CHRIS BULFINCH ’18
Ancient Greek plays are among the oldest writings in all world literature. They have survived upwards of three millennia, for a variety of reasons. Circumstance, geographic location, and the significance of the author all affect their longevity in the literary consciousness of mankind. The Homeric epics today are the quintessential classical texts. Referenced in everything from movies to slam poetry, the Iliad and the Odyssey are among the best known pieces of writing in the world. Scholars have analyzed and theorized concerning almost every aspect of the texts, and the plays have been retold and repurposed many times and many ways over the intervening centuries. One of the more unique and recent uses for the Classics was the subject of a lecture here at Trinity. Given by Peter Meineck, a classics and theater professor at NYU, the talk concerned ancient warriors and modern veterans, seeing the emotional effects of war as discussed by the ancient Greeks and applying the experience of the ancients to the plight of today’s soldiers, helping them deal with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and other horrors of war.
Ancient Greek theater was a much more evocative experience than the text-heavy translations of high school and college classrooms sometimes suggest. Actors were always men, and military service was compulsory, so their depictions of warfare were very true-to-life. The Greek city-states, particularly Athens, were frequently at war, and events such as the Peloponnesian War served as a morbid source of inspiration for tragedies and epics alike. The stage became a forum where uncomfortable subjects such as the slaughter of soldiers, watching friends die, and the deaths of the innocent could be discussed.
Dionysus, a god strongly associated with theater, was known as the god of pushing limits, and he was strongly associated with Greek theater, especially in Athens.
That spirit was carried forth with aplomb by Greek tragedians, who created a raw, visceral experience onstage, an experience so evocative that the plays have survived upwards of three millennia. Intricately wrought masks were worn, so elaborate they can hardly be reproduced in the modern era.
These masks were crafted in such a way that they displayed multiple different emotions simultaneously, adding to the emotional ambiguity and confusion of the subject matter.
The plays resonated very strongly with everyone in the audience at the time, in that the men—“the average Joes” conscripted and sent to war—could relate to the violence of battle, while the women and children often experienced extraordinary brutality at the hands of the conquering forces, and in other cases had to deal with shattered husbands shaken to their cores by the horrors of what they had to do.
Thematically, the plays dealt with themes such as regret, guilt, pain, and anger felt by men fighting in war, subjects that are very topical in this day and age, given the recent discussions about the treatment of veterans, particularly in regard to their mental health upon returning from modern battlefields.
The opening word of the Iliad is “rage,” Eurypides’ Trojan Women depicts the abysmal treatment of refugees, and Sophocles’ Ajax deals with a mighty Greek warriors’ descent into madness and subsequent grief-filled suicide.
The pain expressed by Greek tragedians is poignant and difficult to read in many places, yet the fact that the texts can evoke an emotional reaction from an audience with such a different frame of reference is a testament to the text’s accurate portrayal of the human condition in war. Given the relevance that so many find that the classics have today, Peter Meineck decided to use the ancient Greeks’ experience to help modern veterans conceptualize their sufferings, and initiate a dialogue about the nature of war and the veterans themselves, particularly in the area of mental health.
The goal is to allow veterans to discuss their experiences and place themselves in the context of a warrior tradition, and to see that whatever their experience, they are not unique in the horrors they have witnessed.
This can help ease feelings of alienation that veterans feel; the feeling that no one in a civilian context can understand the terrifying dangers and horrific choices of war. The Greek classics allow the experience of war to become more pedestrian, and afford veterans an opportunity to contextualize their stories and the Greek tragedians can put into words things that seem inexpressible, giving a sense of camaraderie and understanding.
To facilitate this process, and to bring the relatively esoteric field of classical study to the veterans and families, Professor Meineck put his extensive theater experience to use, and alongside a group of actors and veterans he has been producing very professional and small-scale productions of some of the more relevant war-related Greek plays and taking them on tour, to public libraries and other venues nationwide, encouraging veterans to share their stories, and the public at large to engage in a meaningful dialogue about war and the toll it can take on the soldiers who survive. As a result, many veterans of many conflicts ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam and even the second world war came forward and shared their stories, many of whom felt at least somewhat relieved by the act of sharing their experiences.
Perhaps the most poignant story Professor Meineck heard was from a Vietnam veteran whose commanding officer gave an order to bomb a treeline from which US forces were being attacked.
The man complied, and assaulted the position in his helicopter, and returned safe to his base.
He learned later, however, that many children had died as a result of his actions.
The rage and remorse that he felt was so profound that he very nearly murdered the officer who passed down the order.
Only the intervention of his comrades prevented him from taking his superior’s life.
He identified very strongly with the story of Ajax, and found the performance of it compelling, to the point that he reached out to the officer.
The two met and have gradually become friends. This is just one of many examples of the kind of resolution that some veterans have found in Professor Meineck’s work.
Professor Meineck’s lecture was a fascinating look into the role that academia can play in the larger world.
The study of classics appears to many to be relatively esoteric, most definitely interesting but not terribly applicable to certain aspects of the modern world. What Professor Meineck proved beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the lessons and perspectives of the ancients can be enormously relevant to the modern person, and that the experience of the ancients can provide new viewpoints and catharsis for members of armed forces across the world, an invaluable service for soldiers young and old. It was enlightening to see the way in which an area of study can so profoundly affect positive change in the lives of people, and Trinity was truly lucky to have been given this insight.