Sophocles Road to Contemporary Greek Theatre

The aim of our study is to trace the presence of Sophocles in Modern Greek Theatre, from its first steps during the Enlightenment period up to the present day. Because the meaning of the term theatre includes both the stage action and the dramatic production, our research will extend in both directions. That is to say, we shall identify stage interpretations of the dramas of Sophocles, which were landmarks and which set the pace for the course of contemporary approaches to interpreting, not only the works of Sophocles, but ancient Greek drama in general. At the same time we shall record and comment on original theatrical works by contemporary Greek playwrights, while having the works of Sophocles as a direct or indirect model.

In this sense our research exceeds the boundaries of the specific ancient tragic poet and expands further into how ancient Greek drama is assimilated by its modern equivalent. It extends itself to the expressed or unexpressed relationship that links ancient to contemporary Hellenism.

Beginning from the stage action parameter we can pause at a number of representative performances of the works of Sophocles (and, in a wider sense, of ancient Greek tragedy), which in their own way became milestones in later stage interpretations of ancient Greek drama. Modern Greek theatre is in constant and direct contact with the wider body of European theatre. Through this process it takes on the form of specific, more general tendencies. Views initially identified in our study must refer to archetypal performances of Sophocles’ tragedies that act as symbols not only in Modern Greek, but also in world theatre as a whole.

A study such as this should first refer to a performance of Oedipus The King presented at the theatre of the Olimpici Academy in Vicenza in 1855. This performance we use as a starting point. Though it is not directly relevant to our study, we are recording it simply and solely for historical reasons. The performance however, which is linked to Greek reality indirectly, is that of Antigone initially staged in 1841, by Ludwig Tieck at the Royal Palace in Potsdam and later on in other theatres throughout Germany; in Dresden, Leipzig, Munich and Manheim. The German romantic poet, dramatist and director, captures the interpretation of the play in such a way that the function of the space played a determining role in the development and observance of the stage action. He enlarged the stage area into a semi-circle above the orchestra, thus creating conditions similar to those in an ancient Greek amphitheatre. The performance became a milestone in the interpretation of ancient Greek drama and was seriously taken into account by Max Reihardt, who further went on to direct Oedipus The King in 1910 in Munich, on a circus stage. Believing in the magic of theatre, the poetry and illusion created by the use of lighting, the en masse movement of actors – surpassing the Naturalism established in Germany by Otto Brahm, he tried to reconstruct the amphitheatric stage indoors. Under such circumstances, combining a large audience and a large number of actors, he created a distinctive inner communication. He placed exceptional emphasis to the chorus, who though large in number had a collectivity. Αs a whole it expressed a uniform identity. It enhanced the mass of the stage movement and favoured the participation of the audience to the drama enacted, thus reducing the role of the leading actor.

This Reinhart model, which was also indirectly Tieck’s, was the one that Photos Politis, the first leading Greek director, to whom we shall refer later on in this study, had in mind. This monumental performance, however, was preceded by another given in Athens by a visiting troupe towards the end of the 19th century. In various ways this performance affected the approach in directing tragic works in Greece. The Comédie Française, at the Athens Municipal Garden, featuring Jean Mounet-Sully in the title role, presented Oedipus The King on September 28, 1899. (Sideris, 1976: 144-169). Gifted with physical suppleness, great sensitivity and an extraordinary acting capacity to express the inner passion and intensity of the role, the French actor resorted to extreme interpretative movements, which were received with both negative and positive comments among the Athenian audience. The newspaper critics found the chance to attack verbalism and the anti-theatrical nature of the archaic-looking performances in ancient Greek, staged by Mistriotis and his followers. They proposed that the ancient Greek texts should be translated into modern Greek and that the stage interpretation of ancient Greek works should be renewed, on the basis of the elements presented by each performance individually.

Perhaps for the first time, a new view emerged that ancient Greek theatre is not a literary work; that it should be approached, not according to grammar or syntax, but as a composite artistic creation to be perceived through a strong aesthetic, communicational relationship between audience and stage action.

The richness of the leading and supporting actors’ performance, the utilization of the visual performance codes and the elegance of the stage movement, impressed both the audience and the critics, who for the first time faced the theatrical interpretation based on visual portrayal, not content (Sideris, 1976: 142-160).

