CONSTELLATION: December - Eleni Varopoulou

  •  Author: Olympiti Olympiada Maria
  •  Published on: 26/12/2016

                                                                          Translation: Vasiliki Gkekina


Theatre helped me understand better the “pain of things and people” and doubt one’s quick and arbitrary judgment.


Eleni Varopoulou is a dramaturg, theatre and art critic, translator, essayist. Dedicated to art her whole life. I have followed and read her for many years. I am glad that such a lively and kind person will no doubt continue to draw my attention for many years to come. Her photo could easily adorn a dictionary, after the entry: “man of theatre”. She is a glamorous woman that lives a meaningful life “on stage”.



How would you describe your profession? How do you actually deal with what you do?

Like a practicum, where critical thought, scientific approach and essayistic expression are combined.



You have dealt with many projects in your life, from the International Theatre Institute, where you have been president for 8 years, in a time when it was highly active, to the Festival of Argos and the Summer Academy. A life full of theatre. What have you gained?

Unique experiences: the unforgettable moments of a performance, the combinations that gave birth to an unexpected result, various meetings with artists, Greek and foreign ones, which revealed special aspects of creativity, contacts with places and people that still accompany me. I speak for myself. What someone else has gained or what the meaning of all these activities is on a collective level are questions for others to answer.


What was your relationship with Nikos Kourkoulos? Many people talk about the radical change brought about in the National Theatre during his times. What was the art production back then and what changes have been made?

I was his counselor and, for a decade, I worked beside a tireless and stubborn Manager, fully committed to the reorganization and renewal of the institution called the National Theatre of Greece. Kourkoulos did not take advantage of the existent mechanism to ascend as an artist. He served the National Theatre and restored the prestige of this great theatrical body. We should add to his crucial and organizing work all those plays, all those aesthetic openings he made, either to artists like Lefteris Vogiatzis, Vasilis Papavasileiou, and Giannis Kokkos, or to the creation of new stages, like the Experimental Stage, or to the introduction of new educational methods, like the Summer Theatre Academy with annual programmes in various areas of Greece and abroad.


What is your opinion about theatre education in Greece?

It manifests the same symptoms that, by rule, many educational systems in Europe suffer from: the preparation of actors to succeed in a specific type of theatre, which promotes the individualistic distinction through dramatic roles, when, at the same time, it has not got rid of rhetoric acting and conventionalities. However, when it comes to modern forms of theatre, it’s all about another type of actor with different tools at his disposal, who is ready to take part in processes, quests and projects in the artistic and social space.



What is it like for a Greek to live in Germany? You are a citizen of the world. You follow theatre in all countries of the world. What “wings” does this give you? You know, I believe this to be necessary in order for someone to be able to talk about theatre. I cannot stand the microcosm of the “men of theatre”.

I am a Greek woman that lives both in Germany and in Greece. In a culturally privileged environment, as we, my husband who is a German theoretician of theatre, Hans Tis Leman, and I, travel a lot and share the most diverse theatrical and cultural experiences. Our shared horizons and constant dialogue give me wings to search for the new and the different in art.


You have combined arts like not many others have, you have organized interartistic festivals, you are a bearer, a carrier, a maker of art. What is good in today’s world and what is missing?

The theatrical quests that have to do with space, landscape, natural environment, and specific realities of people, have an energy that rejuvenates. The spirit of trying, wherever it is nourished, is good, but the elimination of languages in the name of an easier nationalistic communication is alarming, as is the relentless predominance of money that produces poverty on the level of spirituality, an absence of humanity that produces fear.


What do you think of the Greek Play Project? The platform that promotes Greek plays?

This initiative per se, the material that is offered and the range of the platform are exemplary. It was something missing; and it is very useful, if someone considers how much writing for the theatre today needs to make itself more visible and have a podium (as performances, mixed media, collective theatrical projects and records culminate worldwide). In addition, I’m in favour of the Greek Play Project for personal reasons. The platform is the offspring of my friend Irene Mountraki, with whom I have closely cooperated in the Summer Academy of the National Theatre.


Is there such a thing as contemporary Greek dramaturgy? Does it have a present and a future?

Of course, and its future depends on the need of preserving the Greek language alive. Theatre is a place where speech and language claim their survival.


Who is your favorite Greek contemporary playwright?

I am moved by good plays that stand out thanks to good performances. This means that I am open to many playwrights, many literary styles, many stage approaches or kinds of acting. I would like to mention though that Loula Anagnostaki was, at the time she wrote, a favorite playwright of mine and Lena Kitsopoulou is, today, a highly interesting case for me.


What makes a theatrical performance a work of great art? How can it become a commercial success? How is it accepted consciously by people? How does it become famous in time?

The way it becomes famous is implicit, the theatrical myth has a certain logic, it follows certain schemes, but, it includes also an element which is unpredictable, subversive. A performance can be accepted for various reasons at the same time and these reasons should be investigated every time; the reception of a performance, as we know, is a subject of study and investigation. There is not a recipe for a good performance, however. The amalgam is important, the moment of the theatrical event and the alchemy of the meeting.


