Friday, October 15, 2004
Behind the Scenes
Olympics in Athens 1896: The Invention of the Modern Olympic Games by Michael Llewellyn Smith. Profile Books, London, 2004, 290 pages, £16.99. To be published in the United States in the fall by greekworks.com as Days of 1896: Athens and the Invention of the Modern Olympic Games.
There are many books on the first modern Olympic Games, but it is only Michael Llewellyn Smith’s work that informs its readers that King George I of the Hellenes liked to take walks on Falêron beach accompanied by his dachshund. Smith certainly has an eye for detail, and he has peppered his account with little-known facts that have gone unnoticed in the shadow of the modern Olympics’ revival. Fortunately, he is a skillful writer—and the author of Ionian Vision, a scholarly account of Greece’s involvement in Asia Minor between 1919 and 1922—who does not lose sight of the bigger picture and balances nicely between the general and the particular.
|Courtesy of Profile Books|
Smith’s attention to detail serves his main purpose, which is to provide a general readership with an overview of the origins of the Athens Olympics and a description of the games themselves. What appears initially as a straightforward chronological account of the modern Olympics’ revival that reaches into their aftermath and includes a coda on the Athens 2004 games, proves, upon closer inspection, to be a rich tapestry of places and people. In a bibliographically crowded field—the 1896 games are the most written-about Olympics—what distinguishes Smith’s account is the contribution it makes to our better understanding of key places and personalities. This is achieved by means of observations on the main characters, enriched by nuggets of background facts. Far from being trivial or distracting, however, the anecdotal dimension of this account conveys the spirit of the places and the personalities of the heroes central to the story.
Behind the places and people, of course, were national cultures. Smith accommodates these as well, weaving them in and out of the narrative. They include the values placed on sporting activities by nineteenth-century American universities and British schools; British and German philhellenism; and Greece’s sense of nationhood, on the one hand, and quest to become more “European,” on the other. Perhaps inevitably, given the author’s nationality, we are constantly reminded of the British connection to this story. This happens even if it involves tangential ties such as, for example, the British restoration of an ancient trireme berthed in the bay of Falêron, next to the old warship Averôf. The latter vessel is mentioned only because it was named after the diaspora Greek who funded the construction of Athens’s Panathenaic Stadium, in which the 1896 games took place.
In his introduction, Smith explains that the story he is about to tell moves “from Athens, the young capital of the new Greek state, to Much Wenlock in Shropshire, the Rugby School of Dr Arnold, Paris of the second Empire, Olympia in the Peloponnesos, Princeton University, and back to Athens of the 1890s” (p. 2). Most of this itinerary—Athens, Olympia, and Paris (the birthplace of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics)—is expected. For knowledgeable readers, little-known Much Wenlock is not a surprising addition to the list. It was there that Penny Brookes, an Englishman, attempted a revival of the ancient Olympics in the mid-nineteenth century. Much Wenlock was a source of inspiration to Coubertin, along with the sporting culture of Rugby School, which lay a short distance away in the English Midlands. Princeton’s presence on this list, however, is somewhat odd, for although it sent athletes to the 1896 games, the Boston Athletic Association sent a larger number—and won many more first places than the Princetonians.
Smith’s discussion of these important places is interspersed throughout the chronology of the Olympics’ revival. Whenever Smith deems it important enough, he devotes an entire chapter to a particular place’s historical background. For example, the first chapter guides the reader briskly through the emergence of modern Greece and the rise of sport in the nineteenth century. Subsequently, after going through the emergence of sport, the attempted revivals of the Olympics in Athens and Shropshire, and the culmination of Coubertin’s efforts (with the announcement, in 1894, of the revival of the Olympics), we pause to consider the nineteenth-century rediscovery of Olympia by travelers and archeologists.
After Smith describes the preparations for the 1896 Olympics, we have another place-oriented chapter, this one on the nineteenth-century revival of Athens. It is a broad, free-ranging account with a great deal of information, including a diagram of the type of mosquito net a guidebook recommended for visitors to the Greek capital. It is here, alongside accounts of signs of a Europeanizing urban trend in the city’s life, that we learn of the Greek king’s penchant for walking along Falêron beach with his dog. Smith’s prose is lively and captures the form, if not quite the content, of Athenian life in nice turns of phrase, such as “there was a fizz about the city’s intellectual life” (p. 143).
There are many advantages to telling the story of the Olympics’ revival by focusing on places. The Olympic Games are an institution bathed in ritual and symbolism, and their modern birth was suffused by theatrical elements reflecting the cultural meaning of particular locations, ranging from the playing fields of Eton to the ruins of Athens. Smith’s keen eye for colorful detail brings out the sense of place that shaped the games’ revival. There is, however, more to tell about some of the most important places in this tale. Precisely because they were not mere background but organic elements in the story—mythmaking ideological domains—one has to also distinguish between the general and particular. For instance, beyond revealing the basics of nineteenth-century Athens, an account of the Olympics’ revival also has to identify the aspects of the city that shaped the games’ rebirth. For example, how significant were the ancient monuments in legitimizing Greece’s role in that process or in lending credibility to Coubertin’s idea that one could, in fact, revive an ancient Greek institution?
