The names from antiquity – Sophocles, Ajax, Tecmessa – may sound strange to modern ears. But the message they bring should resonate as clearly today as when they were first delivered nearly 2,500 years ago.
That is the aim of Theater of War with their traveling production of Ajax, a Greek tragedy written by the renowned Greek playwright Sophocles – himself a veteran of the Athenian campaign against the island city-state Samos. The 260th and 261st performances were conducted Sept. 6 at DeForest High School in DeForest, Wisconsin before military and civilian audiences.
Brian Doerries, founder of Theater of War, said the idea for bringing renditions of ancient Greek plays to military bases and communities across the nation is based on the concept that these ancient works were “a form of storytelling, ritual purification and reintegration for veterans by veterans.” He believes that the ancient works have something meaningful to say to veterans today.
“What I’ve learned from those performances is that these ancient Greek plays, the people who have lived lives of mythological proportions, who’ve faced the stakes of life and death, who’ve loved, who’ve lost, who know the meaning of sacrifice – they have no trouble relating to these ancient stories,” Doerries said. “In fact, these stories belong to those people who’ve experienced those struggles.”
The tragedy recounts how Ajax, a fabled warrior, struggles to overcome political machinations which rob him of his due glory and honor. He makes rash and reckless decisions and, in their aftermath, decides to end his life. Much like recent studies indicate, Ajax did not directly succumb to the horrors of war, but to external factors for which he lacked sufficient coping skills.
Theater of War’s goal is to translate Ajax’s struggles as an ancient account of post-traumatic stress. Tecmessa, the wife of Ajax, tells his warriors of Ajax’s alarming behavior.
“His rage has been swept away, only to reveal fresh wounds,” Tecmessa – portrayed by professional actor Erica Newhouse – said. “He started to make these low sounds, the kind I’d never thought he’d make. For he always told his men that crying was for women and cowards. He now rests in his mess, strangely silent, refusing food or water, planning to do some terrible thing. I can hear it in his voice.”
Ajax – portrayed by actor David Strathairn – describes a battle he is ill-equipped to wage.
“I was the bravest in battle – never lost my wits. And now … what a joke my life has become, my reputation, my sense of honor,” Ajax said to his men. “Ajax, Ajax – my name is a sad song. Who would have thought it would become the sound of a man in despair?”
When Ajax announces his plan to take his own life, Tecmessa begs him to change his mind. He sharply rebukes her.
“It is far too late to shape my nature,” he barked. “Don’t be stupid – leave me alone.”
In the play, Ajax deceives his wife and warriors, telling them he has changed his mind and is going to bury his armor and sword. However, he heads to a deserted shoreline, fixes his sword – won from the Trojan warrior Hector – into a sand dune, and impales himself upon it.
But this is not where the drama ended. Four panelists took to the stage to share their own experiences with suicide.
Dustin, a noncommissioned officer in the Wisconsin National Guard, spoke haltingly in a voice choked with emotion as he explained how he related to Ajax struggling with destructive thoughts he could not control.
“It really hit home that somebody could be stricken with something so dark that they can be driven to do things that they normally wouldn’t do,” Dustin said. “I was afflicted with severe depression during my first deployment – it basically drove me to attempt suicide.”
After swallowing between 40 and 50 painkillers, Dustin said he had a moment of clarity and a sense of deep regret. That clarity led him to go right to his chain of command and tell them what he did.
“And they got me the help that I needed so I could continue through whatever it was I needed to complete,” he said. “And what I needed to do was get help.”
Rob Kratoska, a peer mentor with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), described herself as a surviving significant other. Four years ago she lost Brett, a Wisconsin Army National Guard noncommissioned officer, to what she called “military suicide.” She said that Brett’s father was himself a veteran, but was unable or unwilling to recognize the danger Brett was in.
Brad, a warrant officer in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, said he was Brett’s boss and battle buddy.
“I might have been Brett’s boss, but Brett ran the show,” Brad said. “He was a very intelligent person.
“We went to war together, we came back together, we shared a lot of similarities – we were good friends,” Brad continued. “To see someone go through those troubles when there was help there, it was tough on me. Did I reach out enough? Obviously I didn’t. There’s a lot of finger-pointing after suicide … but it’s never really anybody’s fault. It’s a disease, it really is.”
Benjamin Endres, a licensed clinical social worker with the Veterans Administration outpatient mental health clinic in Madison, Wisconsin, said the solutions to very real mental health issues tend to get oversimplified.
“You know, there’s an app for managing PTSD and there’s a list of coping techniques, there’s anger management,” Endres said. “And a lot of these things can be beneficial, but the intensity of the emotion revealed in the play feels more true to me – it’s not as easy as an app or a list of coping techniques.
“Recovering from trauma is a painful process,” Endres continued. “Experiencing pain and suffering doesn’t necessarily mean things are getting worse – it can be getting better. You can be working through and confronting pain.”
Endres said that sharing experiences with someone in a meaningful way can be helpful. Doerries said that may well have been the point behind Ajax.
“What do you think this guy Sophocles was doing when he wrote this play and staged it for 17,000 citizen soldiers?” Doerries asked.
Doerries led the audience in a discussion about key points in the play, using Tecmessa’s line “twice the pain, twice the sorrow” to encourage an understanding that one person’s struggle with post-traumatic stress encompasses family and friends as well.
“It seems like Sophocles is challenging us to share the pain and get in the tent, doing everything we can and putting everything on the line to save people around us, and knowing it’s a long road,” Doerries explained. “At the same time, maybe he’s giving people a pretext, an ability to forgive themselves for what they did or didn’t do.”
Brad said he could identify with Tecmessa in her anguish after Ajax’s death.
“I think eventually, that suffering the family members and the friends go through leads into a similar spiral, which is what happened to me,” Brad said. “Like [Dustin], I suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD, and it wasn’t too long ago that I was in that same boat, too. Fortunately, the difference between Brett and I is I reached out.”
Strathairn, whose film credits include an Academy Award nomination as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, said he takes part in these dramatic readings because they matter and they reach people.
“I can’t think of a better way to use my craft,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Karen Knock, of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 257th Brigade Support Battalion, validated that statement.
“This is a problem that is not just afflicting our generation or our grandfathers’ generation – it’s been documented in one form or another throughout history,” she said afterward. “I was actually quite surprised by that.”
Brig. Gen. Gary Ebben, Wisconsin’s assistant adjutant general for Air, told the audience he’d like to state the Air National Guard was immune to suicidal ideation among its members.
“But we’re not,” Ebben said. “We’ve had multiple suicides over the years.”
One that sticks with him occurred more than a decade ago – a crew chief who took care of his aircraft and buckled him in, someone he joked with and thought he knew reasonably well.
“He committed suicide,” Ebben said. “He was a senior noncommissioned officer, 30 years of military service. He was a chief master sergeant, the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Air Force. It was a complete shock, and to this day I just don’t understand it. It’s difficult to comprehend.
“This subject is very real and very pertinent today,” he continued.
Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin adjutant general, said he was grateful that service members and citizens in Wisconsin had the opportunity to experience Theater of War.
“These types of creative events bring this very difficult issue to the forefront,” Dunbar said, “and provide our service members a safe zone to discuss issues that are obviously very sensitive and vulnerable in nature.”
The Sept. 6 performances were the first to use smart phones to encourage immediate, real-time interaction with the audience. The DeForest performances, sponsored by the Wisconsin National Guard’s Service Members Support Division, were presented by Outside the Wire in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital Academy, National Council for Behavioral Health, and Points of Light.