By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith

We all need a way to talk about stuff that is extremely painful. What does it mean to ‘come home?’ The only way to survive in battle is to disconnect. But how does a soldier turn that off?"”
—Peter Sellars
Director, Hercules

For military veterans like Stanley McCracken, a recent dress rehearsal of George Frideric Handel’s Hercules at the Lyric Opera of Chicago offered a new glimpse of their war experiences through an artistic lens.

McCracken, a Vietnam veteran and a senior lecturer in the School of Social Service Administration, was among more than 125 military veterans who attended “War Follows Everyone Home,” a discussion presented by the Lyric, UChicago Arts and the Office of Civic Engagement at the University of Chicago, A Safe Haven Foundation, and the McCormick Foundation.

As staged by renowned director Peter Sellars, the 1744 opera explores timeless themes of war and homecoming in a thoroughly modern setting. Sellars envisioned the production as a way to connect with today’s veterans through an ancient storyline, which Handel adapted from Sophocles’ 2,500 year-old play, The Women of Trachis.

McCracken said he could not help but think of his own experiences while watching the new production, which depicts a war hero who feels disconnected from the life he left behind.

“The warrior has been making life-and-death decisions and living very intensely,” said McCracken, who served as an interpreter of Vietnamese for the U.S. Army. He likened his own homecoming to sci-fi stories about space travelers, who return home after a few months to find decades had passed.

Such introspection and sharing of veterans’ experiences were at the heart of Sellars’ ambitions for this opera. He hoped the intense emotions in Hercules would prompt recollections which veterans may not have been able to express in other ways.

“The Greeks were really good at talking about how when you come back from war, you’re changed,” Sellars said. “In the opera, Hercules is genuinely in anguish. The characters are in all kinds of states of denial—just as when the current wars’ vets come back, they and we don’t know how to talk about it.”

Bringing Together War, Opera, and Neuroscience

The discussion that followed the March 2 dress rehearsal included veterans, journalists, and UChicago scholars. Prof. John Cacioppo, director of the University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, described the deep grief that can follow veterans home after war.

“Memories of these events change these soldiers and can haunt them at the most inexplicable moments, day and night,” wrote Cacioppo, an expert on the psychology of loneliness, in an essay for the production. “It can leave soldiers feeling isolated and damaged at best, and broken beyond repair and unworthy of love at worst.”

The opera offers a ready-made frame for these issues, with modern touches such as desert fatigues and detainees in hoods and orange jumpsuits. It begins with Hercules’ wife, Dejanira, who turns to pills to cope with not knowing if her husband is dead or alive. She sits alone in a room with the blinds drawn, weeping.

Hercules returns from battle broken and empty. He doesn’t know how to cope with “normal” life and eventually shuts down. He and his wife bitterly argue, and he threatens her with violence. He abuses alcohol. The production ends with tragedy but also a note of hope, true to the complicated legacy of war.

After the curtain fell at the dress rehearsal, many veterans in the audience rose to their feet and applauded.

McCracken said the production spoke well to the separate experiences of soldiers and those they leave behind.

“I thought the opera did a good job capturing the sense of unreality experienced by Hercules, and the emotional distance experienced by Dejanira,” he said.

Reaching Out through Veterans Meetings

To help bridge themes from the ancient play to the alienation common among returning soldiers, the University, the Lyric, and Sellars held informal meetings with veterans. During a private luncheon on the UChicago campus with veterans affiliated with the University, Sellars explained that he hoped his opera would serve as a “sort of DMZ,” a demilitarized zone in which soldiers could feel safe from harm or judgment.

“We all need a way to talk about stuff that is extremely painful,” Sellars said. “What does it mean to ‘come home?’ The only way to survive in battle is to disconnect. But how does a soldier turn that off?”

The luncheon brought out anguished memories for some veterans. Some spoke of being pelted with eggs by war protestors upon their return, or losing a spouse, or searching in vain for a new sense of purpose. “I didn’t want to come back,” said one veteran. “I felt like I was needed there.”

While on campus, Sellars met with Music faculty and students to discuss the opera, which 50 students later attended on opening night through the UChicago Arts Pass and ORCSA Discover Chicago programs.

The “War Follows Everyone Home” event after the Lyric dress rehearsal offered a more public discussion. In addition to Sellars and Cacioppo, it included Michael Sullivan, Illinois State Director of the Student Veterans of America, who served as an operator, gunner, and vehicle commander with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion from 2000-04; and University of Chicago Trustee Jack Fuller, a Vietnam veteran, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor of the Chicago Tribune, who has written novels about the Vietnam War and is currently teaching UChicago students in the creative writing program.

The panel was moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning Tribune journalist Julia Keller, a visiting professor in creative writing at UChicago, and author of Back Home, a novel narrated by a young girl whose father suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq as a National Guardsman.

Keller perhaps captured the spirit of the event best when she evoked the closing lines of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window:

“Weep, darling. Weep … and then, tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow.”

By Sara Olkon