Theater of War, Battle of Words

Theater of WarSo this is interesting. A classics scholar named Sarah Ruden published on a website called Books and Culture: A Christian Review a scathing review of a book called The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. On another website, Vice, Iraq veteran Colby Buzzell published a glowing review of the same book and included a flattering interview with its author Bryan Doerries. Vice is decidedly not a “Christian Review,” but, war, not religion, is the issue here.

The Theater of War is an off-shoot of a theatrical project of nearly the same name. Formed by Doerries to address battle-related trauma, Theater of War the dramatic project stages readings of classic Greek plays such as Ajax and Philoctetes whose plots feature military heroes in exile and anguish in the years after war. Theater of War productions feature veterans and, sometimes, famous actors, in the lead parts. After the readings are over, Doerries moderates a question-and-answer session that allows cast and audience members to discuss the plays’ relevance to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their difficulty reintegrating into civilian society. The idea is that the plays concern themselves with the psychological damage of war in ways that can be helpful to veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as bringing military and civilian audience members together in dialogue. Theater of War has proven popular, and performances have been staged on several military bases, as well as on many college campuses. Upcoming performances on October 27 and 28 are set for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Ruden, however, is not impressed by The Theater of War. In her review, titled “Art for All of Us: Greek Tragedy and War Veterans,” she offers a few token compliments that praise Doerries’ translating and directing ability, and then switches her critical selector switch from “safe” to “full automatic” and begins engaging targets left-and-right. Ancient Greek tragedy, properly understood, according to Ruden, has little to do with war-related trauma. The Greeks themselves didn’t understand the concept, nor did they ever single out veterans as objects of special social concern who needed public coddling. Jonathan Shay, the psychiatrist who popularized the idea that Greek classics could teach us how to heal veterans with psychological and moral injury, had it all wrong. So does Doerries. The whole belief that “storytelling” can be therapeutic is preposterous. The misuse of art for utilitarian, didactic purposes is a disgrace. Doerries would be better off staging Greek plays for general audiences, to include veterans, and drop the canard that the plays speak meaningfully specifically on behalf of veterans or help bridge the civil-military divide:

“But not only does [Doerries’] set-up keep really glorious adaptations away from the mainstream; it seems apt to deprive the tragedies of the most plausible benefit they could have for the traumatized, which is the benefit of universally shared beauty and meaning. We already ghettoize veterans, not to mention the dehumanizing of and profiteering from prisoners and the terminally ill. ‘Here’s a piece of art designed just for you in your pitiable state’ seems at best a pretty condescending prescription….”

In his review titled “How Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Help Veterans Deal With PTSD,” Buzzell describes approaching the assignment to examine The Theater of War with a skepticism much like Ruden’s, which he expresses equally forcefully, though in the infantryman’s idiom for which he is known:

“To be honest, when I first received this book, I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? As someone who’s witnessed the theater of war up close and personal as an infantryman in the United States Army (Iraq 2003–4) and has lived to tell about it, I found the whole concept to be a bit absurd. I know there’s all sorts of crazy shit out there beyond the conventional VA-prescribed prescription medication and/or therapy sessions to help those returning home after war “adjust”: yoga, nature hiking, scuba diving, filmmaking, horseback riding, tai chi, herbal and dietary supplements, group drum circles, art projects, meditation, ballet dancing, getaway vacations, bright-light therapy, music therapy, companion dogs, medical marijuana, acupuncture, and other such things. But now there’s this bright idea of exposing soldiers to Greek tragedies that were written 2,500 years ago as a way to help those struggling with readjustment issues and PTSD? Get the fuck outta here.”

But Buzzell is also open-minded and curious, in addition to being penetrating and eloquent, and he tells us that after completing The Theater of War he saw a lot in it to like. Buzzell relates especially to Doerries’ descriptions of Ajax, who as Buzzell puts it, “returns home from war and feels as if he’s been betrayed, gets depressed, snaps, goes on a blind killing spree, then kills himself with his own sword.” Yikes! Presumably Buzzell appreciates something Doerries explains about how Ajax might have been saved from himself and restored to health and happiness, but beyond recommending that Theater of War be read by a “larger audience,” Buzzell doesn’t go into much detail about exactly what excites him. The interview with Doerries, however, generously allows the author-director to explain for himself his goals, and more importantly, what he has observed after staging dozens or hundreds of performances of Theater of War. Buzzell’s questions are more interesting, in fact, than Doerries’ answers, but Doerries acquits himself well—modest about making great claims for Theater of War’s scholarly or medical legitimacy, he defends his project on the empirical grounds that audiences have been moved by it and many veterans in addition to Buzzell claim to have been helped by it.

