Memories of heroines in memories of spectators: mythic, dramatic and theatrical time from the ancient drama to the modern greek theatre

If  by “performance” we mean the “poetics of remembrance”, since it is there that the playwright’s and the actor’s memory as well as the spectators’ memory and social memory creatively meet, then theatre can be called the “art of memory”.As a reflective and repetitive appearance of the past in the present, it represents a timeless presence or a timeless past, within which cultural memory (as a collective product) is embodied in the individual memory (as a subjective creation) of the viewer with an all-embracing reference. Subsequently, theatre becomes a privileged field of repetition, memory and mnemonic reconstruction of the texts and their performed visualisation, a timely cultural phenomenon comprising and deriving meaning from the individual memory of the viewer, as well as the collective memory of the audience, with which it is engaged in a constant dialogue.

Thus, theatrical performance is a unique occurrence that takes place just once, limited in time and artistically hovering between an elusive current assessment and a constantly decreasing mnemonic recording, which makes the expression of any judgment on the part of the viewing subject rather relative and precarious. This is because during the performance, in front of the viewer, a stage reality takes place that is naturally impossible to be perceived and decoded identically by all those present, due to the various subjective and objective, measurable and immeasurable factors, one of which, memory is very important indeed. The ceaseless change and transformation of pictures and symbols, which come out on stage as composite theatrical speech, results in emerging feelings and stimulates the viewers’ conscience, thus finally being recorded as “memory”. In its own turn memory becomes a starting point and a prerequisite for even more mnemonic processes, which, when accordingly added, it projects the past of the story onto the present of the theatrical expression (performance). This procedure of recording and memorising problematises any effort to later reflect upon the memories caused by the particular performance in the viewer’s conscience every time s/he tries to recall the impressions of a spectacle s/he attended in the past in a critical and distanced manner.

We can thus conclude that the perception of the viewer and the audience (of one particular performance or any other in general) constitutes the sum of (possibly) different but similar ingredients, which as a whole derive (directly or indirectly) from the concept of memory. This is exactly the question posed here: how does memory work? What is the true relationship between memory and the actual occurrence itself? Is what remains in the viewer’s memory after a performance a sum of words and phrases with a particular conceptual gravity and value content, or some facial expressions, the actors’ movements and gestures, or elements of the setting, or eventually some occurrences irrelevant to the aesthetic result, connected to the place and time of the performance?

Those questions have been discussed in an earlier study. Here we aim to explore, with the same starting point and similar questions in mind, the Modern Greek Drama and its relationship to classical tragedy, mostly in the ways in which mythic time appears as a memory, an echo or a recollection in modern dramatic revisions or adaptations of ancient myths, especially through tragic heroines such as Clytemnestra, Andromache and Medea. Moreover, we focus on how mythic and dramatic time are projected on to the audience’s consciousness, while the spectators watch the performance, in a closed or open theatrical space, and recall “classical” performances that they have already seen, opening up new interpretative possibilities for the perception of ancient myth and drama.

As Marvin Carlson comments in The Haunted Stage, drama “has always been centrally concerned” with “the retelling of stories already known to its public”. For contemporary drama this comment is much more true, considering that most postmodern playwrights have dealt with adaptation, revision, transcription or retelling of Greek tragic myths in their plays. In Modern Greek theatre during the last decades, retelling of the already known myths, drawing on the rich sources of Greek Tragedy or suggesting different interpretations of mythic stories, seems to be a familiar element of the theatrical language. Playwrights use the canvas of the classical plays in a way that allows them to revise its elements, aiming to express their own concerns within an already known context. Thus, they sometimes focus on specific dramatic characters and re-examine their motivation, or choose some elements of the plot of a classical tragedy, which they expand and illuminate while reducing or completely eliminating other aspects. At other times they transpose the story to another time/place, thus creating analogies between contemporary characters and the familiar tragic persons.

Already in the 1970s, in the collection Fourth Dimension (1978), Yannis Ritsos took some very important steps towards an innovative observation of the tragic myth, which is considerably differentiated from the until then existing approaches that had already made their appearance since the eighteenth century. One of the ways in which myth is revised in Modern Greek plays is by exploiting memory; memory is assigned a special function, namely to give multiple levels of signification to the myth as retold by the modern dramatists. Memory, as a complex function of the human brain, has many unexplored properties; accordingly, the study of memory is related to psychology, neurophysiology, biology, medicine as well as sociology, history and cultural studies. Types of theatrical memory in particular are the neurophysiological or intellectual memory, the emotional memory, the physical or experiential memory, and the collective or social memory; these function together so that the performance is being recorded in a multidimensional way in the viewers’ consciousness (and even in their unconscious), and its data are recalled whenever the conditions are appropriate.

