When you think about ancient Greek tragedies, you probably think about people in togas spouting stilted, archaic language — stories written by stuffy playwrights to be watched by snooty audiences.

My guest today argues that this common conception of Greek tragedies misses the power of plays that were in fact created by warriors for warriors, and which represent a technology of healing that’s just as relevant today as it was two millennia ago. His name is Bryan Doerries and he’s the author of the book The Theater of War, as well as the artistic director of an organization of the same name that performs dramatic readings of ancient tragedies for the military and other communities. Bryan and I begin our conversation with what tragedies are, what this civic, religious, and artistic form of storytelling was supposed to do, how it was created by war veterans for war veterans, and how a civilian classicist ended up putting on these plays for current and former members of our modern military. We discuss how the ancient Greek tragedies depicted the depth and spectrum of human suffering, the intersection of fate and personal responsibility, characters who belatedly discover their mistakes, and the fleeting chance of changing behavior in the light of such realizations. Bryan also explains how the tragedies may have been a form of training for young people on how to grapple with the moral ambiguities that mark adulthood. And throughout the show, we dig into how tragedies, by showing people they’re not alone, getting them to confront uncomfortable realities together, and bridging divides, can serve as a transformative technology for collective healing, not only for military veterans, but anyone who’s dealt with trauma, loss, and the general confusions and hardships of the human experience. 

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Show Highlights

Athens’ 3 great writers of tragedy The difference between what’s happening on stage and what’s going on in the audience How tragedy helps us process grief and shared trauma The intersection of fate and responsibility Childhood, the sins of the father, and the shaping of our livesThe healing power of tragedies Do these plays offer more than just catharsis?How these tragedies can help us navigate discomfort The powerful tale of Ajax The way that tragedies can touch people from every walk of life Where do we find the answers to the questions these plays ask?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Walter Reed neglect scandalWhy You Need to Join the Great Conversation About the Great BooksThe Leader’s BookshelfThe Importance of Having a TribeHow the Stages of Grief Can Explain What You’re Feeling in the PandemicOedipus RexFather Wounds and Male SpiritualityWhat the Ancient Greeks and Romans Thought About ManlinessA Primer on Greek MythologyThe Classical Education You Never HadWhy Every Man Should Study Classical CultureAll That You See Here Is God


Connect With Bryan and Theater of War

Theater of War website

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