Whenever I’m compelled to watch or read or listen to something out of our place and time, something “foreign”, I’m sent back to ninth grade, to when I first learned to read. No doubt I’d been deciphering the alphabet strung into words and sentences long before I turned 14, but ninth grade is the time, I think, when we really learn to read, if given the chance. To look at meaning between the lines, find the metaphors and the messages connecting one story to another to yet another and then back to ourselves.
And I’m brought back to my ninth grade teacher asking us “why do we read?” Maybe she was provoked by someone sighing too loudly at an assignment or maybe even muttering under their breath “why do we have to read this stuff?” She asked the question of us all and waited. Someone likely said “to pass this class so we can get into college” or “to write the paper, take the test, get the grade.” These answers didn’t satisfy her, so she waited and asked us again “why do we read?”
Finally she answered it herself: because reading allows you to experience places no one person could ever go, lives no one person can ever live. Simply, it does this magical thing of allowing you to experience what others experience. One boy in class piped up and said “not me, I’m going to live everywhere and see everything” He was joking, of course, and we all, including the teacher, laughed and moved on. But that moment from ninth grade stayed with me.
It’s telling for a couple reasons. 1) the persistence of the memory brings up the sad thought that young people in remote classes right now, arguably experiencing the same learning how to read in ninth grade, won’t be experiencing those moments in a live classroom that stay with you a lifetime. (I know, I know, it’s not necessarily less, just different) And 2) is ninth grade the only time this happens? Why does it stop?
Of course it doesn’t stop, because then I remembered a moment from a Shakespeare class at college. In this class, one of the students who contributed the most to classroom discussion was blind. She was usually very confident, opinionated and articulate, a natural leader. But, when we were reading Richard III, her voice went a bit shy and hesitant as she proposed that characters with some sort of affliction always see the world more clearly than everyone else: like a limitation in one sense is balanced out with greater acuity in all other senses. Richard III had a bum leg, you see. But, he had a wicked intelligence and mad skills at manipulation. When the student said what she did, the professor got very quiet and you could tell he didn’t want to agree with her, affirm her blanket statement, but he didn’t not want to either.
Anyway, this is all to say that Damian performed in another production of Theater of War’s Greek plays for our current times. And so I listened and watched and read, like I was in ninth grade all over again.
Theater of War Productions presented its virtual reading of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes on November 6. Here’s our sister post over at damian-lewis.com: Philoctetes by Sophocles.
Long story short: Philoctetes was a Greek warrior who led the Greek fleets to Troy in the first year of the Trojan War. When the armada met bad winds, they made a pit stop at the island of Lemnos. There, Philoctetes was bitten by a snake. Soon, his festering wound and his cries of pain were too much to bear for the soldiers who wanted to soldier on ahead to Troy. The generals, i.e. Odysseus, determined that Philoctetes snake bitten leg was bringing everybody down. His affliction was lowering troop morale and disturbing the cohesion of the unit.
Howling, gnashing of teeth that kept us from pouring libations.
They decided to leave their fellow warrior on the island and proceed to war.
Cue nine years later, Odysseus catches wind (via the visions of an oracle) that in order to truly defeat the Trojans and finish up the war, he must go back to Lemnos to retrieve Philoctetes and the bow and arrow that magically always hits its target. (Philoctetes was awarded this bow and arrow by Heracles, but that’s another story)
Because he knows that Philoctetes likely doesn’t have happy memories of being left to die alone on an island for no greater sin than having a festering wound, and likely has bad blood towards him (pun!), Odysseus sends Neoptolamus to talk to Phil. Neoptolamus is the son of Achilles, an unequivocal hero, loved by all. His name literally means “new to war” and, thus, he is honorable and hesitant to manipulate or lie to Phil to get his blessed bow. Furthermore, he feels compassion towards this wounded warrior who has been left behind. Odysseus urges on Neo with words like “the taste of victory will out the bitterness of shame.” As he urges Neo to coax Phil out of his cave and to give his bow away, Odysseus argues that “the strongest muscle is the tongue.” All the better to lie with, you see.
Push comes to shove and Neo gets the bow and Phil off the island. And they proceed to fight against Troy like “a pair of lions.’
So, what’s the lesson here? Obviously there’s the world of trauma and repercussions of the act of leaving a wounded soldier behind due to his dampening effect on the team. But what else?
As I’ve touched on in my post on the last Theater of War production which Damian took part in (Oedipus Rex), the performances staged by Theater of War are followed by audience members contributing their reception and understanding of the performance. It’s really unlike any other theater, as far as I know, where the audience perceptions contribute as much to the “show” as the artists’ performance. Here, members of the audience contributed some real gems.
Sure, Phil was rescued, but before he got on that ship, during the course of the play, he was rescued through dialogue, the work of being manipulated (by Neo’s first lies) and negotiation (with Neo over the bow and whether or not Phil really wanted to leave the island that had become his home for nine years), and finally through Phil’s own negotiation with the pain of his injury, a pain that had become a constant for him, a trusted friend. During the play, Phil speaks of his pain, knowing when “she” strikes and when she calms and how he manages her.
My wound stole my worth. So black without, so bright within.
Neo comes with mixed intentions but it still opens up dialogue. There’s a messy betrayal within the betrayal, but they keep at it, willing to put the effort in for the mere possibility of genuine connection, exchange and resolution.
Most stunning were two particular assessments from soldiers.
One soldier in the zoom audience commented on the duplicity of the “family” of soldiers, that the armed forces were family only to those who were whole. Any injury, visible or invisible, was isolating. The family embrace, the embrace of “the club” was lost. Sure, it’s biology and physics to cut off the weakest limb in order for the body to stay strong. But what of the human consequences of such thinking and such a policy?
Second was an answer from one soldier when Bryan Doerries asked the question “why did Sophocles want to show so much of Philoctetes suffering?” I think this answer came as a surprise to most everyone else on the zoom call, including Doerries. The soldier’s answer was that Sophocles wanted to shame Philoctetes for being injured. Sophocles wanted him to show his excruciating pain, publically crying out, to shame him. Another audience member had remarked earlier that his exhibition of the pain was a way to perform to get the resources he needed. But this soldier saw it as shameful. She introduced the notion of fame overlapping with shame, or fame operating over a septic festering undercurrent of shame.
Not going to lie, this revelation brought back something about Brody too, that look when he first landed and met his family, how he couldn’t look them in the eye. The shame of being captured, of being injured. Because, no doubt, we like our soldiers when they’re not captured.
Overall, Philoctetes was a smallish story in the grand scheme of things, but a very important one to tell and to talk about. Damian taking part in the telling was wonderful icing.
So, why do we read? Is your life, as the holidays approach, somewhat of a drama? Why, yes. Yes, it is. So watch some drama whenever you can and know that you are not alone.