In theatre, in general, the subject matter of the play, the values and the messages derived from it, the relationships and the circumstances experienced by the persons, the characters presented, all influence the viewers’ consciousness and catalytically affect their memory, by intensifying or weakening oblivion brought about by the time-distance from the dramatic and scenic space and time on the one hand and the objective time on the other. The most interesting “implication” of memory appears in the case of classical texts, because they are the “most lasting repository of peoples’ cultural memories”. Thus characters such as Oedipus, Antigone, Clytemnestra, Electra or Medea, given the intensity of the circumstances they experience and the breadth of qualities they express, are difficult to forget, despite the variety of other impressions the viewer acquires from the theatrical experience. In addition, the visualised symbols and the objects inscribed in the text structures, the descriptions and instructions for place and time, as expressed by the playwright’s stage-directions, acquire a special significance for the function of memory, being highly visualised symbols of circumstances and concepts inextricably connected to the play, thus enabling their mnemonic recording as signifiers.

In particular, tragic heroines of contemporary plays converse with their earlier intertextual personae and attack the certainties of the audience, recalling elements inscribed in the dramatic text, which characterise them, while they simultaneously refresh their image, adding new perspectives that affect the perception of drama. In Akis Demou’s play Ανδρομάχη ή τοπίο γυναίκας στο ύψος της νύχτας [Andromache or Woman’s landscape in the height of night] (1999) the well-known Homeric heroine whose fate is tied to the dramatic space of destroyed Troy, as depicted in Euripides’ Trojan Women, is now transposed to Epirus “in an artificial Trojan landscape, imitation of Troy”, as the author comments in the brief narration of the myth which precedes the text. Hector’s wife, a former princess, is now found as a slave, away from Troy, which, however, she recreates with her own hands in the new landscape in which she was brought to live. The building materials for this utopia are the materials of memory; a foreign language, Greek, enables Andromache to find new names for things and to move on with her life. Her memory lures her to a dilemma between a happy then / there and an unbearable here / now, while she is trying with her words and her paintings to understand and conquer this present, filling it with the stuff of her memory.

The members of the audience on the other side are transferred, through the heroine’s memory, to the past, which is known and retraced in their memory because of the intertextual journey of Andromache’s character from Homer to the present days. Demou creates visual symbols for the audience, through a scenic space described as “three large painted surfaces, representing facades of public and private buildings of Troy, creating the illusion of a room-city”. This space is constructed simply by the memories of the heroine while it simultaneously creates a scenic space that makes it easy for the audience to record in their own memory.

Another representative sample of mnemonic recording can be found in Avra Sidiropoulou’s play Τα δάκρυα της Κλυταιμνήστρας [Clytemnestra’s Tears]. Here the dramatic figure of Clytemnestra seems to struggle constantly with her memory, which is present in every part of the monologue as a driving force behind every thought, every judgment and every emotion. In an intertextual dialogue with Iakovos Kambanellis’ trilogy The Supper, Clytemnestra is dominated by her grief for the loss of her beloved Iphigenia and reconstructs the past in the shadow of memories. Agamemnon comes again and again in her mind and speech as the husband, the lover and the murderer of her daughter, raking up strong emotions such as love, affection and hatred in an endless path, which Clytemnestra has to follow through her memories and the mandatory presence of the past. By exploiting postdramatic techniques and monologue the tragic heroine inaugurates a dialogue with her own dramatic personae from Aeschylus and Euripides to Ritsos and Kambanellis as well as with other tragic figures such as Iphigenia, Electra and even Medea, highlighting the power of memory in its diachronic dimension, which is by definition its essence.

Moreover, in this way, another quality of memory is explored, which is directly related to the audience, who probably carry in their mnemonic “baggage” the whole information and the theatrical experience that includes the image and the speech of these heroines from other performances of Greek Tragedies or contemporary performances or films based on the revision of classical myth. From the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles to the monologues of Marguerite Yourcenar and the trilogy of Eugene O’Neill, the plays of Iakovos Kambanellis and Andreas Staikos, as well as movies such as Trojan Women and Electra directed by Michael Cacoyannis, spectators have already read or watched various revisions of the Tragic Myth and have already recorded in their memory various interpretations of the tragic heroines which are recalled during the present performance.