The persons and personalities involved in the revival of the games were larger-than-life figures who strutted on the as-yet relatively small stage of Olympic history with a great deal of self-assurance. Smith brings the heroes of this story to life by means of colorful character sketches. He announces in his introduction that his story “brings together a French aristocrat…a German scholar…a Greek translator of Shakespeare…a Greek King…a Crown Prince…a great Greek statesman…[and] a farmer who won the first Olympic marathon…” (p. 3). Of all these dramatis personae, it is the first, Pierre de Coubertin, who gets a whole chapter to himself; the others, in the order they appear above—archeologist Ernst Curtius, writer Dêmêtrios Vikelas, King George I, Prince Constantine, Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupês, and runner Spyros Louês—are treated within the unfolding narrative by means of generous and detailed pen portraits.
Smith uses shorthand to convey personality, and that is not a bad idea when dealing with Coubertin, a prolific writer whose breadth of intellectual interests was matched by the range of practical measures he took in his effort to use sport as a vehicle of human progress. John MacAloon’s in-depth biography, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games, proves the difficulty of analyzing Coubertin: now a quarter-century old, it still remains the only authoritative source. But getting into Coubertin’s existential maze is not Smith’s brief; instead, he offers a shorthand metaphor when he writes, “In photographs, Coubertin looks out at the spectator with the melancholy eyes of a visionary” (p. 66). The venerable German scholar, Ernst Curtius, in charge of the first archeological digs at Olympia, is also the subject of a shorthand description. Smith writes of Curtius’s religious sense of mission and adds that “the domed forehead and firm jutting jaw of his portrait seem to indicate a man of determination as well as high culture” (p. 106). And so it goes for the other major figures.
After introducing the main and secondary characters and describing their roles in the 1896 Olympics, Smith rounds off his account with two what-happened-to-them-afterward chapters. In some cases, this takes us a little afar, but we do get the ends tied up by learning how and when these people died and, in the case of the royal family, how its members fared during the comings and goings, to and from exile, that the House of Glucksburg experienced during the twentieth century’s first half. Moreover, these two chapters on the political and athletic aftermath of 1896 function as a bridge to Smith’s concluding discussion on why Greece had to wait until 2004 to host the Olympics again. Smith spent time in Athens as Britain’s ambassador during the Nineties, but—bound by diplomatic etiquette, perhaps—he offers only a couple of tantalizing hints at what he witnessed in connection to Greece’s bid for the Olympics.
Of all the heroes of this story, King George I earns pride of place in Smith’s account. At the moment the games open in Athens in 1896—the games themselves take up four chapters—the Danish king displaces the French aristocrat, as Coubertin all but disappears from the story and the dachshund-loving monarch takes center stage. In a sense, that is what happened in reality: the Greek hosts ignored Coubertin during the Olympics, and, at the games’ conclusion, the king suggested that Greece become their permanent venue, a slap in the face to Coubertin’s internationalist project. Still, while it is true that Greece’s Danish royals were central to this story—a fact that certain Greek sources discount—they were villains as well as heroes. Smith, however, refrains from passing judgment on the king’s move; indeed, his account of the 1896 games treats the royal family’s appropriation of them with a very light touch.
The individuals that Smith brings to life so deftly were not just heroes but historical agents, whose actions were shaped by ideological and political agendas. Indeed, the particular roles of the main characters is a matter of sharp contention among Olympic scholars. Smith is aware of these debates, and especially of David Young’s claim, in his The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival, that the Greeks and Vikelas are due more credit for the revival. But rather than get involved in the ongoing debate, Smith prefers to credit all the main actors more or less equally, including—controversially—King George. To delve deeper into those issues, readers will have to turn to more detailed studies. If they are looking for an introduction to the story of 1896, however, Smith’s eloquent storytelling will serve them very well.
Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
Monday, August 23, 2004
Don’t Blame the Fans
The concerns of the international media covering the Athens Olympiad have progressively moved from security and organization to the use of performance-enhancing drugs and now, finally, to the attendance at the games. While worries about security, the readiness of the venues, and the adequacy of the transport infrastructure appear to have abated, the press’s attention has been redirected toward the manifest lack of attendance throughout the games and at any number of events during the first few days.
It’s natural for Greeks to wonder, of course, whether they can ever do anything right — and be given credit for it — in the eyes of the foreign media, although the conspiracy theories that are again being mooted by the Greek press strike us as the least intelligent response to the questions currently being posed. The problem with organizing the Olympics in their present gigantic dimensions is that you have to deal with and anticipate an enormous agenda of issues. The gravest consequence of significant delays in the whole process of preparation, therefore, is that the organizers cannot logistically and physically cover all the requirements adequately.
