Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Toward a National Heterotopia: Ancient Theaters and the Cultural Politics of Performing Ancient Drama in Modern Greece

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Toward a National Heterotopia: Ancient Theaters and the Cultural Politics of Performing Ancient Drama in Modern Greece

Article excerpt

Performing in ancient Greek theaters in modern Greece is an activity which often finds itself embroiled in the cultural politics surrounding a classical heritage which is conceptualized as venerable, unbroken, and exclusive. The first ever instance of a non-Greek production of a Greek play at the ancient theater of Epidaurus was the British Royal National Theatre's Oresteia directed by Peter Hall in 1982. (1) Despite Hall's adherence to key conventions of classical theater, such as an all-male cast and the use of masks, the admission of a non-Greek group to the theater of Epidaurus did not go uncontested. Yannis Varveris, a well-known critic, maintained:

   I do not think that this generosity is to our own cultural benefit,
   especially when it comes to Epidaurus. We are--as Rondiris has at
   least proved--capable of articulating our heritage better than
   anyone. A place of such sanctification like this koilon [the
   spectators' area in ancient amphitheaters] could be reserved for
   the whatsoever most legitimate interpretation of ancient drama and
   not yielded as an arena for international theater acrobatics,
   especially if the genre itself is not amenable to them. It is a
   matter of category. The tragic word is not just one page in theater
   repertory. It is morally and aesthetically adamant, most of all
   because it is sacredly ontological. Epidaurus is its natural
   manger. On the contrary, the foreign director, having not the
   affinity of language and the umbilical cord--of both language and
   place--with the source deigns well-intentioned experimentations
   which are perhaps irreverent. (2)

This passage encapsulates the most cherished Greek views about ancient drama: uniqueness, legitimate interpretations, and the authenticity of a highly acclaimed tradition established by past Greek directors (Dimitris Rondiris, 1899-1981). It is telling that the theatrical space is discussed in a language pregnant with religious allusions (sanctification, manger) which, in turn, generates the view of a "sacredly ontological" text. Most notably, performing in Epidaurus, in the critic's view, presupposes a biological relationship with the place and the language (umbilical cord, source) which naturalizes the idea of Greek continuity from antiquity down to the present day. The view of the theater of Epidaurus as a sacred place continues to come up in disputes over stagings of Greek drama by, most characteristically, non-Greek directors. In the 2009 production of Dimiter Gotscheff's Persians, for example, the audience was exasperated every time the actors set foot on the ancient thymele, the altar of the god Dionysus, which is not meant to be stepped over according to a well-established Greek theater custom. (3) The spectators responded in indignation against the supposed act of desecration with hisses, loud jeers, and massive walk-outs which nearly interrupted the performance.

The sacralization of the ancient theater of Epidaurus within modern Greek culture requires serious scrutiny in relation to the Greek claim of an exclusive authority over classical antiquity and the sense of cultural preeminence. However, the idea of sacred ancient ruins was not unknown to the nineteenth-century European imagination. The foundation of Greek state itself in the mid-nineteenth century triggered the Romantic Hellenism of European travelers, by providing the actual place where they could connect to the classical past through the ruins of antiquity. (4) In this spirit, leading theater figures of that time sought the very origin of the theatrical art in the ancient theater of Dionysus on the slopes of the Acropolis. When great Italian tragic actresses toured to Athens, their visits to the ancient monuments was filled with a sense of worship. Adelaide Ristori marveled at the theater of Dionysus in 1865, (5) while it is submitted that Eleonora Duse went on a pilgrimage there on the evening before her Athenian performance in 1899. …

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