Up until then, school or amateur troupes used to stage ancient drama performances – and in particular the works of Sophocles. The performances were given within the framework of the ancient Greek language curriculum, without particular attention to aesthetic and artistic demands. The marriage of King George I to Olga at the end of 1867, gave the opportunity to a troupe of professional actors (and students in supporting roles) to stage Antigone at the Irodou Attikou theatre in Athens. The work was translated by Alexandros Rizos Rangavis and directed by Professor Athanasios Rousopoulos (Sideris, 1976: 42-45). The performance determined those that followed during the 19th century. This is no wonder, as the performances of this period were mainly cerebral structures adhering strictly to a literary fulfillment unrelated to the aesthetic fullness and artistic creation of the work of Art on stage.

The “directors” (a term literally non-existent during the era to which we are referring) of that period are to a great extent responsible for this, as are generally the theatre directors, their associates and finally, the audience itself. Philologists and scholars are usually completely unaware of the techniques and practices of directing, insisting upon the safety that the text’s spirit and content offers them – something which they can comprehend and interpret easily, not knowing or avoiding to expand further to the view of the work, that is to say the expressive means and potential ways of its stage interpretation. If we also take into account the language in which the drama is presented, which is not poetic and which is foreign to all artistic sensibilities and theatrical needs, then the style of the performance and the rendition of the ancient Greek work becomes understandable. (Glitzouris, 2002:43-60).

ηλεκτραTo the afore-mentioned, we should add the practical experience and stage reality of the other artists contributing to the performance, especially that of the actors. The actors were frequently amateurs – students, who through their participation in theatrical performances became practically familiar with the ancient Greek language or at least experienced a communion with the authentic spirit of the works of the three great tragic poets of antiquity.

But even in the event where the stage interpretation of the work was executed by professional actors, the lack of education, proper training in acting and kinesiology, combined with outdated interpretative codes  (during the pre-Revolutionary Theatre period of The Enlightenment) ideologically charged and aesthetically distorted, often led to the creation of a limp performance, alien to the needs of contemporary audiences.

This last factor, in its turn (the audience) not being familiar with the theatrical act, influenced by ideological and furthermore by sentimental factors by a genuine search of aesthetic pleasure, saw in the stage interpretation of ancient Greek Drama the substitute of its social deadlocks and the satisfaction of its search, overcompensating all that was lacking in its objective reality. Thus, the archaic “katharevousa” dialect, verbalism and the intellectual interpretation of the theatrical word, the obsession in interpreting the original text, the excessive weight placed on the values and notional world of the play at the expense of its aesthetic assessment, were virtues and demands of a large part of the audience who watched performances of ancient Greek tragedies. This audience was very familiar with the genre through multiple and varied adaptations and interpretations of the works by more recent Europeans (V. Alfier, P. Metastasio) but also Greek dramatists, such (D. Vernardakis, Sp. Vasiliades). In contrast, the masses did not share this mania of reviving ancient tragedies. People preferred their own shows; pantomime and Shadow Theatre, Variety performances and Café Aman shows or in the best case, one-act comedies and later on operettas and revues (Hadzipantazis, 1986).

There are many such representative performances of the 19th century. One of these was Oedipus The King staged on May 23, 1887 at the Olympia Theatre by a mixed troupe of students and professionals, within the framework of the celebrations for the fifty years since the foundation of the Kapodistrias University in Athens, (1837-1887). Another such performance is Persai, staged on October 19, 1889at the Municipal Theatre of Athens at the wedding of Prince Constantine and Sofia and, yet another, Antigone on March 27, 1896 at the Municipal Theatre of Athens, again presented by a student theatre troupe under the guidance of Professor George Mistriotis who for a long period featured in discussions and attempts to interpret ancient Greek drama (Grammatas, 2002: B’15).

