A War Vet Turns to Shakespeare to Heal
By Stephan Wolfert
Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, November 4, 2014, C–5&7 (center stalls)
Directed by Eric Tucker
In that often-bandied acronym PTSD, Army vet and actor Stephan Wolfert doesn't focus on the first letter, Post, and he's dismissive of the last, Disorder. He highlights the Traumatic and Stress in the middle—not just in the middle of the acronym but at the center of his life. There's nothing post about it; it's ongoing—for him and for millions of veterans, whether they've been in actual combat or not.
So we'll be frank here because Wolfert is. In his one-man show, Cry "Havoc!" he describes growing up in an alcoholic household, being bullied, and serving seven years as an infantryman in the Army, culminating with seeing his best buddy's face blown off during a training exercise. He also tells us how William Shakespeare made a lasting impact on his life and his psyche.
More importantly, through his acting skills he shows us how Shakespeare achieved this. Discovering Shakespeare did more than lead Wolfert to his current career. Shakespeare put into words for Wolfert what it is like to become a soldier (Henry V), to be in the middle of combat (Coriolanus), to become hard-wired for war (Julius Caesar), to return to civilian life (Richard III), and to keep reliving war even when you were seemingly safe in your bed (Henry IV, Part One). In Cry "Havoc!" Wolfert seamlessly laces scenes and speeches from Shakespeare's canon of plays into his own story.
With a Master of Fine Arts from Trinity Repertory Conservatory in Providence, R.I., Wolfert is a member of both Deux Bits theater company and Bedlam Theatre; you'll find him in my review of Bedlam's Saint Joan earlier this year, and Bedlam Artistic Director Eric Tucker is the director of Cry "Havoc!" Wolfert also is the founding artistic director of Shakespeare and Veterans and of the Veterans Center for the Performing Arts. Cry "Havoc!" is a product of V.C.P.A., which has a most apt slogan: "No pity. No apology. No political agenda."
Cry "Havoc!" is both theatrical entertainment and Shakespearean scholarship, but mostly it is outreach: to veterans who need help and to civilians who can help them. Performing on the Folger Theatre stage for one night (which he called his actor's Mecca moment), Wolfert started out by calling on vets or currently serving military members in the audience to identify themselves, and he thanked each for their service. During the show Wolfert got a "Hoo-rah!" from other vets, and during the panel discussion afterward a Vietnam vet in the audience opened up about his own rages that erupted 20 years after he left the service, rages that caused his life to subsequently disintegrate.
Wolfert also touched a couple in row C in two distinctly different ways. A key theme of Cry "Havoc!" is how warriors become wired for war, starting with basic training where they learn to react immediately and counterintuitively to aural commands, like Labrador puppies. "We're wired for war, and after serving, we're not unwired from war. We're not rewired for society," Wolfert says. As Wolfert portrayed himself going through marching drills, he noticed Sarah, my wife, a retired Air Force colonel with 29 years of service, nodding: "Yeah, you know what I'm talking about," he said to her. I grew up in the Air Force before marrying into it, and as a journalist I covered military social and medical issues for much of my career—including publishing articles on PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and the military's suicide epidemic—through two wars and three "military actions" (though I never saw combat myself). Wolfert's performance reinforced my long-held contention that one of the walls that military members and their families bang up against is not just how they are wired but how civilians are wired, too.
He also reinforced why I love Shakespeare. Reading Shakespeare's works, Wolfert says, "I'm finding myself in every play."
He first saw himself in Richard III. In Cry "Havoc!" he describes leaving the Army and jumping off a train in Montana, going to a theater for the first time in his life (just watching a dancing show on TV earned him a beating to keep him from turning into "a faggot"). Walking out onto the stage was Richard, Duke of Gloucester, wearing a military uniform and talking of "the winter of our discontent" and how "our bruiséd arms hung up for monuments, our stern alarums changed to merry meetings, our dreadful marches to delightful measures…[but] I, in this weak piping time of peace, have no delight to pass away the time." Inspired, Wolfert the next day bought a copy of "Richard Eye, Eye, Eye," and he was on his way to a life of Shakespeare and theater—but still fighting a war that would not end.
