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What Ancient Greeks Can Teach Us about War

A reading from Ajax at Tsai Center on anniversary of Pearl Harbor

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Think ancient literature is only for scholars? The Pentagon paid almost $4 million to Theater of War, a New York performance company, to present Sophocles’ Ajax at military sites around the country. Why would the brass promote a play about a mythical Greek hero who tries to assassinate his generals after the Trojan War for awarding a prize to his rival, Odysseus, instead of him?

Stay with us. In the play, believed to have been written about 440 B.C., the goddess Athena, Odysseus’ benefactress, clouds Ajax’s mind so that he butchers livestock instead of generals, after which, shamed, he kills himself. The tragedy centers on Ajax’s mad rage and the wartime situation that spurs it. Fighting two wars themselves, American military leaders wanted to mine Ajax for its insights into combat stress and to show soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that they are not alone. Theater of War brings the play and a follow-up discussion to the Tsai Performance Center tonight.

Actor Reg E. Cathey stars as Ajax tonight at the Tsai Performance Center. Photo courtesy of Theater of War

Actor Reg E. Cathey stars as Ajax tonight at the Tsai Performance Center. Photo courtesy of Theater of War

Today, of course, is the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and “it seems like an excellent time to honor our warriors, past, present, and future,” says Stephen Esposito, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of classics, who teaches in the Core Curriculum, which is copresenting tonight’s event. Core Curriculum freshmen read Ajax, he says, “so this seemed like a perfect emotional and intellectual climax to the course” this fall.

Esposito arranged the event after seeing Theater of War’s performance last year at the American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge. The best-known actor at tonight’s reading will be Reg E. Cathey (of HBO’s The Wire) as Ajax.

For BU students, “the most important takeaway will, I believe, be a greater appreciation…of the tremendous sacrifice our warriors make for their country,” Esposito says. “Their risk for themselves and their families is very high, and Sophocles’ Ajax is about that risk, especially in the form of PTSD and suicide.” He says that suicide claims 20 active-duty soldiers and veterans a day. What Esposito calls “the depth of the moral, psychological, and physical wounds of war” remains with us millennia after Troy.

Tonight’s reading and discussion of Sophocles’ Ajax run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave., and are free and open to the public. Seating is limited. The Red Sox Foundation and the Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program is copresenter of the event.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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