Hearing the Human: Empathic Listening and Theater of War’s Ajax

In a recent American Repertory Theater article, Brian Doerries makes a bold claim about Theater of War, a staged reading series of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes funded in part by the Department of Defense.  Doerries writes, “People who live lives of mythological proportions, who confront the darkest aspects of our humanity and face life and death stakes on a daily basis, have no trouble relating to ancient myths.”[1]  Theater of War, created in 2008 by Doerries, is a production of Outside the Wire, LLC, a social impact company co-founded by Doerries and Phyllis Kaufman that uses theatrical readings as a platform for open discussions about pressing social issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, the reintegration of soldiers into the civilian population, and the high rate of suicide in America’s military today.  Theater of War, in particular, stages readings that focus on soldiers scarred by war—both physically and psychologically—and encourages discussion about how other soldiers and civilians can respond to such war wounds.

One might think that Greek drama, as archaic and stylized as it may seem, would be a poor catalyst for a discussion about modern problems, yet Theater of War operates on the premise that American soldiers can easily understand these ancient Greek plays.  Following Dr. Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam,[2] Doerries argues that “ancient Greek drama appears to have become an elaborate ritual aimed at helping warriors prepare for battle and return to civilian life, during a century that saw eighty years of war.”[3]  Accordingly, Theater of War pairs its staged readings with open discussions of the plays: actors and panelists, soldiers and civilians are encouraged to share their own reactions to Sophocles’ work.  Thus, Theater of War offers a contemporary ritual, linking communal art to personal experience in “meta-theatrical extensions of the performances.”[4]

If these staged readings may act as a test of Doerries’ claim, the success of Theater of War lies in the reiteration of the ritual: Theater of War’s March 26, 2011 reading of Ajax at Emory University is the 149th such performance before a military or mixed audience of soldiers and civilians, reaching a total of over 25,000 individuals.  At this performance, the reading itself lasted a mere hour.  The discussion afterward stretched longer, as audience members shared their reactions to the play and their own experiences with war.  Theater of War works, but why?  Doerries claims that the production’s effectiveness comes from the power of myth and the transhistorical touch of war: those who live mythic lives, like American soldiers, can understand mythic rituals.  Thus, Sophocles’ works are unlocked by lives spent in the face of death and violence.  Doerries writes, “It’s as if these rarely produced plays were written in a code that we civilians could not understand and that military audiences had to explain to us.”[5]  Doerries suggests that the key to Sophocles is the right audience: yet Doerries’ words (though they make for excellent publicity) only serve to mystify the theatrical process.  Theater of War does not connect with spectators merely because it reenacts ancient rituals suited to military audiences: Theater of War also goes to great lengths to stage these readings of Ajax and Philoctetes in a way that encourages and reinforces the empathy of spectators.  Soldiers (and civilians) have “no trouble relating” to the sad songs of Greek drama because Theater of War does not produce these plays: it stages them in the theater of the mind.

“Ajax.  Ajax.  My name is a sad song.”

Sophocles’ Ajax tells the story of its eponymous hero’s madness and suicide.  During the ninth year of the Trojan War, the nigh invincible Achilles falls to a lucky shot from Paris’s bow: Ajax, the “shield” of the Greek forces and their strongest remaining warrior, expects the honor of receiving Achilles’ armor.  Odysseus outwits Ajax, however, winning over the Greek generals through rhetoric and deceit, claiming the armor as his own.  Shamed by this betrayal, Ajax stalks out into the night, planning to assassinate the generals and Odysseus.  Yet Athena, Greek goddess of military cunning, thwarts Ajax’s vengeance by driving him mad, sending him into the fields to slaughter cattle instead of men.  Sophocles’ play begins as Ajax recovers his wits and learns of his botched treachery.  The play depicts Ajax’s shame and subsequent suicide, as well as the reactions of his family and fellow soldiers.

A full production of Ajax faces the difficulties of most Greek drama: it suffers from archaisms of form and content that may trouble contemporary audiences.  The communal voice of the Greek chorus, for instance, has no real parallel in modern drama, and the hand of the gods in human affairs (deus ex machina) jars with a psychological understanding of human behavior.  Rather than confront these difficulties, Doerries wisely omits them in his translation and adaptation of Sophocles’ text.  He reduces the Chorus to a character rather than a commentator on the action, cutting the choral songs characteristic of Greek drama.  He also reduces Athena’s presence by framing Ajax’s madness as the result of post-traumatic stress disorder rather than the result of Athena’s divine will.  Doerries reinforces this framing by utilizing military language in his translation, including more contemporary phrases such as: “affirmative,” “death parade,” “death march,” “report to me immediately,” “shell-shocked,” and “thousand-yard stare.”  Thus, even on a textual level Doerries adapts Sophocles’ text to a modern audience.

