Bk Rev# 1749. The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. (2015). Bryan Doerries. New York: Vintage Books. 284 pp. $16.00. ISBN: 978-0-307-94972-1.


Review By:

Brett L. Stine, University Advising/Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures,

Texas Tech University.

Email: [email protected]


Brian Doerries' Theater of War provides a rich, challenging narrative about the positive potentials of drama, broadly, and Greek tragedy specifically. Through emotionally charged performances in unorthodox settings, Doerries illustrates the capacity of ancient playwrights and modern actors to help individuals and their communities understand, articulate, and cope with severe trauma and pain through performance and dialogue. Doerries emphasizes that the book is not primarily academic in focus, nor does he wish to "make easy connections between the ancient past and present" (8). Instead, he wants to provide a venue for listening and empathy in order to reveal "how stories can help us heal and possibly even change" (idem). While the reader may wish for more examples where Doerries' work did not turn out as positively, never the less Theater of War paints a convincing picture of Greek tragedy’s ability to help individuals and their communities express the difficulties of physical and emotional trauma in healthy ways, with the end result that they can integrate their experiences into the present.

Theater of War is interwoven with autobiography, personal testimony, and social commentary. Additionally, Doerries provides contextual explanations of Greek tragedy to help modern readers understand and connect with the intended audiences of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. The prologue and chapter 1 ("Learning Through Suffering") focus primarily on the authors own story and traumatic experiences, including the death of his girlfriend, Laura, due to cystic fibrosis. Chapter 1 also provides the backdrop for the author’s company, On the Wire, and project, Theater of War, from which the book gets its name. Chapters 2 ("PTSD In The BC") and 3 ("American Ajax") focus on the use of Sophocles' plays Ajax and Philoctetes to help active and veteran military personnel, as well as their families, better understand and voice their experiences of trauma and pain. Chapter 4 ("Prometheus in Solitary") explores the emotional, moral, and physical stresses of men and women working in high security prisons through performances of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. Here, Doerries highlights that, though participant responses can be quite diverse, the performances and discussion panels create a safe space for communicating difficult things. Chapter 5 ("Heracles In Hospice") considers end-of-life care as it relates to families and physicians. Expounding upon the communal capacity of tragedy through performances of Sophocles' Women of Tracchis, Doerries provides both the audience and reader a venue to wrestle with the often-isolating moral and emotional challenges of end-of-life care. The epilogue concludes with illustrations of On the Wire's expanding work to help communities who have suffered life-altering events, such as Jopline, Missouri in 2011, through other ancient and modern dramas (cf. p. 266). Ultimately, Doerries concludes that drama provides the distance and space necessary for people to connect and communicate their diverse experiences safely and openly.

In the university setting, personal connection is imperative for student retention and success (see e.g. Nutt 2003 for a concise bibliography). Yet it can be challenging to help facilitate that success for students who have been affected by deeply traumatic and painful events. Often advisors, faculty members, staff, and students are unsure or unaware of how to best navigate and articulate those experiences so as to integrate them into the student's present university program and the broader community. For advisors and their campuses, Theater of War can provide a platform to discuss how student services and faculty (e.g. from Classics, History, Literature, and Theater Departments) can partner to better serve student populations at high risk due to traumatic or painful experiences. Practical applications might include advising offices or university departments partnering with military veterans programs, faculty, and student counseling to provide small reading groups of some of Sophocles’ plays or selected readings of Homer's Iliad. In particular, small groups might help the university to navigate the difficulties and successes of responses in such a program, while providing necessary resources (i.e. counseling and follow up) in a manageable environment. Institutions have also used Greek tragedy and modern drama with medical students to help them navigate the difficulties of end-of-life care with positive results (e.g. 234-5). Additionally, there are organizations outside of higher education attempting to use drama in constructive ways, such as Arts in the Armed Forces (AITAF), which can serve as models. Finally, perhaps Theater of War can encourage advisors and their campus partners to develop greater empathy while exploring creative opportunities of connection and community for veterans and others who have faced extremely traumatic experiences in their campus communities.


Nutt, C. (2003, February). "Student retention and persistence." Academic Advising Today, 26(1). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Student-Retention-and-Persistence.aspx

Posted in: 2017 Book Reviews
Actions: E-mail | Permalink |