Theater of War: War Vets Find Meaning in Sophocles’ Ajax

By Michelle Turken

How do you communicate the incommunicable? How do you break down the taboos that cloud dialogue about the psychological effects of war? “Theater of War,” directed by Bryan Doerries, is a pioneering public service project which strives to do just that. Using Sophocles’ tragedies to spark open discussion about the challenges facing veterans and their families, these events aim to craft a sense of understanding between military and civilian audiences.

Last Tuesday, students, faculty, community members and veterans gathered in HIB 100 for a dramatic reading of scenes from Sophocles’ “Ajax.” Professional actors participated in the event; David Strathairn played the legendary warrior, while Heather Goldenhersh played his young wife, Tecmessa.

“Oh, you salt of the earth, you sailors who serve Ajax,” Tecmessa howls as she throws herself before Ajax’s army. “Those of us who care for the house of Telamon will soon wail, for our fierce hero sits shell-shocked in his tent, glazed over, gazing into oblivion!”

The audience shifts nervously in their seats, transfixed as the heart-wrenching monologue unfolds.

It is the ninth year of the Trojan War, and the invincible, godlike Achilles has recently perished on the battlefield. In the ancient world, one of the greatest distinctions possible was to receive the armor of a fallen leader. Ajax, a great friend of Achilles and the strongest of the Greek warriors, believed that he was the worthiest of this badge of honor.

Like in modern times, things quickly got political, as other warriors laid claim to the armor. After losing the funeral games and forfeiting his honors to Odysseus, Ajax is consumed with rage. Under the cover of darkness, he goes to murder the generals that stripped him of his manhood, but is blinded by Athena. Crazed and confused, Ajax reels out of the tent and releases his fury on a herd of livestock. Convinced that they are the generals, he tortures the animals in front of Tecmessa and their three-year-old son.

Realizing the gravity of the crime that he has committed, Ajax is overcome with shame. Laying in his tent, bathed in pools of blood, he cries: “Teucer? Where is Teucer? Always out raiding. I am in here dying! He is never near when I need him most.”

These scenes are not about glory, or theft, or even death. They are about abandonment. Too often, families and friends ostracize those grappling with depression, as if their struggles are plagues in need of containment.

When Ajax laments his defeat and contemplates suicide, Tecmessa insults him: “It is hard to hear a strong man say such weak words!”

Insults and abandonment amplified the wounds that had already been inflicted, ultimately causing Ajax take his own life.

Jarred by the monologue, panelists, all of whom had been in combat, were able to relate to and interpret the ancient play. UCI students and faculty were also deeply moved, engaging with the panelists and actors as they debated the ramifications of the plot.

So what did Sophocles intend? We will never know for sure. It is clear, however, that these ancient plays transcend the bounds of time. Modern soldiers still suffer from Ajax’s “shell-shocked” state, and people battling depression are still driven to take their lives because they feel abandoned by their communities.

While the play is sad and disturbing, it is comforting to know that we are not alone in our problems. We can learn from Teucer and Tecmessa to help build better support networks for those battling the psychological effects of war. There is value in looking at stories from the past, in drawing comparisons to today and finding that, even in times of extreme emotional duress and difficulty, vulnerability is a deeply human experience that transcends time.