Actors declaim Sophocles' plays at Theater of War
• Photo gallery: Sophoclean plays
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
SCHOFIELD BARRACKS — Army grunts, meet Sophocles' Ajax and Philoctetes.
Soldiers got a dramatic taste of both yesterday, with readings from the ancient Greek plays by four actors who flew in from New York.
The plays, featuring warriors Ajax and Philoctetes, were originally presented more than 2,400 years ago to as many as 17,000 citizen soldiers during a century when Greece was at war for 80 of those years.
It turns out times may not have changed much, in terms of soldiers dealing with battlefield-related issues of loss, family separation, stress, repeat deployments and ill-will towards commanders.
Since 2008, the Pentagon-funded "Theater of War" has presented readings from the two Sophocles plays at military bases across the United States.
The ancient plays "timelessly and universally depict the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon warriors by war," according to a description provided by the group. "By presenting these plays to military audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury and open a safe space for dialogue about the challenges faced by service members, veterans, and their caregivers and families."
Ajax, the strongest Greek warrior, is enraged and depressed when the coveted armor of his fallen friend Achilles is awarded not to him, but to Odysseus.
He nearly kills Greek generals in their sleep as revenge, but instead transfers his rage to nearby cattle, goats and sheep in a frenzy of slaughter. His wife, Tecmessa, doesn't want Ajax to see their 3-year-old son for fear that Ajax might harm the boy. In the end, Ajax falls on his own sword, literally, as he takes his own life.
Yesterday, an audience of about 175 — mostly camouflage-clad soldiers but also a couple of dozen family members — listened to six scenes from the two plays and then took part in a discussion at the Sgt. E.R. Smith Theater.
Spc. Korey Evans, 31, who returned in the fall from a deployment by the 3rd Brigade to Iraq, said afterward that the plays hit on the psychological challenges faced by today's soldiers.
"Suicide is a big thing," the Chicago man said. A Schofield soldier in a prominent role had killed himself on the deployment. "It (the plays) touched home."
Service members receive a battery of counseling and have lots of options for help in dealing with deployment or battlefield stress, but the stigma of a "warrior" appearing weak and seeking help remains a tough obstacle to overcome.
Some of those presentations are made at less-than-stimulating sessions that some soldiers call "death by PowerPoint."
By contrast, the cast for yesterday's dramatic readings included four actors who have roles in movies, on TV, and on Broadway.
The group included John Ventimiglia, who has appeared in "The Sopranos," "Law and Order" and "CSI"; Chad L. Coleman, who was in "The Wire" and "CSI: Miami"; Amari Cheatom, who was in the film "Disparity of Forces" and the TV show "Numb3rs"; and Jennifer Mudge, who has been on "Mercy" and "Law and Order."
Coleman, who presented Ajax in a deep and anguished voice, called upon the gods to "witness how the generals have destroyed me! Train your eyes on those evil men. (Attack them) with your talons and just as I die by my own hands, make them also be murdered by their own flesh and blood."
After Ajax's suicide, there was debate within the play as to whether he had disgraced the military ranks.
Bryan Doerries, the founder of Theater of War, told the audience that "2,500 years ago, the Greeks were clearly struggling with what we struggle with as society and as a military, about how we honor those who serve and have done great things, but end their life this way."
In Philoctetes, the title character is bitten during the Trojan War by a snake, is in constant agony and is left on a deserted island.
A panel of three soldiers and a military spouse with a deployed husband shared their thoughts on the plays afterward, and they and Doerries served as a bridge to elicit the thoughts of those in the audience.
Evans said the plays showed that history repeats itself, including mankind's struggles with the effects of war. "At the end of the day we're still people that aren't perfect, and I think that was something Sophocles was trying to promote," he said.