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Sophocles and the Marine Corps

It's an unlikely pairing to say the least, but translator/director Bryan Doerries is convinced that the ideal audience for many ancient Greek plays is a military one; that despite the 2,500 year gap between when they were written and the present, they're more relevant than ever. Bryan is a friend and writing partner of mine, and yesterday he invited me down to San Diego to a staged reading he's translated and directed of several scenes from Sophocles' Ajax and Philoctetes. But the venue wasn't some blackbox theater and the audience wasn't comprised of typical theatergoers; it was the Marine Corps' annual Combat Operational Stress conference, in which about 800 top brass gather to talk about how to handle Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the military. Four-star generals sitting down to hear actors from New York read ancient Greek plays? Yep -- and they loved it.

jesse_eisenberg.jpgOf course, these weren't just any actors -- the cast was comprised of David Straithern, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Rodger Dodger), Broadway powerhouse Bill Camp and the talented Heather Raffo, whose one-woman show Nine Parts of Desire put her on the map a few years ago. And these weren't just any Greek plays: Ajax is about a hero who, psychically worn down after nine long years of war, snaps at a perceived insult upon returning home and goes mad, slaughtering animals as if they were men -- and finally, himself. Philoctetes concerns an injured man left behind years ago by fellow soldiers on a tiny island, whose wounds, both physical and mental, have only grown more chronic with time. (Would that I had video of the performances, I could share them here; suffice to say, the plays have aged well.)

bill_camp.jpgThe reason they're so relevant today -- especially to a military audience -- seems to lie in the fact that Greek civilization was not only the birthplace of drama, but was a highly militarized society, in which all able-bodied males were compelled to serve. Theatrical audiences were comprised mainly of men; therefore, by veterans. And the urge to tell stories, to create these dramas, came out of the need to share battle stories with one another. Moreover, Sophocles was himself a twice-elected general in the Greek army; he knew of what he wrote. And the military assembled for Bryan's reading responded with accolades, with heart-wrenching stories, and with a plea: if we can share our stories the way these people, who seemed to share our values, 2,500 years ago did, then we can start to relieve some of the psychic pain conferred upon us by war.

The BBC, AP and LA Times were in attendance; when these stories hit, I'll certainly be posting bits of them.
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All the above photos I shot during a rehearsal; the performance itself was in panel format, seen below. Bryan Doerries is on the right, introducing the material.
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UPDATE: here's a link to the Associated Press' story on the reading.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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