The Greek Society during the period of crisis. The role of History as a mechanism of repelling the present

As the beginning of the 21st cenutury, Greece has been caught in the vortex of great economic, social, cultural and political turbulence, which has upturned its smooth European course and has brought about radical changes in the attitude, ideology and economic situation of the Greek citizens. Under these new circumstances, a new reality is emerging in the theatre as well, which is greatly differentiated from any previous ones and creates a new physiognomy, still at birth. Therefore, any conclusions made can be but simply initial observations, in need of further documentation.
Comparison between the native and the foreign, the familiar and the alien, the east and the west, the Mediterranean and the European, the north and the south, ours and theirs, which has appeared in the modern Greek theatre and society in a multiplicity of ways over the times, has now culminated. Nationalistic exacerbations, which had formerly been rather mild, appeased, almost non-existent, are currently heard more often, xenophobic and racist trends, almost unknown to Greek society a few years ago, have started gaining ground, anti-European bells are ringing and like new sirens warn of the negative and deadlocked future of our country within the European Union, without, on the other hand, offering any possible solutions.
The pursuit of real or hypothetical alliances in other Mediterranean countries of Europe with an aim to joining a potential unifying group representing the “South” opposed to the corresponding one of the “North” is gradually becoming established in the conscience of the Greeks. Rapture, rivalry, separation and conflict on both the real and the imaginary level of the ideological, social, and cultural value system have already become a reality in the Greece of the the 21st century and have replaced, or have at least seriously been opposing, any political and social stability, any economic well being and progress, any modernisation of society brought about in the last forty years.
The theatre, as a sensitive receiver and indicator of this reality, vividly represents all previous and recent social changes. Just prior to the period of the intense economic crisis and its consequences, Greek dramaturgy included works with subject matters, aesthetics and morphology totally integrated within the framework of the current European and international post-modern theatre. Its ethographic background has in many cases remained unsurpassed, since the axis of the native constitutes a timeless constant for the modern Greek theatre since its very beginning in the 19th century. Still, though those ethographic elements can easily be traced, their combination with modern themes and aesthetics has given the ethographic content a renovated and modernised form. Such plays are: California Dreaming, Milk (Vassilis Katsikonouris), Shaved chins (Giannis Tsiros), Rime (Brothers Koufali), Anna, said I (Panagiotis Mentis), Melted Butter (Sakis Serefas), Seven logical answers (Leonidas Prousalidis)
The quest for an identity in the roots of the theatre with the modern theatre looking for its origins in the ancient Greek drama, tragedy or comedy, is an equally strong element of the continuity and cohesion of a so called “Greekness”, the emergence of which is attempted by playwrights. However, this time post-modernist tendencies are present and plays currently being written seem to have got free from this influence. Archetypes and patterns are only distantly echoed. Intertextuality, adaptation, work in progress are some of the techniques and forms modern Green playwrights choose in order to converse with the ancient Greek mythos. This category includes excellent examples, such as : Laios’ murderer and the crows, Cassandra speaks with the dead (Marios Pontikas), And Juliette, Tonight we’re dining at Iokasti’s, Andromache or a woman’s landscape at the height of night (Akis Dimou), Which Helen? (Michalis Repas – Thanasis Papathanasiou), Cassandra’s Annunciation, The animals vertigo before the slaughter (Dimitris Dimitriadis), The couple’s bedroom, Announcement (George Veltsos), Juliette of the Macintosh (Stelios Lytras), Clytemnestra? (Andreas Staikos)
A third generic axis classifying the previous form of modern Greek dramaturgy is the one related to the general trends in world theatre such as feminist and minority theatre, theatre about racism and marginalised groups. The influx of immigrants and the augmentation of refugee populations, the increasing number of incidences of racial and sexist violence, the appearance of social groups initiate this new reality in Greece, especially in the capital and the major urban centres. Indicatively we can mention : Thessaloniki in the first person (Sakis Serefas), Scarlet sky (Loula Anagnostaki), Got life into her hands (Vassilis Katsikonouris), Destiny (Akis Dimou), When go-go dancers go-a-dancing (Helena Pega), Invisible Olga (Giannis Tsiros), Homelands, The Evros River across (Michalis Repas – Thanasis Papathanasiou), Austras or Wilderness (Lia Kitsopoulou).
Places of reception, theatre halls, other spaces used for performances also relate to dramaturgy. The theatre scene, especially in Athens, has moved away from the city centre and high capacity theatre buildings, suitable for popular spectacles, and has been taken to the periphery. In run-down peripheral neighbourhoods, small spaces, usually industrial or abandoned warehouses, workshops, factories, get refurbished and converted into theatrical multi-function areas and stages. Small pioneering groups of actors and other theatre people get established there and create their own “locals”, gradually attracting relevant audiences, which form fan clubs of supporters. Plays presented there are works of current thinking and aesthetics, with a new attitude towards their relationship with the audience, a different perception of the function of the theatre and art, introducing the trends of world anent guard and experimentation to Greece. (Galaxy, Late Night, Guns! Guns! Guns! by theatrical groupe Blitz, City-State by Kanigouda group, etc).
