Article

Sarah Ruden


Art for All of Us?

Greek tragedy and war veterans.

I need to start this review with two disclosures. First, I'm a competitor of Bryan Doerries, as I have my own translations of Greek tragedies (though not any of the four that Doerries translates in All That You've Seen Here Is God) coming out any month now. Secondly, even if I were differently positioned as a fellow translator of ancient literature (say, if I had worked only on epic), I'd still be unqualified to review—not these books themselves, but what actually needs reviewing, the whole Theater of War project, the heart of which is performances for the benefit of veterans (though the project has spun off performances for other troubled groups, and even a Book of Job for disaster victims). My career is very different: it's about desk-bound translation, and its main premise is the creepy relationships I develop in my head with the original authors—my parents having neglected to explain to me the difference between love and stalking.

But I'm going ahead with my assessment because, after hassling the editor of this journal with doubts and grousing, and the author of the books under review with demands for an interview and an opportunity to see a live performance, I watched some video and had to conclude that it largely speaks for itself. If I'm going to claim that my cause is translation reform, I must offer Doerries congratulations and encouragement for his fine contribution to that cause.

Doerries, with his own loose, clear, and succinct translations, and with readings by superb actors, has re-created several essentials of Greek tragedy for our time. Paul Giamatti—perhaps most familiar as John Adams in the television miniseries of that name—is to my mind the greatest living dramatic Everyman. He is flawless as Sophocles' Philoctetes, the warrior the Greeks carelessly abandon on the way to Troy because of his infected snakebite but cynically try to retrieve nine years later in order to exploit his magic bow for the city's defeat. As his wound spasms, he shrieks, spittle gathering on his lips, describes the agony, begs for help. But it can't of course be a naturalistic speech, the imitation of a scene at a trauma ward: it's controlled, perfectly timed, a work of art.

Doerries, for his part, is plainly a born director. In Theater of War, he describes his first translation production, of Euripides' Bacchants at Kenyon College as an undergraduate: his use of a low-riding Buick Skylark as a machina to bring on the wine god Dionysus and his band of ecstatic followers, "bouncing in the back seat to the bump and thrum of low bass tones"; and his retrieval of the production from disaster after his Dionysus got stoned and locked his keys in the car.

As a translator, Doerries has overcome some of the signature conundrums of moving 5th-century BC Athenian poetry into modern English. The interjections are particular knotty: there are different ones for different moods and situations, and there are no authentic equivalents now but expletives—obviously wrong for the genre and offensive to a large part of the audience. But the archaic exclamations "Woe is me!" and "Golly!" and so on just sound dopey to us—they are among hidebound elements Doerries rightly deplores, recalling his first participation in tragedy, as a child playing one of Medea's children, with his BVDs showing uproariously under a short tunic at one point. He now credibly uses inarticulate cries and moans for many interjections, and Giamatti and other performers handle them with grisly impressiveness.

The translations are quite free, which is necessary for stageability. But it's debatable how far beyond mere clarity it's right for a translator to go. The use of anachronisms tends to be a good test case. Are there enough to smooth the story along intelligibly for a modern audience, preventing the distraction of either confusion or pedantic exegesis? I've witnessed Greek drama almost literally footnoted on stage, and it was annoying.

But do the anachronisms themselves stick out and distract? In Doerries they sometimes do and sometimes don't. "Shell-shocked" in the Ajax translation is passable (if rather tendentious—see below), as in common usage it's no longer a medical term but just describes a state of mind. But "body bags" in the same play—no way; those are objects that didn't exist, and they represent a whole regimen of death that didn't either.

Still, bobbles like this aren't ruinous, as Doerries has managed the whole administrative and fundraising and directing business to bring about truly professional productions, even though they're mere seated readings. Giamatti can make the word "wretched," as a purportedly spontaneous expression of physical agony, sound natural. Nearly all of Doerries' other casting is both ambitious and spot-on, and his taste and sensitivity as a director is palpable.