That there were major delays in preparing the venues and infrastructure to support the Athens games is indisputable. That security (and the pressure to deal with it at a level that was never anticipated when this bid was made) overwhelmed the organizers is also beyond dispute. Under enormous pressure to complete preparations, and under an extremely tight schedule to do so that allowed for absolutely no mistakes anywhere, the organizers focused on the obvious and took their eye off the slightly less obvious. In the end, something had to give, which is why it’s not surprising that the organizers dropped the ball on this issue. The mantra of completing the venues drowned out those voices — not only of the foreign media but of the Greek government — asking what was being done to fill the seats of the venues once they were in fact completed.
Back when Greece was being criticized heavily and on all fronts about the construction delays on the major Olympic projects, it was argued that the so-called Greek filotimo, upon which the hopes of the entire country were being placed, could not by itself complete three-lane highways. As it turned out, filotimo might have been capable of finishing road construction, but it could not save Greece on every front, let alone fill empty seats with spectators. At this point in their (over)development, the Olympics are too complex and complicated an event for quaint (and, frankly, silly) notions of filotimo to be able to deal with all their varying demands.
Yesterday, the Athens 2004 organizing committee (ATHOC 2004) announced that the Athens Olympiad had “won a gold” (!) in the attendance competition, with approximately 3.5 million tickets sold until now. There’s no doubt that many events (swimming and basketball, to name two) are very well-attended, as is evident from television coverage. Still, those of us who have been following these games from the outset have seen the depressingly low attendance in any number of events, from soccer and gymnastics to boxing and rowing. Furthermore, despite the organizing committee’s celebratory tone about tickets, the recent bickering about attendance between government officials and ATHOC2004 suggests that there is indeed a problem. The ministry of culture recently pointed out that it had repeatedly expressed concerns about attendance to the committee, only to be given assurances that this was not going to become an issue.
Well, it has, and it is. And it is because the Olympics are not — and this might surprise some people, including a few on ATHOC 2004 — about opening ceremonies, beautiful sports facilities, or luxurious accommodations for the “Olympic family.” Above all else, the Olympics are about athletes, and about their individual or collective competitions. Spectatorship is critical to competition. The IOC might care about television broadcasting the games to billions of people globally, but the athletes do not — or, rather, it is not what motivates them to perform and, more important, to excel. Athletes want — and need — to compete in front of living, breathing, and screaming human beings. That is the essence of competition. Without an audience, competition ceases to be…competition. The majority of athletes train for years in isolation and obscurity for a moment of glory under the encouraging, and celebratory, gaze of other men and women. It is bad enough training and competing in obscurity, but to win a gold medal in obscurity seems particularly cruel treatment to impose on any athlete.
There have been many attempts to justify this situation, from arguing that August is vacation month for Greeks to the fact that the Feast of the Assumption coincided with the games’ opening. We won’t dignify these transparent excuses with a serious rebuttal. Nevertheless, it is important not to blame Greeks for what is actually an organizational blunder.
It’s clear that something intrinsic here was never anticipated by ATHOC 2004. The culture of being a spectator of sport per se, of disinterested fanship, in other words — that is, the desire to enter an arena as a spectator for the sake of it — does not really exist in Greece. It is very difficult, then, to attract people to unfamiliar sports, some of which are considered obscure even by professional sports journalists. Things become even more daunting with sports that do not have a popular following. Kayaking, boxing, gymnastics, and table tennis, for example, have never had any significant following or public attention in Greece. It is also important to point out that swimming is popular at the current Olympiad not because it has gotten more media attention in Greece than other sports; it’s because a large swimming sub-culture exists in Greece that follows the sport, and it is very popular with the middle class. There are hundreds of swimming clubs throughout Greece, and thousands of children swimming competitively; consequently, thousands of parents are involved in the whole process and, especially, as spectators and fans.
Absent a culture of fanship, and a mass following for a particular event such as swimming, national sentiment becomes the issue affecting attendance. People will attend events in which Greek athletes or teams are competing, and even more so if there is hope that they will do well. That explains the good attendance in water polo, basketball, and the matches of the Greek soccer team. Team sports such as the above also have a very strong following, as they are affiliated with particular clubs that are supported religiously.
Perhaps the organizers thought attendance was a given — although that would have been truly inexplicable since even popular sports such as soccer and basketball have declined significantly in local attendance during the last few years. The tremendous excitement over the Greek national soccer team’s run in the European Cup was obviously a unique event — and should not have fooled anybody, or lulled ATHOC 2004 into its apparent complacency. League matches have been played in front of empty stadiums for many years now.