And the great crisis occurs. Total economic collapse sweeps away the Greeks and Greek society bringing about a completely unprecedented reality, at least for the younger generation, with high rates of unemployment and economic disruption, total insecurity and a phobic attitude towards the future, breaking away from whatever had been considered a stable point of reference thus far.
How does the theatre function? What is its presence in this age of crises and disruption like? Naturally, the theatre does not die away. It survives and keeps on developing, finding ways to react, getting its potential together and inflicting radical cuts to its costs. However, a new reality is emerging at the same time, gradually gaining ground and multiplying at a fast pace, with the consent or tolerance and possibly (this needs to be proved) the complicity of the ruling class and the establishment, or whatever has been left of it.
A systematic turn toward the past can be observed as well as an intensive effort to promote outdated aesthetic forms, ideological structures and subject matters which used to function in the past responding to conditions and circumstances of those times. .
History, the past, the obsolete come in aid of the present with a view to offering a way out, a solution, an exodus from the crisis. Re-emerging of the values and models of those times offers an alibi for the present situation, so that the deadlock facing the Greek society can be overcome. Return to yester years is proposed as an alternative for the years to come. The future is described in terms of the past.
This is not the first such occurrence in the Greek theatre and this setback is not unknown to dramaturgy. It had reappeared in the past causing a similar phaenomenon in the period just after the Asia Minor disaster of 1922, at that time marking mid-war dramaturgy (especialy in Nikos Kazantakis, Spyros Melas, George Theotokas plays).
Urbanisation of Greek society at the beginning of the 20th century and the country’s industrialisation, in combination to the beneficial outcomes of the Balkan wars and WW I boosted the urban drama and the theatre of ideas, establishing ibsenism, the social and psychological drama as well as the variety show as the ultimate form of European entertainment spectacle.
The enormous disaster faced by Hellenism and the huge wave of refugee populations from Asia Minor, poverty and social hardships, political instability and intense ideological conflicts led to the prevalence of fascism and the establishment of dictatorship under Metaxas in 1936 led dramaturgy to a wrapping-up and retreating. Playwrights once more turn to genres and forms of the past and attempt escapism via tragedy and historic drama. The same is attempted with ethography, which proves to be the dominant genre of mid-war dramaturgy, proposing the return to nature and the original morals and customs of Greek province as the only way out, an alibi to the tragic and unpleasant historical past. History makes its appearance as refuge, as a way out of the dead ends of the present and can function as a relief and salvation for both authors and viewers of mid-war plays. Honeybee (Nikos Kazantzakis), Rigas Velestinlis (Spyros Melas), Engagement parties, Dragoness (Dimitris Bogris), The seedling (Pandelis Chorn)
Something similar seems to be appearing nowadays, timidly and covertly starting within comedy and the relieving impact of laughter, being more apparent in types of plays like those addressed at underage audiences and finally openly swamping the central and state Athenian stages through dramas and all sorts of other spectacles.
Examples of the first kind, the comedy are : Helias of the 16th, The grocer’s tomcat, A crazy 40-year old, The card player. These are representative comedies written by distinguished comedy writers of the 1950-1960s, which precisely respond the the conditions of post-civil war Greece. The heroes in these plays are Greek petit bourgeois, struggling for survival in all sorts of ways, trying to make ends meet, facing their problems, such as oppression, bureaucracy, economic hardships, luck of education in philosophical, optimistic and often crafty ways.
They are extremely successful plays, which, later, at the prime time of Greek cinema, were made in to films featuring a cast of renowned Greek comedians of the time : The aunt from Chicago, Thief shouting, Mademoiselle’s simpleton becoming box office successes and entertaining all generations and later still television viewers. Today there is once more such a retreat, with known films coming back on to the theatre stage, featuring current TV comedy stars, who stereotypically imitate their cinematic models, thus becoming artistically objectionable, in an effort to entertain their audience with the airs and graces and the situations experienced by the heroes they impersonate, belonging to a reality so far, but at the same time so near to that of the present.
Another related genre is addressed at children and the young, a special audience, which can serve as a representative sample of the tendencies and choices prevailing in a society in certain times, as to the way it defines and delimits itself against the familiar and the alien, the native and the foreign, the past and the present.
The same has occurred in this genre, which until recently, due to the changes and revisions in the fields of paedagogy and psychology as well as the transformation of how the child and childhood are viewed, brought about by the new findings of childhood sociology, had been on its way to modernisation and renovation, through works, dramatic compositions and stage performances absolutely at par with those of the European and western world at large.
The change in the attitude of how the adult faces the underage, doing away with discrimination of all kinds and accepting otherness and multiculturalism, as a result of the progress in formal paedagogic principles and education systems, have become largely apparent in the theatre addressed at underage audiences, introducing new behavioural models, new principles, rules and values for children and the young in Greece just as everywhere else in Europe at least.
