Letter from Epidaurus, Kallimarmaro Stadium and Thessaloniki

Go three blocks down the street, make a right, no a left, turn right at the gasoline station and you’ll see the sign for the campground; your hotel is next to it. Don’t confuse them, Dear! Now, listen to me: The best way to get to the Hellas Hotel in Ancient Epidaurus is: Go down to where the old bread shop was – and you stay on that road till you pass the Yalouri sign. Continue straight for about two, or three, hundred meters and you are there, intervened the lady at his side. Although the Greek proclivity for giving directions is impressive, the oral tradition of direction-giving is surely not a tradition Greeks should be proud of. It was better that Lia Meletopoulou, the choreographer, was driving as we searched for our hotel Friday night just outside Ancient Epidaurus. So let’s stick to more ancient Greek heritage. We had just experienced at the old theater of Epidaurus what has been trumpeted for weeks as an impressive and lavish spectacle with a large orchestra and chorus, featuring 53-year-old French film star Gerard Depardieu (102 Dalmatians, 1900 by Bernardo Bertolucci, etc.) and Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini. They performed in Igor Stravinsky’s strongly declamatory opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex and a modernistic, lyrical pastoral idyll, Persephone, by the same Russian composer. Both works are typically 1920s. The idea of having a speaker narrate the events of Oedipus Rex was Cocteau’s, who, however, wanted the narration to be in whatever the language of the audience was. In Epidaurus Depardieu spoke, of course, in French. So did Isabella Rossellini, a fact that did not matter much since her portable mike was defective, barring the audience from comprehension, even had they spoken the language. A totally indifferent performance not worth the trip. Anyway, in another venue, at the Kallimarmaro, the old Olympic stadium of Athens, last Thursday, the contrivances in The Dawn of Civilization – the concept for the production was developed by Tassos Alexopoulos and Bernd Kammermeier – in which 77-year-old Oscar-winner Rod Steiger soliloquized as Socrates, could have been called hokum. The array of foreign celebrities in Greece isn’t always dazzling. What was publicized as a multifaceted performance combining ancient drama, music and visual effects proved to be a too schematic and too self-important tour-de-force solo drama with indifferent musical and dance interludes. Yet Rod Steiger is one of the few star-actors who, thank God, doesn’t fit into any stereotype, with such unpredictable performances as the gay military officer in The Sergeant (1968), as Pope John XXIII, Napoleon, Mussolini or the flamboyant lady-killer in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968). Standing among the gargantuan ancient Greek ruins of the set, Steiger gave meaning to the bleak monologue of Socrates’ (469-399 BC) Apology, as written down by his disciple Plato. A half-mythical figure because of the story of his life and death, Socrates, who did not leave written evidence himself, inspired a popular Greek song about 20 years ago, Socrates, You Superstar with which the singer Elpida took part in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest, and lost. Now, Rod Steiger – We are supposed to explore life and communicate at the highest level, be it pain, joy or what have you. That’s what I believe. I guess you could say it does become a philosophical way of life. – regaled the audience with several marvelous standards of acting. Unlike present-day philosophers, Socrates stood decisively outside politics. Nonetheless, one can find several points in Socrates’ Apology with analogies to today’s politics. For example, when the other day in Thessaloniki PM Simitis attacked the forces which try to force citizens to hide behind the walls of the past in order to defend what is dying out and not to win that which is coming, one’s mind goes automatically to Socrates’ Apology and to the two main wings within PASOK – the reformist-minded faithful to Premier Simitis and the one holding on to the old Socialist recipes of the Andreas Papandreou era. One wing constantly accuses the other (Many men have made accusations against me to you for many years now, none of them true…And the most unreasonable thing of all that is that it’s impossible to discover and reveal their names Plato, Apology 18b-d). We know them but are unable to name them! Whoops! Isn’t this action called partisan bickering or something? Costas Simitis’s one-man TV-show from the Thessaloniki Fair last weekend blended post-Socrates philosophy, hip-hop and Greek folklore to explore, among others, what he seems to consider the big bang in the eurozone: Everything will change: macroeconomic policy, foreign currency policy, inflation, prices of goods and services, collective agreements, competitiveness. That is after we adopt the single European currency. If memory serves (and it does not) in ancient Athens, nothing – and everything – could change. Wasn’t (isn’t) everything a matter of opinion in the eye of the beholder? Were (are) there any ultimate truths, any fixed points? And where is the man – the measure of all things as Protagoras put it – in all of last weekend’s plain speaking of politicians? For Socrates the immediate material world – Simitis in Salonica: I commit myself to this. I want to move toward policies that will put the Greek economy decisively and irreversibly on the road to a strong society… – is a matter of appearance. The charges against him were: (a) corrupting the young and (b) not believing in the city’s gods but rather in spiritual things. Since Socrates believed that one never deliberately acts wrongly, he argued that if he corrupted the young he did so unknowingly. And if he didn’t believe in any gods then it would be inconsistent to say that he believed in spiritual things. That was the apology. Now and then, language and persuasion are unreliable and poorly related to truth, which is the goal of philosophy. Allegorical references to corruption and atheism can easily be transported to today. Socrates was made to drink poison in his prison – unlike Christ who said, Take this cup from me,- he took the cup of hemlock imperturbably. Even with the gimcrack quality of The Dawn of Civilization – organized by the Hellenic American Union – Mr Simitis, or some fresher face, would undoubtedly have learned a lot watching such a capable actor as Rod Steiger reciting Plato – sorry, I mean Socrates.

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