Soccer and ‘The Bacchae’

Monday, June 28, Istanbul Gosh, has this been a full week! At least the way I saw it! And the vista was bizarre and eventful. The Larespark Hotel in Taksim Square, where the Greek delegation is staying, is just a short walk from the Turkish War Museum where the NATO press center is.  This is 17th summit in the 55-year history of the Alliance. Bars «in the city» (or the ‘Poli’ as Greeks still call Istanbul) are launching an «official cocktail» for the occasion. They proudly call it «the Turk.» The recipe: vodka, grape juice, molasses, pomegranate juice, and rosewater.  As for even stronger liquids, world oil prices dropped to their lowest level in more than two months today after the surprise handover of power to an Iraqi interim government. Interestingly, while I was here, I discovered that ball games seem to play an important role in politics. Speaking this morning to a Turkish audience, President Bush said: «Many Americans trace their ancestry to Turkey, and Turks have contributed greatly to our national life including, most recently, a lot of baskets for the Detroit Pistons from Mehmet Okur. I know you’re proud that this son of your country helped to win an NBA championship, and America is proud of him as well.» Tuesday, June 29, Istanbul Most Turkish papers today are going to town on the fact that Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis asserted here once more that Ankara’s rapprochement with Europe would serve to benefit the EU and Turkey, as well as its neighbors. In retrospect, Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu was right in saying that Turkey had passed two tests with this summit, namely hosting a major international event and also exhibiting a democratic approach to protests. Well, let’s not exaggerate. Democracy has been practiced, with a little help from the police. «Some 24,000 security force personnel worked 18 hours a day to ensure security for the event,» according to Istanbul’s Governor Muammer Guler. On the way to the airport to get the flight back to Athens, we encountered several earsplitting ambulances rushing to the Ataturk airport. Nothing to worry about though. Only a minor terrorist attack. We flew at 1 p.m. sharp, shortly before Air Force One took off with President Bush aboard. Personally, I would rather have stayed to listen to the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra playing Bach tonight at Haghia Irene. The 32nd Music Festival of Istanbul, closing on July 8 with Piccolo Teatro di Milano staging W.A. Mozart’s «Cosi fan Tutte,» is considered to be among the best in Europe. Well, I’ll see a Piccolo Teatro production, Euripides’ «Bacchae,» later this week in Epidaurus, therefore I shouldn’t really complain.  Wednesday, June 30, Thessaloniki A happy birthday to Maria! (That is my sister in Thessaloniki). A happy birthday to you Alec, as well! (Alec Mally is the former US consul-general in Thessaloniki who is now in Washington at the Office of the Secretary of Defense helping to organize America’s OSD policy – a far better post than the one he held in Greece. He is also a great and true friend.) Thursday, July 1, Athens On the same night that Mansai Nomura, the Japanese Oedipus in «Oedipus Rex,» blinded himself using the pins from his mother/wife’s dress at the Herod Atticus Theater, thus providing the tragic ending for the Sophocles tragedy («Count none of us happy until we’re dead,» is the moral pointed to by the chorus), an Athens crowd gathered around innumerable TV sets and heard some unexpected news. Following years and years of anonymous results, Greek soccer has grabbed its great opportunity. After countless Greek center-forwards who used to miss a clear goal in so many international matches and who would say to themselves: «F***, I could kick myself now!» (Well, I wouldn’t bother in their place. They’d probably miss anyway without a German-born coach!), this time, they won. Greece, a soccer outsider, and an underdog for many Europeans, has sprung the biggest surprise of this tournament. Here is another moral to be pointed out: A team – even if they are called the «11 gods of the ancient Greeks» by the local sports press – has to have German rules. It’s essential.  Friday, July 2, Epidaurus Theater On Friday morning, John-Denver (curiously enough also a Payiatakis but from far-away Austin, Texas) and I drove to Epidaurus to see «The Bacchae» (circa 407 BC), a Piccolo Teatro production by the highly sophisticated Italian star director Luca Ronconi.Your correspondent recalls seeing Peter Hall’s «Bacchae» in Epidaurus some years ago, where three male actors took all the speaking parts between them. It was superior to this one. He also recalls Peter Stein’s production of the «Oresteia» in June 1982 at Epidaurus. That, too, proved to be a lesson for the Greek theater. The German «Oresteia» was the first-ever non-Greek production of a Greek tragedy in that «holy» space, as our elders in tragedy used to emphasize, insinuating that no foreigner should ever have the right to desecrate the old theater at Epidaurus. Is that sensible? «Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.» («The Bacchae,» Euripides [484 BC – 406 BC]). Yet, after a long period of stagnation and of German-style antiquarianism in the Sprechchor style, conditions for ancient Greek drama have changed considerably. Not to mention the present, when 65-year-old Otto Rehhagel introduced German methodology into Greek soccer. Saturday, July 3, Old Epidaurus village On Saturday, we went and saw, at the Little Theater of Epidaurus, the «queen of Greek folk song,» one of the few real folk singers, Domna Samiou, and her ensemble singing «Songs of the Sea.» This was a unique experience of Greek folk songs, totally unaffected and totally complementary. Sunday, July 4, Athens Anticipating the big game, I could not help thinking of Euripides’ «Bacchae» all the time. Tragedy (meaning originally «song for the prize of a goat» or «at the sacrifice of a goat») is a peculiarly Greek achievement, yet however hard one tried, could one possibly find any association here with soccer? Sure one could! Let’s not forget that the Greeks were the first intellectuals. In a world where the irrational played the chief role – as it still does – we Greeks always do our best to come forward as the protagonists of the mind.  Driven, therefore, by national pride – something that should not fade no matter what the Greek national soccer players do to their country or to themselves tonight (That is yesterday for you who read this…), allow me to present the associations I figured out between «The Bacchae» and a soccer society that engages in the cult of mass emotion.  To start, let me remind people of the plot of the play which goes as follows: After the god Dionysus returns to his birthplace, Thebes, he is rebuffed by his mother’s sisters, who refuse to accept his divinity. So he turns the women of Thebes into raving Bacchantes and drives them onto the mountain of Cithaeron to practice their orgiastic rites. There, Agave tears her son King Pentheus to pieces in her ecstatic madness, taking him for a young lion.  Now «The Bacchae» deals with the excitement of group emotion, of worship in a company distinguished by dress – how much indeed like the national colors we saw on our TV sets last night – and above all, of a consciousness of the power residing in mass-surrender. «Get all the fools on your side and you can be elected to anything,» says Euripides in «The Bacchae.» Could that possibly be the reason why government and opposition leaders were so eager to be in Portugal last night?