Miami Book Fair

A classicist turns to Greek drama to heal the hell of war

Bryan Doerries is a translator, writer, director and author of ‘The Theater of War.’
Bryan Doerries is a translator, writer, director and author of ‘The Theater of War.’ Howard Korn

Battered by years of combat, the ferocious soldier loses his best friend, then slides into a deep depression. Suffering and delusional, he tries to kill his commanders but fails. Then he settles on a new target — himself — and succeeds. Invisible, lethal scars of war claim yet another victim.

That soldier might have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or Vietnam, Korea, World War II, World War I. Any war. That particular soldier, however, is the invention of the ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles, a retired general who wrote about the valiant, suicidal Ajax in the 5th century B.C.

Bryan Doerries, a writer, director and translator, is certain that stories written centuries ago carry with them the undiminished power to enlighten, move and heal.

“I am a self-proclaimed evangelist for classical literature and its relevance to our lives today,” Doerries writes in the prologue to his book The Theater of War (Knopf, $26.95). “It is my belief that ancient Greek tragedies have something urgent to show us about ourselves, something that we desperately need to see.”

Doerries will appear at the Miami Book Fair at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, along with actors David Strathairn and Paul Giamatti, to discuss and read from a book that is part memoir, part testament to the enduring power of drama.

As he explains in Theater of War, Doerries had firsthand experience with suffering and loss at a young age. His psychologist father, diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1976 (the year Doerries was born), refused to do anything to fight the disease; the consequences led to kidney failure and a transplant, blindness, dementia, hallucinations and a protracted, terrible death. The author’s girlfriend Laura, diagnosed with cystic fibrosis three days after birth, received a lung transplant but died — quietly, and with those she loved surrounding her — at the age of 22.

At Ohio’s Kenyon College, Doerries laboriously learned ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew and German, intending to become become a philologist (one who studies historical texts). But his senior year staging of Euripides’ The Bacchae (he did the translation) set Doerries on a different path. He came to believe that Greek drama — many kinds of drama — could make a difference in 21st century lives.

“I felt these stories weren’t the province of the ivory tower,” Doerries says by phone from Brooklyn. “My life’s mission is to bring these plays to a larger audience, but not as part of a didactic exercise. Whose stories are these? We all have a stake in them. My stake is about empowering those who have skin in the game. It’s a value, a conviction, a calling.”

Disturbed by news reports of veterans not getting adequate help in dealing with the psychological wounds of war, Doerries put together Theater of War, an initiative involving readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes, followed by a panel discussion and comments or questions from the audience. The first presentation was in August 2008 in San Diego for an audience of more than 400 Marines and their spouses. The audience discussion, which was supposed to last 45 minutes, stretched into three hours.

Actor Strathairn, Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, was part of that first cast. He and Doerries didn’t know each other, but when the director-translator described what he was hoping to do with Theater of War, Strathairn said yes, becoming one of the most active participants in a program that has done more than 300 presentations with a rotating group of nearly 200 actors.

If I never did anything else with my craft, this would be worthwhile.

Actor David Strathairn

“If I never did anything else with my craft, this would be worthwhile,” Strathairn says. “It is moving, really moving and inspirational ... After one performance, a young man came up to [actor] Brían F. O’Byrne and gave him a note. It read, ‘I was thinking of taking myself out, and today you saved my life.’”

At nearly every session, the actor adds, “There’s a moment of such brave and courageous personal testimony.”

Giamatti got involved with Theater of War when he was doing a play with Strathairn in Los Angeles and the actor talked to him about it.

“I thought it sounded like an incredibly cool idea, and I said, ‘No one ever asks me to do anything like that.’ A week later, I got a call,” says Giamatti, an Emmy winner for the John Adams miniseries and the star (opposite Damien Lewis) of Showtime’s upcoming series Billions.

As a translator, Giamatti says, “Bryan’s got a great sensibility. The language is stripped down, direct, colloquial. It reads incredibly smoothly and viscerally.”

The Theater of War concept proved so effective that Doerries got a $3.7 million contract to do performances on military bases around the world. He went, he says, “from the Ivory Tower to being a defense contractor.” Co-founding a company called Outside the Wire, he has expanded his use of theater to address a wide variety of issues, including addiction, prison reform, domestic violence and recovery from disasters.

After a tornado killed 161 people in Joplin, Missouri, Doerries brought Giamatti, Strathairn and Arliss Howard to Joplin to perform Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the ancient Hebrew poem Book of Job. Strathairn played God, Howard narrated and Giamatti was Job. They rehearsed in a Holiday Inn conference room, then went to a megachurch to perform, but Giamatti had misgivings.

“That was the one I remember best. I thought, ‘This time, it’s not going to work. It’s in a place that’s devastated, and in a megachurch. I’m a New York WASPy guy. I thought they’d think it was ridiculous and wonder, ‘Why is this guy screaming at us?’” he recalls. “But afterward, a quiet, middle-aged guy got up and started talking about how lonely he felt. How isolated he felt. It’s a profound concept.”

At the Book Fair, Doerries, Strathairn and Giamatti will read from Theater of War and from the plays. The experience is likely to be enlightening and, at times, deliberately unsettling.

“I give a directive before every performance: Make the audience wish they’d never come,” Doerries says. “I’m convinced it’s about shared discomfort, and we have to leave a space in the discussion to interrogate why we feel that way.”

From his experiences in all the nontraditional spaces that Theater of War and Outside the Wire have performed, Doerries believes he’s onto something critical — something the Greeks did so well.

“The more I’ve done this, the less I’m interested in the framing device. This is a human experience. There isn’t enough of that in our world. We have to socialize the audience to want it, demand it, to come with the idea that the performance doesn’t end when the actors are done,” he says. “There aren’t enough opportunities to sit in a room together and bear witness to our humanity.”

Christine Dolen: 305-376-3733, @christinedolen

If you go

What: ‘The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today’ with Bryan Doerries, David Strathairn and Paul Giamatti.

Where: Miami Book Fair, Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus, Chapman Conference Center (Bldg. 3, Room 3210), 300 NE Second Ave., Miami.

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Cost: Free with Street Fair admission ($8 for adults, $5 for teens and seniors, children free); ticket is required, but unfilled seats will be released shortly before the presentation.