Which was the performance that was engraved in your heart and mind?

Many performances have been and still are engraved from time to time. All of them, one after the other, mark my theatrical biography. For instance, “The Persians” of Aeschylus, in the performance of Rontiris, when I was young and I watched it with the other children of my school at the Municipal Theatre of Patra. The performances of Koun at the Art Theatre Basement. The performance “The Mother” of Brecht with Helene Weigel in Paris. The first performances of Mnouchkine, Ronconi, Strehler, Brook, Cantor, Grumberg, Stein, Wilson, Lyubimov, Vasiliev. Every theatre culture, from country to country, has been engraved in my memory, through unforgettable theatrical examples.


What gives birth to masterpieces?

This question brings to my mind a text from Gertrude Stein, from a speech of hers. Its title is “What are masterpieces and why are there so few of them?” I suggest we find it, read it together and comment on it.


What do you think of the State’s attitude towards art?

I constantly try to analyze and understand this difficult, controversial and thorny relationship between the State and art.


What is the relationship that grows between art and politics? Could they help each other?

The constellation of influences and dependencies between them was always complicated; however, it has showed marked differences from time to time and from culture to culture. Today, as we witness how all kinds of discourse are being politicized and how this widespread politicization is handled and enforced internationally, we see art try to become or be viewed primarily as a political act. Αt this point, I need to remind you that the real political function of art is more than a practice of political column writing with other means.


Are you “for” or “against” power? Where should a man of intelligentsia belong to?

My constant aim has been to stand “against” power. Being aware of the fact that I, too, as a critic, exercised a form of power, I thought that this “opposition” to power allowed me to keep a safe distance from it in order to check my limits, every now and then, so as not to be led to an abuse of power, to authoritarianism. Sometimes, of course, I chose to socialize with influential people because I believed that this way I could complete my work. However, I never let myself stand up for them uncritically and unconditionally.


Does art teach us or remind us of anything? What is its truth?

If we consider that art encompasses an unconscious writing of history, then we can accept that art conveys, teaches, reveals and reminds us of various things. Certainly without wagging a finger in a didactic manner.


How would you describe man these days? Is he ideologically uneasy? Is he socio-politically uneasy?  Or, even, emotionally uneasy? Or half-awake, like Savvopoulos would say?

Man is not concerned and doesn’t worry only about current events. Think of the ancient Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, let us remember the questions about the “doing” that for centuries run through European literatures. However, I do not want to soften the acidity present in the crisis of humanistic values in the last decades. The inaction and apathy in front of the incredible violence witnessed worldwide. The idleness against the destruction of the natural environment.


What is your relationship with time?

My experience of time is similar to that of many other people. We share the sense of “too late”, of little time, of lost time, of short, fleeting time. As time flows, it both activates and grounds us. Time is all around us and within us, as heard in Strauss’ opera “The Knight of the Rose.” The consciousness of time as a philosophical and literary theme or as a dimension in art, concerns me whenever a theatrical event calls upon it in a direct or indirect way.


What is the role of the future? A corrector of the past? Does a man move ahead by looking back? Having the fear that he may repeat the same mistakes?

The future is unforeseen. Neither prophets are we nor magicians to look into a crystal ball. All we can do is to sense something, to capture an element of the present and perceive it as an omen.


Who is responsible for the historical ignorance of the younger generation?

An idea by Heiner Müller, an author whom I have been translating for thirty years, gave me a clue to think about the historical ignorance of contemporary man. In a consumer society, Müller says, our life is occupied only by the present and its goods. The disruption of our relationship with history, with the past and the future, has its root in this ruthless dominance of the present.


What has theatre taught you? Has it been a tool of self-knowledge?

Theatre helped me understand better the “pain of things and people” and doubt one’s quick and arbitrary judgment.


Are you happy? Do you feel fulfilled?

A thinking man, looking at what is happening around him, can hardly claim to be happy. Nevertheless, it would be a challenge when faced with great misery and ingratitude not to admit and not to rejoice the happy moments and phases of life. Love, my family, my few and faithful friends, my tours in many places of the world, my involvement in theater and art, all these constitute a happy chapter in my life and support me.


When were you born? What does December, your birth month, mean to you?

I was born in December 1945. My birth month is a threshold: the last month of a year ending and the approaching one of the following year. In December, on St. Spyridon’s day, we celebrated my father’s name day at my parents’ house. Now, in December we celebrate my beloved daughter Anna and my brother-in-law, Eugene.


What does it mean to be a mother and a grandmother? Do values change? Do thoughts change?

Being a mother of Anna and a grandmother of Electra and Damian is something that defines me. This part of my personal identity is the most valuable one. Many things are overturned, transformed, and being influenced by it. On the other hand, many dreams, plans, wishes accompany it.


Are you afraid of Death? What do you believe in? In Helena Blavatsky and the Theosophists or in Epicurus?

To say that I ignore or underestimate the fear of death would be a lie. To be overwhelmed by the fear of death would be cowardice. Sometimes I think this fear is the fear of the most extreme and uncontrolled change. Because the most radical change to man is to pass from life to death.