Though Doerries is the Artistic Director of Theater of War as a whole, his contribution to the March 26th staged reading of Ajax rested mostly in his adaptation of the text and his facilitation of the post-reading discussion.  John Ammerman, Artistic Director of Theater Emory, directed Emory University’s Theater of War performance.  Following Doerries’ terse translation, Ammerman presented an Ajax that was less a performance in its own right than an embedded portion of the night’s discussion.  The event was held in Emory’s Cannon Chapel, which had the feel of a community center rather than a theater or a church: there was no stage or pulpit, merely a long fold-out table with microphones for the cast and a dozen rows of chairs for the audience.  The program described the staged reading as a “presentation of scenes from Ajax,” thus highlighting the necessary work that Theater of War did to frame those scenes.  Ammerman drew attention to this framing: while it is common practice in staged readings for an actor to read stage directions aloud, Ammerman’s cast also announced scene changes, provided background information on the action, and informed the audience about any character doubling within a certain scene.  For example, the stage reading opened not with Athena’s lines but with a dramatic summary of the Trojan War and of Ajax’s disgrace, information readily available to an ancient Greek audience but left unmentioned by Sophocles until halfway through the play. This introduction was more storytelling than staging, the necessary narrative context for a diverse audience that ranged from Emory students to military veterans: no knowledge of Greek myth or theater convention was required.  There was no transition between this summary and the play itself.  The Chorus (Blake Covington) announced “Scene One,” and Ajax began: Ammerman himself read Odysseus (described in the program as “the director of Greek intelligence”) opposite Lisa Paulsen as Athena.  When the reading moved to Scene Two, an actor announced that Lisa Paulsen would now read for Tecmessa, the wife of Ajax: Paulsen transitioned flawlessly from the deific commander to the grief-stricken wife.  The reading pushed forward, enabled rather than hindered by the explicit framing of the text.

This framing also pushed Ajax in new directions.  The cast was seated (from stage right to stage left): Ammerman (Odysseus); Bruce Evers (Ajax/Agamemnon); Tim McDonough (Teucer); Lisa Paulsen (Athena/Tecmessa); and Blake Covington (Chorus).  Odysseus and the Chorus spoke from the fringes, outsiders and onlookers to the main action.  Interestingly, Ajax was not seated center: Teucer, silent until the later half of scene four, took that position.  Thus, Ajax and his wife were separated by a physical barrier of silence.  Though the Chorus looked over to the other characters, watching their words, the other characters rarely shared glances.  Ajax and Tecmessa always looked to their scripts: only words could hope to join them, a hope killed by Ajax’s death at the end of scene 3.  When Evers spoke again as Agamemnon in scene 5, it seemed as if Ajax’s voice and body had been usurped by his enemy Agamemnon.  While Paulsen distinguished her two characters (largely through Tecmessa’s grief), Evers’s roles shared a haughtiness of speech.  Thus, the quite explicit doubling of the staged reading (unmasked by costuming or even a change of space) questioned how different these two soldiers really were.

By the reading’s end, speech also became doubled between Sophocles’ text and the explicit framing.  Teucer gave the last line of the play, which was followed by announcements of the end of the scene and of the play.  The text reads:

                                    Teucer (McDonough): That’s all I have to say.

                                    Covington: End of Scene 5

                                    Evers: End of Ajax.[6]

On one level, Teucer announced the end of his funeral speech for Ajax while Covington and Evers announced the end of various degrees of framing (scene and play, respectively).  On another level, all through actors have announced ends of a sort: McDonough, the end of speech; Covington, the end of action; Evers, the end of a story and of a life.  These stage directions served not merely as necessary information for the audience but also as meta-theatrical lines within the reading itself.  Theater of War did not merely represent Sophocles’ text: the production supplemented Ajax with storytelling frames that both commented on the action and communicated it to a contemporary audience.

“Twice the pain is twice the sorrow.”

In scene 2 of Ajax, Tecmessa warns the Chorus that their own suffering will increase when Ajax comes to his senses: “In his madness he took pleasure in the evil that possessed him, all the while afflicting those of us nearby.  But now that the fever has broken, all of his pleasure has turned to pain, and we are still afflicted, just as before.”  While Ajax is mad, Tecmessa and the Chorus only experience their own grief at his fate: Ajax himself is oblivious.  When Ajax learns of his mad slaughter of cattle, he will experience that grief himself and then Tecmessa and the Chorus will, through empathy, feel his grief in addition to their own: “twice the sorrow.”  During the discussion portion of the Theater of War performance, Doerries skillfully turned this passage into a question for the audience: what does this line mean?

