Letter from Bucharest

There are memories that return from the past – in my case of Mustafa Kemal plus the Montreal Meeting some two years ago – to haunt us. Last Saturday outside my hotel – the four-star Majestic, just across from the Teatrul Odeon – a flower-adorned bronze statue of Ataturk greeted me as I arrived in Bucharest to participate in the 21st Congress of the International Association of Theater Critics. A few hours later at the welcoming reception which took place at Bucharest’s opera house, after a few moments of talking to someone, we both turned to speak to others, just as you do at a cocktail party when you run out of conversation. «Hello!» I said to a face that seemed familiar. «Hi.» «You do remember me, don’t you?» I inquired. «Sure, you are the theater critic from… Serbia?» «Well, almost. I come from Greece.» «Of course! Greece it was.» We hadn’t seen each other since Montreal and… it is only natural not to know who you are meeting when, after a long time, you are entertained together with colleagues from some 30-odd countries. An hour before that, a lapsus linguae was committed by our (British) IATC President Ian Herbert speaking from the opera stage, when he referred to the Romanian head of state, Ion Iliescu: «We want to thank your president, Ion Ionesc… oops, I mean Ion Iliescu, under whose high patronage this meeting is placed.» Poor President Iliescu! Only some days before, while on official business at the US Department of Defense headquarters in Washington, former Communist Ion Iliescu lunched with Donald Rumsfeld at a table which Pentagon officials decorated with two intertwined flags: a US star-spangled banner and… a Russian one! A diplomatic faux pas. In the previous week at a news conference, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had confused Afghanistan with Iraq, conceding, however, that he had mixed up the countries because they were «close.» Well, Serbia is close to Greece, anyway. Nevertheless, there seem to be several analogies between Bucharest and Washington DC. The pharaonic House of the People, built in dictator Ceausescu’s megalomaniac days, is internationally known as second in size only to the American Pentagon. Yet the Pentagon doesn’t look that big because it’s a lot broader than it is tall and because, from the front, its full dimensions are not clearly observable. In any case, by modern Greek standards, the buildings aren’t that bad – or at any rate are no worse than most of our 2004 architecture or the new Omonia Square. Back to why we all had come here. The superb hour-and-a-half «Pantagruel’s Sister-in-Law» – the silent piece, based on Francois Rabelais’ writings and using rhythmic body movements, which opened the festival – dealt in formally stunning ways with the cycle of death and rebirth. Quite removed from traditional theater vocabulary, this progressive piece, directed by Silviu Purcarete, is bound to meet with great success abroad – no translation is necessary. Though Romanians like avant-garde productions, they shrug at their old-fashioned (ugly 1950s) opera house and sneer at the National Theater in the center – a cube slightly rounded at the edges, which would grace (or at any rate not disgrace) a fair-sized city like Larissa or Lamia. Only here in Bucharest, one of the most exciting theater communities in the world, do neither of these buildings harmonize with the neoclassical buildings from the early 20th century you encounter in a city once nicknamed «the Paris of the Balkans.» The I.L. Caragiale National Theater is the organizer of this interesting festival, and also of a congress which has as its theme «Theater as a Force for Change,» divided into four sections; the social, political, personal and aesthetic.» IATC President Ian Herbert, sounded an improbable warning: «This is the time when once again, many people’s individual and cultural freedoms are under threat from forces much more powerful than our own.» This is an odd warning in times when it seems we have all the democracy we can manage. Yesterday, on the first day of the congress, John Elsom from Britain – a critic and the ex-chair of the Liberal Party’s arts committee – gave some very plausible explanations on the state of the arts in our decade with his paper «My Life in Arts Politics.» Here are some excerpts that could easily apply to Greece, too: «In Britain, as in Italy and the United States, we have the unedifying spectacle of politicians seeking the support of media moguls, whose interests lie with their own shareholders and their own sense of self-importance. In 1995, we saw Tony Blair flying off to Australia to meet the board of Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, so that Murdoch’s newspaper in Britain would support his bid to be prime minister. Murdoch, as you will know, also has global television interests… While I never believe in conspiracy theories, I sometimes wonder whether Bush and Blair would have been eager to invade Iraq, if Murdoch had not been their cheerleader.» And drama critic John Elsom concludes: «A healthy culture helps us to tell the difference between a good argument and a bad one, sentiment from feeling, false rhetoric from persuasion. To that extent, the tacky populism of today’s Western culture assists those politicians who do not wish their motives or their actions to be examined too closely. The glamor and the game shows of Berlusconi’s Italian TV stations indirectly help Berlusconi to get elected.» Doesn’t all that ring some alarm bells in Greece and elsewhere? «The arts should be our first line of defense. Before looking for the weapons of mass destruction that our enemies may be hiding, we should look for their myths to find out why they are our enemies, and if they are, and at our own myths, and whether they might be causing the trouble.» Spyros Payiatakis is the President of the Greek Section of IATC.