JULY 31, 2022
I first encountered Bryan Doerries through Breathing for a Living, the 2004 memoir his girlfriend, Laura Rothenberg, wrote at the age of 21, when she was dying of cystic fibrosis. The context was the world of caregiving, a world in which I was then immersed. Doerries was Rothenberg’s friend, lover, caregiver, editor, literary executor; and that same intense, multi-faceted engagement, generosity, and energy have remained strikingly evident in Doerries’s work since then. One can trace his path in his 2016 book, The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. Together with Phyllis Kaufman, Doerries founded Theater of War Productions, of which he is now artistic director, in 2009.
Though each Theater of War Productions presentation is a complex endeavor, the basic template of every theatrical event is the same. Their website puts it succinctly:
Theater of War Productions works with leading film, theater, and television actors to present dramatic readings of seminal plays — from classical Greek tragedies to modern and contemporary works — followed by town hall-style discussions designed to confront social issues […]. In an effort to reach communities directly, Theater of War productions partners with a range of organizations and government agencies […]. Notable artists who have performed with Theater of War Productions include Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Adam Driver, Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Giamatti, Jake Gyllenhaal, Alfred Molina, […] and others.
I could add Amy Ryan, David Strathairn, Oscar Isaac, and Willem Dafoe.
Sometime around 2010, I attended my first (and only live) T of W production: excerpts from Sophocles’s Ajax performed at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, under the auspices of the Columbia medical school’s Narrative Medicine program. I vividly remember how astonishing it was to see and hear audience members — including, as I recall, the wife or widow of a general — stand up and testify, as they debated Ajax’s PTSD and eventual suicide, to the effects of PTSD in their and their families’ lives.
Doerries’s constant theme is the overlap between what the Greek poet George Seferis called “the ancient remains and the contemporary suffering.” Larger issues such as the response of society as a whole to illness have come into focus for all of us during the COVID pandemic, but long before 2020 Doerries was paying attention to the plight of veterans, prisoners, patients, and veterans, as well as to the interface between Greek tragedy and contemporary trauma.
With the advent of the pandemic, Theater of War Productions pivoted to Zoom. The emphasis on global outreach and the crucial role of audience participation made this medium more than an ideal fit for T of W’s performances cum panel discussions cum town halls. It was as if Doerries had had something akin to Zoom in mind all along, or as if Zoom had been expressly designed for the combination of theatrical presentation and audience response that is T of W’s specialty. Scenery and costumes, it turns out, are far less important than language and situation. (Even the live performances featured actors sitting behind a table; they were dramatic readings, not staged ones.) Among the T of W remote events I’ve attended since 2020 are performances/discussions of Walt Whitman’s poem “The Wound Dresser” and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon “The Drum-Major Instinct.” But most often, I’ve tuned into Greek tragedies, including Sophocles’s Ajax, Oedipus, Antigone, and Philoctetes, and, most recently, Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, all excerpted, all using Doerries’s own translations.
As a translator, Doerries is brisk, even blunt, and always effective and energizing. Archaisms and frills fall away; what remains is the same kind of urgent clarity one can sense in Rothenberg’s journal/memoir, written at the edge of death yet defying silence. But in Doerries and his actors’ hands, Greek tragedy serves as a journal for all of humanity.
On July 16 of this year, Theater of War Productions presented Aeschylus’s tragedy The Suppliants. Probably the earliest surviving play of this oldest of the Athenian tragedians, The Suppliants may date from late in the sixth century BCE. It’s rarely assigned or performed. The action seems static, and the myth of the 50 Danaids fleeing forced marriage with their Egyptian cousins and seeking sanctuary in Argos lacks the visceral, gory drama as well as the familiarity of the material covered in a masterpiece such as the Oresteia.
But The Suppliants turned out to be a brilliant choice. The static quality of the action, which largely consists in speeches, fits Zoom perfectly; and the topic of the plight of refugees is uncomfortably relevant. The relative unfamiliarity of the play even for someone like me, who studied and teaches Classics, is an advantage; I enjoyed finding myself unsure how the plot would go. Would King Pelagos of Argos, eloquently read by Oscar Isaac, accede to the pleas of the suppliant Danaids, whose father Danaus, read with subtlety and poignancy by David Strathairn, has counselled them to be modest and dignified in beseeching Pelagos for sanctuary? Stay tuned.