At the beginning of the 20th century the matter takes on its true dimension, when, for the first time, Constantinos Christomanos of the Nea Skini Theatre and Thomas Economou of the Vasiliko Theatro introduce theatre directing in Greece (Mavrikiou – Anagnostou, 1964, Sideris, 1999: 244-247). The first places emphasis on the aesthetics of the performance, paying particular attention to the stage sets, costumes, the décor and audiovisual effects, in the spirit of the equivalent European models of aesthetics. The latter continues the more traditional approach of the official state theatres of Europe (Vienna, Berlin, Munich) placing more emphasis on the content of the work, thus giving priority to the literary rendering of the text or stage interpretation. Despite lesser differences, these views as a whole present a purely theatrical approach toward ancient Greek tragedy, entirely opposite to earlier attempts within Greece, as for instance the style of Mistriotis, which is the most representative. (Sideris, 1963:35-36)

The dramatic text is no longer approached as a museum object to be handled with respect and care, a piece that lacks functionality, vitality and directness of communication with the contemporary audience. It is treated as an artistic product of the written word, bearing a substantive and self-reliant value imprinted in the text, that needs to take on its stage substance in order to carry through its intrinsic mission: elevation of the soul, spiritual stimulation and aesthetic emotion of the audience.

Performances of the tragedies of Sophocles have been staged since 1903. On November 2 the Nea Skini Theatre staged Antigone in a single performance, translated into modern Greek by C. Manos, after the suggestion of Costis Palamas that the tragedy should be translated into the lively Demotic idiom (Sideris, 1973: 47-56), while the Vasiliko Theatro (Royal Theatre) staged Oedipus The King on December 9, 1903, with obvious influences of the performance of the same work at the Comédie Française.

A performance of the same work by the Vasiliko Theatro directed by Angelos Vlachos was presented at the Panathinaikon Stadium on March 16, 1906. The same director directed Sophocles’ Electra on December 5 of the same year at the indoor theatre on Ayios Constantinos street, where Oedipus at Kolonos was held on December 4, 1907. (Sideris, 1976: 221-228). These performances did not feature anything noteworthy enough to make them memorable. We mention them, as they, in fact, are the first attempts of stage interpretations of the works of Sophocles and, in a wider sense, of ancient Greek drama in general.

A milestone, however, in the performances of this period was one held on May 21, 1919 at the Olympia Theatre by the Greek Theatre Company: Oedipus The King, was directed by Photos Politis with Emilios Veakis in the title role. In this performance the director followed the principles of the “master”, Max Reinhardt (Pouchner, 1984: 18-22). He brought the action forward, removing seats from the first rows, introduced compelling lighting, paid particular attention to the acting and movement, the articulation and the dancing of the chorus. (Glitzouris, 2001: 164-166)

The most important and innovative step, however, which he took as a director, was the arrangement of the stage space. Through it, the conditions for interpreting the tragedy were brought closer to the parameters of its physical space perception: the stage of the ancient Greek amphitheatre. Οιδίπους τύραννος φοτο 2He moved all the action off the standard boite italienne stage and on it created Oedipus’s palace, constructing a broad staircase landing in front of it, where he staged the action (as he also did on the steps surrounding it at three sides). In front of it and in the square, he removed three rows of seats, creating space for the chorus to move. In this way he created the illusion of an ancient Greek theatre and gave the three-dimensional possibility for communication between audience and characters, the immediate presence of whom was both visible and felt from all sides. (Sideris, 1976: 266-278)

Despite all the reservations expressed by some for the introduction of German staging solutions and proposals to Greece, the unsuitability of the indoor space and the style of for the group recitation by the chorus  (Melas, 1960: 136-137) the performance was an immense success, so much that it became a milestone in the attempts that followed (Fessa – Emanuel, 1999: 39-40)

Another, probably even greater milestone in the history of directing ancient Greek drama in contemporary Greek theatre and especially the works of Sophocles, is the performance of Electra at the Irodion Attikou in 1936. A monumental performance of the work was again given at Epidavros on September 21, 1938, directed by Demetris Rondiris, thus successfully marking the return of the ancient tragic theatre to its natural environment.

The starting-point of such endeavours dates back to the 19th century, in 1888, when the Comédie Française presented Oedipus the King at the Roman theatre of Orange in southern France, with Jean Mounet-Sully in the title role. The Italian director Ettore Romagnioli staged the same play in the Roman Theatre of Fiesole (Italy) in 1911.

