A Veteran Voice

by Howard Sherman
Our Trojan War
Our Trojan War

Theater Artist John Meyer’s odyssey in service and on stage

'In one version of the story, Odysseus is wrong, because war strips pieces of you away, so everything you feel is raw. In another version, war adds more to you, like layers of paint, so that you cannot be seen anymore. In yet another, you are not a human being at all, but a house that looks strong and independent, and gets a new coat of paint each year, but is also drafty and ill-made, and, you suspect, worthless in terms of resale value.'

John Meyer’s multifaceted, metaphorical view of the ancient text of The Odyssey forms the prologue to the Aquila Theatre Company’s production of Our Trojan War, adapted and co-written by Desiree Sanchez & Peter Meineck, a modern-day reflection on classic texts set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country during combat. Developed out of the company’s ongoing Warrior Chorus project, it is a collage of ancient stories and modern speeches, performed and written in part by a company that includes military veterans. Meyer is one of those veterans.

Meyer served in the Army’s Airborne Rangers, though he is quick to clarify that he did not serve in a Ranger regiment and was not special ops. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. His interest in theater began during his time in the latter country, when his reading turned, perhaps incongruously, to poetry. He struggled with it, and so he turned to Shakespeare.

“I tried to read Shakespeare while I was over there,” he said. “I read Hamlet and I didn’t [connect], it felt like the guy couldn’t make up his mind. I read Macbeth and it clicked with me immediately. The tragedy of action. The moving too fast. Moving too fast and making decisions that you’re not ready for and that spelled something that I could wrap my head around. So, you see in the midst of my service, I came across the classics.”

More ancient texts came later, once Meyer had begun pursuing his interest in literature. “The Greeks for me,” Meyer explained, “I came to them first in undergraduate and then in graduate school, studying the Greeks as political theory. That’s how I first read them. It was only the more I worked in theater, the more I worked with them from not a political theory perspective, but from a theatrical perspective.”

Meyer’s participation in the Warrior Chorus initiative, Aquila’s program in which veterans meet to explore classic texts, led to his contribution to Our Trojan War, first solely as a writer. He points out that his “In the first version of the story” was not written specifically for performance. “It wasn’t clear that there was going to be a play,” he recalls. “We were just working on stuff on our own, responding to it [The Odyssey] in the moment.”

He goes on to describe his process, saying, “I was thinking about the difference between the journey of coming home that Odysseus has in The Odyssey and the way that in a modern nation state, in a modern capitalist system, we’ve got slightly different obstacles to coming home. It doesn’t look or feel the same and the expectations we have for behavior in war have changed. That’s what I wanted to write about, that difference.”

While he had performed with Aquila, he was not an original company member of Our Trojan War, but only joined the production when another performer had to leave unexpectedly after only two performances. He vividly describes the experience of his first performance, which put him back in uniform with a weapon in his hands. “On the M4 assault rifle or carbine, there’s a pistol grip. It’s a very familiar feeling. I officially spent six years of my life with that in my hand. It was strange to go back to that and feel that. “

Also in the performance is a room clearing technique that Meyer was all too familiar with, yet not quite. “That room clearing technique they use at the beginning, that’s my room clearing technique. What’s odd about that is that when we clear the room in the show, we do so in a terrible way. This is an incompetent room clearing. I mean, they’re throwing people. They’re yelling at each other. They don’t seem to know what they’re doing or what the mission is and I had plenty of missions in Afghanistan that were like that. Where we didn’t know what, you know, where we were told that it was one thing and it would end up being another and people got frustrated and they did stupid shit. And things went very badly, very quickly. But at the same time, this, it wasn’t quite like this. I mean, there’s something odd about projecting shadows that are, they’re still monstrous, but their slightly different than the monster that you yourself knew best.”

Considering the difference between the reality of combat and the performance of it, Meyer said, “I think that you build up little shields that are between you and the character. What I mean is that the imaginative world that you’re creating for this character isn’t quite you and the further you get along with that, the more comfortable–no, not the more comfortable, but the more you’re able to like sort of put on the costume and take it off, maybe, with less psychological trouble.”

“I found that that’s true for playing someone like Macbeth also,” he says, considering parallels. “I got to do that at one point in Texas. At first it was very tough because this is a character that I had for years been looking at as somebody that was wrestling with the same problems that I was, and making the same mistakes, but as you go along you know, you start to realize that well, no actually I’m not betraying a kingdom.  I didn’t have all these people killed. I made mistakes, but they weren’t as bad as this guy and you’re able to distance yourself a little bit in those terms. You’re able to know him. The more you get to know the character, the more that you recognize that you’re not him or her.”

Meyer also has given thought to how Our Trojan War and its mixture of ancient texts and modern warfare speak to stateside audiences. “I think the feeling was, maybe nine months ago, wouldn’t it be good if we could try to bring some closure to some of this,” Meyer asks rhetorically. “Our conflicts. The war that’s going on. Hasn’t it been long enough? And now I think that we have a totally different feeling—that the Pandora’s box, the lid is loose, right? And we’ve been playing a dangerous game with that box lid being loose for a lot of years now.”

“I was in New York the day after the election,” he goes on to say, “and it was just… quiet. I think that the people that are sort of still in that quietness and still in that anger are trying to figure out what to do. And we’re looking at you know the Times or Politico or The Atlantic and we’re trying to piece together what we should be doing and if there’s anything that we can do. Then I think that for those folks this piece speaks pretty well.”

As for the response specifically from veterans, Meyer says, “They can take it very personally, but I think that it’s important to admit that another response that you can get is very distant. Some people will step back from it and not be comfortable that you’re manipulating a realistic experience or an experience that was very real for them and bringing it into a sort of fictionalized tableau. I think that there’s certainly people that, you know, that’s not going to work for.”

However, Meyer also says, “Veterans tend to pull out details that we wouldn’t think that they would be noticing. They’ll quote or remember specific parts that had meaning to them.” He cites a particular bit of dialogue that had greatly affected a veteran he spoke with in Kansas, about the fundamental thoughts of someone fighting overseas. The lines, spoken by Achilles of his opponents, reads:

"I don’t have any quarrel with the Trojans. They didn’t do anything to me to make me come over here and fight. Didn’t run off my cattle or horses or ruin my farmland back home in Phthia, not with all the shadowy mountains and moaning seas between."

Be sure to also read the companion piece to this article,A Warrior Chorus