A curiosity of this critical duel, such as it is, is that it seems neither Ruden nor Buzzell have seen an actual performance of Theater of War. I have, and came away from the experience in ways that make me sympathetic to both reviewers (I have not yet read Doerries’ book). On this blog, I have been skeptical of contemporary war lit’s propensity to identify too readily with classic Greek literature, but I certainly welcome chances to view modern adaptations of ancient myths and plays as they come along. Aloof and analytical as I am, though, I was determined to resist notions that the town-hall-cum-Dr.-Phil atmosphere of the performance Q&A meaningfully connected Greek warriors and modern soldiers, or being seduced by the idea that I was participating in an event that channeled the spirit of Athenian dramatic festivals. But the large audience with whom I sat had few such qualms. They responded to the reading with vigorous applause and energetic participation in the post-reading discussion. Even more telling, the specific group with whom I watched Theater of War—a group of military academy cadets who included several deployment veterans—were also enthralled. On the drive home from the theater, we stopped at a McDonalds in the middle-of-nowhere and after eating our meals (a bus-driver’s discount for me for bringing in the group!), we talked late into the night about the performance and how it related to modern war, soldiering, and military leadership. It was as spontaneous and free-flowing a conversation with officers-to-be as I’ve ever been part of, and much of the credit goes to Doerries, Theater of War, and the power of Greek tragedy.

Anybody else think it would be a great idea to invite both Ruden and Buzzell to the upcoming productions of Theater of War at the Guggenheim?

This week I made my first visit to a VA hospital, this one located in East Orange, NJ. All initial impressions are positive, I'm glad to say.

I made my first visit to a VA hospital this week. All initial impressions are positive, I’m happy to report.

Bryan Doerries, The Theater of War:  What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today.  Knopf, 2015.

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5 Comments on “Theater of War, Battle of Words”


  1. Hum. The slasher reviews have made me want to read this book. I am always a bit leery of the apples can’t be compared to oranges argument when it comes to art. This strikes me as a positivist approach that assumes a novel or narrative should (and can) depict the thing it represents with great accuracy and this can be the only worthy goal. It’s art! Cross-pollination is good, one thing informing another opens horizons and unique ways of viewing the world. As therapy, I’m always more hesitant. Care should be taken not to objectify, but I haven’t seen the play yet and I have found in many years of research and writing that I am often more concerned about this than others. If people don’t over think things too much, can’t participation in theater take them out of themselves and a bit farther away from whatever stress might be troubling them? My two cents. Great blog posts, always appreciated.

  2. bsanfil Says:

    Hi, Pete! I was excited to see your insightful analysis of the two sides of this debate, especially since you have actually been to a Theater of War production. Doerries’s work has been on my mind these past few weeks. As always, you seem to know what is timely and worth thinking about;.

    I had a number of problems with Ruden’s review and really got going the more I thought about it. My main concern is with how Ruden conceptualizes the function of art in general and the Theater of War plays (which I too have not seen, sad face!) in particular. She assumes that Doerries’s plays have no therapeutic value because they import concepts that would have been anachronistic to the ancient Greeks; therefore, they are only useful as bridges to cross the military-civilian divide. Even if we dispense with Shay’s argument about the potential of storytelling or the use of theater to treat complex PTSD, what watching plays and reading texts does is provide a language for conceptualizing and describing experiences. It might be, as Ruden argues, better in some ways to share the plays with the larger community so that they can benefit from the “universally shared beauty and meaning.” But providing veterans with possible ways to articulate their experiences allows them to better know themselves and better communicate with the wider civilian world.

    Strangely enough, what ultimately seems to be the goal of Ruden’s review is to get Doerries to share his plays with everyone, which it appears he is already doing through shows at the Guggenheim and universities.

    Her closing example is itself problematic for the same reasons she indicts Doerries’s work, as she discusses in an admittedly moving story about watching _Braveheart_ with her father. She concludes that he found the experience therapeutic–a strange move considering she spent most of the essay critiquing the potential of art as therapy (she doesn’t use the word “therapeutic” but rather describes how her “deeply traumatized, badly neglected” father emerged “cheerful and chatty.” She then explains how the remoteness of time and setting were helpful for him, in the same way that we might imagined _Ajax_ to be helpful to contemporary troops. But Ruden critiques Doerries’s anachronistic choices even as she supports the viewing of _Braveheart_, a film widely known to play egregiously fast and loose with history far beyond the occasionally anachronistic translational and adaptive choices of Doerries (I saw an interview with one of the producers who emphatically said that when they made the movie they were not going to let the truth get in they way of making a work of art).

