Ancient-myth Based Greek Dramaturgy - Resignifying the National Heritage,

  •  Dimitris Tsatsoulis, Professor of Theatre Semiotics and Performance Theory in the Department of Theatre Studies, University of Patras - Theatre critic

 [Translation: Vassiliki Misiou]

According to Robert Jauss, reception theory has a twofold approach to the realization of the meaning of a work: on the one hand, it plays a significant role in determining the text itself, taking into consideration the horizon of expectations of readers who are bound by space and time, and on the other hand, it highlights the historicity of aesthetic experience, presupposing that the meaning of the text will be redefined by readers through time. Modern playwrights are an indicative example of the latter, capturing older texts in their works through direct or indirect references, functioning at the same time as their interpreters, as receptive subjects which act under certain socio-historical conditions.

The phenomenon is global since the ancient Greek drama and its source, that is the myth, are considered to be universal property. Thus, the refutations of a dramatic myth or its preserved versions meet the socio-political demands of each era: it is no coincidence that Brecht’s Antigone (1947) or Jean Anouilh’s Antigone (1942) were written at a crucial socio-political time when Nazism rose. Accordingly, South African Yael Farber’s Molora (means Ash in Sesotho- 2003), which is based on the Greek Oresteia trilogy, expresses the need of the country’s people to reconcile after the end of Apartheid, functioning thus as a way of therapy for the community.

With that rationale in mind, modern Greek playwrights produce plenty of works which draw on ancient Greek dramas or myths; hence, theatrologists are highly interested, on the one hand, in highlighting the boundaries of the dialogue among texts and, on the other hand, in the new slant brought to the ancient text through its interpretation by the modern one which offers new aspects of perception or reveals other meanings, more or less obscure. Intertextual analysis thus points to today’s perception of ancient drama by modern theatrologists, who express modern aesthetic, ideological or social concerns.

Many playwrights, who got politicized and produced works during or after the dictatorship, were inspired by ancient Greek tragedies in their effort to comment on current situations. Such plays are, among others, Maria Lampadaridou-Pothou’s Antigone or The Nostalgia of Tragedy (Paris, 1967), Nikiforos Vrettakos’ Prometheus or A day’s Game (1978), as well as Evangelos Averoff-Tositsas’ Return to Mycenae (1972) during the staging of which Manos Hatjidakis’ “The Ballad of Wayfarer” was heard – the ballad alludes to the importance of Agamemnon’s return to Mycenae despite of his awareness of his forthcoming death, stressing thus that the ruler of a land chooses to stand by its residents even if his life is put at risk by this decision.

It is also known that ancient Greek myths and tragedies have been a constant source of inspiration for Iakovos Kambanellis; but he had the mythical characters renegotiate their beliefs and ideals. This is better exemplified in the character of Odysseus, since he insists on denying the mythical model, choosing an alternative, anti-heroic identity in Kambanellis’ Odysseus, Get Back Home (Art Theatre, 1966) and in The Last Act (Experimental Stage of “Art”, 1997). In the first play, imposing the creation of a statue of Odysseus allows social institutions to preserve and exploit the myth despite the actual problems caused by Odysseus’ anti-heroic stance. In the latter, on his return to Ithaca, Odysseus chooses not to stay with his family but to cash in on his myth “playing” himself in performances as a member of a touring company.

Such anti-hero characteristics embodied by iconic mythical characters, who act as role models even for modern Greeks, are further enhanced by Dimitris Dimitriadis’ theatrical triptych Homeriad (2007). The three monologues which comprise the work (Odysseus – Ithaca – Homer) address issues such as the meaning of self-awareness and the break with tradition as the only way to create something new, since adherence to the tradition of old texts and myths paralyzes modern Greeks from taking action and traps them in the glorious past – a past yet unknown, as they haven’t done anything to contribute to its glory. In Dimitriadis’ work, Odysseus’ return to Ithaca signifies havoc: two characters are bound by love and hatred, in a relationship which can be described by the words: “anostos nostos” (dull longing). It is a relationship which leads to a battle of mutual annihilation but also for ultimate merger. “That ultimate monster”, Odysseus says referring to Ithaca, before the latter swallows him. Ithaca, on the other hand, blames Odysseus that he returned as a conqueror, seeing his island as a “new Troy” and capturing it. He’s infuriated. Their mutual destruction is the only solution, acting as a ban on vital lies and offering the only chance to reconstruct the world beyond the past and its compulsory inheritance.

