Letter from Thessaloniki

Not unlike coalition victories in Iraq, the battle of Arginousai, in the summer of 406 BC, was an Athenian victory all right, but it had an unfortunate aftermath. Even though the battle against the Peloponnesians had been won, the events that followed cast a gloom over Athens round the time when Aristophanes’ «Frogs» were performed. The analogies between the statements – by the chorus in this ancient comedy, and by the comments of illustrious present-day commentators of the International Herald Tribune, in particular Bob Herbert – are startling. So, while the poet-playwright Aristophanes in the two speeches of the parabasis of «The Frogs» insists on the chorus’s duty to offer good advice and instruction to his audience, a more naturalistic writer and recorder of events such as Bob Herbert, addressed last Friday (on the precise day that this year’s Epidaurus festival ended with «The Frogs») two significant questions to his IHT readers: «How long is it going to take America to recognize that the war it so foolishly started in Iraq is a fiasco – tragic, deeply dehumanizing, and ultimately unwinnable? How much time and how much money and how many wasted lives is it going to take?» This being AD 2003, we cannot, like our fore-fathers, say «This is 406 BC; we have to look ahead to 405.» No! Unfortunately we cannot go back to 2002, when nothing had yet happened, and undo things. Incidentally, should you be wondering how things ended after that dated, glorious Arginousai victory – that is, when the Athenians were so desperate to find enough men to man their ships that they offered Athenian citizenship to anyone who volunteered – well, at the time recriminations followed in Athens, and eventually six of the generals who had been in command were executed for incompetence, (for not picking up their fellow citizens who had fallen into the water off stricken ships). Those were cruel times for people, and for the daring personal and political satire of playwrights of the sort and quality of an Aristophanes. His primary intention was not to write a play for audiences of later generations, but to provide a performance in the Athenian theater on a particular day. He never succumbed to influence refreshers from the government of his time, nor did he spread out the necessary bunch of flat-out lies such as the modern media’s military watchdogs, alas, still practice. However, after the Macedonian conquest that followed, classical comedy moved away from hot topics to safer and more mundane subject matter, finding inspiration in the daily life of Athens. There and then, the heroes were merchants, playboys, cooks, farmers and hookers. From this kind of entertainment, known as New Comedy, two weeks ago we had a well-produced specimen: Menander’s «Epitrepontes» («The Arbitration») presented by the National Theater of Cyprus in a witty translation of the poet Yiannis Varveris, directed as a musical extravaganza by Cypriot Evis Gavriilidis. Just for the record, one of Menander’s best-known quotes is «The one the gods love dies young.» Soldiers then and now. As history and experience show, both in show business and in war, the best thing a playwright or a soldier can do, if they want to win and survive to fight another day, is to shut up. Which, as is proper and correct, does not necessarily apply to dramatic heroes. Take Kreousa for example. She is the mother of Euripides’ «Ion,» which I saw Saturday at the magnificent Hellenistic ancient theater of Dion, at the feet of Mount Olympus. Now, if she had not revealed to her son that she was once raped by Apollo – and liked it – her own offspring, Ion, would no doubt have murdered her, as he set out to do. This exhilarating marriage of the surreal body to a surreal intellect and directed by Lydia Koniordou, who acted as Kreousa, was probably the best offering of the Greek National Theater this summer. It’s worth seeing when it comes to Athens (Vyronas, Maroussi, Egaleo) on September 10th, 13th and 15th. And yesterday evening I went to the opening of the drama festival of Sykeon Municipality (it’s practically an adjunct of Thessaloniki) to experience once again the other, less fortunate National Theatre production: «Medea,» one of «history’s baddest Mamas.» I duly reported on that Euripides play two weeks ago from Epidaurus. However, the most impressive fact of that precise performance sat in the audience: It was the new Consul General of the United States of America, Alec Mally, and wife. Only a couple of weeks in town, Mr Mally, who has been a career diplomat for 22 years, came from war-marked Kosovo where he served as Deputy Principal Officer in the US Office in Pristina for one year. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Affairs and Economics from the prestigious Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Having served at the American Embassy in Athens and also as Senior Greek Desk Officer at the State Department in Washington, plus being fluent in Greek, Mr Alec Mally should logically also be a theater lover as well. I hardly remember ever seeing any major US diplomat going to the Greek theater out of his free will. Well, in this case there is a specific reason: The consul-general’s wife is an actress – and a good one at that too. Ioanna Gavakou, a naturalized American, is a graduate of the Drama School of the National Theater of Athens – where I taught years ago – and has already worked as an actress in Greece and in the USA. Her performances in two Iakovos Kambanellis plays («The Supper» and «Letter of Orestes» at the Waterhouse Theater, NW) have been highly acclaimed. Now that the General Manager of the National Theater of Northern Greece is working on this season’s bill, he could really make a big scoop if he schedules Miss Gavakou to star in some play. After all, what does Olympia Dukakis have that Miss Ioanna doesn’t?