Letter from Nikiti, Halkidiki

No, Athens was not a cheerful city in January 405 BC when Aristophanes wrote «The Frogs» and where, some miles away, the Spartans lay encamped. Nor is it now, in July, AD 2003, after the last couple of weeks have shown the public how deeply PASOK and New Democracy distrust each other. Just before elections – which will take place at the latest next May – the government has proposed a new electoral law that has triggered intense partisan bickering. Also, the recent decision to open the stock market accounts of PASOK MPs caused discomfort and disagreement among PASOK’s parliamentary group members, who stated that they were insulted by this questioning of their honesty. New Democracy’s penchant for giving directions has resulted in PASOK’s decision to open trading accounts after a draft proposed by the opposition. Actually, hasn’t corruption been more the rule than the exception in Greece’s politics? So, which one is the better party? Who should be the ones to save us from crisis and corruption? In «The Frogs,» Aristophanes preaches: «Schoolboys have a master to teach them, grown-ups have the poets,» and «From the very earliest times, the really great poet has been the one who had a useful lesson to teach.» Sure enough, times have greatly changed. As a present-day politician, you are supposed to represent not principles but interests – your district, your city, farmers or oil or soccer businesses – and ultimately bend, for the common good, moral qualities such as integrity, justice and moderation. This goes for US politics as well as Greek politics. When the two principal parties work together, it is always a matter of necessity rather than of bipartisan good will. In «The Frogs,» Aristophanes, who was a natural conservative, seems to be advising his fellow Athenians to stop listening to the politicians of his time and to choose their leaders from the better-educated, more responsible classes of great tragedians. It is a wonderful mixture of farce, literary parody and political satire which turns upon the decline of tragic art. The god Dionysus goes to the Underworld in order to retrieve the tragic poet Euripides. After a poetry contest in Hades between Aeschylus and Euripides, Dionysus decides in Aeschylus’s favour. True wisdom and old-fashioned virtues, we are told, are not the same as cleverness – represented by Euripides. «In my heart of hearts, I have known all along,» Dionysus confesses as he proclaims Aeschylus the winner. Viewed in this way, the play hinges on the decline of tragic art. Nowadays, one could also add the decline of politics as well. Clearly, Aristophanes is durable and adaptable. The Italian prime minister and current president of the EU, Silvio Berlusconi, was not so long ago allegedly involved in a censorship row over a production of «The Frogs» that dared to satirize him. Last week’s opening open-air night performance of «The Frogs» at the Dassos Theater in Thessaloniki was funny, lively and entertaining – a performance that should not be missed when it’s on next month at the Epidaurus Drama Festival. (Make a note: August 22 & 23). Creating an enjoyable evening of theater for everyone, director Sotiris Hadzakis’s innovative staging made this play relevant through his adoption of a broad approach that avoided being topical. The main actors – a superb Alexandros Mylonas energetically portraying Aeschylus, Costas Siantas deftly handling his role as Euripides, Christos Steyiorglou playing Dionysus as a burlesque anti-hero, TV star Vassilis Haralambopoulos, who made the audience find out just how old some of the standard comic gags in the repertoire are – were excellent. The amperage of their combined star power turned this production into a real triumph. British-born Claire Bracewell, with a long international career in preposterously extravagant, witty and lovely costumes was also present here, together with Constantinos Rigos who with his fetching, aggressive choreography contributed to the success of the opening night. So much for «The Frogs» (in their ancient form). In our modern times, according to modern environmentalists, frogs, toads, newts and salamanders are declining or even disappearing worldwide. There is a Dr Ashley Mattoon – of the Worldwatch Institute – who says that the single most important cause is habitat loss. Dr Mattoon also argues that trying to conserve individual species cannot succeed. «It’s just not realistic to assume that every little frog or salamander is going to be able to attract a constituency that will look out for its best interests,» she says. In Aristophanes’ play, a chorus of Frogs appears when Dionysus is rowing Charon’s boat across the lake to reach Hades – a hellishly long trip. He listens to the famous refrain «brekekex koax koax» which is said to be a fair representation of the croak of the contemporary Marsh Frog, so common in Greece today. A species in danger of extinction? Amphibians are useful creatures. Amphibian decline has many causes, including, without a doubt, pollution, the introduction of non-native species, climate change and exposure to increased levels of ultra-violet radiation because of ozone loss. What a mess. But it’s not as is we were without warning. In writing «The Frogs,» Aristophanes was more than usually conscious of his responsibilities as a poet. And little though we may care about Cleophon or Cleigenes today, there is something to learn – beyond frogs – from his comedy. As was quoted above, «From the very earliest times, the really great poet has been the one who had a useful lesson to teach.» Television is ignored.

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