His is a funny story, but it is not a happy one. Form reflects substance; with Cry "Havoc!" Wolfert jumps from time to time, point to point. He's riding on top of a train into Montana in 1991, then he is in his mother's womb in 1967 ("Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb," he says as a fetus in an alcoholic mother, quoting from Henry VI, Part Three), then he is a 95-pound high school sophomore trying out for the wrestling team and suffering a spinal injury from being body slammed, then he is in an exciting training exercise in Fort Irwin, Calif., and then his friend is hit by that shell, and our laughter turns to shuddering gasps as Wolfert falls to his knees, trying to revive his buddy while calling in "real-world med evac." Just as suddenly he is standing, handing the folded flag from his friend's casket to the bereaving family. Wolfert's history does not continue in logical sequence: it tries to, but just when we, the audience, are enjoying one of his biographical tracks, out of nowhere he's back on his knees, cradling his friend's massacred head. You may want to get on with his life, but his traumatic stress won't let you—there's nothing post about it, even for you.
Not all is autobiographical. There's the 18-year-old soldier, just two weeks in Iraq, caught in an ambush and doing what trained soldiers do—protecting each other (a band of brothers)—and being hauled up on a charge of violating the laws of war. There's the amazing 20-year-old Henry Lincoln Johnson, an African-American soldier sent to the front in World War I, assigned to serve with a French unit because the U.S. Army was not yet integrated. When his guard post was overrun by a 25-man vanguard of a surprise attack, Johnson defended his position, saved a comrade from capture, and singlehandedly turned back the Germans using just a bayoneted rifle and bolo knife with such ferocity he earned the nickname "Black Death" from both the French and Germans. He was the first American soldier in World War I to receive the Croix de Guerre with star and Gold Palm from the French government. Yet he died an alcoholic and destitute at 32. As Wolfert describes this story, the civilians in the room shake their heads in amazement, at both the heroics and the ending; the vets nod their heads.
Always, there's the Shakespeare. Wolfert equates Johnson's exploits to Caius Martius's singlehanded attack on Corioli as described by Cominius in Coriolanus. Some of Wolfert's selections for Cry "Havoc!" you are probably looking for: Yes, he does Falstaff's soliloquy on honor from Henry IV, Part One, and of course he's going to do Henry V's "Once more unto the breach," which Wolfert jumps into after he has hidden behind a tree in his first live-fire training exercise. His play's title comes from Antony's intense speech in the wake of Julius Caesar's assassination describing the destruction he will bring down upon the conspirators. Wolfert defines havoc as a military term, the wholesale slaughter of a community, noncombatants be damned: "collateral damage" in Afghanistan, My Lai in Vietnam, Hiroshima in Japan, and what Henry V threatens to unleash if Harfleur doesn't yield. As Wolfert delivers Henry's speech about allowing his soldiers to "defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters, your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dashed to the wall, your naked infants spitted upon pikes," he stands with the posture of a U.S. infantry platoon leader wearing full battle gear and holding an imaginary M16 in his hands. He comes out of character after this speech, but Wolfert forgets to put his imaginary M16 away. "Oh, sorry about that," he says sheepishly when he realizes he's still holding it at the ready.
When he talks about a soldier's glory, instead of "We happy few, we band of brothers" from Henry V, Wolfert turns to the opening scene of Titus Andronicus: "Behold, the poor remains, alive and dead!" We know in that play it doesn't end well even for those who come home in triumph. Wolfert identifies himself as an alcoholic. He describes how, even after he became an actor, he reacted to the sound of a truck passing by outside and the walls shaking, to the smell of fuel fumes, to a helicopter flying overhead, to the BANG! of mats being dropped on the rehearsal room floor and
He's on his knees cradling his friend's half-there head. The worst day of the year, he says, is Fourth of July, especially when he's at a backyard barbecue with friends. They press him as to why he is so irritable and why he just can't put the war behind him and
"What would you have, you curs, that like nor peace nor war?" he's suddenly yelling at us like a rabid wolf. "The one affrights you, the other makes you proud. He that trusts to you, where he should find you lions, finds you hares; where foxes, geese." This is from Coriolanus, and he merges this speech from early in the play to Coriolanus's exile from Rome at the play's pivotal point: "I banish you" the Roman hero says to the public of the city he defended. (In afterthought, it occurs to me now that this is exactly what the Vietnam vet attending this show ended up saying to his family and friends to save them from his rages.)