Changes and alterations which occurred at the economic and social domain have not left dramaturgy addressed at underage audiences unaffected. The same turn to the past, the same covert or open emergence of hellenocentric or/and nationalistic models becomes apparent. The glorious past of the nation and the race, concepts which had been greatly weakened recently, appear anew. Recent and older History once more become the focus of attention, with a fatal opposition of the native against the foreign, the familiar against the alien. Paternal virtues of Hellenism reappear as new value models and points of reference, giving meaning to the action of stage heroes, hence that of the viewers as well, given the specific nature of the audience these works are addressed at. Greece against its enemies, real or not intruders, powers of oppression and enslaving of the people, the race, the nation, the homeland comes to centre stage bringing memories of the past back to the mind of the adults, memories which they might want or try to forget and offering the young models they might want to imitate in the future.
In this manner, xenophobia, ethnocentricm, intolerance and fanatism hesitantly or openly come afore, once more giving rise to conflict and rupture, whereas all previous long lasting and well orchestrated efforts had already started to become fruitful and blunt past conflicts bringing cultural tolerance. Indicative examples are: Fairy tale with no title (Penelope Delta), Peter’s great walk (Alki Zei), Child counting the stars (Menelaos Loudemis), When the sun (George Sarri).
One more, not less representative category is that of works from the classical repertory and musical theatre, known from their cinematic, theatrical or musical versions in the past, which are also making a powerful comeback, nostalgically taking audiences back to the old times and conditions etc.
Such a case is that of “The Red Lanterns” (George Galanos), great box office success of the ‘50s, which showcases the social aspect of the theatre, in direct relation to the Greek reality of the post-civil war period. There is also “Our Great Circus”, an equally great theatrical success of Iakovos Kampanellis, which, in the 1970s brought to the stage the first political messages against the then almighty state of the generals established after the cul-de-sac of 1967. Vitsentzos Kornaros’s “Erotokritos” is another example. This great epic-lyrical poem presented in its dramatised form offers audiences a spectacular performance and the same can be said about Bob Wilson’s “Odyssey” and Stathis Livathinos’s “Iliad” (both adapted by Homenic epic poems).
We should not omit to mention great musical hyper productions such as “Aman Amen” put together by composer Stavros Xarhakos, “I’ll take you away with me” by Aggelos Pyriohos, “Looking for Attik” by Lambros Liavas ets.
The case of dramatised fiction is yet another representative trend in contemporary Greek theatre. It first appeared in the 1980s with works such as “Scenes from the life of D. Vizyinos”, a compilation of short stories and other pieces of prose by the namesake author, “Makrigiannis’ memoirs”, based on the autobiographical account of the 1821 Revolution with General Makrigiannis as the main hero as well as poems by D. Solomos such as “Kritikos” and “Free Besieged”.
This tradition has been reinforced both by the dead ends facing dramaturgy and the contemporary versions of postmodernity in the theatre. Moreover, the familiarity established in the conscience of the audience through readership gains prominence today acting as a safe refuge offered by the illustration of past relationships and situations very close to the heart of the majority of contemporary audiences.
Among the works of the same category distinguished ones are “The Killer Woman2” and “The American” by Al. Papadiamantis, “The Pope Joanna” and “The Tale of a husband from Syros” by Em. Roidis, “My mother’s sin” and “My life’s only journey” by G. Vizyinos, “The Woman from Zante” by D. Solomos, “Captain Mihalis” by N. Kazantzakis, “Hagiography of Andreas Kordopatis” by Gr. Valtinos, “The double book” by D. Chatzis and so on. The same category may include staged versions of great epic and epic-lyrical compositions such as Homer’s Iliad, the Byzantine epic of Digenis Akritas (10th c.) and Erotokritos by V. Kornaros (16th c.).
Another category comprises dramatised biographies which either already existed or were especially written in prose based on the life stories of renowned music figures such as “Eftychia Papagiannopoulou”, “Sotiria Bellou. The wandering life of a rebetissa” , “Who is after my life?” based on the life of composer M. Theodorakis, a stage act framed by the great musical hits of past decades. Another distinctive example is that of “Aggela Papazoglouo”, a stage act presenting the life of an emblematic personality connected to modern History (The Asia Minor Disaster), which has been a box office success for twelve years.
To round up the documentation of all previous mentioned views concerning the relieving effect of the past and the turn of modern Greek theatre to historic subjects and obsolete situations, which can serve as a refuge and an alibi for the current unpleasant reality, we also have to refer to to the theatrical space as the place of reception and promotion of theatrical spectacles.
All the previously mentioned performances take place in the Athenian scene and grand theatrical multifunctional facilities, addressed at a mass audience of middle and upper classes, of relatively homogeneous mature age groups sharing the same memories of the past.
Nostalgia, reminiscence, escapism and beautification of the times past, covering and hiding reality, the innocent or not so innocent complicity of the audience to the objectionable intentions and choices of the contributors constitute a new reality for the Greek theatre, a response to the challenges and deadlocks of the present experienced by Greek society.


This research has been co-financed by the European Union (European Social Fund – ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Program “Education and Lifelong Learning” of the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) – Research Funding Program: THALIS –UOA- ……………………………………………………………………..