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Greek drama’s lessons for veterans

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2016 - Winter


A classics professor helps veterans of war find their voice through literature.

It’s the fifth century BCE, and Athens is in turmoil. Civil war, plague, and revolts against the Persian Empire have left the countryside in tatters. By the end of the century, half the population is dead and the city has emptied its treasury battling Sparta in the Peloponnesian War—but for the artistic Athenians, even in troubled times, theaters remain open and festivals are celebrated every year to honor the gods. “Why on earth does this stuff continue? It was regarded as so important, and so central to public life, that it was the last thing that they were going to stop doing,” said Peter Meineck, Ph.D., clinical professor of classics at New York University, during his lecture in August at summer Psychiatry Resident Grand Rounds, “Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks: Does Ancient Greek Literature Reflect a Society Dealing with the Stresses of War and Can It Be Used to Help the Veteran Community Today?”

In the midst of conflict and disease, Athenians found solace in their theaters. Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus wrote the plays we remember today as highlights of Greek tragedy: Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Medea, Ajax, to name a few, in addition to Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. These playwrights told legends of Greek heroes—heroes dealing with insanity, depression, anger, and homecomings tainted by the traumas they had experienced in mythical wars.

Plays were performed in large open-air spaces by actors hiding their faces behind masks. Meineck posits that the whole affair was a visceral, cathartic experience not found in today’s entertainment industry, where audiences are expected to keep their emotional reactions private. The ancient theaters also served as a place of healing; they were often situated next to hospitals and healing centers. “It was their form of mass cultural therapy,” Meineck said.

Given the history of ancient Greece, these dramas would have been written, performed, and viewed by combat veterans—and now, Meineck works to connect modern-day veterans with the classics. “Even if they don’t know anything about the Greeks, they get it,” he said. “[The plays] speak to combat veterans, and I think they make it okay for combat veterans to speak for themselves, if they want. They know that these are culturally valued artifacts—so if these culturally valued artifacts seem to talk about their experiences, it actually creates an environment where it’s okay for them to talk.”

For the last eight years, Meineck has directed an organization called YouStories, which brings veterans to the stage to perform Greek tragedies and connect with civilian audiences in a nuanced way. The program isn’t offered by trained therapists, but Meineck often hears that performing together has helped veterans process their experiences. The program also gives younger men and women returning to the United States from Iraq or Afghanistan an opportunity to connect with those who may have served in Vietnam or Korea. Such informal mentorship wasn’t part of his original vision, but Meineck said it’s helped create a deeper sense of community. “I try to be really honest about what we’re trying to do, which is really just create a conversation,” he added.

Meineck, a native of Great Britain, served in the Royal Marine Reserve himself as a teenager during the Cold War, though he never saw combat. But he has met countless combat veterans who understand Greek tragedies on a level different from that granted by years of academic study. Some have found personal moments of catharsis in reading the ancient works: “One Vietnam veteran really broke down and said, ’I thought I had dealt with this. After 40 years, I thought it had been dealt with,’ ” recalled Meineck. “And it was very shocking to him that it hadn’t been.” Their experiences allow veteran-actors to bring a new depth to the plays, offering an intensity and wisdom that even the best civilian actors might otherwise be missing. “You pick up the vibe of these men and women,” said Meineck. “They have told me that they’re getting to speak through this drama—and it’s really quite indescribable, but it’s remarkable.”

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