    More to the point, Ruden says that the experience was helpful for her father BECAUSE he was with her, a non-veteran, and BECAUSE he, a Korean War veteran, was not asked to watch the film for his own emotional health or be debriefed later. Troops today, however, are far more aware of the hazards of war trauma. Even with very real stigma against treatment, the reality is troops now consider PTSD and its treatment in vastly different ways compared to troops after earlier wars. Ruden critiques using the ancient Greeks to understand today’s veterans but invokes a veteran with distinctly different understanding of post-war trauma and its treatment to argue for why contemporary troops might not benefit from the plays. In short, she argues against her entire analysis in her closing example.

    A few minor quibbles: the bulk of Ruden’s critique focuses on linguistic and historical fidelity. From at least Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” onward, however, translation studies has recognized that the translator is never able to be fully faithful to the original. Put simply, the task of the translator is to bring something to life for a new generation. We might think of Anne Carson’s freewheeling translation of the _Oresteia_, which brings something new and fresh and vital to the text. Doerries isn’t making a mistake when he uses “body bags”–he is making a choice that will help the play to resonate with his audience. If Shakespeare can be acted in contemporary costumes in order to make the plays speak to our moment, I see nothing wrong with the translational and adaptive choices Doerries makes. They are of a piece with his purpose.

    I also found it problematic that she considers “watch[ing] some video” to be a suitable substitute for the affective social space of live theater. While many in performance studies rely on video out of necessity, I find it difficult to judge the affective–and therapeutic– efficacy of a performance from the cold distance of a video, which does not capture audience reactions. How can she analyze how and why and to whom art communicates when she is missing a key feature that distinguishes theater from other art forms? Is this essay a critique of Doerries’s work or a plea for him to share it more widely?

    On the whole, as is obvious from my informal review, I was not impressed with Ruden’s critique. I too seriously doubt that just watching and talking about a Greek play will fully treat veterans with serious, complex PTSD. But as we all know, veterans can be affected by war without hitting all the parts of the PTSD spectrum, and I believe it is to this population that Doerries’s work speaks. To suggest that the “most plausible” benefit of his work is only through teaching the larger community about war is to do Theater of War and OEF/OIF veterans a disservice. The Theater of War project seems to address veterans in several ways. One, many veterans are frustrated with the hollow rhetoric of “thank you for your service” and feel that people in the civilian community are not interested in hearing what they have to say. Performing a play for troops is an action that goes beyond mere rhetoric, while engaging in a conversation, even just with the actors, means that troops know someone is listening and interested.

    Two, watching the plays might provide a conceptual and communicative framework for troops to address their experiences to themselves, their local military communities, and the larger civilian community. Three, theater is an affective social space, unlike reading or film (which can be social or individual). Numerous studies have shown the importance of social bonds in overcoming trauma and reducing suicides across many different populations. Live theater by its very nature provides one such social space of connection.

    Finally, since the plays hew pretty closely to the Greek context–they do not sound, unless I have misunderstood, like they are fully adapted to contemporary settings and language–they don’t teach the isolated civilian community very much about the current wars. They might communicate about war in general, but most vets I know are frustrated because people don’t know what Iraq and Afghanistan were really like for them. Following this logic, stagings of ancient Greek plays would do very little to cure civilians of their ignorance about the specifics of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is the one benefit Ruden seems to acknowledge for Theater of War and the basis of her critique for why the plays can’t help veterans. While storytelling may not be the cure-all for all trauma, Theater of War seems to have much to offer that Ruden overlooks in her review.

  3. Peter Molin Says:

    Lisa, Brenda–I’m flattered that my post provoked such careful and complex responses, so thank you! Ruden’s piece raises so many questions about the nature of art and the uses to which it might be put, as I’m sure she’s well aware. I like the stridency of Ruden’s claims, but as often happens, the personal narrative with which she tries to provide an example of her academic musing complicates rather than illustrates her point. For the sake of brevity, I didn’t go into it in my post, but as Brenda points out, the anecdote of watching Braveheart with her Korean War veteran father is full of interpretive possibilities, some or many of which seem to contradict the main line of her argument. I look forward to what others have to say.


  4. Good blog post, excellent comments! Go check out Dr. Tom McGuire’s interview that was just released with the newest issue of War, Literature, and the Arts.

    http://wlajournal.com/wlaarchive/27/McGuire-Doerries.pdf

  5. Peter Molin Says:

    Dave, I discovered Dr. McGuire’s interview with Bryan Doerries last night while reading the latest WLA and felt chagrined that I hadn’t seen it earlier and accounted for it in my post. Thanks for providing the link–this edition of WLA is full of interesting articles, stories, poems, interviews, and reviews, and they were kind enough to include in such distinguished company an essay by me on disability in contemporary war fiction.


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