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Veterans' 'Philoctetes' Puts Modern Spin On Ancient Greek Play


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. There's an ancient Greek play by Sophocles about a war hero with a wound so horrible that none of his comrades can stand to hear his cries of pain. They abandon the soldier on an island but then discover that they can't win the war without him. Well, now a modern production of that play casts a woman as the soldier with the unspeakable wound. The actors in the chorus are veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke to members of the production.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: "Philoctetes" is the name of the play and the main character. She hobbles on stage with a wounded foot, coughing with pain. The only modern touch is her military fatigues.


JULIA CROCKET: (As Philoctetes) Strangers? Who are you? Where did you come from?

PETER MEINECK: "Philoctetes" is a play about somebody, wounded on a mission, who's then abandoned by the military. And then they need her again. And the play really brings out a lot of issues very sharply.

LAWRENCE: Peter Meineck translated "Philoctetes" for the Aquila Theater Company. He says, originally, in 409 B.C., the play was performed by war veterans for an audience of war veterans, near the end of the long Peloponnesian War, which ruined Athens.


CROCKET: (As Philoctetes) They abandoned me, leaving next to nothing - a few filthy rags and food - not fit for a beggar. Can you imagine what it was like when I woke to find that they had gone?

LAWRENCE: Philoctetes was marooned for nine years. Then, soldiers arrive on the island - their mission is to trick her into coming back to fight with them. At first, they succeed. But Philoctetes suffers flashbacks as she tries to leave the island.


CROCKET: (As Philoctetes) (Yelling) Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What's wrong with you?

LAWRENCE: It's like she's reliving the war. She even tries to throw herself off a cliff. Director Desiree Sanchez says PTSD is as old as war.

DESIREE SANCHEZ: This, at least, is definitely a play about post-traumatic stress. Her wound is more of a psychological wound. And you really get the sense that it's something that not only she has to deal with, but other people don't want to deal with.

LAWRENCE: Sanchez has done projects with veterans and classic plays before. But this time she cast a woman in the lead - otherwise the script is unchanged. PTSD, rape in the military and other modern issues always come up in the discussion after the play. Iraq and Afghanistan vets from the chorus stay to talk with the audience - like Ken Goode, a former Marine.

KEN GOODE: We have this mirrored in this play. You know, we have Philoctetes stranded for nine years, unable to get care for this wound, which -you currently have this same situation of all these veterans who want to get care and can't get it.

LAWRENCE: Kristen Rouse, an Afghanistan vet, advised the production. She says the Greeks used theater to debate the costs of war.

KRISTEN ROUSE: It's not just about - is war a good idea? Is war a bad idea? Here's how Sophocles really got it that long ago - to really communicate - to bridge that divide between people who have been to war and people who have not - or to - rather, to the people who sent us to war. To really communicate the seriousness of what all that means.


ACTOR: (Singing) We will all set sail together.

LAWRENCE: The play opened in New York, but shows are scheduled in Florida and California. The company plans to perform it around the country, with veterans on stage and in the audience - and discussions afterward. They hope that dialogue between veterans and civilians will continue beyond the theater.

MARCO REININGER: You don't always have to talk about trauma. You don't always have to talk about the horrors of war.

LAWRENCE: Marco Reininger is a member of the chorus. He still serves in the Army.

REININGER: I don't need to be called a hero. You know? I'd much rather have you, you know - not put, you know, a yellow ribbon on your car - or, in addition, just - you know - reach out. And really invest yourself, and be interested. Invite us over, you know? And have a beer and hot dog with us.

LAWRENCE: He admits that vets aren't always good at reaching out to civilians, either. But Reininger says he's willing to meet anyone halfway. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.