This artistic achievement doesn't, however, compel an endorsement of the books on my part, or of the performances as therapy—which is how they are billed. The books are, on their own, fairly ordinary (a set of pretty good translations and a volume of autobiography and puffery), and as for the help that suffering and isolated people may find in Doerries' plays for "healing" from their experiences, the therapeutic environment itself, invoking strictures of "privacy" and "safe space," doesn't allow any kind of inquiry.

Dr. Jonathan Shay, the celebrated author of Achilles in Vietnam (Scribner, 1994), has theorized that this sort of storytelling is a kind of medical care for veterans, and he adduces ancient Greek tragedy as having functioned this way. Alas, not only does Shay thoroughly misunderstand ancient history, ancient society, and the ancient mind; but from my own long observation of fashionable efforts to deal with traumatic memories in post-apartheid South Africa, I have to say that the storytelling-as-therapy premise has got nothing better to recommend it than its convenience. Its essence is, "We can discharge our debts to people damaged for our sake by chatting with them." It isn't true.

Doerries, of course, has done far more than chat: he offers an uncannily well-adapted, gripping art form, which doesn't need any extraneous rationale. For the benefit of veterans themselves, he should offer this art form more broadly.

The mere inherent appeal of the original Athenian productions would have cheered and comforted veterans to the extent storytelling could. The plays were part of traditional religious and patriotic festivals that soldiers, soldiers-to-be, and former solders regularly enjoyed as part of their unquestioned stake in the polity. Their attendance wouldn't have been nearly as valued had it not been abundantly shared. Resident aliens in Athens (a large commercial class) weren't excluded. A leading authority on the Athenian dramatic festivals, Jeffrey Henderson (disclosure: a former teacher of mine), believes that women also attended. Children's presence is attested. Foreigners crowded the City Dionysia, the bigger, glitzier celebration, which took place during the sailing season. Athenian citizen-soldiers in the audience were very probably outnumbered, contrary to Doerries' depiction of them as the majority.

The proposal that, in the circumstances we know about, the content of tragedy was a necessary reminder that an individual veteran was "not alone" is malarkey. Moreover, most of the content—of the actual tragedies, as well as of the comedies and satyr plays, presented on the same days as the tragedies—ignored war trauma, and could even treat it disrespectfully.

Alcestis, in the tragedy of that name, dies in her husband's place so that he can avoid a curse. Aristophanes' comedy Acharnians culminates with the antiwar protagonist triumphing in a boozy, lecherous feast, the ministrations of his floozies paralleling the kinds of help screamed for by his nemesis, a wounded buffoon-patriot soldier who is on the stage along with him. Because drama wasn't a sop to traumatized soldiers, because it was about the national and universal concerns that enfolded citizen soldiers too, it would have worked against any alienation they were enduring.

For many reasons unrelated to the festivals themselves, it's not likely they were enduring much alienation. Citizens trained together for warfare from boyhood. Hoplites fought in an interlocked line that held or broke as a unit. Rowers of the triremes shared small benches and prevailed, escaped, or came to grief along with their ships. The inefficiency of ancient weaponry seems to have kept casualties relatively low, and primitive medical conditions assured a low number of long-term recoveries and disabilities: wounded, you likely bled out on the spot or died (unlike Philoctetes) rather promptly of shock, organ failure, or sepsis.

PTSD or "moral injury" doesn't appear to be attested in the ancient world, even in myth; Ajax (Doerries' first presentation to veterans, along with Philoctetes) is a play about a warrior gone insane and falling on his sword not from battle stress but from the dishonor of being deprived of the prize armaments he has earned through his prowess. In personal terms, this wouldn't have been all that painful for Athenian citizen-soldiers to watch—and it might actually have left them smug. In their democratic Classical period, they could contrast their lot with Ajax's Homeric-era doom among viciously competing chieftains only nominally belonging to the same army (much as they could contrast their own rapidly revolving and deferent leadership with the arrogant, destructive kings in tragedy).