A more famous Shakespeare speech also comes out of nowhere. Wolfert is well along in his 70-minute show and describing working as a caterer in Los Angeles, though he is by now a trained actor (actors in the room nod their heads). The event is a Disney princess party, with a room-full of 5-year-old Ariels, Cinderellas, and Belles behaving more like Tasmanian Devils on celebratory cake. One little girl drops her cake, Wolfert bends down to help her pick it up, and she throws it in his face. He acts like he's about to strike her, but he assures us he would never do that, and what we are expecting to be a moment of rage, a moment back on his knees with his dying Army buddy, turns out to be quite funny as he escapes the party, drives in frustration to his apartment, storms in looking for something, finds it, and
Shotgun poised under his chin, Wolfert almost whispers "To be or not to be." Timing is one of the great attributes of a good actor, and Wolfert turns time out of joint on us in such a way that we don't just hear and see his out-of-joint mind, we are in it. Though that shotgun is mimed, and he is here, alive, on the Folger stage, we aren't sure Wolfert will live to the end of the speech. To sleep, perchance to dream.
Aye, there's the rub. Shakespeare may or may not have portrayed PTSD in his characters, especially in the tragic figures of Othello, Coriolanus, Macbeth, and Lady Macbeth—women have been combatants from the beginning of war, and never does Wolfert let us forget that women are among the vets suffering war stress, compounded for some by being raped by colleagues and commanders. Just as Wolfert identified with Richard III's predicament when he first met him, he relates to the king's final, brutally honest soliloquy after waking from the visit of his victims' ghosts: "Soft! I did but dream. O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! … Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh. What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by: Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I. Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am."
But for all the potential passages that could be construed as Shakespeare's depictions of a warrior with PTSD, Wolfert located the most telling one from a character I, ironically, never would have thought of. It's a passage worth including here in full:
Tell me, sweet lord, what is't that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit'st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks;
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and cursed melancholy?
In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch'd,
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars;
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed;
Cry 'Courage! To the field!' And thou hast talk'd
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners' ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war
And thus hath so bestirr'd thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream.
Lady Percy's observation of Hotspur in Henry IV, Part One, mirrors what Wolfert's wife experienced with him until she once grabbed his face when he woke from one of his nightmares to assure him he was safe. It reminds us that families are as much the victims of ongoing traumatic stress as the veterans. And Wolfert's wife, Dawn, is there at this staging of Cry "Havoc!" assisting in his outreach efforts.
Stephen Wolfert, top, played Richard III, bottom, in a Shakespeare Santa Monica production. It was seeing Richard III on his first visit to a theater after getting out of the Army that led Wolfert to Shakespeare, then to acting, then to healing. Richard III photo by John Bocca.
After his show at the Folger, Wolfert was joined for a panel discussion on stage by Gary Barker, founder and director of Promundo, one of the show's sponsors; Ambassador Steven E. Steiner, gender advisor to the Center for Gender and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace, another show sponsor; Alisha Ali, associate professor of applied and counseling psychology at New York University; and Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Wolfert ends Cry "Havoc!" posing the question, "What now?" to the audience. What can we, veterans and civilians, do to solve the epidemic that is ongoing traumatic stress. Part of the discussion centered on collective treatment, that it's not the vet singularly who should be "pathologized" nor the vet's family but all of society. We are in this together.
But, the reality is that we aren't. Wolfert describes how, after some of his sessions, a palpable divide is tentatively bridged. The vets come to trust that the civilians really do empathize, and "after awhile, the civilians take the veterans off their pedestals."
