Interview: Theater of War

by Amy R. Cohen (Randolph College) and Brett M. Rogers (Gettysburg College)
Introduction by Brett M. Rogers

Part One: Bryan Doerries and Elizabeth Marvel
in conversation with Didaskalia
      Part Two: Bryan Doerries
in conversation with Didaskalia


To describe Theater of War (hereafter ToW) as ‘theater,’ or ‘a theatrical event,’ or even a ‘performance’ is to surely miss the point. Working from the argument that Attic Greek drama was primarily (though not exclusively) a mode of performance “by veterans, for veterans,” Bryan Doerries—ToW’s creator, creative director, and one of its producers—focuses the event on multiple activities that dramatize the experience (and costs) of warfare and provoke discussion about them.1  The event itself falls into three stages. First, four to five professional actors sit at a table on a bare stage—no costumes, no props, no sets, no make-up, no special lighting—and perform a reading of Sophocles’ Ajax or Philoctetes. Next, the actors are replaced by another small group, made up of citizens, including veterans, often a veteran’s spouse, and usually a therapist with experience treating combat veterans, all of whom offer their own comments and experience. Finally, Doerries (in the role of emcee) invites the audience to talk about their reactions to the performance and comments, passing the microphone around. The entire event lasts approximately two hours, although discussions linger afterward.

In other words, ToW sits at the interstices between theatrical event and social tool. It is part classical homage, part Sophoclean revival, part town-hall meeting, part therapeutic group session, part social-impact project. Were it not for Doerries’s careful management of the audience, always steering the audience conversation back to the text of the performance, there is no little risk that ToW could also become part heated—even explosive—public debate on contemporary American military policy. In the open discussion, audience members speak thoughtfully, tearfully, passionately, even angrily. There is a simmering of communal emotion among the audience reminiscent not of the darkness of contemporary theater, but rather of the colorful, emotion-filled anecdotes found in the vitae of the Attic dramatists themselves. In short, ToW is a unique kind of event, a compelling amalgam of artifice and grassroots activity that asks (and answers) how ancient drama can serve society more than 2,400 years after the genre’s initial apogee.

We do not offer an extensive review of ToW here, in part because it is an ongoing, traveling event that changes as its locations, cast members, and audiences change. Since its inception in 2009, there have been over one hundred and fifty performances at multiple hospitals, military bases, theaters, and universities—including recently (and perhaps significantly) Guantanamo Bay.2  Rather, given its protean nature, ToW seems a better subject for an interview that offers a glimpse of the production as it moves from military communities and increasingly into the public sphere. One of our main lines of inquiry in our conversation with Doerries and regular actor Elizabeth Marvel (‘Tecmessa’ in Ajax and ‘Ajax’ in the female version of Ajax) addressed how ToW has developed and changed over time in terms of format, meaning, and impact. Those who wish to read written reviews of ToW can find a complete list of reviews on the ToW website,3 and we encourage readers to consult in particular Meineck 2009 and Nelson 2011.4

We hope that this interview will appeal to a wide variety of audiences: classicists, thespians, theater goers, veterans, and those interested in ToW. Our goal was to create a conversation that might have both general and specialist interest. Part One (featuring both Doerries and Marvel) may appeal more to a general audience, while Part Two (featuring Doerries) probes more deeply into questions of interest to those engaged in ancient performance.

Scholars may rightfully wonder whether ToW offers any meaningful insight into ancient performance. With its clear social aim, does ToW belong rather to the annals of contemporary theater history or reception studies? In Part Two, Doerries at one point suggests that part of his aim with ToW is in fact archaeological, to “excavate” and uncover the emotions and ideas of an ancient Athenian (male, citizen-soldier) audience.5  Doerries’s claim places him somewhat in league with a contemporary scholarly trend to examine the role of emotion in classical drama.6  We leave it to others to ask at least two further questions. First, how would we go about substantiating such a claim? Second, does or should this claim change the way we read, study, and perform Attic drama?

The interviews were recorded on April 4th, 2011, at Transition Productions in New York City. Bryan Doerries and Elizabeth Marvel are interviewed by Amy R. Cohen (editor, Didaskalia) and Brett M. Rogers (editorial board, Didaskalia). Didaskalia would like to offer thanks to Ian Dempsey and Mitch Cheney for producing this interview.


1 In conversation, Doerries (among others) attributes this observation to the clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, whose work repeatedly draws connections between Greek epic and drama and the communalized experience of soldiers and veterans; see Achilles in Vietnam (1994), Odysseus in America (2002), and, for our purposes here, “The Birth of Tragedy—Out of the Needs of Democracy” (Autumn 1995) in Didaskalia 2.02.

2 For a full list of the production history and locations for ToW, see

3 See

4 P. Meineck, 2009, ""These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished": Theater of War / The Philoctetes Project," Arion 17.1, 173-191. H. Nelson, 2011, "Bryan Doerries's Theater of War: A New Incarnation of an Ancient Ritual," Review: The Journal of Dramaturgy, 21.2.22-31.

5 Doerries seems to assume that the primary audience for Athenian drama is composed of adult male citizen-soldiers, and some of his subsequent projects with Outside the Wire use Greek drama to confront the emotions of other possible identities that we know existed in one form or another in antiquity (the aged, the incarcerated). It is not clear, however, whether Doerries's notion of "excavating the ancient audience" is meant to include such populations as women, children, metics, or slaves, whose presence at Athenian dramatic performances is uncertain. Nor is it clear how excavating the audience takes into account ancient non-Athenian audiences. For more on these issues, one may consult (e.g.,) S. Goldhill, 1997, "The Audience of Athenian Tragedy," The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, P. E. Easterling, ed., Cambridge, 54-68; M. Revermann, 2006, "The Competence of Theatre Audiences in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Athens," Journal of Hellenic Studies 126.99-124; P. Wilson, ed., 2007, The Greek Theatre and Festivals, Oxford; M. Revermann and P. Wilson, eds., 2008, Performance, Iconography, Reception, Oxford. It would have been interesting to ask Doerries whether he has seen any variations in audience responses based on age, class, gender, race, or geographical location.

6 See (e.g.) D. Konstan, 1999, "The Tragic Emotions," Comparative Drama 33.1-21; W. V. Harris, 2001, Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge, Mass.; D. Konstan and K. Rutter, eds., 2003, Envy, Spite, and Jealousy: The Rivalrous Emotions in Ancient Greece, Edinburgh; D. Konstan, 2006, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, Toronto.


A PDF of this piece: Volume 8, Number 17.