The responses from the audience were various, but to my mind they all circled back to empathy.  In Upheavals of Thought, Martha Nussbaum defines empathy as “an imaginative reconstruction of the experience of the sufferer.”[7]  Empathy allows us to recognize people as people, showing “a basic human respect.  The evil of utter dehumanization seems worse” (334).  Theater of War encourages such empathy, presenting Ajax’s suffering as the plight of the soldier in any time period.  In part, this empathy requires stripping away historical difference: Theater of War does not consider the circumstances (or validity) of either the Trojan War that Ajax experiences or the various wars of 5th century B.C.E. Athens (the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars).  Theater of War’s goal is to reveal the soldier as fundamentally human.  Ammerman’s production, for example, highlighted the human suffering in Ajax by emphasizing the non-linguistic lines of the text: sighs, groans, and screams.  Most notably, there was no announced shift from scene 3 (Ajax’s suicide) to scene 4 (Tecmessa’s discovery of his body).  Evers ended Ajax’s last line with a rasping growl, pantomiming the sword impaling his heart, as if the air was escaping from his punctured lung: “The rest I shall say to those who listen in the world below.”  Paulsen then began scene 4 before scene 3 had ended, delivering Tecmessa’s “[inhuman cry].”  Death translated instantly into grief, and the audience could connect to the story on a purely emotional level: the sound of the human voice in pain.

Nussbaum notes, however, that empathy is not merely a matter of seeing oneself in the shoes of another: “Empathy is like the mental preparation of a skilled (Method) actor: it involves a participatory enactment of the situation of the sufferer, but is always combined with the awareness that one is not oneself the sufferer.”[8]  Empathy can bridge gaps of misunderstanding: between ancient Greeks and moderns; between soldiers and civilians.  Yet merely imagining oneself in the place of another without remaining aware of their otherness is a dangerous egocentrism.  There is a subtle but important difference between empathizing with Ajax and imaginatively becoming Ajax.  Doerries post-performance discussion was one of the most effective uses of open-ended Socratic method that I’ve ever seen in a community setting: a moving experience, and a testimony to the value of teachers in our society.  Yet by de-historicizing Sophocles’ text, Theater of War risks merely offering our society a mirror of itself.

Here lies the danger of Doerries’ claim that “people who live lives of mythological proportions…have no trouble relating to ancient myths.”  Certainly, drama builds off of our own emotional experiences, and only a soldier has experienced the carnage that haunts Ajax’s mind, the sad song that makes his name.  Patrick Colm Hogan describes this collection of emotional experience, drawing on the writings of Abhinavagupta, a tenth century Sanskrit philosopher.  Hogan writes, “All our experiences leave traces in our memory.  These traces bear with them the emotions we felt at the time.  The mind accumulates these traces and they contextualize each new experience.  We respond to the present in terms of the collective effect of the traces left in our memories by the past.”[9]  To some extent this emotional experience grants the military community a privileged position from which to respond to Sophocles’ Ajax.  The role of drama, however, is to create aesthetic experiences that can approximate personal ones: as a civilian, I will probably never experience the horrors of war firsthand; yet through art, through productions like Theater of War, I can see an image of that horror and I can begin to empathize with the plight of a soldier.  The staged reading format is an efficient device for promoting such empathy, particularly as Ammerman directs it, for all the archaisms and aesthetics props that might hinder my empathy are stripped away, leaving only the human voice and raw emotion.

The great virtue of Theater of War is that it succeeds at promoting empathy by pairing staged readings with open discussions of individual spectators’ reactions.  The danger of Theater of War is that spectators may believe that they can empathize with Ajax purely out of the power of myth and personal experience; thus, they may not recognize the power that theater has to enable such moments of empathy.  As Nussbaum argues, one must be aware of differences; like an actor, an empathic spectator must both put on the role of Ajax and remain themselves.  As Theater of War expands its focus from wholly military audiences to mixed audiences of soldiers and civilians, the program may do well to balance the need for identification with ancient Greek soldiers and the fact of historical and cultural difference.  Doerries closed the performance at Emory by saying: “You’re not alone in this room.  You’re not alone in this country.  You’re not alone across time.”  An important sentiment, to be sure, but one that should be balanced by Sophocles’ own text (in Doerries’ translation: “It is true, but still hard to understand” (Tecmessa, Ajax Scene 2).

For more information about Theater of War or Outside the Wire, LLC, see:



[1] Brian Doerries, “Theater of War,” The Guide, American Repertory Theater (Spring 2011)  16-7.  <http://www.philoctetesproject.org/pdf/TOWSpring2011.pdf>

[2] Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (New York: Scribner, 1994).

[3] Doerries 16.

[4] 17.

[5] 16.

[6] Brian Doerries, trans.  Ajax.  Sophocles.

[7] Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thoughts: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001) 327.

[8] 327.

[9] Patrick Colm Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (New York: Routledge, 2003) 156.

1 Comment

  1. Caroline McFarlane says:

    Saw the Alan Yentob interpretation of this and wondered if this is planned to tour the UK.

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