Actually, when all is said and done, the response of Greeks to the games has been extraordinary. The fact that a country of 11 million people has absorbed most of the 3.5 million tickets sold is astonishing. But ATHOC 2004 could have taken some very simple steps to ensure that a number of events would not have taken place in front of empty seats. Major sponsors could have been asked to participate in school programs in which certain sports were promoted and tickets were made available to students; furthermore, incentives could have been offered to people outside Athens to come and attend the games. (The truth is that these are not Greece’s games but Athens’s games, and it is difficult to imagine anyone living outside the “national center” becoming genuinely involved at the level of direct spectatorship.) Finally, tickets to poorly attended events could have been bought by the government and offered to people at reduced cost, or even for free. Yes, this would have been decidedly unfair to those who paid (in some cases, dearly) for their tickets. It would have been less unfair, however, than having athletes compete in empty stadiums.
Which Side Are They On?
Last month, the Athens daily Eleutherotypia attacked the Greek American community in an article entitled “Gennêmenoi tên 4e Iouliou” (“Born on the 4th of July”) that appeared in its Ios section on July 4 (see http://www.iospress.gr/ios2004/ios20040704a.htm). The article’s subtitle, “Foniades tôn laôn, Ellênoamerikanoi” (“Greek Americans, Murderers of the Peoples”) played on the old anti-American slogan of the left that accused the United States of murdering the peoples of the world.
While the slogan assumed that the entire United States was behind certain US policies abroad, the Eleutherotypia article did much worse: it asserted that all Greek Americans are backing — indeed, are responsible for — current US policies in Iraq. In “proof” of this assertion, the article offered Greek American support for US troops and the presence of a handful of Greek Americans among the leaders of the US war effort.
The Greek-language Ethnikos Kyrix (National Herald) of New York blasted Eleutherotypia in the Kyrix’s weekend edition of July 17-18. The Greek American daily described Eleutherotypia’s article as a “despicable” and “ungrateful” attack on a diaspora community that has steadfastly stood by Greece’s side and showed its attachment to the homeland, most recently in its street celebrations over Greece’s victory in the European soccer championships (see “Ê galanoleukê stên Astoria kai ena kataptysto arthro,” or “The Blue-and-White in Astoria and a Despicable Article”). Of course, the problem here is that the conservative Kyrix not only supports the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, but also backs their commander-in-chief, President George W. Bush, so that its broadside against the left-wing Eleutherotypia was, at the least, self-serving.
In the event, irrespective of how the Greek press feels about Greek Americans (or anybody else), it owes them (and everybody else) accurate and fair reporting on their activities. Actually, Eleutherotypia owes that to itself, but the Athens daily’s “investigation” into Greek American involvement in the war in Iraq failed miserably on both counts. It assumed that an ethnic community that numbers over a million has one identical position on foreign-policy issues and then proceeded to identify the entire community with the Iraq war’s ideological hawks. It is with these kinds of inexcusable assumptions that bad journalism descends into the yellowiest of journalism.
“Gennêmenoi tên 4e Iouliou” opens by noting that a float in the Greek Independence Day parade in New York had a sign that read, “God Bless Our Troops.” This support for “the most despicable version of US imperialism,” noted the authors, was not an isolated case, although some participants in the parade were carrying signs calling for peace. Rather, it confirmed that “the Greek omogeneia of the United States totally identified with Bush’s war, at least in terms of its official organizations.”
AHEPA is first on the list of culprits because, in March 2003, it offered its support to the men and women of the US armed forces. The excerpt of the announcement cited by Eleutherotypia did not include an endorsement of the war itself, however. Oddly, for a newspaper that proudly takes the side of the peoples of the world, Eleutherotypia cannot distinguish between support for a policy and support for the ordinary men and women duty-bound to implement it on the ground. That is why it goes on to attack AHEPA for participating in a USO campaign to provide care packages to the troops. And while they are about it, the authors also blast the Washington-based American Hellenic Institute for supporting the troops and then take a swipe at the Pan Macedonian Federation for wishing for the troops’ safe return.
Satisfied that they have proven the mobilization of the Greek American “base” on the side of the war, the authors go on to discuss the role played by certain “select” members of the omogeneia. Who are they? No one prominent in community affairs, certainly; indeed, quite the opposite, as the article discusses individuals who were too busy pursuing their own careers to become involved in Greek American life, let alone become prominent in any Greek American organizations. Moreover, these “select” persons who evidently prove that the Greek American elite, like the “base,” supports the war policy turn out to be three people: Ambassador John Negroponte, USAID director Andrew Natsios, and Army captain Thomas Pappas, who was involved in the torture at Abu Ghraib prison. Now, there can be no argument that these three men are executors of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq, but that tells us nothing at all about the attitudes of the Greek American community, whether “base” or leadership.
The very idea that the Greek American community can be described as a pyramid, with a base and top — a distinction designed to show that Eleutherotypia is aware of at least some differences within the omogeneia — in truth does not even begin to address reality. It is a fig-leaf trying to cover up Eleutherotypia’s remarkable ignorance of the Greek American community’s diversity and the range of political views, and, therefore, attitudes toward the war in Iraq.