But also in Greece equivalent attempts date back to the beginning of the 20th century when the French theatre company presented Iphigenia at Avlis on October 29, 1904 at the Panathinaikon Stadium, a place where later (March 16, 1906) Angelos Vlachos directed Oedipus the King. The same tendency to utilize outdoor spaces was shared by others, for Marika Kotopouli staged Antigone at Irodion Attikou on August 20, 1924. Hecuba directed by Photis Politis was staged at the Panathinaikon Stadium on September 26, 1927 starring Emilios Veakis and Marika Kotopouli. The most serious attempt of all, however, in using ancient Greek amphitheatres for staging tragedies is probably that of Angelos and Eva Sikelianos. The couple staged Promitheus Bound at Delphi in 1927 and The Suppliant Women in 1930 (Glitzouris, 1998:  151-159, 147-170). However, it was Demetris Rondiris, who, with his performance of Electra, mentioned above, established the staging of ancient Greek drama in its natural environment. The director’s first concern was to enhance the tragedy with respect toward the text, and the interpretation of the inherent world of values as projected by the dramatist. He believes in the deeply religious but also human spirit of the tragedy and recognizes the generally ritualistic character of ancient Greek theatre. This fact defined his choices when staging performances in outdoor theatres, as an attempt to bring the plays back to their natural environment, according, of course, to the pre-existing Greek and European experience. This is why he lays great weight on the acting, leaving visual enhancement aside, something, which he assigned entirely to his crew.

His aim is to project the tragic element and communicate it to the contemporary audience; to convey to them trough the stage interpretation of the text, the tragic thrill and the true aesthetic emotion that the spectators of classic antiquity experienced. His aim was to avoid a rigid representation and to transmit the eternal values, contained within the tragic work, based on elements taken from Greek reality, proving the unity and the continuity of Hellenism from antiquity up until the present day. As a result of this, he rejected any attempt of literary approach toward the tragedy, placing emphasis on the acting element and the impeccable utterance of the tragic verse, leaning on the given reality of contemporary Hellenism and the timeless material of its cultural tradition, bridging the gap between the era of the original production and the era of the actual viewing of the play. (Grammatas, 2002: B’36-37).

In the choral parts he initially showed preference to the collective recitation by the members of the chorus and its formation into independent moving subgroups on stage. He later chose to employ the “singing chorus”, following the previously existing experiments. The spreichchor technique although already known in Greece from previous performances presented by visiting theatre companies (1927), through the intervention of D. Rodiris, became autonomous, aesthetically complete and entirely compatible with his wider view on stage interpretation of ancient Greek dramas. To the natural rhythm of the collective utterance of the text by the chorus, he added movement, which was carried out in an almost geometric arrangement and through it he achieved a compelling effect between recitation and dancing, resulting in the fascination of the audience in remarkable performances such as Electra in 1936, Ippolytos in 1937 and Persai in 1939.

In his efforts to interpret ancient Greek drama, he sought support from set designer Cleovoulos Clonis, who in his efforts to employ all possibilities of visual intervention provided by the open space, he introduced the “architecturally structured schematisation”. He took advantage of whatever was left of the ancient stage ruins and placed only small stage objects that had functional use (vessels). (Fessa – Emmanuel, 1999: 43). Influenced by the identification of the tragic element with its compelling formal materialisation (accepted also by Photos Politis) a new type of neoclassicism was introduced. It favoured and enhanced the stage development of ancient drama, according to the ideological and aesthetic standards already familiar among the audience.

To this endeavour, the costume designer, Antonis Fokas, came to add his own contribution. He utilised the principles first employed by Eva Palmer-Sikelianou. He too based his work on the popular weaving tradition, which he exalted, giving it a neoclassic spirit, thus linking contemporary to ancient heritage. He used weaving techniques passed down by popular tradition and fabrics that embraced the actor’s body harmoniously, with each pleat following and enhancing every move of the actor. The colours and designs were inspired by nature itself. (Fessa – Emmanuel, a.m.) The chorus of women “were dressed in dark-coloured tunics, contrasting with the pale-coloured garments worn on top. Dark bleak robes without particular adornments were the costumes for Katina Paxinou and Eleni Papadaki in the roles of Electra and Cletemnistra, respectively.” (Kontogiorgi, 2000: 76)

