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Theatre of War’ Brings Greek Drama to Camp Pendleton

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Aired 2/9/10

An independent New York-based theater company visited Camp Pendleton Marine Base recently. Their performance was part of a $3.7 million contract with the Department of Defense to take Greek drama to military bases around the country.

An independent New York - based theater company visited Camp Pendleton Marine Base recently. Their performance was part of a $3.7 million contract with the Department of Defense to take Greek drama to military bases around the country.

Isiah Whitlock, Adam Driver, Jay O. Sanders and Joanne Tucker enact scenes from "Ajax" by Sophocles in the theatre at Camp Pendleton.
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Above: Isiah Whitlock, Adam Driver, Jay O. Sanders and Joanne Tucker enact scenes from "Ajax" by Sophocles in the theatre at Camp Pendleton.

The “Theatre of War” project tackles themes of trauma and suicide -- themes that touch current service members just as they touched the ancient Greeks.

The theater in Camp Pendleton is no amphitheatre – it is a large echoey hall, with a bare stage on which five people sit on a row of chairs, facing a small audience of Marine families.

Bryan Doerries, the founder of the Theater of War project, leans forward in his chair as he talks about what was going on in Ancient Greece when the plays were originally written, approximately 450 BC.

“In that century, they had 80 years of war. At the time these playwrights were at their peak - Escalus, Sophocles, Euripides - Athens was at war on six fronts. It’s impossible to even begin to image how militarized this ancient democracy was.”

Doerries says Sophocles, who was a general as well as a play write, wrote plays to force painful issues into the open -- a way to let those feelings be expressed cathartically rather than fester. Sometimes as many as 17,000 Greeks would attend the performances.

Here, the number is closer to a couple of dozen, but the performance is powerful nonetheless.

The actors are professional. They include Jay O. Sanders who starred in Mel Gibson’s “Edge of Darkness,” Isiah Whitlock Jr. who plays a senator in the HBO series “The Wire,” and Joanne Tucker, a recent Juilliard graduate, who reads the part of Tecmessa, wife of the great Greek warrior, Ajax.

Tecmessa tells Ajax’s men how her husband has come to her in a state of insane agony she never expected from him. She reminds them how he always told his men that crying was for women and cowards.

The reading tells the story of Ajax’s pain and anger at the immoral actions of his superiors and at his own actions.

“What a joke my life has become, my reputation, my sense of honor,” Ajax laments. “My lord Ajax,” Tecmessa beseeches, “I beg you not to talk like that.” But Ajax commands her to leave him alone. He convinces her and his followers to let him go and bury his sword. Instead he falls on it and dies.

“These are the last words you will hear Ajax speak, the rest I will say to those who listen in the world below!” he cries as he impales himself."

“That’s the end of Ajax,” Doerries explains to the audience. “We don’t do the full play Ajax, but I will tell you this: Although Ajax commits suicide half way through the play, the rest of the play is about what happens to the family and also to his fellow soldiers.”

Marine Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Gross, who commands reserve units across the country, is in the audience. During the panel discussion after the readings, he says he knew of two young reservists who committed suicide last summer, soon after they returned from combat.

“I don’t know if we’re doing a good enough job.” Gross said, “The key to me in the play is, who around Ajax recognized the warning signs, and then who was in a position to do something about it?”

Gross says he always makes himself available to returning Marines, especially reservists who leave their buddies when they return to civilian life.

Sitting at the back of the audience, Adrianna Fiesco also has a personal story to share.

“I connected really good with the part of Ajax when he just went berserk,” Fiesco said, “because that’s what my brother-in-law did.” Here Fiesco broke into tears as she described how her sister was unable to deal with her husband’s rages after he returned from combat.

“That makes me sad," she sobs, “that nobody was able to help him or her.”

Several other mothers and wives described the pain of watching their loved ones withdraw into themselves, cut them selves off.

As the event concluded, a young Marine in the audience, 2nd Lieutenant Alex Lim, said his friends might or might not respond to Greek prose. But he was touched by the feelings of family members in the discussion afterwards.

“Cause you know, honestly speaking,” Lim said,“if you are going through a theatre of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s just your story that you see and you tend to feel."

And if Marines witnessed how families felt about their deploying and coming back and trying to reintegrate, and they saw the heartache -- seeing the other side, seeing how hard it is for family members too, that’s really beneficial.”

The Theater of War project will be back for another performance at Camp Pendleton in March.

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