Letter from Berlin

To some people Medea may as well be an aftershave and Jocasta a perfume brand or merely a retrograde irregular satellite of Jupiter. However, for most traditionalists of tragedy, the dilution of the most transcendental properties of ancient Greek theater is, to say the least, annoying. For today Greek drama is connected to semiotics. To what? Yes, to semiotics, which became a major approach to cultural studies after the 1960s. Next Friday at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin there will be a significant conference on «Ancient Tragedy Today.» Personalities from all over have been invited to lecture on the subject. Among them is Professor Erika Fischer-Lichte of the Free University of Berlin, one of the big international experts on semiotics. Now, what exactly is semiotics? The shortest definition would probably be: the study of signs. Or, rather, «visual signs.» Now there are many visual signs in the plays the Deutsches Theater is showing this season. It is the same theater where Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), one of the great directors of our time and a formative influence on the pioneers of our classical theater, made his greatest impact with Greek tragedies. His 1910 production of Sophocles’ «Oedipus Rex» is a huge classic. Presently there are three ancient dramas on stage. There is a superb – if extensively blood-soaked and abridged – «Oresteia» by Aeschylus, the only surviving trilogy about the end of the curse on the House of Atreus, directed in a pool of blood by Michael Thalheimer. Another tragedy by the same author, «The Persians,» the oldest surviving play in history, is directed by Bulgarian-born Dimiter Gotscheff. And a sexually charged, psychologically complex everywoman, cast as a present-day anti-heroine, «Medea» is being directed by Barbara Frey. It is expected that those participating at this conference (Professor Platon Mavromoustakos from Athens University among them) will be quite busy analyzing in a more or less semiotic sense, stage «signs,» which take the form of words, sound, gestures and objects. In a similar semiotic spirit, Minister of Culture Giorgos Voulgarakis the other day held a press conference in Thessaloniki naming the second Greek city «a metropolis of civilization of strategic importance.» That was on Friday. «Thessaloniki should become visible on the cultural map of Europe» said the debonair minister, adding that it should also feature as one of the «capitals of the Balkan peninsula.» Now even in the flexible medium of language there are words that fail us when we attempt to represent some experiences. In all probability not having Voulgarakis in mind, the sociologist Don Slater has criticized the functionalism of structuralist semiotics, arguing that material practices, such as the «reading of texts,» must be related to the social relations which give rise to the «politics of cultural practice.» I couldn’t possibly tell you what all this means. One should perhaps ask another of our savant ministers – Mr Vyron Polydoras, the minister of public order, who has used semiotics for the revelatory political purpose of demystifying police officers abusing power rather than protecting the public welfare. Now, back to the Berlin conference on ancient tragedy. «We live in an era of horrors,» writes Oliver Taplin, of Oxford University, in his «Greek Fire.» «Not least, there is the ever-increasing damage to the environment, to Gaia, damage which will take decades to reverse, if it is not already too late…» And to think that his book was published 18 years ago. And, says Taplin, who is also invited to the Berlin conference: «What is the connection of all this with tragedy? Greek tragedy puts the worst into words and expresses the full human response.» «Terror of modern times sets the stage for Greek tragedy – theatrical revivals seen as a direct response to Iraq war» read a Guardian article three years ago. It started with the following question and answer: »Where does theater instinctively turn in times of crisis? Not to Shakespeare or Shaw but to the Greeks.» In his first book, «The Birth of Tragedy» (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche writes: «The Greek, uniquely susceptible to the tenderest and deepest suffering, comforts himself, having looked boldly right into the terrible destructiveness of so-called World History, as well as the cruelty of nature… Art saves him, and through art, life.» Are you listening Mr Voulgarakis?