This is a printed excerpt from Episode Five: “The 24th Shitkickers Were Never the Same after the Peloponnese.” I thought it important enough to put on the blog.
(Beginning of recorded section.)
I’m visiting Washington, D.C. I’m told that Sophocles is in town. He’s at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences on the same ground as the famous Bethesda Naval Hospital. He’s behind a gate guarded by Marines. Well, not the real Sophocles, but his play, his words have wound up here close to Washington, D.C.
The question is, what does Sophocles have to do with a bunch of doctors and psychologists who have gathered here in this medical theater? Well, we have been invited to the reading of the Sophocles play titled, Ajax.
It is a workday and many of the audience have left their jobs and offices to take an hour or two to listen. A reading is where actors sit at a table and say the words from the scripts that lay in front of them. This is a cheap way to put on a show, no costumes, no staging. In the audience are doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists from the university and probably from Bethesda Naval Hospital. There are many different types of uniforms; Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and in the audience are wounded veterans, men and women without arms, legs and service members who have experienced battle firsthand. They have scars; they’re just scars that cannot be seen.
This theater is wood paneled and has approximately 300 seats and has hosted more lectures on medicine and more words on symptom, treatment, and result than the words that are about to be spoken here today. They will talk of ancient heroes, the will of the gods and the state of men.
What is happening is unique.
In front of me is a table with four or five seats and the actors are warming up for the performance to come. They seemed familiar, they should be. From left to right; Amari Cheathom, Broadway and off Broadway actor starred in a play called, Book of Grace, many other stage roles and recently graduated from the prestigious Julliard School of Acting; Chad Coleman, star of many films and television series, recently shot the Green Hornet which will be out in December; Karen Young from the series, The Sopranos, play the female FBI agent, she was recently in a Sam Shepherd play called, A Lie of the Mind; and finally, we have Reed Birney, New York City actor, recently in a play called, Blasted, a very respected TV and stage actor.
Chad Coleman you may recognize from the HBO hit TV show, The Wire. Upon entering the theater, I caught him testing his voice. He kept on shouting out, “Athena, daughter of Zeus,” looking up at the rafters sending his voice out like a ballista sending out a rock against a fortressed wall. He has a powerful voice and a powerful presence. In the reading today, he plays two parts; Ajax and King Agamemnon.
In readings, actors usually double up on the roles. Karen Young plays Athena and Ajax’s wife, Tecmessa.
I caught Mr. Coleman after the show.
ROB CAIN: That the words that are spoken are older than me, older than this country, older than many nations that exist today, how does it feel like to speak the words that have come over thousands of years and they seemed like something that could have been written yesterday.
COLEMAN: It’s a testament to the human experience. The human experience defies time, you know, there are buildings, there is geography, there is you know the clothes we wear, and all of that, that’s more identifiable with time than human behavior. Human behavior transcends time, obviously, the same things they experience then we are absolutely experiencing now, which is what makes Sophocles so brilliant. Can you get to the epicenter, to the core of human behavior because if you can it’s going to be relatable forever.
(End of COLEMAN Interview)
ROB CAIN: And then there is the director. Mr. Doerries is a New York based writer, translator, director and educator. He is the founder of a theatrical organization called Theater of War. A project that presents readings of ancient Greek plays to service members. In addition to his work in the theater, Bryan serves as an advisor for the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artist and Writers. He lectures on his work at colleges and universities. Over the last couple of years, Mr. Doerries has directed film and stage actors and readings of his translations.
INTERVIEWEE: My name is Bryan Doerries. I’m the founder of Theater of War and I started the project in 2008.
ROB CAIN: Did I hear you correctly that you say that you translated it?
DOERRIES: Yes. I translated the play, Ajax that was performed today, and another, Philoctetes. My background is in classics, Greek and Latin and I came to theater through classics because I love ancient plays and I came to directing through my desire to make those plays come alive and I came to the military because I wanted to find an audience for those ancient plays.
ROB CAIN: What made you decide to translate it yourself as oppose to relying on somebody else?