In the post-war period, an array of auteur directing techniques and stage interpretations of the tragedies of Sophocles favoured by the institution of summer festivals, presented to Greek and visiting viewers varied versions of the tragic myth and tragic characters appearing in his plays. Among these, for many reasons, we take a look at the most representative: Oedipus the King at Epidavros in 1955 and Oedipus at Kolonos in 1958, presented at the same theatre, directed by Al. Minotis, with himself and Katina Paxinou in the leading roles. Electra staged in 1972 by Sp. Evangelatos at the National Theatre brought out the individuality of the members of the chorus. Though they presented a uniformed whole, the members of the chorus maintained their individual character. Electra, directed in 1982 by G. Sevastikoglou at the National Theatre, is also a noteworthy performance. More recent and interesting performances are Antigone staged in 1992 by Lefteris Voyiatzis, in the small indoor stage of the Nea Skini Theatre, Electra by N. Diamantis, also in the indoor stage of the Simio Theatre presented in 1996, and the same work directed by M. Marmarinou in 1998 by the Diplous Eros Theatre company in Epidavros.

There are even more noteworthy performances such as those produced by either Greek or visiting theatre companies directed by visiting directors. Through such performances the Greek audience experienced in wider international tendencies of interpreting ancient Greek dramas, and especially those of Sophocles.

We can list a number of these performances. Electra, directed by Robert Stourouna in 1987 starring Tzeni Karezi and C. Kazakos, Oedipus the King, directed by Peter Hall in 1996 at Epidavros, Trackers f Oxyrynhous directed by Tony Harrison at Delphi, Electra directed in 1992 at the Megaro Mousikis in Athens by Yiouri Liubimov, greatly influenced by the Brechtian technique of alienation. The afore-mentioned performances (and others not mentioned) paved the way towards the direction of Sophocles, which, together with that of Aeschylos, Euripides and Aristofanis, marks the method of interpreting ancient Greek theatre on the contemporary Greek stage.

However, as we stated earlier on in our study, the meaning of the term “theatre” bears the meaning of production – both dramatising and staging. That is to say, the original works written, based on the established ancient Greek dramas, and in our case those of Sophocles.

A study such as ours, ought to determine the mechanisms through which the audience perceived earlier dramaturgy (in the form of a model or original text) through a later interpretation, and identifies the ways in which the past is assimilated by and interwoven into the present, leading to fresh creations, directly and indirectly referring to the original source – the tragedies of Sophocles.

This type of analysis can prove fruitful, as a remarkable number of quality productions are products of conscious or unconscious influences that modern Greek playwrights and authors have received from the works of Sophocles.

ye1936_ceb7cebbceb5cebacf84cf81ceb1-cebaceb1ceb9-cf87cf81cf85cf83cebfcc81ceb8ceb5cebcceb9cf82At a first glance, twenty such productions, beginning from the late 19th century until the beginning of the 21st, are direct references to specific works of Sophocles. If in our study we include other productions, the original source of which is not entirely clear, as the ancient myth is also present in the works of the other two tragic poets, Aeschylos and Euripides, then the volume of the modern production increases. Beginning from an initial observation, we can determine that, the way in which the works of Sophocles is evaluated and utilised by contemporary Greek playwrights varies. In some instances, ancient models are simply imitated. In other cases, more recent dramatists treat in a creative manner the functionality of mythological archetypes. Sometimes one can witness a superficial influence, whereas at other times one can see a connection of transtextual and post-theatrical type. In other words, according to the social, aesthetic, cultural and ideological circumstances of the given era, the particularity of the individual author, combined with the expectations of the target audience the original works can be recognised, as they transform their ancient models through a fertile dialogue between the past and the present. Some of these works bear the elements of traditional style of writing. They recreate their model, remaining strictly attached to it, while others move onto a postmodernist version of their models, communicating indirectly the Sophoclean drama.