Conscious perhaps of the flimsiness of their case, the authors conclude their piece with an attack on Archbishop Demetrios. This section is entitled NATO–CIA–Panagia, in an evident attempt to echo the “CIAkovos” that Eleutherotypia used when referring to former Archbishop Iakovos. It also echoes the muddled thinking of the rest of the article. The authors criticize a joint statement of all Orthodox bishops in America issued on April 3, 2003. Skipping over certain “general words about peace” that it considers irrelevant, the article fulminates against prayers offered by the bishops for the security of the military and civilian personnel, describing them as “a clear position on the side of the invaders.”
By taking a sledgehammer to the Greek American community, the authors manage to undermine the only good point they raise when they ask why George Tenet has been so honored by several community organizations recently. This issue merits debate within the community — but not with the scattershot approach that passes for analysis in Eleutherotypia.
Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
The Greek (and German) Gods Went Crazy! But How, Exactly?
The following article was written shortly after Greece won the Euro 2004 soccer championship, but could not be published earlier because of our special edition dedicated to the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition, Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557). Given the unusually good efforts to date of the Greek basketball team at the Olympics, however, it remains timely and on-point. — greekworks.com
“When the Danes were the surprise winners of this tournament back in 1992,” intoned BBC commentator John Motson, “they had virtually come from the beaches,” a reference to the last-minute early summer entry of Denmark in the European soccer championships that year because civil-war-torn Yugoslavia had been excluded. “But these Greeks,” Motson continued, “have come from nowhere!” It was a backhanded compliment, offered in the closing minutes of the 2004 final of the European championship, as Greece held on to a 1-0 lead over their opponents, host Portugal. The final whistle that triggered ecstatic Greek celebrations obliged the hitherto skeptical British, French, and Germans soccer experts to acknowledge — begrudgingly — Greece’s astonishing achievement.
The quadrennial European soccer championship, Europe’s equivalent of the World Cup held since 1960, is a serious business. All of Europe’s national sides are divided into groups and spend two years playing home and away games designed to yield the final 16 teams that will participate in the month-long final round. With the exception of surprise winner Denmark in 1992, the list of winners resembles an honors list of the traditional European soccer powers: three-time winner Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and two former greats, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Greece made it to the 2004 tournament as a rank outsider, with little to show in terms of past success. It had been to the European finals only once before, in 1980, losing to then-Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands and tying then-West Germany. In its 1994 appearance at the World Cup finals, Greece lost three out of three games.
Playing with words
It was, therefore, with a great deal of good will that the Portuguese organizers painted the sides of the official Greek bus with the legend, “Ancient Greece Had 12 Gods. Modern Greece Has 11.” They may have begun to regret that depiction of modern Greece at the end of the tournament’s opening game, when Greece beat Portugal 2-1, with Portugal’s only goal coming seconds before the final whistle. Indeed, no one could have anticipated how apt the reference to Greek gods was during the weeks that followed, as Greece went on to reach the final and defeat Portugal — a rare instance in which the opening-game pair met again in the final.
As it turned out, the legend on the side of their bus was merely the opening shot in a barrage of wordplay regarding the Greeks. They soon became the most nicknamed team of the 16 national sides in Portugal. One headline read, “The Greek Gods Are Crazy,” and references to Greece’s outsider status became more and more frequent as it overcame European Cup-holder France in the quarterfinals. Ever “the dark horse,” Greece now became the dark Trojan horse, and when Greece defeated the Czech Republic in the semifinal round, the victory was touted as the biggest for the Greeks since the fall of Troy. In the final, played against the host team, a British commentator alluded to the favoritism referees purportedly show to the home team by observing, “we had better not talk about the referee being a homer, not with the Greeks around….” And, of course, what better way to sum up Greece’s overall performance than to call it a Herculean effort?
From clichés to causes
As Greece progressed through each stage of the tournament, the play on Greek words came easier, while words about the Greek play became more difficult. The first win against Portugal could have been due to the hosts’ opening-day nerves. But the second game, a 1-1 tie against Spain, a tournament favorite, raised eyebrows. How did the Greeks do it? Were they playing a negative, defensive game, with a few opportunistic counterattacks? Or were they playing a nicely organized and disciplined game, with a few planned counterattacks?
Speculation continued after Greece, 2-0 down to Russia and under pressure, managed to score a goal that was enough to send the Greeks into the quarterfinal round. By that time, the German media, at least, were not equivocating. The real cause of the Greek success, according to them, was Greece’s German coach, who, like a typical German, believed in discipline and organization. They were quick to name Otto Rehhagel as Greece’s King Otto — which would have made him Otto II according to protocol, since Greece’s first nineteenth-century monarch was the Bavarian Otto I.
