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#150: HOW CAN I SAY SOMETHING THAT SHOULD NEVER BE SPOKEN?

#150: HOW CAN I SAY SOMETHING THAT SHOULD NEVER BE SPOKEN? Kenneth Rexroth wrote, in regard to (or in disregard of) Aristotle: “It never occurs to Aristotle that the three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, are, from his point of view, themselves philosophers…with insights into the meaning and end of life that have never been surpassed…their “tragic world view” is not subject to changes of fashion, but remains true in all times and societies. …What the Poetics says in the last analysis is, ‘Timid, sentimental and emotionally unstable people will feel better, and be better behaved, after a good cry on the stone benches of the theater.’ …There is never a hint in Aristotle that tragedy is true.” Perhaps the strongest corroboration of Rexroth’s statement that I have come across of late is The Theater of War (Knopf, 2015), Bryan Doerries’s account of his troupe’s efforts to present the Greek tragedies in readings and performances on military bases in the US. In a startling moment early in the book, a young soldier, asked the point of viewing the performance of Sophocles’s Ajax he has just seen, says, “It’s the truth…and we’re all here watching it together.” Almost by accident, he yokes the philosophic and therapeutic strands into a single experience.

Doerries’s stated aim is to help soldiers and their dependents deal with the psychological and moral disorderings of the experience of war—with the lurking suggestion that Sophocles (who was a general in the Athenian army) knew every bit as much of PTSD and such issues as our own doctors, and wrote in a manner more direct and moving. Doerries acknowledges the mind-numbing, page-bound presentation of the classical plays (often in outdated translations) that many of us were bored with in school, and it is his wily emphasis on the plays as theatre, as communal experience, that opens the door for the discussions, with their chances for survivors to tell their own stories, that are the emotional center of the book. It is in these recountings that we see enacted Doerries’s own hopes for producing catharsis—that mysterious and much-discussed ancient word that he defines as “the purification of potentially dangerous emotions, such as pity and fear, of their toxicity.”

It must have been some feat to get the upper echelons to agree to these performances. The special territory of the Greek tragedies—what makes them, even more than their antiquity, live wires people are leery to touch—is the horrific, the cataclysmic, the unsayable, their bounding into subjects that are frightening and forbidden. Ajax’s wife Tecmessa says, “How can I say something that should never be spoken?” and this is what the tragedies specialize in showing, and saying. Our instinct with people suffering PTSD may be to treat them gently, gingerly; the tragedies, as much as any form of art, does the opposite, and sets the battlefields afire again, and again, and again. It’s part of why this form of theatre demands the communal experience: there’s safety in numbers. (Almost.) Performance, paradoxically, may cool you down by turning up the heat.

In the latter half of the book Doerries extends his territory by performing not just on military bases but in prisons and in centers for end-of-life care—using Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, with its hero imprisoned and punished by the gods, and Sophocles’s Women of Trachis, in which Heracles begs his son to end his father’s life (and ties in, wrenchingly, the story from earlier in the book of a friend who died of cystic fibrosis). Here again the recountings of people’s reactions to the plays are almost intolerably moving. Here are the places where we are never allowed or encouraged to go, where “what should never be spoken” is said aloud.

As a coda to all this: Doerries writes, “Any tragedy worth the price of admission, in fifth century Athens or today, does something to us—physically, spiritually, biochemically.” He is speaking of performance. Against much right thinking, may I say in a small voice that even reading the tragedies is worth doing? Take a look at the Theater of War website and you’ll see that Doerries has had the talents of a banger of a list of mostly New York-based actors: Paul Giamatti, Frances Macdormand, John Turturro, Adam Driver, Michael Stuhlbarg—to name only actors you may know from movies. Out in the boonies, one may sadly have to add lack of opportunity or, worse, egregiously bad amateur productions to the list of things that have permanently crossed the tragedies off of your list of the sufferable. Remember at least that in the great translations of Robert Fitzgerald, Dudley Fitts, Edith Hamilton, Robert Fagles and others you may not only make your own music of the verse but you can stage and cast to the very limits of your imagination. The volumes from the University of Chicago translations are still in print, and new versions are being done almost hourly. Surely better these than not at all?

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