UCI News

Healing the wounds of war

Dramatic readings of ancient Greek plays directed by UCI alumnus Bryan Doerries provide a forum for veterans recovering from post-traumatic stress — or "divine madness" — of modern-day combat.

January 10, 2011
Healing the wounds of war
Dramatic readings of ancient Greek plays directed by UCI alumnus Bryan Doerries provide a forum for veterans recovering from post-traumatic stress — or “divine madness” — of modern-day combat. Here, Doerries addresses an audience of more than 150 military and family members at Naval Medical Center San Diego. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Todd Hack

The ancient Greeks knew the battlefield could leave
emotional scars, and they had a distinctive way of dealing with it: They
put on a play. Dramas about Achilles and Ajax showed these mythological
war heroes suffering from the “divine madness” caused by combat — known
today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

say Greek theater helped citizen-soldiers reintegrate with civilian
life after being at war. It was a communal opportunity to acknowledge
the truth of their experience on the battlefield,” says UC Irvine
alumnus Bryan Doerries, M.F.A. ’01, a New York writer, translator and

After reading news reports about soldiers returning from Iraq and
Afghanistan with deep psychological wounds, Doerries got “this crazy
idea” that the ancient texts also might help these modern-day veterans.
In 2008, he founded Theater of War, a production company that stages his own translations of Greek and Roman plays for military audiences.

is about theater as a vehicle for something much bigger than a
performance,” Doerries says. “When veterans see their own lives
reflected in ancient stories, they open up and talk about things they
might not have shared with anyone. Maintaining one’s humanity in the
face of war is something people have been struggling with for thousands
of years.”

after more than 100 readings for about 20,000 service members, Theater
of War doesn’t seem so crazy after all. Many veterans have been moved to
tears by the performances. The Pentagon even awarded the company $3.7
million to give readings at 50 military installations across the U.S.
and Europe.

The program features excerpts from Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes,
which show Greek warriors “struggling under the weight of their
psychological and physical injuries,” Doerries says. Ajax commits
suicide after plotting to kill his commanding officers but, under a
trance by the war goddess Athena, slaughters farm animals instead.

are no costumes, no sets — only five actors seated at a table. About 70
performers have participated so far, including film and stage veterans
Paul Giamatti, Lili Taylor, David Strathairn and Charles S. Dutton.

the reading, Doerries invites a panel of five members of the military
community onstage: an active-duty soldier who has served in Iraq or
Afghanistan, a combat veteran, a military spouse or family member, a
military chaplain and a mental health professional.

respond with their gut to what they’ve seen,” Doerries says. “Then we
open the discussion up to the audience. It’s a 2½-hour event, and the
50-minute performance is a pep rally for the discussion.

get up and say very personal things. They get emotional. One Vietnam
veteran came up to me and said, ‘Bryan, the fact that PTSD has been
around since B.C. makes me feel less alone.’ As an artist, it’s rare to
feel you’re doing anything socially meaningful with your craft. But we
get immediate feedback. There’s an overwhelming sense this is making a

In some ways, Doerries has prepared for his role as Theater of War director all of his life.

“I’m the son of two psychologists. I grew up in a military town — Newport News, Virginia. When I was 7, I acted in Euripides’ Medea. If you take those three things together, you see how I got where I am today,” he jokes.

While earning his master’s in directing at UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, he directed six translations of Greek plays, including Ajax. He’d found his calling.

“Bryan excelled at UCI. Always soft-spoken and persuasive, he has a remarkable ability to bring people together,” recalls Keith Fowler, UCI drama professor and head of directing.

says Fowler inspired him to explore the social impact of theater.
“Keith told me, ‘You have everything going for you, but one thing is
missing: the humanistic connection between your work and real people.'”

In response, he joined ArtsBridge America (then directed by Fowler) and taught drama in Santa Ana K-12 schools.

was the beginning of this journey,” says Doerries, who plans to return
to campus in February to lead a master class on military conversations
with the community. “Now my work is completely about the people for whom
we are telling the story.”

Doerries hopes to expand his concept — and his audience — by staging dialogues on other social issues. The troupe is performing Prometheus in Prison for case workers, corrections officers and other prison staff, and Sophocles’ Women of Trachis for those who provide hospice and end-of-life care.

He’s also including civilian audiences in Theater of War readings to bridge the gap between civilian and military culture.

“If I
don’t do anything else, this has been an amazing run,” he says. “The
message I’m trying to convey to veterans is: ‘You’re not alone in this
room. You’re not alone in this country or this world. You’re not alone
across time.'”