The Theater of War

Doerries, Bryan

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Essay

Annotated by:
Glass, Guy
  • Date of entry: Oct-30-2015


This is a book about the author's passionate love affair with ancient Greek plays, how he goes beyond merely making them relevant to our time by finding therapeutic benefit in them, and how he finds ways to adapt them for a variety of populations and uses.  

Doerries begins by telling us about two formative relationships, representing opposite extremes, that have influenced his worldview.  In the first case, we learn how his father, a diabetic, effectively commits suicide over a period of decades by gorging himself on sweets. He rationalizes his behavior to his son by suggesting that, no matter what he does, his life is destined to end in disaster anyway like "those Greek plays." (p. 17) In contrast, we hear of the author's relationship with a young woman, doomed by cystic fibrosis, who manages to make every moment of her all-too-brief life matter. She goes on to provide an object lesson in how to die with grace and dignity.  These experiences afford Doerries an insight into mortality beyond his years. He also gains insight into his own destiny, eschewing an academic career for a path of his own making.  He follows his intuition which tells him "If I could present readings...maybe something healing could happen." (p. 66) He then begins to devise his own translations from the original Greek which he directs in dramatic readings, and he seeks out the audiences that will benefit from them.

One of the plays that captures his imagination, Sophocles's "Ajax," tells of a warrior who loses his friend to war, becomes despondent, and takes his own life. Doerries discovers that this storyline is familiar territory to sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.   Consequently, when he presents it at military bases it produces an abreactive effect. Indeed, the pent-up emotion he elicits has no other outlet, and he and his performers become folk heroes.  Of course, there are detractors as well.

In the remainder of the book, Doerries finds additional applications for his method, from prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to hospice providers to victims of natural disasters.


This is a lovely and important volume that should provide an inspiration for those of us who seek the educational and/or therapeutic aspects within literary works. The author's thesis is elegantly presented.  His humility and humanity are evident on every page; one gets the idea that had he not found his calling, he would have made a wonderful psychotherapist.

It is fascinating to see how Greek plays shed light on "modern" conditions. It is equally fascinating to discover how life, in turn, sheds light on the plays. For example, we learn from the author that "Ajax" is usually dismissed by critics in favor of Sophocles's much more celebrated Oedipus trilogy.  When Doerries finds the key, as it were, to "Ajax," the play seems to appreciate in stature, and we see that up to now we simply have not understood the playwright's intention.

Along these lines, although the author achieves what he sets out to do, the dramaturgical aspects are but lightly glossed over.  We get snippets of the texts of the plays in the author's translations, but learn little of his translation choices.  With dozens of translations available, this would be helpful.  Likewise, we learn little of his choices as a director.  We hear about the audience's reaction to the readings, but we do not get a sense of what his actors are actually doing on stage. A book of the author's translated plays is also available.  Perhaps Doerries will focus his attention on addressing this omission in a future volume, a primer for performance and production. His will be a more lasting legacy if he provides a means for others to replicate his work.

The author's most original contribution lies in demonstrating how Greek plays ameliorate PTSD. The application of his work to other groups is, though equally commendable, less original.  (For example, see The Applied Theatre Reader, ed. Tim Prentki and Sheila Preston, Routledge, 2008, for a description of how plays are brought to prisons.)

Another criticism is that once the author has presented his ideas the book more or less fizzles out, leaving the reader with the impression that there are chapters yet to be written.  Nevertheless, The Theater of War reminds us of the power of theater to do far more than entertain.  There is a comprehensive bibliography, and notes, but no index.


Doerries's theater project is also entitled Theater of War.  He is also a founder of Outside the Wire, "a social impact company that uses theater and a variety of other media to address pressing public health and social issues:" more information can be found at  His translated plays are available as All That You’ve Seen Here is God (Vintage, 2015).


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



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