DOERRIES: There are thousands of translations of every Greek play that exist in every possible language in the Western world. Unfortunately,
most of them sound like they were written in the 19th century. I’m interested in creating a translation that speaks to the moment, to now and engages people with idioms that they can relate to. That’s not in any slight to the original text. We are always re-inventing the Greeks, the Italians did it in the Renaissance, our founding fathers did it as they built neoclassical architecture throughout this country and our democracy did it, our aesthetics have done it in this country. We have appropriated many things but always with our American perspective. This is a new American translation of this ancient Greek play.
ROB CAIN: When I was listening to Ajax’s wife. She turned to her husband and she said a word that seemed very military to me. She said affirmative. Now, I’m having a hard time understanding the choice of that word. I can’t believe it was in Greek language but was that chosen or was that actually a word?
DOERRIES: Actually, it wasn’t Ajax’s wife, it was Athena who is the head of all…she’s the goddess of war. She is the highest ranking officers of all officers in all armies. And so for her to say affirmative as a word choice is actually quite natural. She is the highest ranking person in the entire Greek army. And to Odysseus, she says affirmative and many other words in the scene to continue to reinforce for Odysseus who is a high ranking officer in the Greek army that she’s in charge. I’ll also say this, you know, let’s not get hung up on what ancient Greek words would sound like in English because there’s no way to do that. A translation is a text along side another text. There is no chemical process by which you distill an ancient word into a modern word. There is no original into English, that doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, I think many people are not aware of the role of the translator in making texts vital. These are performed text. The only way for them to work is for them to sound natural and spoken and clear coming out of actor’s mouth in front of audiences. They’re not to be read, they are to be heard and so that’s the aim that I have in mind as a translator writing affirmative.
ROB CAIN: I read a book, The Last Days of Pompeii, which sounded very much 19th century. I see what you’re trying to get.
DORRIES: Yeah. I mean the Greek lexicon, the dictionary from which most classicist work was codified the 19th, so all the translations of what Greek word sound like and what the idiom sound like sound Victorian, well that’s because that’s when the dictionary was written. The Greeks sounded no more Victorian than the characters in the Hebrew bible, but that’s a choice and we can choose to make them sound like us because in their own time they sounded like them.
ROB CAIN: In taking this performance around to different places, what has it given you?
DORRIES: Oh man, it has been a dream come true. To do something that is meaningful in the theater for an audience that responds the way you heard the audience this morning responds emotionally, presently, as if the place were written for them. There is no greater gift as an artist than to be given an opportunity to do that and I think that’s why so many great actors have joined me on this journey. I have about 50 actors have joined me to perform these plays over the last year and a half and many of them are well-known actors who are giving their time to do it, it’s a rare opportunity to be able to do something with your craft that is helpful to others and you could see a meaningful difference being made through it and also what it gives to me. Well, you know, every week I go up against several hundred military service members in dialogue and conversation. I try to facilitate conversations everywhere from the Department of Defense to Army bases to the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton, and I’ve done more than 60 of them and I’ve gotten really comfortable figuring out what things need to be said or not said in order to get an audience talking and about difficult subject matter and I feel like it’s been kind of a Jedi knight training. I mean something that you can’t acquire unless you do it 65 times or a hundred times unless you step out and take the risk of people not talking and you try to figure out how to get them to talk. And so for me, I’ve just grown so much as a human being, as a facilitator over this last two years doing this work.
ROB CAIN: Just one more question, in looking at this ancient text, do you think people really change?
DOERRIES: I think there are elements of the human experience that have not changed for thousands of years and probably will not change and I think what Theater of War points to is the universality of the human experience of war across cultures, across time. If we had one message, it’s not a negative message that we’re repeating history, it’s a positive message which is, “You are not alone in this room, you are not alone across the country, and you are not alone across time.” I had a veteran come up to me after one of our performances and say, “Bryan that PTSD is from BC makes me feel less alone in the world.” It’s precisely that we can relate to ancient stories and see our own experiences reflected in ancient narrative and know that others who have come before us have struggled with the same things we’re feeling that allows us to know that we are not the only ones who have had these experiences and that’s really the aim of Theater of War.
ROB CAIN: Thank you very much.
DOERRIES: Yeah. Absolutely. Thanks for coming.
(End of Recording, segment from Episode Five, “The 24th Shitkickers Were Never the Same after the Peloponnese.”)
If you are interested in finding out more about Mr. Bryan Dorries, AJAX and his company THEATER OF WAR go to: http://www.philoctetesproject.org/