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Dear friends,

Over the last year, I decided that I would finally start to read the Greek Myths. I’d known plenty of Irish ones, and had learnt other myths from other places over the years, too, but I’d never known where to begin with the Greek myths. I couldn’t tell Prometheus from Persephone. In order to get the basic overview, I started off in what I think is the best place — Marcia Williams’ cartoons for children. I then moved on to Stephen Fry’s very funny books before reading some translations from the Greek.

I got lost in the names, of course, but certain stories stayed with me, particularly that of Persephone. She was abducted by the god of the underground — Hades — and taken there. So distraught was Persephone’s mother, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and harvest, at the disappearance of her daughter, that the crops all failed.

Demeter searched and searched. But to no avail.

Such was Demeter’s grief that Zeus, the All-father, intervened, sending the messenger god down to the underworld to bring Persephone back. But even here, Hades was not to be outdone. He tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds without her knowing that if she ate the fruit of the underworld, she’d be bound to always return.

And so the cycles of the world were explained: every year Persephone returns to the underworld and the crops go into recession… and when she emerges after months, such is her mother Demeter’s joy that the world erupts into springtime, growth, life.

I think because this winter has felt like a long lockdown due to Covid restrictions, I’ve been searching for signs of Persephone for months now. And when a heather plant I keep in the back patio burst into purple and pink and white blossom one weekend, I cried at the sign of springtime. Old myths find new ways to bring meaning to life. They’re like a mirror in which we can see ourselves as we see the characters of human violence, frailty, cunning, and relief.

This week on On Being, Krista interviews Bryan Doerries, the director and principal writer of Theater of War. Theater of War is a public health project bringing new translations of old myths — Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, the Book of Job and more — to fresh audiences. At first in hospitals, prisons, military bases, and now to a stunning array of humanity by way of technology, he brings together actors and audiences to soak in the brilliance of these ancient stories and then reflect on profoundly engaging questions about the story they’ve just witnessed: What touched you? What spoke to you across time?

When Krista asks him to talk about that, he doesn’t answer the question, rather he tells a story, the story of Oedipus and his return. Fluently, with detail and clarity, support and flourish, Bryan Doerries tells the story of that character from Greek myth so beloved of psychoanalysis, and then, at the end of his telling, asks Krista those questions. She finds echoes of the punitive impulse in humanity, and the ways that suffering piles on suffering, and the pervasive power of deception in public communication. It’s an extraordinary exchange, and one that demonstrates rather than describes the richness of Bryan Doerries’ work.

The whole project started for him as a recognition that, when he read those ancient stories, he was relieved to know he wasn’t the only one to feel the way he felt. Stories — even and especially stories of tragedy — can confirm the experience of people who are used to their stories being denied. Once, after the performance of Sophocles’ tragic play about Ajax, a young American soldier offered that the play was written to boost morale, because morale can be boosted by acknowledging the truth, even when it’s brutal. This episode is a wonder, a connection in story across culture, time and language, offering something like healing to those of us desperate to know we are not alone in our experiences.

Looking to myths doesn’t tell us the future; nobody would propose that. Much harm has been done in looking to myths — or texts from religions — as stable predictors of what is to come. However, myths can help us look to the present: our place in it, and perhaps even our agency to shape it. The myths lay bare some of the driving complexities of the human condition. And stepping aside from the day-to-day reality into the mythologies of the world can help us see more clearly, and by seeing clearly, perhaps know what it means to act with courage, creativity and imagination.

Friends, in all our seeings, we wish you clarity. And we join you in the practice of looking and listening.

 

Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound

 

P.S. – Following on the theme of our show this week, I’d like to recommend the Tiny Desk Concert excerpts from Anaïs Mitchell’s magnificent musical Hadestown. This show features characters from Greek mythology singing about decisions, regret, love and the underworld of their lives.

 


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Bryan Doerries
"'You are not alone across time.'"

An old alchemy for our young century. A new global amphitheater for the whole of humanity — dignified, cathartic, and joyful.

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Events


Revolutionary Love: The Courage to Imagine
April 15-18, 2021
Online Event

Join the On Being Project at this virtual conference, convened by Middle Collegiate Church, from April 15 - 18. Krista will be interviewed by Rev. Jacqui Lewis on Saturday, April 17th from 3:45 - 4:30 pm EST. And Ben Katt and Lillie Benowitz, of our Religious Life and Social Healing team, will guide a reflective experience on social healing, then host a learning space on grief and gratitude on Thursday, April 15th starting at 3:30 pm EST.

You can learn more and register here.

 

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