For the past twelve years, I have enjoyed the privilege of directing my own translations of plays by Sophocles and other ancient authors in a variety of unlikely places, such as homeless shelters, hospitals, prisons and jails, military bases, Title I schools, public-housing community centers, halfway houses, senior centers, public parks, and elsewhere. In all these settings, I have heard the most powerful, insightful, and life-changing interpretations of these ancient plays from individuals who have lived lives of mythological proportions, who have loved and lost, and who know the meaning of sacrifice. It is my belief that the plays of Sophocles and his contemporaries belong not to those of us privileged enough to have studied them in school but to audiences with something at stake, for whom every word may be of life-and-death significance.
Back in 2008, when I founded Theater of War, a project that presents readings of plays by Sophocles for military audiences as a catalyst for powerful discussions about the visible and invisible wounds of war, raising your hand and admitting you were suffering from a psychological or spiritual injury was a career-ending gesture in the US military. But, as the first performance of Theater of War demonstrated at a US Marine Corps conference in San Diego, we could present readings of scenes from Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes—two ancient plays about warriors attempting to maintain their dignity and honor after being betrayed by their own community—and inspire an audience of four hundred Marines and their spouses to talk openly about their experiences of war, returning from war, and caring for those who had been to war.
What was scheduled to be a 45-minute discussion that night ended up lasting several hours and eventually had to be cut off as the time approached midnight. Dozens of Marines of every rank and their spouses had stood up and quoted lines from the ancient plays from memory, as if they had known them their entire lives, and then related them to personal stories they had never shared in private, let alone in front of their peers. It was at that moment I realized we had stumbled upon a powerful ancient tool for communalizing trauma, one that invites people to risk being themselves, to acknowledge their fallibility, to make mistakes, and to sound less than brilliant in service of being present in a shared space with others who may have suffered similar trauma and loss.
The invitation to be oneself stands at the center of our model. It is part of the risk proposition of the exchange. The actors risks performing Greek tragedy at full tilt with minimal rehearsal, and the audience—in turn—risks responding to the ancient play, from their hearts and their guts, speaking in the moment and off the cuff about what touched them across time. The ability to make mistakes and recover from them is how I define professionalism. It’s what the actors model for the audience in the performance and what the audience does during the discussion. Mistakes are what make us human, as the Greek tragedies we perform always bear out, and acknowledging and moving on from our mistakes is the only way out of the messes we make.
In the years following that first performance, we have taken what we learned from military audiences, who represent a broad cross section of American society, and have applied these strategies and approaches to other communities in crisis. Our work with veterans led to work with incarcerated individuals and correctional staff, which led to individuals and families facing end-of-life decisions, which led to people in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, which led to cities that had been ravaged by natural and human-caused disasters. As each audience led to the next, it became clear that the twenty-five-plus projects we developed over the past decade were all one project aimed at lifting people out of isolation and into healing dialogue and connection with communities.
Over the course of thousands of performances and discussions, I’ve heard many people who have suffered trauma and loss in a variety of settings say, “I would talk about my experiences with civilians, but it just takes too much energy.” I believe the ancient plays within these pages were designed to overcome that inertia. Greek tragedies provide a vocabulary and a pretext for speaking the unspeakable, while flooding the performance space with energy and normalizing the extreme emotions on display. By removing the barrier between actors and audience, and dissolving the boundaries between individuals and groups within the audience, our presentations of Greek tragedies say, “The actors have already gone to these extremes. You might as well meet us halfway.” And that’s what our audiences do.
Athenian drama, the principal dramatic experiment during the fifth century BCE, hinged on reciprocity between plays—both tragedies and comedies—and their audiences. That’s what the word amphitheater means in Greek: amphi (both sides, around), theatron (the seeing place). The place where we see in both directions, where I see you and you see me. Where the actors see the spectators, where the characters see the chorus. Where citizens in a democracy go to see and be seen, and to see themselves and their struggles reflected in ancient stories of the Bronze Age mythological past, tales that may have never happened, such as the Trojan War, but existed in the minds, the imaginations, and the civil and religious practices of fifth-century Athenians. Where Dionysus, the god of drama, wine, and ecstasy, was worshipped through performances designed to break down the boundaries between spectator and performer, audience and chorus, myth and reality. It is this element of the theater, in particular, that I refer to as an ancient technology.