The debate heated up after Greece went into the final four by eliminating France with a well-executed header by Angelos Charisteas. French winger Robert Pirès said after the game that “there are no words to explain it,” but experts were just getting going, as the shock result flashed around the world. French coach Jacques Santini conceded that his team had come up against a “tightly knit defense,” but there was much more to be said. Several London-based pundits, with time on their hands since England had already been eliminated in the quarterfinals, began complaining that Greece’s style was not exciting. This despite England’s reputation for favoring a kick-and-run style over skillful play focused on ball possession — a strategy routinely disparaged in all places of the world that were not part of the British Isles. Several French players and commentators joined in the hand-wringing, although the celebration of the virtues of a well-trained, disciplined side — coached by a German — continued across the Rhine.
After Greece held the Czechs in the semi-final round, scored a late goal, and went to the final, the critics began conceding the worth of the Greek style. Many purists emphasized that the Greek victory was an excellent example of the potential of dedicated teamwork, and Rehhagel’s admirers were no longer only the Germans and Greeks.
The view from the top
The Greeks themselves were desperately searching for the appropriate metaphors and explanations for the unfolding miracle on Portuguese turf. In some ways, they were the least surprised, at least by the team’s strong opening. A sports Website had quoted some of the players who had said, “Denmark did well in 1992, so can we in 2004.” The players went to Portugal determined to win at least one game, forward Angelos Charisteas said, and this implied a will to compete and win, a relatively recent attitude among Greek athletes (see “Greek Sports: Hasta la Victoria Siempre!” greekworks.com, April 15, 2002). And Greece’s strong showing in the preliminary round of Euro 2004, played over the previous 18 months and designed to produce the 16 that would go to the finals in Portugal, gave the Greek players considerable confidence.
During that phase, Greece had won on the road in Armenia, Northern Ireland, and Spain. Their arrival in Portugal had not been a fluke (see “Greek Soccer (Improbably) Bids for European Glory,” greekworks.com, September 19, 2003). But the extraordinary results the team got once in Portugal were greeted with a mixture of incredulity and a consensus that the German coach and his system were at the core of Greek success. This mixture of the irrational and rational was encapsulated in the verse sung in the stands, in the streets, but also in the Greek locker room: Einai trellos, einai trellos, einai trellos o Germanos! (He is crazy, he is crazy, the German is crazy!)
After the victory over France, the explanations of how exactly the Greek gods and their German coach had gone crazy and beaten the European (and former world) champions veered from rational to cultural. Respect for the organization and discipline instilled by Coach Rehhagel into the team deepened even further, but the result was so unbelievable that it made commentators reach for cultural factors. Greece was doing so well, according to this interpretation, because it was combining German organization with Greek spirit (ellênikê psychê).
Yet, at the same time, this had all become too much for the Greeks, and rational and cultural explanations were simply inadequate. “Parakalô Mê Me Xypnate Akoma” (“Please Don’t Wake Me Up Yet”) read a blue-and-white t-shirt being sold in Athens and echoing what the players were saying in postgame interviews. They themselves could not believe what was going on; they thought it was all a dream.
Sometime before the quarterfinal victory over France and the last-minute goal against the Czechs in the semifinal, disbelief morphed into a playful confidence on the part of the crowds cheering in the streets of every Greek town and village and in the stands in Portugal. The fans proclaimed their impatience and demanded that their team lift the cup, even before Greece had made it through the quarterfinals: Sêkose to, to gamêmeno, then borô, then borô na perimenô! (rough rhyming translation: “Lift it up, will you please, motherfucker; I can’t wait, I can’t wait, for the sucker….”) Perhaps the impatient bravado had to do with the fear that everything might be a dream after all.
Let a hundred flowers bloom…
Upon its return to Greece following its victory, the team was treated to a formal celebration at the Panathênaic Stadium. Official celebrations of sports victories are organized for politicians to get into the act. This was no exception, but what made it interesting was the blossoming of several novel interpretations of how the victory had been achieved and what it meant for the Greeks.
In what some may consider an odd implementation of protocol, the first official speaker was Christodoulos, archbishop of Greece. The prelate, who awarded crosses to the players and coach, hailed the Greek victory as a sign of what the Greeks could do when they were united, and thanked them for becoming the first Orthodox nation to win the European Cup (presumably the Soviet victory in 1960 had been achieved by atheists). Dora Bakogiannê, the mayor of Athens, was up next. She awarded honorary citizenship of the municipality of Athens to the players and coach. In her speech, Bakogiannê echoed the unity theme, adding that dedication and will to succeed had also been crucial. All this, she said, augured well for the Olympic Games, which would go very well because the Greeks would display similar qualities. Finally, Fanê Pallê-Petralia, the deputy minister of culture responsible for the Olympic preparations, gave out another set of awards and, naturally, linked the success in Euro 2004 — the organization, will to win, and teamwork — to the upcoming Olympics.
The honorees were allowed to speak as well. Rehhagel, speaking in German (with Bakogiannê ably translating), spoke about organization and discipline. Team captain and Player of the Tournament Thodôrês Zagôrakês spoke about how the support of all the Greeks had inspired the team, and about how the victory showed the potential of the ellênikê psychê.