Clytemnestra in Sidiropoulou’s monologue comes via an intertextual dialogue through the memory of viewers, and eventually rises above and beyond entrenched images, combining elements from all of them but refusing to be entrapped in any of them. Is she a mother in pain for the loss of her daughter, is she a betrayed woman who asks for revenge, is she an unfaithful wife, is she a regretful assassin, or is she all of the above at the same time? At the beginning of the monologue, she expresses her emotions primarily as a mother who suffers for her lost daughter (“I had once Iphigenia”, p. 12), a part of her personality which recalls memories of Clytemnestra in Kambanellis’ Letter to Orestes, but later she presents herself as a woman bent on revenge, an aspect already known from Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In this respect, she brings back memories of Clytemnestra of Agamemnon who is characterised as ἀνδρόβουλος γυνή (Αgam. 10-11), because of her decisive and strong character, which is deemed inappropriate for a woman. This aspect of a strong and proud queen is emphasised when the heroine of Clytemnestra’s Tears says: “My husband is back. I am a woman again” (p. 19).

Beyond this mnemonic function of the textual elements, stage instructions play a more important role, as indicators of a communication between present and past and as mechanisms of accessing and understanding what has irrevocably happened but mimetically reoccurs via its stage configuration. During the performance, the playwright’s discourse, as inscribed in the text (consciously or not), sometimes as memory and sometimes as oblivion, it eventually has a redeeming effect on the spectator’s conscience whether suppressing, or reforming, or even silencing issues from the past, in a way that a renegotiation takes place, or moreover a re-signification of the circumstances and experiences referred to within it. Playwrights with a different voice and means, everyone from their own point of view, aesthetics and ideology, submit their own proposals for an approach and renegotiation of the past by the present, via the development of a particular way of managing the collective memory created for it. The case of plays whose subject matter or heroes have been used by different playwrights with different aesthetics and at different times are really representative, as the creators of one historic period attempt to intervene creatively in the memory of the past, thus adjusting it or describing it according to their own expectations.

An indicative example of the exploitation of the spectator’s memory as far as a different meaning to be given is concerned, is Lia Vitali’s play Ροστμπίφ. Ο δισταγμός της Κλυταιμνήστρας πριν απ’ το φόνο [Roast Beef. Clytemnestra’s Hesitation before the Murder], where Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Aegisthus, and Agamemnon are transposed to a very different dramatic time and space from the mythical palace of Argos, in a nursing home for elderly people. The stage-directions are significant: “A surgical table. Everything is white. Surgical table with surgical tools, scissors and knives well sharpened. On the operating table, a simple crystal vase with red, bushy roses”. Blood is present in every way through its presence (red colour) and its absence (the white colour of the pale face of Iphigenia and her light-coloured dress), while Clytemnestra loves to sharpen the knives and cuts the roast beef into thin slices. Iphigenia, the young daughter, sings in whispers: “my mother for my sake sharpens knives” thereby recalling the sacrifice of her tragic namesake and the revenge taken by her mother. Another element of the secondary text, the title and the subtitle, is also meaningful. When the time of murder comes again, this modern heroine of the postfeminist era hesitates to kill her husband and prefers to live with him passionately. With this transposition of time and space, the diegesis moves the story to another time and place (in the “pension for the elderly”, present time), but without losing its core, while at the end an essential change happens: the ethical values radically change, as Clytemnestra obeys new rules within the new social and cultural conditions of our era.