In the early days of Theater of War, I remember observing the stark contrast between how audiences behaved in commercial and nonprofit theaters and how they behaved in non-traditional spaces. While attending a performance of The Grand Inquisitor—a stage adaptation of a chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov directed by Peter Brook—at New York Theatre Workshop, I watched an elderly man next to me nod off in the darkness, his glasses dropping to the floor as his consciousness briefly slipped away, and then let out a snore. From the reactions of the people around us—regular theatergoers who paid 75 dollars a ticket to attend and who now clucked and grunted and shook their heads disapprovingly, shushing the already unconscious man—it was as if he had loudly shouted a deeply offensive obscenity during a moment of silence. The man was asleep; the audience members around him forcefully believed and asserted that they were awake. But, because of an experience I’d had the week before at a homeless shelter in Queens, I couldn’t help wondering if they had it backward.
Rather than being used to democratize discussion and communalize trauma, the conventional theater establishes a hierarchy of knowledge and value based on privilege, education, wealth, and power.
It happened during a Theater of War performance at the Borden Avenue Veterans Residence in Long Island City, a transitional living facility for veterans experiencing homelessness. During a reading from Sophocles’ Philoctetes—a play about a chronically ill veteran who, because of his illness, is abandoned by the Greek army on the way to the Trojan War—while the actor performing the title role went all out, ripping through the text, howling in agony, consumed by spasms and pain, a group of eight men in the front row who mostly looked to be Vietnam veterans, started drifting off into the semiconsciousness of a methadone fog. They slumped in their chairs, their heads nodding up and down, their hands grazing the floor.
I presumed—from my place of naive privilege—that they weren’t hearing a word of what the actors were saying, that they were asleep and I was awake. After the reading, when I stood up to address the audience, I asked whether the play resonated with them. Nearly one hundred hands shot up, including the hands of the eight men in the front. A man in the back wearing a brown three-piece suit shouted, “Hey, Bryan, you got a year? I got about 20 volumes back in my cubicle.” And a conversation ensued in which the men of the Borden Avenue Veterans Residence demonstrated what it means to be conscious, making some of the most insightful connections to the play that I’d ever heard and shattering all my preconceptions about who is awake and who is asleep, and about what it means to listen.
This observation has only deepened with experience and time, as we have performed for hundreds of thousands of people over the past twelve years, in nontheatrical settings and in spaces of our own devising, where we have been able to welcome our VIPs—veterans; people living in public housing, experiencing homelessness, or in recovery; frontline medical professionals; formerly incarcerated individuals; young people attending Title I schools; disabled and neurodiverse individuals; older adults; survivors of domestic violence or gun violence; law enforcement; and gang-affiliated youth—and warmly invite them to be themselves without policing or assaulting them with instructions or condescension. Our VIPs are the linchpin of every performance.
Most of our (prepandemic) budget was spent on transportation and dinner for them; they are offered the best seats in the house, closest to the performance. More often than not, those who violate the unwritten laws of traditional theater—by dozing off, texting, listening to music, laughing at “inappropriate” moments, and the like—are the ones who, in the discussion, explicate the play and its contemporary significance in ways that no classically educated or privileged person ever could. Rather than being used to democratize discussion and communalize trauma, the conventional theater establishes a hierarchy of knowledge and value based on privilege, education, wealth, and power. This didactic and imperious vision of the theater views audiences who typically do not attend plays as objects of charity—they must be taught how to consume culture and behave within the walls of its institutions. Seen from this vantage, the dimming of lights at the start of nearly every play in contemporary theater constitutes an act of violence far more graphic than any depicted in Greek tragedy.