The next day, the team met Kôstês Stefanopoulos, the country’s president. In his speech, Stefanopoulos ran the gamut of the many explanations of how the Greeks had won and what it meant for the country and the success of the Olympics in August. But in a sign of what he really thought, he commended Coach Rehhagel’s tactics at length, claiming that the team had not played a negative, defensive game, but a creative, disciplined one. In the end, the Greek president seemed to say, the Greek gods may have been crazy, but, with Rehhagel leading them, they proved to be crazy like a fox.
Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora
One of the legends of American theater is the 1974 Yale Repertory Theatre production of Aristophanes’ Frogs. This considerably adapted version had a libretto by Burt Shevelove, lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim, and a cast that included Yale drama students Christopher Durang, Meryl Streep, and Sigourney Weaver. Members of the Yale swimming team made up the frog chorus and the setting was the university’s Olympic-sized pool. The event’s mythic status derives as much from the site’s unbelievably bad acoustics, which put into question what one did or did not hear, as from the pool’s extreme heat and humidity, which sent the audience in and out of sleep, as if in a trance. (This reviewer remembers only that the evening was short: something under an hour).
In 1990, Nathan Lane discovered the script when he was asked to play Dionysos in a performance celebrating Sondheim’s seventieth birthday. His enthusiasm accounts for the present production, to which he has contributed additional hilarious lines. Sondheim himself looked again at the music of the 1974 version (which can be heard on a Nonesuch disc sung by Lane and Brian Stokes Mitchell), deleted some numbers, and added enough to create a musical of conventional length.
Aristophanes’ plays are the only examples we have of comic drama performed in Athens during the fifth century BCE. The occasion was always a religious festival in honor of the god Dionysos, during which comic and tragic playwrights competed on successive days. Of Aristophanes’ few scripts that survive, the most popular in his day was The Frogs, which won first prize at the Lenaia festival in 405; the play was so admired that the public demanded a repeat performance very shortly after the festival — an extreme rarity in ancient theater practice. In a culture that was generally conservative in esthetic matters, the comic playwrights, despite their idiosyncrasies from play to play, all obeyed certain conventions. Defined characters, a chorus, and a plot of some sort were features brought over from tragic drama, which had assumed its canonical form earlier in the century. Then there were conventions unique to comic drama. One was the extraordinary mélange of language styles employed by the playwright, from tragic, epic, and lyric poetic diction to street idiom and the rhetoric of law courts and the assembly. Contemporary audiences are not used to the occasional extremity of honest expression; and Aristophanes doesn’t use euphemisms for the graphic details he puts into his characters’ mouths. Classical scholars habitually refer to this as “coarse language,” but then the prudery that occasions our prurience was quite unknown in fifth-century BCE Athens.
The other distinguishing comic dramatic convention was an interlude called the parabasis, when the chorus addresses the audience directly, usually on matters of immediate topical interest, dropping whatever pretense the playwright might have established to make the chorus part of a dramatic storyline. Fifth-century BCE Athenian comedy is overtly political and social in a way that tragic drama never is. It is also funny, the way Minsky’s Burlesque or the Borscht Belt comedians were funny, or as The Producers is funny. It is not subtle, clever, and amusing like Noël Coward’s plays; it is full of corny jokes and a plotline that meanders so much as to be entirely incidental — along with moments of extraordinary lyrical beauty and intelligence.
The Lincoln Center production of The Frogs, with its one-liners and beautiful babes in high heels sporting some heroic décolletage, is in this grand tradition, and its centerpiece — as much the clown under the Big Top with the big nose and oversized shoes — is Nathan Lane, playing himself playing Dionysos. The first part of the opening number, “The Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” sung by Xanthias and Dionysos before the curtain, recalls the same duo in the opening of Aristophanes’ play, discussing the lines calculated to make the audience laugh. It concedes the drama for the exhilaration of humor; in this case, however, the constant wordplay, alliteration, and puns are a device of later, Roman Plautine, theater (brought over by Shakespeare into English comedy). The Frogs’ fantastical plot, on the other hand, is truly Aristophanic, and lurches from episode to episode with minimal coherence, finally managing to reverse direction entirely at the end.
An Aristophanic plot has been likened to a dream, a narrative out of Lewis Carroll, suited to the state of inebriation that probably fueled the ancient Athenian audience as it sat in the winter’s cold celebrating the god of wine. The critics of the popular press who have dismissed this production seem not to know their Aristophanes. Clearly, the writers worried over the contemporary audience’s ignorance, since the opening number’s second portion, chanted by the chorus, is an odd lecture on, more or less, Aristophanes, ancient comedy, and its fifth-century BCE context. Standing before a giant representation of an ancient Greek vase, the chorus concludes with a mention of the Peloponnesian War and the incompetence of Athens’s leaders, which coincides with sounds of an explosion, rising smoke, and the giant vase splitting in two. Suddenly, we are in the twenty-first century, with the Twin Towers collapsing, terrorism, and the failure of our present-day leaders to extricate us from this mess. Dionysos resolves to find a solution, while the play’s frog chorus is characterized as obdurate political conservatives who seek to strangle all opposition in their determination to achieve social, as well as political, conformity (shades of the Christian right!). The political theme that runs through this Frogs seems more aggressive and partisan than what one can read into Aristophanes, but it gives the immediate edge so characteristic of ancient comedy.
