The Greek Theatre at the Dawn of the 21st Century: From Collectivity to Innerness,

  •  Platon Mavromoustakos, Professor, President of the Faculty of Theatre Studies of the University of Athens

[Translation: Elena Delliou]

The Modern Greek dramatic production remains rather unknown to the wider European audience. It is certain that in their minds the Greek theatrical life consists almost exclusively of the ancient drama performances, which appear to cast a heavy shadow over any novel creative expression. Nonetheless, although the shadow of the ancient is always present in modern Greece, one should recognize that from the end of the Second World War and until the dawn of the 21st century, there is an ever-growing literary output; it covers a wide range of concerns, escalates with the constant emergence of new writers, revitalizes the Greek stage production, and distinctly shapes generations of creators at every level of dramatic activity. […]

In our effort to define the characteristics of the Greek dramaturgy, it is imperative to attempt a brief retrospection on the developmental conditions of the Greek theatrical activity in the last sixty years, mostly in order to recognize and accept that the end of World War II set new conditions and posed new problems in the country’s theatrical life. The major ideological and political confrontations – evident since the mid-1930s – led from the events of the war and the German occupation to the 1946-1949 civil war, and cause major ideological upheaval in the spiritual life of the country. The fact that immediately after the end of the war the Greek theatre acquired new characteristics in its entirety, brought the Greek theatrical activity closer to that of the rest of Europe. Some of these new attributes are: the rise and consolidation of the director’s role; the running of novel and organized public theatre organizations; the emergence of theatre groups that cover a wide range which include both the leading troupes and the smaller ones, those with artistic reflection which can be classified as Art theatre.

However, although after the country’s liberation the Greek Theatre closed the gap and started to keep pace with the rest of Europe, the political life was far below the growth conditions: a flawed democracy with severe repressive mechanisms, with the Communist left in the underground and the broader left only marginally legal, and with an absurd and heavy censorship that was engaging in a witch-hunt; all these happen until the 1967 Military Junta and the abolishment of any notion of constitutional order up until1974. It is evident that the theatre’s development took place with retractions and inconsistencies, sometimes with haste and at others with a slow pace, or even with a regression to painless practices. The reestablishment of democracy in 1974 and the decades after the political changeover led to the release of all those forces that had been forced to employ strategic and tactical tricks of creative expression the previous years: the abolition of all preventive or repressive intrusive mechanisms on behalf of the authorities – for the first time in the history of modern Greece since the establishment of the modern Greek State – enabled the theatre to develop fearlessly and soon overcome the traumas of the state’s constant suspicion. In its totality, the Greek theatre could now make an almost unhindered progress: its constitutionally guaranteed freedom was safeguarded at institutional level, while institutions and support mechanisms of the dramatic creation had been solidified; although the conditions of its financial development may have created insecurity and inhibitions to the creators, the democratic operation of the country after 1974 enabled the theatre to recover decades of lost ground. As a member of the European Union, the country strived to follow the other countries’ pace, while the theatre itself managed to follow the European theatrical development on better terms.

Perhaps this brief historical review has allowed us to further clarify the choices and directions of the Greek dramatic production, and to recognise the specific circumstances that determined the conditions and stages of its development. Undoubtedly, the terms of the occupation’s and the civil war’s ideological confrontation were readily visible in the dramatic production of the first decades of the post-war period.

The plays written immediately after the war and up until the early 1960s clearly illustrated some of the characteristics of the Greek society. Initially, the dominant tendency was a complacent theatrical production, which was presented to the Greek audience in the form of recreational light comedy, embellished the Greek society by any means possible –  completely ignoring its internal contradictions – and supported the seemingly flawless model of economic development that the post-civil war governments invoked. Gradually and simultaneously, a novel dramatic production developed; one whose aim was to critically tackle the terms of this particular development, turning its gaze to the obvious problems that shaped the Greek society, and focusing on the terms of the social evolution.

The two trends were expressed by theatre companies with different orientation and divergent aesthetic perceptions. The demand for entertainment was satisfied by leading actors and companies that fuelled the Greek cinematic production with entertaining plots, while modern writers mostly address the reflection theatre groups. Among the latter ones, the Art Theatre and Karolos Koun – its great creator – stood out and had a multiple impact on the shaping of a generation of writers who emerged in the mid-1950s; the Art Theatre’s choice of repertoire from the global stage, an aesthetic that was clear and oriented towards the expressive Greek behaviour, the unique apprenticeship relationships that many writers developed with this theatre and its founder, and – naturally – the selections from the domestic repertoire, all were steering the concerns of Greek playwriting. For many years, the Art Theatre was the refuge of a generation of authors, daring to stage plays by writers who would find it almost impossible to pass the threshold of the National Theatre – one that mostly sought plays that did not touch upon the social reality.