In addition to this highly relevant and resonant situation, Doerries’s decision to cast Ukrainians as chorus members, speaking for the Danaids, is an excellent example of the potential of Zoom as a medium. Six Ukrainians (the youngest, Kira Meshcherska, a 12-year-old actor) read lines whose eloquence easily transcended small screens, foreign accents, and a translation from Ancient Greek, a language none of them knew, into English, which wasn’t their first language either. The eloquent and accessible script was compelling. The complicated mythical backstory which the Danaids use to convince King Pelagos that they have an ancestral connection to Argos might seem to be a stumbling block for contemporary audiences, but this mythical material is far less important than the human and political dilemma Pelagos faces, fearing on the one hand to send the Danaids away and on the other hand to invite war by welcoming them to his city: “But I see violence upon the horizon if we welcome you within our walls.”
Following the dramatic reading of portions of the play, the actors leave the screen. The panel discussion that then forms the centerpiece of each T of W event is usually assigned to first responders, doctors, nurses, veterans, activists, depending on the venue and context. In the case of The Suppliants, though, the panelists were the same six chorus members, who included, in addition to young Kira, a psychiatrist who is also active in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense, a human rights activist, a manager of a Kyiv bakery, and several exiled academics.
Doerries always begins by asking the panelists to speak, “without judgment and with shared vulnerability,” to which lines in the play or other text particularly “resonate with [their] own experience across culture and time.” What has always struck me in the responses is the intense quality of listening the panelists reveal. Whether the text is a Greek play, a Whitman poem, or a King sermon, the listeners, like eager students, zero in on a single passage, sometimes a single sentence or even a single word. This is close reading 2022, and it’s thrilling.
In the case of The Suppliants, rather than reporting on the panelists’ words, let me simply record a few of the lines from the play that resonated with them. As it happened, many of these were lines I’d jotted down myself, filling 10 pages of a legal pad as I listened to the Zoom performance on my porch in Vermont. In each case, I trust it is obvious who in the play is speaking.
Those who are just always protect their allies from harm.
But I see danger if we welcome you within our walls.
You are foreigners, and foreigners in need of assistance.
I cannot help you without possibly having the city paralyzed by an overwhelming fear of taking action and making the wrong decision.
There is no path that does not lead to catastrophe.
You have left me to wrestle with questions that have no easy answers.
Whatever happens to us will have consequences for you and your children.
People are always ready to blame people who speak in foreign tongues.
An altar is always stronger than a wall.
Foreigners don’t come to take things but to bring blessings.
In the third and final segment of the event, the audience members who had a chance to speak (some 25 didn’t have time) hailed from Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Canada, Argentina, Belarus, and an unidentified country. One Ukrainian refugee was in Poland; a Nigerian student who had spent four years in Ukraine was, I believe, in Germany. Like the panelists, the audience reported on what had particularly struck them in the play, but — as Zoom permits — they also spoke directly to the panelists. A few things these audience members said, also lapidary and eloquent, could easily have fit into the play:
No one can take us away from our land.
We are all scattered around the world.
It’s one thing to read about this and another thing to hear it.
As soon as things settle, we’re going home.
Things in common are very powerful.
We want to come home where we can be ourselves.
The first thing war takes away is dignity; we have to ask for everything, this is the most tough thing to do.
We gather around the table and tell stories.
The world is watching.
And for those two charged hours, one had the sense that a good segment of the world was indeed watching this intensely poignant and inspiring piece of what it’s not quite adequate to classify as theater. For the sense one comes away with is also that of a kind of community-based therapy.
Doerries, who concludes each T of W event by reminding his audience that “you’re not alone in this room, in your country, in the world, across time,” has done an astonishing job of keeping the texts he chooses not only timeless but timely — uncomfortably timely, but also consolingly timeless. For more than a decade now, the organization has been instructing us, moving us, bringing us together even in the shared loneliness of the frightening time we now — and maybe always — find ourselves in. We don’t need to be specialists; or rather, each of us is a specialist in their own experience of shared human dilemmas. Crossing the borders of time and culture is what Theater of War Productions is all about.