Letter from Thessaloniki and Neuss

On a Lufthansa flight last week from Athens to Dusseldorf, where I was to participate in an opening night at the Neuss theater, I brushed up on my Shakespeare (I will quote him later.) The play I read was «Othello,» that precise tragedy set in Venice and Cyprus during the war with the Turks in 1570 – a play which chronicles the downfall of a great Moorish warrior representing the biggest superpower of his time, Venice. The story is well known: After Othello elopes with Desdemona, the daughter of a nobleman, he makes new enemies among his allies. He is dispatched to Cyprus to promote freedom and liberty. There, he wins the war but loses in the battle of affections. («Though in the trade of war I have slain men, Yet do I hold it very stuff o’ conscience To do no contrived murder: I lack iniquity Sometimes to do me service.» «Othello,» 1.2) Othello maltreats and finally strangles his wife, thus becoming the «bad apple» in the good barrel of the Venetian army. Of course, this malfeasance in no way reflected the nature of Venetian men – and women – who served their country. The blame was placed on Iago, a chillingly rational and diabolical character who imagines unimaginable evils and apparently practices his intrigues for kicks. (No similarity whatsoever to the living characters of the Moore documentary «Fahrenheit 9/11» that won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.) When Othello finally grasps the full extent of Iago’s malevolence, the Moor exclaims: «Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.» Shakespeare is so varied and so richly suggestive as a narrative source that columnists can go low (i.e. to the archetypal fear of the sexually triumphant black man expressed in «Othello,» or to countries that have recently lost their reputation) or high (to the love of a lily-white Desdemona, to the Moor of Venice, and to quotes such as «Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.» Othello, 1.2) and get away with either strategy. Anyway, I saw a powerful production of «Othello» (directed by Goetz Loepelmann, with Steffen Schreier as Othello and a lovely blonde, of course, as Desdemona, Maja Elsenhans) at the Globe. No, that’s not the London theater but a replica of the world-famous venue, with a similar Elizabethan atmosphere, at Neuss, a small German town in Nordrhein-Westphalen – one of the oldest cities in the country – where it has stood since 1991.  The reason I went to Neuss was to attend a ceremony dedicated to an old, very old friend. The artistic director of the NRL State Theater, Burkhard Mauer, and I studied together some decades ago in Berlin. After holding the post of Intendant (general manager) at several major German theaters and operas, Mauer is now leaving Neuss, whose theater he has successfully managed for the last eight years. In such moments, one can hardly keep from bringing back old times and former memories. Then, we were young and eager to demonstrate against the evils of this world. For one thing, I remember how we – Burkard and I – marched in the broad streets of Berlin in the conviction that nuclear power is too dangerous at any price. («We cannot all be masters, nor all masters Cannot be truly follow’d,» «Othello,» 1.1.) Nowadays, with the traditional start to summer in Greece – and also in the USA next weekend with Memorial Day – approaching, we finally know that the price we were speaking of some 30 years ago is not unbearable; few prices are. Consider this: Uppermost in our minds at this moment is – what else? – the price of petrol. The price of running a car is of major importance to everybody. The single-seater, solar-powered cars that yesterday joined a rally from Athens to Olympia and Delphi are only a minor solace. For the issue at the moment is not technology. With enough time and money, men in white coats can meet most technical challenges. The issues that matter for the future of energy are more complex: cost, safety and environmental acceptability. A non-nuclear answer, like the one we were marching for in past times, is a poor one: It would mean more costly energy, more pollution, and slower economic growth. At the point we find ourselves right now and given current trends, it is clear that without nuclear power, we will have to use much more oil, coal or gas. Since few renewable sources could make much of a contribution soon, it is a fair bet that energy prices would still have to double in a non-nuclear world. After oil ministers at the OPEC meeting in Amsterdam last weekend decided to delay all decisions on oil production until June, it is now clear that we will have to reconsider nuclear power. After all, energy and prosperity are twins that march together. After the recent oil shock of the past days, the twins fell out of step. I wonder whether anything about nuclear energy will be mentioned at the 10th Economic Trans-Balkan Forum starting today in Thessaloniki. For, as poor Southeastern Europe industrializes, its demand for energy goes up faster than its growth. Perhaps Solomon Passy, Bulgaria’s minister of foreign affairs, should say something like: «Though I do hate it as I do hell-pains, Yet, for necessity of present life…» «Othello,» 1.1.) The Bulgarians are still insisting on keeping alive their Kosloduy nuclear reactor. Large numbers of people of business and politics will take part in this important forum, both from Greece and from the rest of the Balkans. (Mainly «The wealthy curled darlings of our nation.» «Othello,» 1.2.) Having attended similar fora in the past, I cannot say I am very optimistic about the results of this 10th Thessaloniki Forum. That sounds like a rather judgmental observation. Yet as the Bard says in Act II of his «Othello,» there is a plausible reason for this: « For I am nothing, if not critical.»

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