A direct consequence was the establishment of a dominant trend that could be called a theatre of everyday life, one that described the developmental conditions of the Greek society. Through Iakovos Kambanellis’ The Courtyard of Miracles – the first, decisive and iconic play – and a plurality of plays, the occurrences of everyday life were reflected, forming the image of a dramatic space that was appealing to the audience’s social concerns, assisted by a multitude of other areas of Greek artistic creation such as the lyrics and Greek art music of Theodorakis and Hatzidakis, or the cinematic production that drew from the Italian neo-realism and the French cinema of creators. This dominant trend that – almost exclusively – determined the creators’ choices until the early 1980s, was coexisted with other minor tendencies which at times peaked: the Theatre of the Absurd’s influence had become obvious from the mid-1960s to the 1974 political changeover, briefly becoming the dominant trend and, thus, creating another pole of interest. Moreover, a number of different – solitary – voices were altering this picture, at times confirming and others cancelling these two "canons" of dramatic production.

Since the mid-1980s, there had been a change of scenery. A number of theatre groups – subsidized or not – took the Art Theatre’s place, while the National Theatre’s long lasting suspicion towards anything novel had finally lifted. Upheavals within the various theatres and organizations that altered the theatrical activity’s overall picture were the result of the major changes that the Greek society has undergone during the last decades of the 20th century; the emblematic theatre personalities gradually gave way to many groups, and the theatrical spaces multiplied. The intake of foreign dramatic production occurred through various and different paths, while the relationship and communication processes with the rest of Europe and the contemporary theatrical scene were ever changing, as were the expansion agents and the terms of dramatic production. The attempt to codify the developmental terms of the Greek playwrighting and to classify its key features was impeded by an extremely complex system of creation and by an impressively large number of productions which was unprecedented for Greece, but comparable to what characterizes the contemporary European scene. The theatrical exuberance of the European capitals and the huge variety of stage practices were reflected in the Greek theatrical life of the 21st century, disrupting any possibility of knowledge on the theatre.

However, in these new theatrical directions, there were some common points of reference. The production of texts that were directly linked to Greek society’s developmental standards offered prospects that urged the writers to alter their choices. The problems presented were not simply those of a changing society but mostly the ones that every individual had to face. The sufferings and small joys of the everyday life were giving way to a deeper and much less obvious introspection. This left less space for the collective, common dream, whereas the hope for lifestyle changes could not replace the burden of existence. Well-documented phenomena were overshadowed by the need to focus on the examination of people; their private passions and individual cases. Places where the everyday life unfolded gave way to the characters’ isolation and their confrontation with themselves: an inward path that enabled new creators to change the rules of the post-war theatre production and sometimes attempt a true rupture. The passage from a collective spirit to an individual loneliness is one of the most persistent elements of the recent produce. The shapes and solutions that the writers suggest vary greatly and, even if the starting point can be found in situations or attitudes that derive from the Greek society, the answers provided cannot be considered as a reproduction of such images.

There are plays whose attributes have references to ancient myths, and others that describe individual paths, focusing on the lack of extroversion, the tolerance or rejection of the other, and diversity. Other plays address the problems of collective or individual memory and reflect on the new forces of society or the family relations, as well as the relations and conflicts between the generations. In certain plays politics is dominant, while in others the heroes appear completely cut off from the real world. Moreover, certain plays deal with sexuality and the difficulty of reconciling the heroes with themselves, or speak of love, happiness and death.

Every play is claiming its own position in an increasingly diverse produce which creates a more and more chaotic body. The ability to offer to the audience as many thematic axes as there are works, and as many approaches as the writers tends to become the organizational model of the late 20th and early 21st century dramatic production.

The last twenty years have been characterized by the great thematic variety of the plays that were written and presented on the Greek stage, joining together many and different trends of the Greek dramatic production, in an era defined by the terms of a widespread economic crisis, deeply felt in the Greek society.

This period’s dramatic production perhaps reflects the theatre’s prominent position in the Greek society of the early 21st century: the characters’ reflection on the proper response to the current social crisis becomes the imperative of not only the dramatic writing, but of the Greek society in its totality.

New editing of Platon Mavromoustakos’ essay : “L'écriture grecque contemporaine à l'aube du XXIe siècle: du collectif à l'intériorité”, a Foreword in: Auteurs dramatiques grecs d’aujourd’hui. Miroirs tragiques, fables modernes, under the direction of Myrto Gondicas, “Les Cahiers de la Maison Antoine Vitez – Centre International de la Traduction Théâtrale”, Editions Théâtrales – Institut Français de Grèce, pp. 15-20