If we attempt a preliminary categorization of more recent works, we can ascertain that at least fourteen of these refer to the Theban cycle: The Conviction of the Early Christians by Ant. Antoniades (1870) Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Ach. Karavias (1887), Antigone, by G. Spyridakis (1947), Iocaste, by Al. Matsa (1952), Antigone Through Occupation, by N. Peryialis (1960), Antigone or the Nostalgia of Tragedy, by M. Lambaridou-Pothou (1967), The Humiliation of Iocaste, by O. Odin (Odilis Syngrou) (1969), Ismini, by Y. Ritsos (1972), Tiresias by Y. Ritsos (1975) The Catharsis of Ismini by V.Tertipis (1978), The Corner On the River and the Bridge by Dem. Christodoulou (1979), Antigone or the End of her Self-deceit, by M. Kekkou (1992), Passing of Thebes by J. Kambanellis (1992) and The Murder of Laios and the Crows by M. Pontikas (2004). Four of these works are based on Oedipus the King and seven on Antigone. Three are general.

The following seven works belong to the Trojan cycle: Ajax by Y. Ritsos (1972), Why Philoktetes Went to Kalavria to Heal His Foot by C. Vlassopoulos (1982), Electra by Kypros Chrisanthis (1960) (written initially by Andreas Kouros in 1940), Cletemnestra by And. Staikos (1974) The Bow by Dem. Christodoulou (1959), Philoktetes by Y. Ritsos (1965) and Philoktetes by V. Ziogas (1975). Four of these refer to Philoktetes and one to Ajax (Hassapis – Christodoulou, 2002).

Dianeira – Hercules Burning by Pan.Tserdaris (1913) completes the production of dramatic works.

As we can easily conclude, the dialogue between the contemporary Greek playwrights and the tragedies of Sophocles is steady and ongoing. It commenced in 1870, when Ant. Antoniades submitted The Conviction of the Early Christians to the Voutsinas poetry competition. The work received a prize, whereas Christian Eugenia – a very similar play– failed a few years earlier on (1862) in the same competition, due to its imitative dependence on Antigone, as the committee decided. In addition to these two works we must also take into account the translation in prose of Sophocles’ Philoktetes by Nic. Pikkolos in 1818 (and the performance given at Odessa by a student troupe). If this was part of an endeavour by the pioneers of the Enlightenment to bring contemporary Hellenism into contact with antiquity, to instil desire among subjugated Greeks for the resurrection of the nation (Grammatas, 1991: 61-75), then we can see that the influence that Sophocles had on contemporary Greek theatre dates back to the initial phase of its development. The year 2004 becomes a terminus ante quem, as The Murder of Laios and the Crows by Mar. Pontikas is published. The play was staged in the same year at the Stoa Theatre.

If we attempt a classification according to the genre of the works to which we have referred, we can observe that the Modern Greek works belong to various categories not only of dramatic but also of the literary word. The poetic monologues of Ritsos – Ajax, Ismini, Tiresias, Philoktetes, are indicative of this. The philosophic theatrical essay Antigone by G.Spyridakis, the tragedies The Early Christians by Ant. Antoniades, The Bow by Dem. Chrstodoulou and Iocaste by Al. Matsa, but also the parodies The Corner on The River and The Bridge by Dem. Christodoulou and Why Philoktetes went to Kalavria to Heal His Foot by C. Vlassopoulos are also indicative examples.

As to the subject matter and the approach toward their models, we can say that the approach is psychological to psychoanalytic, which appears indicatively in Antigone or the End of Self-deceit by M.Kekkou, Iocaste by Al.Matsa and Ismini by Y.Ritsos. The sociological character is also obvious, as it is in Antigone Or the Nostalgia of Tragedy by Maria Lambaridou-Pothou and The Bow by Dem.Christodoulou.