Oedipus at Colonus
A homeless shelter is a place where people live on the edge of humanity, where the potential for violence is almost always present, and where the people who inhabit the building—the residents and staff—are all acutely aware of the fleeting and fragile nature of happiness and life. Everyone in a shelter has experienced or witnessed the most extreme conditions of human existence. This is why Greek tragedies resonate profoundly in these spaces. Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of learning from audiences in dozens of shelters; they have taught me more about the plays we perform than I have ever learned from a book or in a cultural space.
This observation crystallized for me in November 2017, when, over the span of a single day, we presented plays by Sophocles at the Volunteers of America Cromwell Avenue Safe Haven shelter in the Bronx in the afternoon and then again that evening at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. At the shelter, when the actor playing Philoctetes—a decorated warrior who is abandoned on a desolate island for nine years by his own men because of a chronic illness he contracts on the way to the Trojan War—began to wail at the top of his lungs, “DEATH! DEATH! DEATH! Where are you? Why after all these years of calling have you not appeared?” many members of the audience, which was made up mostly of veterans in recovery programs for drug and alcohol addictions, began to smile.
They were not taking pleasure in the suffering of the abandoned man in the play. They were smiling, as evidenced by the discussion that unfolded, with recognition at Philoctetes’ anguish and isolation. Any pleasure they may have derived from the experience came from the validation of knowing that, thousands of years ago, someone named Sophocles had put their private and hidden suffering into words. They were smiling at the discovery that they were no longer alone on islands of chronic illness but rather connected to a community of others, spread over centuries, who had been betrayed and abandoned by their own and left to die in desolate places, like the one in which we were performing.
Everyone in a shelter has experienced or witnessed the most extreme conditions of human existence. This is why Greek tragedies resonate profoundly in these spaces.
Later that night, at Lincoln Center—the sprawling cultural complex on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, home to institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center Theater, and Juilliard—during a lively but slightly removed audience discussion that barely scratched the surface of the one in the shelter, I found myself yearning to be back in the Bronx, where the stakes of every word of the play were not lost upon the audience, and where people spoke from a place of vulnerability and humility rather than judgment and self-righteousness. If only there was a way, I thought, to bring the audience at Lincoln Center into the shelter, so it can experience and be transformed, as I was, by what I witnessed only a few hours ago, or to bring the audience from the homeless shelter into Lincoln Center, so it can be validated and heard in a respected venue.
What the individuals from the homeless shelter possessed that the audience at Lincoln Center lacked was proximity, something that Zoom has afforded our audiences during the pandemic through its democratizing accessibility. During a recent performance of The Drum Major Instinct, a project that presents readings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s second-to-last sermon to frame conversations about structural oppression and white supremacy, a woman joined the discussion from the kitchen of her shelter in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and brought thousands of viewers all over the planet into her world.
The year before COVID-19 struck, nearly eighty thousand people in New York City were experiencing homelessness, a figure that has only grown over the course of the pandemic. In February 2020, Theater of War Productions began work on a new project, based on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, that would frame important discussions about homelessness in New York City. Before COVID-19 stopped the project in its tracks, we had initiated discussions with the NYC Department of Homeless Services and with the staff of one of the most storied spaces in Manhattan: a nine-hundred-bed men’s facility housed in the mostly abandoned, dilapidated remains of the old Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.
Built in 1931, Bellevue served for decades as a warehouse for the city’s “criminally insane” and homeless population and was known for its gruesome practices and unethical treatment of patients. The redbrick Italian Renaissance–style building, which sits at the intersection of Thirtieth Street and First Avenue in Manhattan’s affluent Kips Bay neighborhood, looks like the set of a horror film, complete with rusted wrought iron fencing that wraps around its perimeter. The facility was shuttered in 1984 and was transformed into an intake shelter by the early 1990s. Today, most of the building sits vacant and abandoned, except for the section occupied by the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, inhabited by hundreds of unhoused men.
I developed the translation of Oedipus at Colonus in this volume with them in mind and for the individuals and communities we have engaged and learned from in many other facilities, including the Tillary Street Women’s Shelter, the Borden Avenue Veterans Residence, the Harmonia shelter, the Ed Thompson Veterans Center, and the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community.
