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There has been an important development in “engaged classics” over the last couple of years in the United States—the use of live theater productions of ancient drama to raise political and humanitarian issues and arouse audiences to reflection and action.

The most prominent of these is Bryan Doerries’ Theater of War. Influenced by the work of Jonathan Shay, who argues that some ancient Greek texts might have been used therapeutically to assuage unwanted aftereffects of warfare on Greek men, Doerries decided to use Greek scripts about war to open dialogue and provide consolation to modern warriors. His Theater of War includes actors performing scenes from Ajax and/or Philoctetes with introductions and comments by military personnel and therapists, followed by an open discussion with the audience. Theater of War has been taken to hundreds of military bases across the world.

A recent Theater of War event in Washington D.C. suggested that this use of ancient drama can be effective, but it also reduces the plays to serve the aims of the project. The program we saw involved five scenes from Ajax, including only one from the second half of the play. Doerries’ translation uses contemporary colloquial terms to make the connection between Ajax and modern warriors, such as “thousand-yard stare,” and Sophocles was identified as “a general” who was writing in “code” which members of his audience would have understood. The focus was primarily on Ajax’s suffering, not on his posthumous vindication, and the play’s most basic point—that the era of rigid individual heroism is giving way to a different social organization involving verbal negotiation and reconciliation—was gone.

Similar events elsewhere: in March 2011 American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. staged Ajax in modern dress, with the chorus represented by video clips of Boston-area residents (a few of whom were identified as military). Running simultaneously was a rock-musical production of Prometheus Bound dedicated to victims of oppression around the world; with support from Amnesty International, audience members were offered postcards to send in support of those victims. The same month Peter Sellars directed Handel’s Hercules at the Chicago Lyric Opera; the set had marble columns (broken, to suggest the protagonist’s house destroyed by enforced separation and jealousy?) but Hercules’ contemporary military uniform and Iole’s orange prison jumpsuit evoked the current wars in the Mideast, and as with the ART Ajax the production strongly suggested that the problems of communication and trust were caused by war. Finally, the speakers will discuss a production called The Ajax Project in January-February 2011. The distinctive feature of this production was that the actors themselves wrote their parts based on a literal translation, injecting personal ideas (including anti-war sentiments, forbidden by Theater of War). Each of the five performances was followed by a talkback with actors and audience. In an area with a strong military presence, the issues raised by the play aroused lively discussion among the participants and audience. In this community setting theatrical performance raised complex issues, arouse emotions, and provoke discussion—without trying to provide easy answers.

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