Liberal Education Seminar

Great Books in the Theater of War

Outside the Wire, a performance company  that uses theater and other media to address pressing social issues, runs a project called Theater of War, which presents readings of Sophocles’s Ajax and Philoctetes to military and civilian audiences around the nation. Their aim is to create a space in which psychological injury can be de-stigmatized, and veterans can speak openly with civilians about their post-combat life struggles.

Their website says that these plays “read like textbook descriptions of wounded warriors, struggling under the weight of psychological and physical injuries to maintain their dignity, identity, and honor. Given this context, it seemed natural that military audiences today might have something to teach us about the impulses behind these ancient stories. It also seemed like these ancient stories would have something important and relevant to say to military audiences today.”

At St. John’s, our students and faculty have been reading and discussing great books such as Sophocles’s plays continuously for over 75 years, precisely because the ancient stories always have something to say to moderns. In this particular case, although the technology of war has changed over the centuries, the effects of war on those who experience it has not. And there is no one better suited to bring those effects home to us than Sophocles, who, as a general, experienced them himself, and, as a playwright, brought them out in the open for the rest of us to experience.