In ancient Greece, it was a sacrilegious act to mistreat a suppliant seeking shelter or asylum.
Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles’ final tragedy, first performed after his death at age ninety, speaks with power and prescience not only to the crisis of homelessness now unfolding on our streets but also to the immigration and refugee crisis at our borders and abroad, as well as to the challenges of eldercare during and after the pandemic. Oedipus at Colonus is a play about the death of Oedipus. After years of wandering in exile without shelter or protection, with his daughter Antigone by his side to guide him, the blind beggar Oedipus stumbles upon the sacred grove of the Furies on the outskirts of Athens, in an area called Colonus. Upon learning where they have wandered, Oedipus resolves to never again leave Colonus or the grove of the Furies. “It is here that my life of suffering and sorrow will end,” he says.
According to Oedipus, the Oracle of Apollo once foretold that, after many years full of anguish and affliction, he would finally find peace in Colonus. Apollo also said that Oedipus’ body would protect the city that housed it, ensuring that the city would never be vanquished by a foreign invader. “Remaining in this land,” says Oedipus, “I will bring great fortune to those who welcome me and utter destruction to those who drove me into exile.” No longer the polluted and banished man whose very presence brings bad fortune to anyone who comes in contact with him, Oedipus, over the course of the play, transforms into a holy suppliant, a central figure in ancient Greek religion, sacred to Zeus, the god of suppliants and beggars. The rest of the play depicts Oedipus’ quest to win the allegiance of King Theseus of Athens and the struggle that ensues when members of Oedipus’ family—including his brother-in-law, Creon, and his estranged son, Polynices—come to Athens to retrieve him and bring him back to Thebes. Notably, it was Polynices who originally sent Oedipus into exile; he reverses course only after hearing the oracle’s prophecy about the protective power of his father’s body.
When the local residents of Colonus first hear that a blind and homeless beggar has entered the sacred grove of the Furies, they come running to find him and expel him from their city, shouting, “He’s clearly a foreigner, a wanderer, a vagrant, or else he would never have stepped into this untouchable place.” When they first spot Oedipus, who’s hiding with his daughter in the trees, they are repulsed by his appearance, gagging at the smell of his unwashed body and averting their eyes. Oedipus begs them not to look at him as though he was a criminal—a common judgment rendered upon those experiencing homelessness.
Upon learning Oedipus’ identity—a convicted murderer who killed his father and slept with his mother—the residents react violently, shouting at Oedipus and Antigone and threatening them with violence if they don’t leave Colonus immediately. Antigone begs the strangers to show them compassion, “Venerable men [. . .] I could be one of your daughters. [. . .] Please let us stay.” Though moved by her appeal, the local residents admit that they lack the courage to help the pair. This incenses Oedipus, who delivers a rousing speech defending his actions, touching upon themes of guilt and responsibility as well as the lasting impact of early-childhood trauma, while castigating Athens for not living up to its values and reputation for protecting suppliants seeking refuge and asylum.
Oedipus finally prevails upon the citizens to wait until Theseus arrives to decide his fate. But in these early scenes, the conflict at the center—not just of the ancient play, but of the multiple crises of homelessness, immigration, and eldercare in New York and many other cities throughout the country and the world—appears in clear relief. In ancient Greece, it was a sacrilegious act to mistreat a suppliant seeking shelter or asylum. In other words, to harm a person experiencing homelessness, especially an elderly foreigner appealing for refuge and assistance, was to harm yourself by inciting the wrath of the gods. In our rush to exile, warehouse, and dehumanize people seeking shelter, asylum, and protection and to vilify, incarcerate, and banish those who have committed crimes, fueled by the fear that they might pollute us and our communities with their presence, are we not making the same tragic mistake as the people of Colonus and Thebes?
Adapted from Oedipus Trilogy: New Versions of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone by Sophocles, translated by Bryan Doerries. Copyright © 2021 by Bryan Doerries. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.