Fighters no longer had to maneuver frantically for individual advantage, take all the responsibility for their dependents, and go to pieces if they had a really bad day, because in their new egalitarian military structures they were bound to support each other's honor and security. The state would even dower war-orphan girls (in the Homeric and tragic stories, they become sex slaves, like Ajax's captive Tecmessa) whose means to marry were inadequate; this kind of provision must have removed a great deal of anxiety even from death in battle.

Hence, it was not any therapeutic effect of tragedy that would have made the idea of veteran suicides a head-scratcher for the Athenians. What a humiliating contrast with our military dispensations. I wouldn't throw up my hands in wide-eyed and dainty surprise to learn that the age of high demand for volunteer soldiers to serve in crushing conditions, the age of serial overseas deployments even from the National Guard, tracks the recent wage stagnation and generally deplorable treatment of low-skilled and entry-level workers: all this is so helpful to the "economic draft." The people on high cooperating in keeping the pressure on wouldn't, after all, imagine it ever impinging on their own children.

I have to acknowledge, in sympathy with Doerries, that his unpersuasive explanation of and limited purposes for his project are of a piece with the narrow and utilitarian way we handle high culture in this country. He clearly feels he needs to show what practical work his artistic work can do, whom it can fix, what national problem it can clean up. And he's no doubt right; without the special pleading, he wouldn't get the resources necessary for what he's achieved—he would have sat and dreamed of Paul Giamatti as Philoctetes.

But not only does his set-up keep really glorious adaptations away from the mainstream; it seems apt to deprive the tragedies of the most plausible benefit they could have for the traumatized, which is the benefit of universally shared beauty and meaning. We already ghettoize veterans, not to mention the dehumanizing of and profiteering from prisoners and the terminally ill. "Here's a piece of art designed just for you in your pitiable state" seems at best a pretty condescending prescription, like the notorious hundred-dollar laptop for Africans, which the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina describes as "a product that communicates to its intended owner: you are @@@@ed." Art, like IT, needs particularly to communicate between those who suffer more and those who suffer less. I don't think Doerries' tragedy productions would have any trouble doing that, and now that they're fully realized, I hope they will.

I have in mind a trip to the cinema with my father, a veteran of the mountain artillery in Korea. His knee had been shattered by a rebounding cannon; never replaced, the joint hurt like the dickens (his teeth were fantastically worn from grinding) and curtailed his exercise, harming his overall health. From the months of relentless artillery noise, he had a hearing loss that hampered his teaching, and in fact all of his relationships, for the rest of his life.

He once crossed a stream on top of enemy corpses. He watched two MPs order a Korean morphine smuggler to kneel down before they summarily shot him in the head. My father toughed it out and was promoted and decorated on the battlefield.

The Veterans' Administration treated him shamefully for years on end, driving him into a depressive panic that he would never be able to confirm his entitlement to medical benefits, so that he could secure the family home for my mother no matter what happened to his health. He hid the agonizing symptoms of cancer for more than a year and died, cheaply, before it was diagnosed.

He was, on all the evidence, a deeply traumatized, badly neglected veteran. But he came out of Braveheart with me quite cheerful and chatty—he'd really enjoyed the film, although the poor protagonist is captured and disemboweled at the end. If my father had been urged to see the film for his emotional betterment, and had expected to be debriefed afterwards, I'm positive he wouldn't have gone.

And he wouldn't have gone with an organized group of other veterans either. He wanted to see the film with me, a Quaker with no liking for war and no experience of it. The film didn't, of course, specifically parallel his experiences, and it was probably better that the setting was so remote, the story so romanticized; he loathed M.A.S.H. and its empathetic, protesting depiction of Korean War service. And I didn't have to say I understood; I just had to watch Braveheart along with him.

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Harp, the Voice, the Book: A Translator on the Beauty and Meaning of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf.

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