Odysseus was also not presented as a hero in Dimitris Christodoulou’s play The Circe Hotel written in 1966. The playwright also subverted Jason’s heroic identity in his work Jason’s Lie written in 1975. In the latter case, Jason never gets the Golden Fleece nor is he a fearless hero. Dimitriadis’ sarcasm towards the heroes of the Trojan War is also embodied in his work Achilles’ Weapons (1977). Following Christodoulou, but being far more ironic, Kostas Vlassopoulos wrote a slapstick comedy entitled Why Philoctetes Went to Calabria to Have his Foot Treated (1980). Taking a more sarcastic stance towards mythical heroes, Vasilis Ziogas wrote “A Comedy of Phlyakes” entitled The Kaffirs or the True Story of Menelaus and Helen (1996), remaining faithful to his ideology about the world.

On the other hand, Andreas Staikos, without disclaiming Marivaux’s style which characterizes his works, but in a highly comic style, wrote Daedalus (Paris, 1971, published: Athens, 2001), constantly refuting the established stereotypes and dealing with subjects that highlight the mechanism, or in other words, the falsity of theatre. He takes a similar stance towards the myth of Atreides with his work Clytemnestra? (Paris, 1975) in which two theatre actresses pretend to be or actually live as Clytemnestra and Electra. The question mark in the title of this play actually indicates all modern Greek playwrights’ questioning of ancient myths and tragic characters and their inability to deal with the necessary consistency and respect with the tradition inherited. The identity of mythical characters is inserted into inverted commas, reflecting the diffusion of a person’s modern identity and the breaking up of cliques.

Consistent with that rationale, Marios Pontikas has Oedipus travel through time to claim his identity in the work Laius’ Murderer and The Crows (2004), while Giorgos Veltsos explores wider existential issues concerning identity through his work with the characteristic title Oedipus – Anti-Oedipus (2004). Oedipus says in Veltsos’ play: “I’m faded, so weak before I thrust myself in the Myth for good”, while Antigone asks: “What is there to write about? Who is writing tragedy these days?” Thus, the characters of ancient tragedy are stripped of the context in which they were conceived, the one that confirms their tragic identity. “I’m just a human being, how can I be responsible for the horrible things that happen in the world?”, man-Oedipus asks in Pontikas’ play, lost in his forgetfulness of acts.

The deconstruction of mythical heroes through irony, sarcasm or just comic elements, however, continues up to date with works such as Andreas Flourakis’ Medea’s Treads (2014) or Haris Bossinas’ Free Medea (2014). The first play is set in Colchis, centering on whether Medea will follow Jason to Greece or not and unravelling through comic events and often uncontrolled situations with an emphasis on Jason’s passion for female feet. The second play is about the efforts of a touring company to stage Medea; but the plot changes at will according to the protagonists’ preferences.

On another level, Elena Penga’s Phaedra or Alcestis – Love Stories (unpublished) playfully approaches the character of Hippolytus and also contemplates on the concept of death, shading light to little unknown aspects of the life of tragic characters. Inspired by Herodotus’ short myth, Margarita Liberaki stretches the story in her work Candaules’ Wife (1952) and in the form of tragedy she causes a breach between Candaules and Gyges, who are identified with one another through the eyes of the Woman. Extending the myth and exploiting various preserved elements, Liberaki presents Odysseus on his second return to Ithaca, where he is murdered by Telegonus, his and Circe’s son who went to Ithaca in search for his father. Last, in Liberaki’s The Secret Bed (in French, 1967, in Greek, 1972) Telegonus and Penelope have sexual intercourse being dazzled by each other.

