Report — From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

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In the spring of 2013, Theater of War went to a shelter for homeless veterans in Queens for its 200th performance. “The thing that most people don’t know,” Doerries told me there, “is that Sophocles, this great artist, wasn’t only one of Athens’s most important dramatists. He was also a general in the Greek army. He was a soldier writing about soldiers for an audience that consisted almost entirely of soldiers.”

I looked out at the ragged assembly of veterans settling in on folding chairs beneath the fluorescent glow of the shelter’s multipurpose room. The plays of Sophocles were originally performed at the Theater of Dionysus in Athens. During Sophocles’ lifetime the theater had room for about 6,000 people; later it was expanded to hold 17,000, roughly half the city’s male citizens. Because military service was compulsory, all audience members would have been either active-duty or retired soldiers. Here in Queens, though, as Doerries shuttled about on the linoleum, greeting various city officials in attendance, expressing his gratitude to the shelter’s director, I thought about other bits of information he’d been feeding me over the past few months. The best seats in the amphitheater in Athens, down in the front, would have been reserved for generals in command at the time. Only seven of what are understood to have been more than one hundred of Sophocles’ plays have come down to us intact, and two of those — Ajax and Philoctetes — are explicitly about soldiers who, after years of combat, suffer grievous wounds that are not necessarily visible or easily understood. Doerries also stages Philoctetes for soldiers and veterans, rotating it in and out of performance. “It’s about a much-decorated warrior,” Doerries said, “who’s abandoned for nine years on a desolate island by his own troops after contracting a mysterious illness from a ‘wound that never heals.’ ”

Philoctetes was performed that day at the shelter with Reg E. Cathey (perhaps best known for his turn in The Wire as factotum to Mayor Tommy Carcetti) in the title role. He spent much of the play screaming, his deep voice beating at the walls of the small space like a bird wanting a window. Later Doerries speculated on what the play might have looked like in the Theater of Dionysus: “Imagine that. Half a city showing up to listen to a soldier scream in pain.” Performances of the play can run as long as two hours; Doerries’s version at the shelter was condensed to thirty minutes. Cathey, no more than a few yards from anyone in the room, was in such palpable agony I felt myself squirm, and guys in the back who’d been mumbling to one another were silenced by his screams.

Doerries founded what became Outside the Wire in 2009 with the lawyer and producer Phyllis Kaufman. Kaufman has helped Doerries expand the company’s reach beyond the military. “We believe that these plays can help communities open up about suffering that gets hidden from sight,” Kaufman told me. They have piloted programs in maximum-security prisons, homeless shelters, and hospitals. A project called End of Life, featuring Philoctetes as well as Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, has been performed for doctors at Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, and various children’s hospitals. Another project, called Prometheus in Prison, presents readings of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound to audiences of corrections officers, parole officers, social workers, and wardens. Some of their projects are now based around more contemporary texts — among them Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (performed by Dianne Wiest for an audience of 800 psychiatrists) and Conor McPherson’s one-man Rum and Vodka (with Adam Driver of Girls as the alcoholic who has lost everything) — but most of the plays are from Greece and Rome, in Doerries’s translations. The purpose of each project is the same: to reach communities where intense feelings have been suppressed, in hopes of bringing people closer to articulating their suffering.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He teaches at Bard College and, through the Bard Prison Initiative, at Eastern Correctional Facility.

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