Letter from Epidaurus

Harry Lime put it best in «The Third Man» (1949), that legendary British film noir, while riding on a ferris wheel high above war-ravaged Vienna: «In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…» Now, on to the most famous and most blood-spattered conflict in history, the Trojan War, which produced one of the greatest ancient tragedies, the trilogy by the 5th century BC playwright Aeschylus known as «The Oresteia.» The first play recounts the story of King Agamemnon’s downfall. This chronicle of the House of Atreus is so bloody that it has become a common allusion for family feuding at its most extreme. The story is well known. Atreus had two sons, Menelaus and Agamemnon, who married the royal Spartan sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra. Helen was abducted by Paris (or perhaps taken willingly), thereby triggering the Trojan War. Directed by Angela Brouskou and produced by her Chamber Theater, we were treated to many visually absurd moments in the «Agamemnon» production that wound up this year’s Epidaurus Festival on Friday and Saturday. For over 40 years, the Epidaurus Festival – along with the Athens Festival organized in the early 1960s by Nikos Synodinos, the brother of the greatest surviving tragedienne Anna Synodinou – has re-created ancient classics at the admirable and acoustically superb ancient theatre at Epidaurus. The acoustics of this remarkable amphitheatre are world famous: an actor can stand on the «orchestra,» that is at center-stage and be heard murmuring some 70 rows up. This is due, so archaeologists believe, to massive terracotta jars that stand beneath the orchestra. Moreover, the special quality of the limestone seats, they say, brightens up the sound in the auditorium. Now, as has so often happened in post-modern theatrical years, when directors have thought themselves to be more important than playwrights, there was a new «angle» introduced in this «Agamemnon.»  In this joltingly modern-dress production, the twist was to highlight the psychological complexities of Clytemnestra (an amazing Amalia Moutoussi) and her unfaithful husband Agamemnon (Minas Hadisavas, in a uniform resembling Captain Hook), by placing them in highly illogical settings. In short, this «Agamemnon,» was a minor – if not bad – production. However, there were good intentions that were plain for all to see.  Now, the only people who think culture is a universal force for good are politicians and untalented artists. Every politician has learned to praise culture because nowadays we all know about the service sector and the post-modern economy. In the economy of Europe at the beginning of the 21st century, it is culture that makes the wheels go round and festivals are of immense importance in this respect. Imported from France, the relatively new artistic director of the Greek Festival (comprising the Athens and Epidaurus festivals), Giorgos Loukos, has radically altered the nature of the festival. Loukos has been equally responsible for both the good (such as bringing in new types of companies such as the Wooster Group and Lee Breuer’s «Dollhouse») and the bad (like choosing the wrong director for Aristophanes’ «Frogs,» and Angela Brouskou for «Agamemnon»). Yet the questions that have repeatedly been asked ever since World War I are: hasn’t European art languished under the suspicion that «modern art,» such as this production, is worthless and that culture is a bourgeois lie? Hasn’t Samuel Beckett reduced what can be called (that kind of unnecessary) art to almost nothing? «There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,» said Walter Benjamin. Recently I heard someone joking that the only organizational aspect of cultural events which interests large crowds and companies are the parties. What he didn’t go on to say was that the parties are very much a central feature of cultural programming. It’s where essential face-to-face social contact takes place.  How true. After each ancient Greek tragedy or comedy at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus, huge parties are held at Leonidas’s taverna in Ligourio, which bring together practically everyone who is anyone in Greek arts. Others, the less fortunate, go to the souvlaki shops around the village, which offer roast lamb and goat. In the economy of Europe in the early 21st century, it is culture that makes the wheels go round. Yet it should only be «real Art,» they say. If the history of Europe has taught us anything, it is that cultural excellence has nothing to do with social well-being or economic stability. This again brings to mind the scene from «The Third Man.» The greatest European cultural revolutions have taken place at times of war. And, alas, there are currently no wars in our neighborhood. Yet, one can’t plan for great art, can one? Maybe, but what governments can plan is social welfare, hospitals, spas, etc. In antiquity, the theatre of Epidaurus – with a seating capacity for 12,000 spectators – was a late addition to the site that had functioned as a sanatorium. Asclepius was the god in whose name it was built. The sick climbed the mountain, slept in one of the 160 rooms for visitors or in tents. From the visions of the healing god seen by the sick when he supposedly visited them at night, the physicians were able to make a prognosis and recommend a cure. And as for the healing of the soul, the therapy has remained more or less the same for some 2,500 years. It is called «catharsis» and refers to the sudden emotional climaxes that bring forth overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity or other extreme emotional swings, resulting in «restoration» among the members of a tragedy audience. Much like in a heart-wrenching love affair. Oddly enough, our Ministry of Culture – or Welfare, or Tourism or whatever – has not yet come up with the idea of exploiting the classical tragedy recipe and combining it with modern psychotherapeutic catharsis.