Letter from the road to Belgrade

Crossing the border to Serbia to cover next Sunday’s elections and perceiving the first anti-American graffiti on some rocks on the road, I recalled how I first became unabashedly pro-American at a rather tender age. It was not only that I was young enough to be impressed by the sheer vitality of America and by US culture – movies and musicals to be exact. It was also that desirable way of life, all that jazz and tasty apple pie, which has done to me as much as anything and anybody in the cause of incomparable transatlantic understanding. Having studied at an American high school in Thessaloniki, namely Anatolia College, I have up until today nightmarish memories of getting up late for class. Therefore, I tend to agree with H.L. Mencken who once wrote that «school days – full of dull, unintelligible tasks, brutal violations of common sense and common decency – are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence.» Understandably, I did not like school. Needless to say, I barely passed the grades. However, I learned both to like and respect Americans and their culture, although I still cannot define where a distinctive American culture ends and a distinctive European culture begins after the Americanization of the last decades. In Salonica we also had a drama club at Anatolia which sometimes produced musical comedies. It still does. At school, I also learned that Americans were not just the people who marched into Europe to end its civil wars (in their own interest, no doubt, but also to the great relief of most Greeks) but also the people without whom today Greece would be still begging to get into the EU. With a past like this, no wonder I have always liked American musicals. Sadly, and not so suddenly, last summer, I did not like the Greek version of «Gentlemen prefer Blondes» at the Athinaion Theater in Athens. One of the great musicals of the 1940s based on one of the funniest books – by Anita Loos – I have ever read, has been reduced to unsavory slapstick. The plot is well-known. It is about those two «dumb» girls in the flapper days of 1925. Lorelei (a brainless piece of fluff, given to such malapropisms as «Pardon me, please, is this the boat to Europe, France?») and Dorothy («Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?») are just «two little girls from Little Rock,» lounge singers on a transatlantic cruise, working their way to Paris and enjoying the company of any eligible men they might meet along the way. A very American specimen of a play. Nonetheless, the Greek musicians of the Athinaion Theater apparently were trying for a completely different target, so someone has changed – yes, changed!! – almost completely Jule Styne’s brilliant classical score in the recent Greek version. Here I should not omit to mention the joy Greek extrovert audiences derive from seeing performing on a stage someone they can immediately identify with a familiar TV face: Television star Evelina Papoulia played Lorelei, the part made famous by Carrol Channing and Marilyn Monroe. No comparison whatsoever. As her best friend, Dorothy, however, the talented brunette Miss Tania Trypi, who has made a career out of being indomitable was the revelation of the show. Contrary to an unspoken tradition of hostility toward any musical show not immediately classifiable as «operetta» or «light entertainment,» the legendary show-woman of the Greek stage and movies, the late Aliki Vouyiouklaki, was the first to reconcile domestic audiences to American musical comedies. At the time, some decades ago, Greek theater critics may have sniffed their disapproval of her starring in «My Fair Lady,» «Cabaret» and «Cabiria,» but ordinary Greeks were immediately addicted to that clearly American stuff. And this happened during a period of florid anti-Americanism too, partly explained by America’s dealings with the colonels’ regime of 1967-74. In Aliki’s way, sometimes confusing rose-colored glasses with genuine fantasy, and languor with grace, our «National Aliki,» as she has been dubbed, has greatly contributed to breaking down some of the cultural barricades that used to divide Greece from America. Ah, were she still around… she might perhaps contribute to ease the new and increasingly virulent strain of anti-Americanism in Greece by producing some classic musical, say «Let’s Misbehave» or something of that sort. The chasm that has opened recently between Europe and America over Iraq seems to be so wide that the causes must lie deeper than any other ordinary disagreement. It is here that the real difficulties creep in. And it looks as though the world most Europeans see is different from the world most Americans see. Now, as the Greek productions of musical comedies (all questions of singers and dancers apart) are nowhere near comparable to their Broadway counterparts in lighting, choreography and, above all, in orchestration, so it happens with terrorism. While – most – Americans think of the world as a dangerous place where adversaries prowl and where something has to be done, we Europeans, the children of broken victors of a World War, like to believe that the world is no longer a place where force is needed. Of course, this has also to do with how one interprets Democracy on each side of the Atlantic. Democracy, some argue, is basically a case of compromise between confronting interests according to mutually agreed rules. The alternative to this would be – what else? – a test of strength in which the strong send the weak to the wall with or without justice. Yet, as our Greek forefathers have preached, Democracy means not Us or Them. It means Us and Them. Doesn’t it? Well, perhaps after all it does not. The American journalist H.L. Mencken, a still surviving legend, in his «Book of Burlesques» (1916) gave this unusual definition: «Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.» Now, back to the Blondes. Writing about her best seller, author Anita Loos remembers: «As I began to put Lorelei’s story down on my yellow pad, it became a mixture of fact and fiction. Her birthplace, however, was invented and H.L. Mencken himself had a hand in the procedure. For I wanted Lorelei to be a symbol of the lowest possible mentality of our nation, and Menck had written an essay on American culture in which he branded the State of Arkansas as ‘the Sahara of the Arts.’ Therefore, I chose Little Rock for my heroine’s early years; Little Rock which even today lives up to Mencken’s choice as the nadir in shortsighted human stupidity.» Sometimes illustrious Americans may also acquire prejudices.

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