Finally, as to the utilisation of the tragic myth we ascertain that in most of the works that we are examining, the structural characteristics of the plays of Sophocles remain intact. In this way they represent a traditional treatment of the subject, which falls into the category of the “influence” and “imitation” of a model. In this category we can also include The Conviction of Early Christians by Ant. Antoniades, Antigone by G. Spyridakis, Electra by Kypros Chrisanthis Iocaste, by Al. Matsa, Oedipus and the Sphinx by Achil. Karavias and Dianeira-Hercules Burning by Pan. Terdanis. These too are creations that differ in genre and subject matter. They maintain a strong historic and literary character, which results in a diminished theatricality and weak stage interpretation. They are, therefore, mostly products, of a literary rather than theatrical origin, that naturally represent various versions of the influences that the tragedies of Sophocles had on contemporary playwrights. Even in cases where the works had many theatrical virtues and were judged on this basis by critics; the role that they played in the formation of wider tendencies in the works of Greek dramatists seems limited. In a final analysis, even if they represent particular cases of how ancient drama is perceived by contemporary Greek theatre, in whatever form (Ismini, by Y. Ritsos, Antigone by M.Kekkou, The Corner on The River and The Bridge by Dem. Christodoulou, Antigone Through Occupation by Not. Peryialis, in Dianeira-Hercules Burning by Pan. Tserdanis) – even if these works are regarded as attempts towards a new treatment of the ancient myth under the light of contemporary standards, they remain on a one-dimensional level of traditional approach towards the tragic myth.

The most noteworthy and original cases of contemporary Greek playwrights chosen in parallel to the works of Sophocles are Cletemnestra by Anr. Staikos, Philoktetes by Vas. Ziogas, the Passing of Thebes by J. Kambanellis and the Murder of Laios and the Crows by Mar. Pontikas. These plays were staged successfully and were well received by the audience, they were seriously reviewed by theatre critics and in a wider sense acted as catalysts for the emergence of a specific “trends” for the perception and the treatment of tragic myth by contemporary playwrights.

Because “perceiving” or “accepting” a dramatist or dramaturgy of a previously existing or a different cultural origin, by later dramaturgy is identified mainly in the ways and mechanisms through which the past is incorporated with and by the present. How it gives rise to new works, directly or indirectly referring to and depending on the initial source in the form of a model or an archetype. In this way the contemporary Greek dramatic production has various samples of influences to present. Influences that it has received by the works of the ancient dramatist, who is the focal point of our study. These dramatic texts have a profound relationship with the works of Sophocles. At times they imitate and copy; at other times they merely refer to their ancient archetypes.

Contrary to the traditional treatment of the tragic myth and ancient tragedy, which moved within the frame of “imitation” or influence, contemporary or postmodernist dramatising moves in a different direction. It is no longer a passive receiver undergoing the “influences” of any given model (which acts as a “transmitter”). It is no longer a creation, perceived solely as a product of a one-way influence. In its place a composite communication is developed, which activates the receiver, turning him indirectly into a transmitter. The receiver becomes self-reliant. The text, which is thus newly formed, without hiding the conscious or unconscious “debts” to the original text, acts as a re-transmitter, as a medium, that recharges the communication of the modern audience with the original work on which it is based. A process such as this, transforms the more recent work into a product of a merging of elements, both stemming from and extending beyond the text. These elements correspond to the timeless and trans-cultural character of the ancient tragic text. Through this process, a substantial connection between the past and the present takes place, which is (at least where works of modern Greek dramatists are concerned) a structural element of the cultural identity constantly sought by modern Hellenism.

Such cases are the afore-mentioned Cletemnestra, by Staikos and Philoktetes by Ziogas and The Passing of Thebes by J.Kambanellis and the Murder of Laios and the Crows by Pontikas. In these plays, contemporary Greek playwrights present in a more complicated way a different approach for dealing with tragic myth, equivalent to the more general trends in world theatre. Following postmodernist tendencies in theatrical works, these authors are not considered as direct counterparts of the ancient Greek models of tragic works. On the contrary, they are chosen according to the heroes and the works through which they have expressed the models of ancient tragic theatre, presenting a composition, which contains integrated elements from the sum of original models.

Therefore, understanding a contemporary work, in which myth translated into fable is diffused and extended through the dramatic composition of the contemporary dramatist (directly and indirectly recognized by the viewer) requires the knowledge of the historic course of tragic myth, because it is a collective result of the versions that it has received in its journey through time. This conception characterizes the works of leading postmodernist playwrihgts (H. Miller, B. Strauss, St. Berkov, Y. Mishima) and appears in the works of contemporary Greek dramatists.

