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Combat Trauma and the Tragic Stage: “Restoration” by Cultural Catharsis

From: Intertexts
Volume 16, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 7-24 | 10.1353/itx.2012.0008

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The effects of combat trauma are well described in the dramatic literature of the Ancient Greeks: the madness of Herakles, the rage of Achilles, the suicide of Ajax, the isolation of Philoctetes, and the trials of Odysseus, to name just a few. Much of the narrative content of Athenian tragedy reflected a preoccupation with the consequences of violence and war. These plays were produced at a time of almost constant conflict in the Greek world where warfare was an ever-present threat. In Athens, where political enfranchisement was dependent on military service, the development of tragedy was closely linked with rapid social changes in political and military culture, responses to external and internal martial threats. Perhaps this is why Athenian tragedy reflects a deep and frequently disturbing anxiety about warfare, combat, and violence.1

In this paper, I suggest that Athenian tragedy offered a form of performance-based collective “catharsis” or “cultural therapy” by providing a place where the traumatic experiences faced by the spectators was reflected upon the gaze of the masked characters performing before them.2 My focus here will be on the notion of nostos or “home-coming” as perceived by combat veterans, their families and the society to which they have returned.

As we possess no critical or anecdotal responses to tragedy from the fifth century, my methodology is to compare the presentation of violence and its effects in tragedy with ancient accounts of soldiers’ experiences in combat. While this can reveal a great deal about the social, ethical and political aspects of a play, it cannot reconstruct how the work itself functioned in performance. As performance theorist Peggy Phelan has noted, “Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.” (Phelan 146). While the original performance can never be recaptured, a “re-performance” even in a different cultural milieu, can still offer important information on how an ancient play may have been received. A theatre performance is an extra-textual event where the spectator experiences the words and actions of a play in the moment, as part of a collective entity: the audience. This is a completely different experience than the more contemplative, and singularly personal relationship of the reader to the text. With this in mind, Philip Auslander has coined the term “liveness” to describe a performance in its original social, political and environmental context. Auslander challenges the supremacy of the play script by describing it as “a blueprint for performance” and does not consider writing to be a form capable of recording the totality of the live event (Auslander 52). Any attempt to examine the impact of tragedy in performance must surely take the concept of “liveness” into account. If ancient Athenian drama did indeed attempt to address the psychological concerns of an audience that included a significant number of combat veterans, then some valuable insights into the reception of the plays in antiquity might be gleaned by observing them in performance to an audience of combat veterans today.

This approach is encapsulated in the basic premise of Aquila Theatre’s and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives public program, which uses staged readings from epic and tragedy to create a public discourse on the issues surrounding the homecoming of the warrior. These readings, by both actors and veterans, are followed by a “town-hall” style meeting led by a scholar and are presented at performing arts centers, public libraries and other local cultural institutions in 100 sites all over the United States. The live performance is thus contextualized within its original ancient culture and then placed alongside the contemporary experiences of the veterans and their family members in the audience. Of course, in any such comparative study, cultural differences must be taken into consideration; nevertheless, the parallels between ancient play, primary source material and modern responses are frequently striking.

Although a modern combat veteran may not be cognizant of the culture of fifth century Athens, he (and now more frequently, she) often has a visceral understanding of the situations and emotional responses of...

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