How can Ancient Greek plays guide discussion about the difficulties faced by the veteran community and their families? Bwoggers Donna Qi and Chloe Gong attended Theater of War’s production of Sophocles’ Ajax held at Miller Theater to experience this inspiring public health project.
It’s safe to say that for the majority of people experiencing Theater of War’s production of Ajax for the first time, they were not sure what to expect at first. Was it going to be a play? Were we just going to listen to panelists talk about their experiences with war? What would the next two hours be like? At once, Artistic Director Bryan Doerries explains to the audience that we would only be listening to a portion of Sophocles’ play Ajax; the real performance is the discussion that the audience engages in in response to the dramatic reading.
According to Doerries, Theater of War is a public health project that “presents readings of ancient Greek war plays as a catalyst for guided discussions about the challenges faced by service members, veterans, their families, caregivers, and communities.” Sophocles himself was a general of war back in 5th Century BC Athens, and he wrote the play Ajax to be performed by combat veterans for an audience of 17,000 citizen-soldiers. Now, Theater of War is adding a contemporary lens to this ancient Greek play, opening up difficult yet necessary discussions.
The character Ajax with his mental struggle and subsequent demise serves as a parallel for the modern veteran experience. He feels emasculated and dishonored when Odysseus wins Achilles’ armor after he dies on the battlefield, especially because Achilles was both his cousin and great friend, and sets out to avenge himself by killing the generals who awarded Odysseus with the armor that he thought should have been his. He is prevented from doing so by the goddess Athena and instead tortures and kills many innocent farm animals. Feeling alone and unable to come to terms with his humiliation and the heinous act he has done, Ajax commits suicide in Troy.
A powerful and visceral reading of two scenes is performed by Marjolaine Goldsmith, who plays Tecmessa (Ajax’s battle bride), Glenn Davis as Ajax, and Chinaza Uche who plays the Chorus. The reading begins abruptly, transitioning immediately from Doerries’ external narration of the scene to the characters’ dialogue. It is fast-paced, impassioned, and extremely emotional. The actors occasionally gesture toward the audience, as if we are the fellow soldiers referenced in the play, further immersing us into Ajax’s story. Sometimes, their voices overlap as they scream and argue with each other, making the scene more realistic. After Ajax commits suicide, a piercing scream from Tecmessa announces to the audience her husband’s death, effectively conveying the pain of the moment.
After the dramatic reading, a panel made up of four members of the Columbia community was given a chance to respond to the performance. The relationship of the panelists with the military varies, with some having served before and one of them being a military spouse, bringing diversity into the conversations about not only how veterans are affected by war, but also how it affects those who love them most. Their immediate reactions to the play discussed how the text had resonated with their own experience with mental health or how they had seen other veterans or active service members struggle with it, including the loneliness and anxiety that family members experience when their loved ones serve.
Following this, Doerries opens up the discussion to the audience with a question of why Sophocles decided to write this play. Immediately, the idea of humanizing soldiers by giving a glimpse into the struggles of one of the best across Greek mythology appears, followed by candid remarks on how war has destroyed families for some audience members. Whether to answer the question or not, audience members begin raising their hand to share how they felt after watching the dramatic reading of Ajax. Conversations about loneliness, anxiety, the oftentimes dehumanizing depiction of soldiers within the media begin are brought up with personal experiences, and there is an immediate consensus that the reason why this production was so powerful was that it did not feel like it had any ulterior motive. The hope was simply to gain a better understanding of the struggles that service members, veterans, and their families go through.
One panelist, Jennifer, also shared her thoughts on how the Theater of War is a good medium to start intercollegiate conversations at Columbia. Being a GS student, she noticed there was often a barrier between GS veterans and other students in the class. It felt lonely, she said, even though she wasn’t physically alone. She hopes that this event can help people better understand the isolating experience many veteran students undergo, and encourage people across the schools at Columbia to break the barrier and interact with each other more. Speaking personally from the perspective of being Columbia College students, this event was extremely eye-opening in that it helped us gain more empathy for members of the veteran community, and allowed us to better relate to students in the School of General Studies.
If you ever have the opportunity to go to a Theater of War Production, we highly recommend it! All of them are free and give the civilian community a much-needed glimpse into the difficulties faced by those who have had their mental health impacted by war. It also placed the 2500 year old works that many Columbia students read in their Literature Humanities class into a different context and made it clear why such works still matter. Doerries ended the production by noting how he hoped the afflicted were comforted and the comfortable were afflicted, and Theater of War certainly accomplished this objective and more.
Image via Bwogger Donna