  1. Ritsos made the beginning with his monologues Orestis (1966), Agamemnon (1966-1970) The Return of Iphigenia (1971-72) from his anthology of poems Fourth Dimension. In the monologues he connects mythological elements to contemporary Greek reality, expressing in a representative way the expectations and the interests of his society in a highly poetic and less theatrical way. This is why so many years passed before these plays were staged. (Tsolakis, 1984: 117-130)

The same occurred with A. Staikos’ Cletemnestra. The play was staged at V.Papavasiliou’s Epochi Theatre Company during the winter season of 1986-87. In this work the playwright, manages to link in a particularly accurate way the heroic past of the myth of the Atrides with the mundane and at times sad contemporary Greek reality. Two unsuccessful actresses, mother and daughter, live through their crumbling relationship caused by the rivalry brought on by a man. The relationship is equivalent to the theatrical circumstances where they play the parts of heroines of Sophoclean and Aeschylian tragedies. They both claim Aegisthos – the person who is the root of their rivalry. This relationship with its possible and probable context (which explains the question mark in the title of the play) expresses the presence of ancient Greek myth from Aeschylos and Sophocles to Hoffmandstal and contemporary Greece. (Patsalides, 2000: 469-471)

In the third of the one-act plays The Passing of Thebes, J. Kambanellis moves from the Mycenaean to the Theban cycle. He masterfully links Oedipus the King with Antigone, as the heroes in his play are the shepherd who rescued Oedipus from death, and his son, the guard who conveyed the message to Creon that Antigone defied his command by burying her brother. Through the family of this guard who lives an isolated life outside Thebes – far enough to be protected from all harm, but close enough to be aware, Kambanellis, finds the opportunity to speak of the tragedy of the ordinary men. Set on the margin of the action surrounding the lives of the mighty (Oedipus, Iocaste, Laios, Creon, Antigone, Eteoklis, Polynikes) the lives of ordinary men are brought to the foreground; their personal relationships, their problems, such as those of any shepherd, any anonymous guard living with his wife and daughter. (Grammatas, 1994:47-48). In this way the playwright projects the destiny of the high estate Lavdakides as almost equal to the humble Therapon and his son, expressing splendour of a different kind.

The ancient Greek myth is a source of inspiration for V. Ziogas also. In 1960 with his play My Loving Mother Cletemnestra, reproduces the theme of Iphigenia at Avlida. Philoktetes, a contemporary play by the same author is another example where the classic tragic myth meets modern Greek cultural tradition. Based on the original play by Sophocles, the contemporary version maintains the basic structure: the space, the main character and the motivation for his passion. However characters from the religious tradition are brought into the work in the face of monks. The spirit of tragedy is linked to the contemporary era.

The Murder of Laios and the Crows (2004) by M. Pontikas is a more recent version of the myth of Oedipus. We choose this writer, for his work is modeled on Sophocles. He raised questions and offered answers, purposely leaving gaps and equivocal meanings, fortifying the power of the original work. A contemporary man goes wolf hunting. He meets Laios at the crossroads near Davlia. The well-known scene is repeated and Laios is killed. The man knows of the myth of Oedipus and the thought occurs to him that he could be him. He invokes evidence convincing himself and others that he is not identified with the original Oedipus as portrayed by Sophocles. However, fate, once more plays its own game.

The mythical past and the historic present  (civil war) reason and irrationality, motifs of myth and fable (the bird talking in a human form) are blended into the face of the Woman-Crow resembling both Tiresias and destiny in the ancient Greek tragedy, as in the modern Greek (and world) theatre.

After this analysis, we conclude that the path laid down by Sophocles is frequently followed in contemporary Greek theatre. Milestone performances such as Oedipus The King by Photis Politis in 1919 and Dem. Rondiris’ Electra, in 1936 are proof of this. These performances chartered the course of directing ancient Greek tragedies. In the same way original contemporary plays are samples of the fertile influence and dialogue between past and present.

This direction shown by this street, however, is not the only one. There are also those of “Aeschylos” and “Euripides”, which just like their position in city and country planning, so also do they, through stage representation, pave the way toward the network of semantics, aesthetics and values, through which timelessly Hellenism finds its evolution.


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