Gender on Battlefields Ancient and Modern: Theater of War

Theater of War
Reg E. Cathey, Zach Grenier and Kathryn Erbe. Photo: Gregg Richards.

Neoptolemus: But aren’t you ashamed of lying?
Odysseus: Not if the lie is our only salvation.

Odysseus: It is my nature to always win
Philoctetes: I am the sucker who was fooled by the great liar.

–from Philoctetes, by Sophocles, translated by Bryan Doerries, from the collection All That You’ve Seen Here Is God.

It is Memorial Day. We, the audience, are in a theater on the battleship Intrepid, moored on the Hudson River in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. Outside, soldiers, sailors and Marines are taking selfies whilst cheerfully lining up for photos with strangers. But we are inside, watching three actors read scenes from Philoctetes, a play written by the playwright Sophocles, who also served as a general in the army of ancient Greece. The play was translated by writer-director Bryan Doerries, whose Theater of War Productions has traveled through the US, Europe and Asia.

As its name already implies, Theater of War describes itself as presenting:

…readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes to service members and their communities to help initiate conversations about the visible and invisible wounds of war. The goal of the project is to destigmatize psychological injury, increase awareness of post-deployment psychological health issues, disseminate information on available resources, and foster greater family, community, and troop resilience.

The result has been, over and over again, a way of talking about what war does to us, as both soldiers and civilians, by using ancient texts that bear witness to pain.

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During the reading, Odysseus (Reg E. Cathey), a great soldier in the Trojan War and director of intelligence, is trying to convince a green recruit, Neoptolemus (Kathryn Erbe), to trick the wounded warrior Philoctetes (Zach Grenier) into giving up a magic bow. It had been foretold that this bow was the key to winning the endless war against Troy.

Nine years beforehand, Philoctetes had been bitten by a snake before having the opportunity to battle. He was subsequently abandoned on the island of Lemnos by Odysseus and his army, as they were bound for the war in Troy. Odysseus had his reasons for doing so. Philoctetes’ untended wound stank, and he would not stop screaming, causing Odysseus to fear for the morale of his troops. How would they ever conquer Troy? Solution: dump Philoctetes and go win the war. Nine years later, Odysseus finds that he now needs him.

Odysseus gets what he wants, but only after Philoctetes issues a near-endless, piercing scream, Neoptolemus loses his innocence, and the god Heracles steps in to make it all work out. Off Philoctetes goes to war, freshly healed and nine years late, with his sacred weapon in hand. Odysseus’ butt is covered.

And then…we talk. Who are we? We are soldiers, past and present. Civilians. We are health professionals, veterans’ affairs professionals and military spouses. Even a service dog named Harley Quinn.

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During the panel that follows, the wife of a wounded warrior says, with humor, that she is grateful for the play and the cast. As an insomniac who has watched a lot of Law and Order, she is glad to see three actors who have all worked on the show. During the free flow of conversation, many veterans speak, and their words are full of pain and clarity. A number of the veterans present are women.

For weeks after, I was struck by Doerries’ use of the term “citizen-soldier.” Which meant, in the world of ancient Greece: men. If you were a citizen, you were a soldier; you were invited to attend to the play, written by an old general, along with other plays.

Greek theater was ritual, spread out over a number of days. It meant catharsis for those who witnessed it. But when I spoke to Doerries, who is also a scholar, he acknowledged that it was likely that the 17,000-seat theater in which these plays were first performed were filled almost entirely with men. Girls, with the admitted exception of seats dedicated to priestesses, were basically not allowed. Women had no say.

Up until a few days ago, I was just going to ask a few questions in this piece. If the goal of Greek theater was catharsis, what does it mean when an entire gender is banned from the experience? Can a culture truly live through something when half its people are denied access to it? When Athens is talked of as being the cradle of democracy, what does it mean when “Athenian” really meant being “man”?

During her performance aboard the Intrepid, Erbe played the young recruit of Neoptolemus with the right combination of innocence and impulse. In the Athens of antiquity, a woman was unlikely to have ever seen a play by Sophocles, let alone have served in the military. Times have changed.

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And it has been a woman, Loree Sutton, who has long championed the need for programs such as Theater of War. Sutton, a former brigadier general in the US Army, is currently serving as the Commissioner for New York City’s Department of Veterans’ Services. Having previously served as the Founding Director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) from 2007 until 2010, Sutton wanted Theater of War in stadiums. That’s how badly she thought her soldiers needed it. All of her soldiers.

I was going to end the piece by praising Theater of War — and yes, by extension, the modern US military, for moving towards a more inclusive idea of the soldier: including women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community.

And then the President tweeted that transgender soldiers were no longer welcome in the military. Yet another random bunch of words from a Commander-in-Chief who has never served, but likes “winners.”

And yet I still want to end this piece with the same sentiment. Because the military has not responded by rejecting their soldiers — any of them. Sutton’s response was to join the protest march in Times Square and to speak in support of transgender soldiers. Twitter lit up with veterans’ organizations across the country reaffirming diversity and excellence. Full stop.

Today’s Theater of War, like the theater of Sophocles, bears witness to the bravery and the pain of being a soldier. Unlike the past, at least for today, there is an opportunity open to anyone ready and able to serve.