoctetes. (Photo by Paxton Winters)

By Andrew J. Bacevich

September 7, 2015


 

The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today by Bryan Doerries; Knopf, 304 pp., $26.95

Although perhaps not his intention, Bryan Doerries has written an important and illuminating book about poverty. The Theater of War testifies to the impoverished state of a culture that subjects ordinary citizens to extraordinary stress while having largely robbed them of the means to cope. Unease, anxiety, and a sense of dislocation permeate contemporary American life. Although the impact may be especially acute among certain groups—combat veterans, for example—the problem itself is omnipresent. So, too, have been the usual responses: either ignore and endure or self-medicate and suppress. Success is blowup postponed; failure we see in the news in the form of horrific, self-destructive violence.

Doerries offers a remedy for this affliction. A “self-proclaimed evangelist for classical literature and its relevance to our lives today,” he believes that Greek tragedies—in performance, not simply on the printed page—provide a means to push through barriers to self-awareness, thereby enabling people to confront their demons. In the “secular, industrialized world” that many (though not all) present-day Americans inhabit, Doerries writes, an “ache for contact with the transcendent and the divine” persists, even though the traditional means of achieving it have lost their efficacy. But the ancient Greeks stand ready to assist us.

The story of how Doerries discovered what he describes as his “calling” provides the point of departure for this memoir-cum-homily. While an undergraduate at Kenyon College, he fell in love with ancient Greek literature. Not long after graduating, he fell in love again, this time with a young woman stricken with cystic fibrosis. As he bore witness to her gallant but doomed struggle with the disease, tragedy became for Doerries something other than a subject of academic interest. In the ancient plays he had studied in school, he now found a medium for understanding the inexplicable and bearing the unbearable.

doerries

Intent on building his own life around this proposition, Doerries gave up notions of becoming a classics scholar, choosing instead to become an interpreter and popularizer. He interpreted by providing new translations of ancient works. He popularized by mounting productions of these works, bringing them to audiences otherwise unlikely to spend an evening taking in a play by Sophocles.

In providing a new translation of a particular text, Doerries has a specific purpose in mind: to “reimagine it for our time.” His translations, therefore, “are not literal word-for-word renderings” but “adaptive attempts” crafted for modern sensibilities. This approach may not please purists.

By way of example, here is English poet R. C. Trevelyan’s traditional rendering of the passage in Ajax where the protagonist contemplates suicide:

Thou Sun, when on the land where I was born
Thou shalt look down, check thy gold-spangled rein,
And announce my disasters and my doom
To my aged sire and her who nurtured me.
She, woeful woman, when she hears these tidings
Will wail out a loud dirge through all the town.
But I waste labour with this idle moan.
The act must now be done, and that with speed.
O Death, Death, come now and look upon me.–
No, ’tis there I shall meet and speak to thee.
But thee, bright daylight which I now behold,
And Helios in his chariot I accost
For this last time of all, and then no more.
O sunlight! O thou hallowed soil, my own
Salamis, stablished seat of my sire’s hearth,
And famous Athens, with thy kindred race,
And you, ye springs and streams, and Trojan plains,
Farewell, all ye who have sustained my life.
This is the last word Ajax speaks to you.
All else in Hades to the dead will I say.

Here is the same passage from Sophocles, according to Doerries:

I call out to you, Helios,
as your burning chariot
streaks across the sky,
when you come to my
home, pull back your
blazing reins and pause
to announce my death
to my poor father
and to the pitiful woman
who nursed me as a child.
No doubt, when she hears
the news, her wailing will
be heard through the hills.
No more talk of tears.
It’s time.
Death oh Death
come now and
visit me.
But I shall miss
the light of day
and the sacred
fields of Salamis,
where I played as
a boy, and great Athens, and all
my friends.
These are the last
words you will
hear Ajax speak.
The rest I shall say
to those who listen
in the world below.

If nothing else, the second version is considerably more accessible. Given the intended audience—in this case, American soldiers back from Iraq and Afghanistan, along with their spouses and the professionals charged with addressing their emotional and psychological needs—accessibility is essential. Without it, Doerries’s larger purpose—“to help people confront the most pressing challenges of their day”—would remain beyond reach.

With that purpose in mind, Theater of War events are designed to be participatory. Those in attendance watch, listen, absorb, and then react. The real action begins when the performance ends. With the audience remaining in place, Doerries invites, and sometimes provokes, individual members to relate what they just saw to their own lives. The resulting testimonials tend to be as strikingly candid as they are scathingly raw. For at least some participants, the experience seems cathartic.

Something similar occurs when Doerries presents different tragedies to different groups that have their own reasons for feeling misunderstood or neglected—for example, corrections officers or hospice workers. There, too, Greek tragedies suitably updated can elicit a powerful response. How long the effects last—how, if at all, soldiers, prison guards, or hospice workers differ the next day or the next week—is unclear, however.

Still, that’s a minor quibble. This is an admirable book about an admirable project.


Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author, most recently, of  Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.


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