Letter from Thessaloniki

If what you want are the facts, and nothing but the facts, you’ve come to the wrong place. So, be warned. If somehow you get through this column, I bet you’ll be sorry. There are no facts here whatsoever. This column is only about ancient Greek myths in tragedy and about the State Theater of Northern Greece, and it is meant for the reader who is interested in either or both. Therefore, should you be hankering for stories loaded with facts which are backed up by sources and not simply yearning for some stories about gods and heroes made up thousands of years ago, you’d better stop reading right now. Now, there are two tales, or rather two tragedies, concerning directly and indirectly Hercules, a man whose deeds (either untrue or unverifiable) were so mighty that when he died he was brought to Mount Olympus to live with the gods. And as if that was not enough, he not only inspired Sophocles to write plays where he actually appeared or was merely mentioned, but he also motivated Walt Disney Pictures to release in 1997 the successful animated cartoon «Hercules.» Heracles, as we Greeks call Hercules, returns to Trachis and the events leading up to his death are the subject of Sophocles’ «Women of Trachis,» which has been constantly regarded as a «problem play» and thus one of the ancient Greek tragedies that is most seldom produced. The play takes place after Hercules got married a second time, to the beautiful Deianeira [Day-an-EE-ra]. When Hercules, being the consummate warrior that he was, receives a cloak from his jealous wife and tries it on, his body begins to burn in excruciating pain. Bellowing in agony, he asks his son and friends to have him burned alive on the top of a nearby mountain. The ethical issue of euthanasia, or the right to die, finds here the first staunch defender of personal liberty on the subject of ending our lives when we see fit. In this tragedy, among Deianeira’s laments for the misfortunes of a marriage where the bridegroom spends most of his time performing endless labors for one master or another one may also discover the earliest reference in literature to the moral questions concerning assisted suicide. Traditionally during the summer season, the State Theater of Northern Greece presents ancient drama: thus we have Sophocles’ «Women of Trachis,» directed by Victor Arditis, who is also the outgoing artistic director of Greece’s second state ensemble. I saw the play last week in Thessaloniki, although the local press did a good bit of spitting, Arditis’s style was highly contemporary and the chorus performed excellently. The same play will also be presented at the Epidaurus Festival on August 20 and 21. I recommend it highly. Meanwhile, this coming weekend – Friday, July 30 and Saturday 31 – Epidaurus will witness the newly appointed artistic director of this same theater (KTBE), Nikitas Tsakiroglou, as Sophocles’ Philoctetes with the Municipal Theater of Larissa, under the direction of Yiannis Iordanidis. Furthermore, in this Sophoclean drama, with characters depicted in the blackest of black and the whitest of white, we have a strong dose of Hercules paraphernalia. Philoctetes’ father was given the bow of Hercules because he alone was able to light that hero’s funeral pyre. Later, Greece’s revered patriot Philoctetes inherited this bow, and became a master archer. Although recruited among the other Greek heroes for the Trojan War, a snake bite left a foul-smelling wound in his leg. The stench and Philoctetes’ constant cries of pain drove the Greeks to decide to abandon him as some sort of unlawful (and stinking) combatant with the critical weapon on the island of Lemnos while he slept. By this time, one would think that the big brass of the Greek army besieging Troy would have learned their lesson and would not dare to come back. However, by the end of the war the Greeks received a prophecy that Troy could only fall if Philoctetes and the bow were present. Truth, lies, silver tongues, forked tongues – it makes no difference. Thus, they send Odysseus and Achilles’ son Neoptolemus to retrieve the bow. Sly Odysseus had always been able to find someone else to blame when his troops took a beating from the Trojans. He spread the word that the other generals drank too much or his soldiers didn’t listen when he told them to run in the opposite direction. The pair find Philoctetes (line 219) in rags and he recognizes their Greek dress and tongue. Phil: Wonderful, how wonderful to hear Greek again! Tell me everything. I want to know my friend. As Oliver Taplin gorgeously puts it in his «Greek Tragedy in Action:» «These men in Greek dress have come to betray him, as their compatriots had done in the past; cruellest of all, Greek is the language which is used to deceive him and to give him false joy.» Nevertheless, poor Philoctetes probably did not know at the time what history and experience show: that in war the best thing a soldier can do, if he wants to win and survive to fight another day, is to shut up. Iraq has proved it true. Although I have not yet seen «Philoctetes,» I recommend this production as well. It is playing in Epidaurus this weekend. Now for the forever growing and changing (as the community that founded it changes) KTBE, which is a living organization reflecting the culture and human spirit of the capital of Macedonia, Thessaloniki. With author Giorgos Theotokas as its first president and Socrates Karantinos as its enlightened artistic soul, the KTBE performed for the first time at Philippi in 1961 with «Oedipus Rex.» Incidentally, it was in that year that Nikitas Tsakiroglou finished drama school at the National Theater in Athens and later joined the newly formed KTBE in Thessaloniki. Two months ago, he was appointed artistic director, with Dr Nikolaos Makrantonakis as president of the board and myself as vice president («A group is nothing more than one person multiplied together.» – «Philoctetes»).