Theater of War: Restoring an Ancient Purpose

A Theater of War performance in Bow, NH

theater_of_war_jacket1I recently read Bryan Doerries’ inspiring book, The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. According to the website for Doerries’ theater, Outside the Lines, the company’s mission is guided by the following core concepts and values:

  • We present dramatic readings of powerful literary works — by authors such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Seneca, Shakespeare, and O’Neill — to create safe environments for open dialogue about difficult and sometimes divisive subjects.
  • We perform plays that deal with characters struggling with complex ethical and moral issues in order to elicit open and honest emotional responses from diverse audiences in settings as varied as military sites, homeless shelters, churches, movie theaters, professional conferences, and hospitals.
  • We utilize the power of stories and metaphors to engender empathy, humility, and understanding in diverse audiences.
  • We empower community members, from a variety of perspectives, to respond directly to the issues raised by our performances through facilitated town hall discussions, as well as through various social media platforms.
  • We disseminate information and resources during and after performances in an effort to raise awareness about community-based public health and social issues.

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Doerries’ book describes in vivid detail the origins of his work, and describes many of the powerful discussions that have followed performances — discussions about “combat-related psychological injury, end of life care, prison reform, political violence and torture, domestic violence, and the de-stigmatization of the treatment of substance abuse and addiction.” For instance, in a chapter entitled “American Ajax,” Doerries describes an audience addressed by Sheri Hall, who sat next to her husband Jeff while she told the following story:

When my husband, Jeff, came back from Iraq the second time, I looked into his eyes, and I didn’t recognize the man I had married nearly twenty years ago. We had been high school sweethearts, but it was like looking at a stranger. His eyes were as black as night and filled with hatred, not for me or for our girls, but for people in his own command who had betrayed him.


Things hit rock bottom when I found Jeff out in the front yard one night with an empty bottle, cradling his pistol. He had that stare that Ajax’s wife, Tecmessa, talked about. He said he didn’t want to live anymore. I asked him to think about me, about the girls, and what his death would do to the family…

By the end of her remarks, Doerries writes, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the auditorium.” Such testimonies, which are empowered by the play itself, provide a safe way for an audience of soldiers and their families to open up and relate their own feelings and experiences to those of characters from 2500 years ago.

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Anyone interested in the theater should read this book not only because it can remind them of how powerful theater can be if taken seriously, but because Outside the Lines provides a clear outline of a sustainable approach to theater that could be adopted by others who wish their art to have an impact. For example:

  • [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Post-show dialogue is integral to meaning.[/pullquote]Outside the Lines knows its audience. Unlike most theaters, who care about the number of butts that are in their seats but have little interest in whether they are the right butts or whether their play is the right play for them, Doerrie carefully chooses and prepares his performances for a specific group of people who share certain experiences. To perform for soldiers, he chooses Philoctetes and Ajax; for doctors and caregivers working with end-of-life issues, he chooses Women of Trachis, editing the play to focus on Heracles, in enormous agony, begging his son to kill him; for prison workers, it is Prometheus Bound. The plays are carefully edited in order to maintain their focus and serve as springboards for carefully designed post-performance discussions.
  • The discussions are as important as the performances themselves. For most theaters, a “talk back” is a perfunctory add-on that focuses on the performance itself. Doerrie’s discussions are central to the event’s meaning. While speaking about deeply personal issues in a public setting can be very difficult for audience members, far more powerful is sharing those issues and realizing that you are not alone in your pain, that others not only sympathize with your feelings, but actually have gone through the exact same experiences and felt the exact same emotions. It takes advantage of the communal nature of the theater, instead of ignoring it. (For more on the importance of what Lynn Connor calls “Arts Talk,” see her important book Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era.)
  • All That You've Seen Here Is GodThe business model is sustainable. Outside the Lines doesn’t do fully-realized productions of complete plays, but rather they do edited versions performed by a small group of actors who perform while sitting behind a table. This makes the performances extremely portable — Outside the Lines performs across the country in many different types of venues — and inexpensive to mount. Doerrie himself has a background not only in theater but in classics and ancient languages, and so does his own edited translations of Sophocles’ works, which have been published as All That You’ve Seen Here is God: New Versions of Four Greek Tragedies: Sophocles’ Ajax, Philoctetes and Women of Trachis and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. In other words, the company has a resident playwright, and production values that both focus the play on what is central and don’t break the bank.

Perhaps more important, at least to me, is that Outside the Lines restores the moral and ethical purpose to the theater. It isn’t a commodity, but a way to address what is deepest and most important about being a human being. To listen to Doerries talk in the video below is to hear someone who knows that theater isn’t just a way of killing a few hours, but a way of enriching one’s life, of healing one’s soul.

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The art of theater is a cathedral, and we have turned it into a Chuck E Cheese.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Theater was a cathedral; we’ve made it a Chuck E Cheese.[/pullquote]We argue over whether Bette Midler is too old to be in Hello, Dolly! and fail to discuss whether Hello, Dolly! is a worthwhile way to use the resources available to this medium. We have abrogated our responsibility as artists, turning an art form as deep as the ocean into the artistic equivalent of child’s plastic pool.

Doerries’ Theater of War ought to remind us about what a privilege it is to create theater, and with that privilege comes the responsibility to use our talents to do the greatest good, not simply to sell the most tickets.

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If you want to read more about Theater of War, there are links to articles here. There is also a two-part Didiskalia interview: Part 1 and Part 2.