In Anna-Maria Margariti’s play Παρασκήνιο [Backstage], three female actors in a small English town, in the modern age, reside in the same apartment and blame one another for the conditions of their lives. The bond that ties this play with the myth of the Atreids (as happens also in Andreas Staikos’ play Κλυταιμνήστρα; [Clytemnestra?]) is a postdramatic one, whereby two modern actresses revive, in speech and action, the relationship of the tragic heroines Clytemnestra and Electra. Here, the female characters of the play are three actresses who take part in a performance of Sophocles’ Electra. Two of them, Cynthia and Evelyn, mother and daughter respectively, perform the parts of Clytemnestra and Electra. It transpires that their relationship is essentially analogous to that of the tragic heroines they impersonate, while a third figure, Martha from Ukraine, who has left her father’s home together with a stranger called Jason, finds out that her husband has abandoned her for a younger woman, leaves taking her children with her, and later murders them. In this way, Clytemnestra, Electra, and Medea transfer their tragic fate to this modern team of three actresses. This transposition of ancient myth into contemporaneity highlights the analogy between the tragic heroines and the dramatic figures of the modern play, and allows spectators to recognise the well-known characters and to use their mnemonic recordings as interpretative keys for the perception of the play. In addition, the mnemonic connection between the contemporary play and the ancient drama is reinforced here by the sight of Cynthia’s knife, which evokes memories of a murder. It is notable that a scene that strongly recalls Clytemnestra holding a knife in Lia Vitali’s Roast Beef (mentioned above) acquires special significance for the function of memory, as it becomes a visualised symbol strongly connected to the tragic heroine, so that it can easily be recorded as signifier.

As we can see from this selective survey of modern Greek plays that revise ancient myths, most playwrights or directors often make use of familiar historic and mythological themes and elements, and employ stagecraft and dramatic techniques that help them manipulate, in the best possible way, the distance between stage and auditorium. This is why they reclaim stereotypes and elements commonly accepted by the entire audience, so that their work becomes more intelligible and accessible to the audience, thus more easily recalled to memory. They are based on the concept of “collective” or “cultural” memory, which is mostly a result of social procedures. Focusing on that kind of memory we can say that what the viewer remembers, or may remember, does not only originate in their personal but to a great extent their collective cultural experience. It has a familiar and commonly accepted language, its subject matter and characters rely on predetermined stereotypical values, which in their turn constitute a form of “contemporary mythology”. The individual memory of those belonging to this culture (readers, audience) relies upon and is determined to a great extent by the collective, since subjects “remember what they already know”, what is more familiar and accessible. Such a memory function can be identified in Maria Kyriaki’s play Medea—De Profundis. In the preface of this work, the author states: “Medea is registered in our collective memory as a mysterious, magical being, an unexplained creature”, and continues by exploring the ancient myth of Medea and its various versions, focusing on the Euripidean version of the tragic heroine which is the most accessible in the memory of viewers. A similar version of the myth is presented by Vassilis Bountoures in his play The Other Medea, whose title is indicative of the playwright’s intention to present a tragic Medea with characteristics that differ from those assigned to her stereotypical image by collective memory. This mnemonic recording of creative revisions of the well-known myths by modern writers feeds back and enriches the collective memory of the viewers. The historical, social and political conditions of life, the experiences of the modern viewer, the current attitudes, affect decisively the way in which audiences perceive these new forms. Present conditions shape the collective memory of the spectator, who decodes this new theatrical language with the elements provided by the conditions of his life.

Based on the multidimensional interpretation of the myth, by exploiting to the full the rich cultural inheritance and by embodying to the mythological the original historic background of the contemporary Greek society, the above playwrights recall to the memory of their spectators, not only the intertextual presence of already familiar characters and events of the Ancient Greek Tragedy, but also the collective memory that these possess as a group. These are the reasons why metadramatic texts and in general all theatrical modernism plays that fully exploit the Tragic Myth, find a fertile ground to develop in contemporary Greek reality and surpass the traditional ways of approaching the Ancient Drama by expanding the dimensions of the regional and the Greek example within the frame of modern global dramaturgy. In this sense, we can maintain that retelling, revision and transcription of well-known tragic myths is one of the most significant and interesting tendencies in contemporary Greek dramaturgy, directly linked to the various functions of memory, which, in this way, becomes a key factor in the formation of the audiences’ opinion of a play, an actor, a performance or theatre in general.

Theodore Grammatas

Maria Dimaki-Zora

Th. Grammatas, M. Dimaki-Zora, (2018). “Memories of heroines in memories of spectators. Mythic, Dramatic and Theatrical Time from the ancient drama to the Modern Greek Theatre”, στον συλλογικό τόμο Debating with the
Eumenides. Aspects of the Reception of Greek Tragedy in Modern Greece, Vayos Liapis, Maria Pavlou, Antonis K. Petrides (eds.), [Pierides Studies in Greek and Latin Literature, VII], Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, σσ. 122-131