What does a Greek tragedy authored more than two-and-a-half millennia ago have to do with the plight of today’s veterans and military families?
A great deal, says Marjolaine Goldsmith, company manager of Theater of War Productions, a public health project that presents dramatic readings of classical Greek plays to stimulate discourse about military conflict and social issues.
“The tragedies were tools to support the health of the polis [city] and were born out of a need to grapple with the complex issues and ethical decisions portrayed in the plays,” says Goldsmith. “This form of drama came out of a real need, almost a biological need, to tell war stories.”
On Thursday, Feb. 20, at 6 p.m., Goldsmith and Frankie Faison, best known for his portrayal of Deputy Commissioner Ervin Burrell on “The Wire,” will read “Philoctetes” by the Greek tragedian Sophocles at Loyola University Maryland’s McGuire Hall. Following the reading, a panel discussion will explore the effects of war on veterans and their families.
The reading is part of a series of faculty workshops and creative performances leading up to the university’s 2020 Humanities Symposium on Mar. 12, with the keynote address delivered by Phil Klay, a veteran and award-winning author of “Redeployment,” a collection of short stories based on the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
Founded in 2009 by director, writer and translator Bryan Doerries and former producing director Phyllis Kaufman, Theater of War has presented readings to more than 100,000 people at schools, museums, prisons, shelters and hospitals all over the world. Its work has attracted such well-known actors as Adam Driver, Blythe Danner, Cynthia Nixon, David Strathairn, Frances McDormand, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mare Winningham and John Turturro.
Goldsmith, who joined the project in 2016, believes that classical Greek tragedy performed in a communal setting wields the power to create connections between people and help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other war-related issues.
“We use old texts with a lot of distance, temporally and culturally, from our audiences to leave them up for interpretation,” says Goldsmith, a New York resident who studied classical civilization at Oberlin College in Ohio. “We’re asking audiences to actually interpret the plays, to grapple with serious ideas from incest to murder. …There is no assigned meaning to the text. We aren’t saying, ‘This is you,’ like documentary theater. We are asking, ‘What do you make of this ancient play?’ This makes it possible to interpret one’s experience by way of the text we perform.”
The play tells the story of a warrior named Philoctetes who inherits Heracles’ bow and arrow. On his way to participate in the Trojan War, Philoctetes contracts a mysterious disease and his comrades abandon him on a deserted island. Without Philoctetes and his bow and arrow, the Greeks are unable to win the war, so after 10 years they send a young man to retrieve them.
“The bow is the only thing that’s protected him all these years,” says Goldsmith. “A lot of people identify with the isolation and betrayal Philoctetes experiences. The metaphor of the bow is interpreted differently in all settings. We were in a men’s shelter in Long Island City [N.Y.], and a formerly incarcerated individual saw the bow as ‘my toughness, my manliness.’ He asked, ‘Now you want me to lay it down and receive help?’ When that man interpreted the play, the caseworkers who work with him could understand what he deals with every day.
“At a women’s shelter, a woman on a panel talked about her firstborn son who she had to give up when she went into the Navy,” Goldsmith says. “It’s all up for interpretation. Nothing’s wrong and there are no wrong answers. Everything comes up, nothing’s off-limits.”
Goldsmith says listening to the dramatic readings and being immersed in the post-play discussions “expands everyone’s horizons. Even if it’s not all `Kumbaya,’ we can hear someone else’s truth, someone who may have very different circumstances than our own.”
Coming from a Jewish background, Goldsmith says, helped inform her desire to examine and dissect ancient texts.
“To be Jewish, to me, is to have a heritage of oppression and white privilege,” Goldsmith says. “That’s a unique position to be in. But that informs everything I do. It’s my identity. I enjoy engaging with something ancient.”
Jane Satterfield, a professor in Loyola’s writing department and director of the Humanities Symposium, says this year’s theme of war and homecoming was selected because “the humanities look at the experiences of culture across time, and war figures prominently in human history. It is central in the literary works of Homer, Shakespeare and more, in the images of disaster that today’s photo-journalists capture, and in the works of psychologists, philosophers and theologians who challenge us to think about the nature of suffering and our collective obligation to repair the wounds of war.”
Satterfield describes Theater of War as an ideal vehicle to examine the complexities of conflict, resolution and healing.
“The production uses ancient plays that connect to contemporary moments, plays that our classics students have been studying,” she says. “But this production will bring the text to life and bring our campus into conversation with veterans and the local community.”
Goldsmith says she looks forward to bringing “Philoctetes” to Baltimore.
“Baltimore is a remarkable place that deals centrally with what divides America,” she says. “All communities in Baltimore would probably benefit from hearing these truths.”
For information, visit https://www.loyola.edu/join-us/humanities-symposium.
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