Insightful word, pedestals.
Of course, vets and those serving in the military are heroes. So are those of us married to vets and military members, and so are the children of military members (not that we had a choice growing up in the military; but we do have a choice of whether to stay in a military marriage or not, and a surprising majority do). I am always grateful when a stranger sees my military spouse ID card and says, "Thank you for your wife's service and all you do." I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Utah Shakespeare Festival when my wife's sudden military assignment forced me to change our tickets and they waived the exchange fee (we military spouses always purchase tickets and book trips knowing we likely will have to change plans and sometimes eat the cost of canceling). I'm also one of the first to stand and applaud when the Washington Nationals baseball team does its "Welcome Home" recognition for military members before the start of the fourth inning at every home game in Nationals Park.
But this very label, hero, in and of itself, creates a disconnect. Since the end of the draft in America, only about 1 percent of the population serves in the military. Most of the rest choose not to serve, but they do so with a show of self-denigration—and I've heard these very words more than once—that "Oh, I could never do what you do," as in go fight in wars or hold down the home front while your spouse is—or may not be, you're never sure—surviving combat, insurgent bombings, or friendly fire. Why could you not do that? Because you choose not to, period. Defining us as heroes in this way puts us in a sub-class of citizenship, one that can be admired from afar while keeping it afar, too. We are on our pedestals in the town square or the middle of the traffic circle, unnoticed as you window shop and ignored as you drive by with the yellow ribbon pasted to your car, and then vaguely appreciated when some cen-, bi-, or triennial celebration comes along.
This manifests as more than a psychological distancing.
- I once applied for an in-store credit account in Tucson, Ariz., but I was denied because my bank account was out-of-state—true of most service members and their families stationed at the Air Force base there. A sign on the store's door boasted, "We honor service members and their families here" (this was shortly after the Iraq War started), and when I pointed out this discrepancy to the guy behind the counter, he shrugged with clueless indifference. "Then take the sign down off your door," I seethed, and he looked at me with a "what's your deal?" expression.
- Before every fourth inning, as we stand and applaud the men and women home from the war, beyond the Nationals Park's outfield we can see the big white dome under which our senators and representatives historically underfund services to those men and women we are giving a standing ovation.
- State and local officials who have stubbornly blocked absentee and early voting provisions impact military members deployed overseas and families stationed far from their registered homes, while some state voter identification laws ended up rendering some vets' U.S. Veterans Affairs IDs ineligible. Whether inadvertent or not, denying military members their right to vote is the unkindest cut of all: it is "ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms."
- And why is the unemployment rate among veterans so high? The United States has the best trained, most technologically savvy, disciplined military in history, yet when soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen get out after putting their lives on the line and putting their families through incredible worries and difficulties to ensure the freedoms and free marketplace this nation enjoys, many of them can't get a job. Are you friggin' serious?
I know I'm on a rant—I don't suffer from ongoing traumatic stress, but maybe I do suffer ongoing alienation stress. But don't mistake this for seeking handouts, tax breaks, or even hero worship; in fact, that is what I don't want. For our vets, I want this nation to ensure that they get the rights for which they fought and the care they deserve: they survived enemy battlefields, they should survive home, too. For all people who serve, I want this nation, every state, each community, and all individuals to value them, honestly value them like you would your home, your car, or your political donors. Without them, your life would not be what it is.
And to everybody: think of service as a collective. "I could never do what you do"—yes, you can. You can be a hero's hero by reaching out to vets, assisting vets, advocating for vets and others who serve your community. Next time you stop to salute a vet, wipe off some of the pigeon poop. Better yet, take the vet down from the pedestal and embrace her or him.
I thank Stephan Wolfert for his service and his wife for her support. I thank him for his Shakespearean acuity. I thank him for entertaining us and stimulating us. I thank him for Cry "Havoc!" Most of all I thank him for reaching out, for swinging that pickaxe of truth with which we, collectively, can start chipping away at the heroic divide and tackle the epidemic of ongoing traumatic stress.
November 7, 2014