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  • Healing the Invisible Wounds of War With Greek Tragedy
  • Bryan Doerries (bio)

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Picture thousands of citizen soldiers seated in an amphitheater on the south slope of the Acropolis in the ancient city of Athens. It’s the early spring of 409 B.C., and for more than 20 years the Greeks have been fighting a war on multiple fronts against their indefatigable adversaries, the Spartans. [End Page 54]

The theater rumbles with footsteps as the men climb the aisles to find their seats. At daybreak, the blast of a trumpet signals the beginning of the City Dionysia, that great festival of dramatic performances: three days of plays written and performed by combat veterans, for large audiences of combat veterans.

Today’s tragedies were written by a retired general named Sophocles, now in his late 80s. He had been elected general twice during his long tenure in the Athenian army and still carries on his shoulders the weight of the countless men he led into battle who never returned.

The crowd suddenly silences, as the entire army leaps to its feet in one fluid movement, while 10 commanding generals progress to the front of the theater to take their seats in appointed thrones. Behind them the audience is tightly packed. Soldiers stand at attention, shoulder to shoulder, according to tribe, which is their military unit, and according to rank. The hoplite cadets are squeezed into the nosebleed section in the very back.

Though it’s hard to make it out from the rear of the theater, a solemn religious ceremony has begun, a funereal rite. The armor of the war dead is being bestowed upon their bereaved children, who walk slowly to the center of the orchestra, their heads bowed. There is hardly a dry eye in the house as the war orphans—now wards of the polis—collect their fallen fathers’ shields. The Athenians have lost thousands of men already this year to war, yet they’ve had no time to grieve their losses, no sanctioned occasion on which to express the fullness of their emotions, no safe place to scream … until now.

The actor playing Philoctetes—a warrior abandoned by his own troops on an island—soon takes the stage, crawls out of his cave, opens his throat, and begins to wail. He wails for himself. He wails for his friends. He wails for the war dead and their children, and most of all he wails for the warriors who are watching him wail.

He is wailing on their behalf.


Ancient Greek tragedy was, and still is, a powerful tool to help people suffer openly and communally, mitigating the cumulative effects of prolonged trauma that can corrode an individual or a state. Today the vast and untapped potential for this type of theater to propagate healthy responses to stress is wholly underestimated. In performing Greek dramas, there is healing and hope—not in the plays, which are bloody and despairing, but in the people who come together to bear witness.

Over the last eight years, I’ve presented dramatic readings of ancient tragedies for military and civilian audiences all over the world, and from this I’ve learned that these plays can teach us to listen to one another and to share the burdens of suffering as one community. The great Athenian poets were not bent on sending audiences home, debilitated with pessimism and grief. Instead, they gave voice to timeless human experiences that, when viewed by an audience that had shared those experiences, fostered compassion and positive action. The key is finding the pieces that resonate with people who have lived, in some direct way, the age-old stories the playwrights describe.

Take Sophocles’ Philoctetes—a play about a Greek warrior who, on his way to the Trojan War, is bitten by a poisonous snake and, after [End Page 55] contracting a chronic illness, is abandoned on a desolate island by his own troops. Willing himself to survive, believing he is suffering for a reason, he sleeps in a cave, forages for food, and scavenges for herbs to dull the pain of his wound...


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pp. 54-64
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