The mental strength of mythical heroines is depicted with vividness in extended monologues that follow partly the example of Yannis Ritsos: e.g. in Akis Dimou’s Andromache or View of a Woman at The Height of The Night (2003), Andreas Flourakis’ Psychic Force (Cassie, 2010), Giannis Kontrafouris’ Medea – The Sortie (2000) and Iokaste (2007). In the last monologue ritual elements become apparent as they come into play in the actions performed by the female character who has survived the destruction of the house of the tragic heroine.

The renegotiation of ancient myths through ritual elements has been an important part of Greek dramaturgy. The works of Margatita Liberaki and especially Danaides (written: 1954, first published: Paris, 1963, Athens: 1978), Lamentation. The Passion of Asterios (Paris: 1967, Athens: 1970), and Women and Men – The Lemnian Evils (1997) are indicative examples of such a renegotiation. Birth, death and sexual intercourse are presented as life’s mysteries and as purification ceremonies, as a primitive liturgical drama which calls for a special directing approach with regard to its performance. One could describe as ritualistic also Marios Pontikas’ approach in his play entitled Neighing (unpublished), a “scene triptych” consisting of: Cassandra Addresses the Dead – Centaur Chiron, Humiliation – and The Resistance of Silence, Epilogue with the focus placed on Cassandra and her transformations. Only the first part of this triptych has been staged so far through a ritualistic approach by Theodoros Terzopoulos.

Zoe Karelli tries to reinvent the tragic characters of the myth of Atreides with her work Orestes (1971). Kambanellis does the same with the trilogy Letter to Orestes – The Supper – The Side Roads of Thebes (1993). The third part of this trilogy refers to Lavdakides, but brings to the foreground several of the secondary characters of ancient tragedies for the first time. Pavlos Matesis has tragic characters re-signify themselves with his work Roar (1997), placing them within a complex context where the ruined palace of Mycenae still hosts the basic characters of the tragedy of Atreides who, by changing roles, participate in an endless game-performance of their own life: characters’ stripping of their tragic identity and their involvement in today’s merciless reality, where there is no place for tragedy, is also signified by the hordes of tourists who visit the palace-monument and use the toilet.

Equally, Dimitris Dimitriadis fundamentally subverts the roles of Atreides, which are predetermined by tragedy and myths, in his work Evacuation (2013): the expected actions of the characters involved are cancelled, the correlations change, and murders are committed but by different perpetrators and involving other victims from the actual ones. Identities are confused as Erinyes kill in the end the nurse who took on the role of Orestes, blaming her for the matricide (but in this work Agamemnon takes on the role of Clytemnestra and Chrysothemis the role of Aegisthus). Ancient myths decompose, names lose their value, and modern society is unable to preserve the myths that fed it. Everything fades away.

With that rationale, even Medea in Dimitris Dimitriadis’ Civilization: A Cosmic Tragedy (2013) is placed within a context where momentous changes –culminating in the ravage of the Oracle of Delphi– have distorted, in her ignorance, her identity since she is deprived of her magical powers. The gods have crumbled, old values have been overturned, and people stand desperately alone against their own self and others. Medea, who is broken living between her tragic past defined by her divine powers and her cosmic present where she experiences the humanized scenic world, insists in vain on uttering words of lamentation from the ancient text or performs actions of the tragic “past” which are pointless today. Today’s destruction has annulled the guarantee provided to characters by their mythical identity, while it breaks at the same time the convenient safety net provided to us by our cultural-national past.

Indeed, tragic characters are nothing more but words confined in books, signifiers in search for their signified, ready to cling to new, even opposite ones. Characters constantly utter words that they don’t know which of the various texts they have referred to they belong to: palimpsest identities. “We used the wrong language. The theatre we had in mind went through the words of others”, Iphigeneia says in Giorgos Veltsos’ A Plan for Iphigeneia – A Plan for Electra (2014). The stereotypical role models portrayed by tragic characters have lost their significance, what is left are books-charnel houses, words-bones without soul. The same is true for the ancient myths that “include” them. What the modern Greek theatre insists on pursuing is a break with the inherited models, a break which will allow their acquisition but this time by dealing with them in a new, functional way.