What is so well done here is the combination of serious political criticism with the nonstop delivery of silly jokes and wordplay, all done in the deadpan style of, say, Jack Benny. There are equally hilarious moments when the ancient and contemporary are juxtaposed, as when Dionysos is outfitted by Herakles with a lion pelt so as to impersonate the latter in a scene filled with dialogue and gesture that comes straight from the fitting rooms of some high-class women’s furrier. I guess you either like that stuff or not. This critic (who must confess to not being enchanted by Aristophanes, even after having read all of him more than once) found himself, on two visits to this play, right alongside the rest of the audience, laughing himself silly (at least part of the time).
The dramatic premise of The Frogs is that, with Euripides and Sophocles recently dead in 405, Dionysos, god — or, as we would say now, patron saint — of theater, decides to journey to the underworld to retrieve Euripides so as to restore moral, ethical, and philosophical tone to drama. (It’s the sort of thing today that would be a Time cover story: “Where Is Drama Heading Now?”) Once there, Dionysos finds Aeschylus and Euripides quarreling over the throne of drama, and he determines to hold a contest, at the end of which he quite arbitrarily decides to bring back Aeschylus because he is so noble. This change in plot is an intervention as arbitrary as the chorus’s out-of-character pleas for amnesty (for citizens who were exiled in recent political unrest) or its yearning for the good old days of Athens. These are what scholars consider to be an expression of Aristophanes’ fundamental conservatism in an Athens hugely changed by empire, war, and the throngs escaping into the city from a countryside ravaged by invaders. In 405, we must remember, Athens was 25 years into its war against the Spartan-led coalition that challenged its imperial stranglehold on the islands of the Aegean.
It is hard to read Aristophanes at this distance, but some would say that his portrayal of Dionysos as a kind of fearful, mindless, but earnest fellow is the playwright’s own estimation of the Athenian audience for drama. The Euripides he wishes to bring back is the same dramatist Aristophanes parodies in his other extant plays as trendy and an intellectualist who questioned the established myths of state cults, espoused relative values, championed the rights of women and slaves, and was a seductively glamorous wordsmith. As he so often condescends to Euripides, Aristophanes condescends in The Frogs to an audience that admires Euripides; this being comedy, however, Aristophanes redeems that audience at the end by having Dionysos choose to bring back Aeschylus in the contest. Shevelove, however, substitutes Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw for Aeschylus and Euripides.
Thirty years ago, when this piece was originally presented, most educated persons would have known that the great classicist Gilbert Murray used to say that Shaw (his good friend) was a modern-day Euripides — which is perhaps true. One cannot imagine a contemporary audience, with its limited knowledge of dramatic texts, making much of it, however; Pinter might have been set up as a counterpoint to Shakespeare, although then the contest would have turned on style rather than content. The debate between dramatists should be the great set-piece of the play: intelligent, appealing to the audience’s sense of theater and esthetics. This is not the case here, either in the writing or acting; and, because the scene is so brief, the Shakespeare-Shaw debate doesn’t work. The bigger problem is probably that theater just doesn’t matter anymore; hence, the debate and the premise are pretty much meaningless. Maybe pitting Playhouse 90 against TV “reality” shows would have made more sense.
Lane brings something of the scheming slave he played in the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to Dionysos, who is, as Aristophanes conceived him, so constantly contradictory that it takes a master to hold the conception together. Dionysos is a god, so an authority, but he is also fearful and cowardly, thus more acted upon than actor, and he is a liar; whatever interest in theater or in the salvation of Athens he claims to have is diluted by his persistent self-regard. At times, Lane seems to be modeling his Dionysos on the character he played in Lisbon Traviata, without the bitchiness. The scene with Herakles — played by Burk Moses, who manages an aggressively stereotypical masculinity to match the prominent musculature of his half-naked body — seems to establish polarities of male identity in which Dionysos comes off as a dear old sweetheart more than anything else. Even before this scene, the slave Xanthias (the stereotypical subservient figure of comedy), played by Roger Bart (who entered the cast late into the previews to great acclaim), has a stance and voice that show a measure of manly authority in contrast to Dionysos’ essentially wishy-washy effeminacy. Bart and Lane are curiously reminiscent of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; in fact, one could say that Costello’s facial expressions and physical gestures are part of Lane’s comic repertory. In the latter half of the play, Peter Bartlett appears in a hilarious rendition of Pluto, the king of Hades, playing him as a dear old queen, a sort of Quentin Crisp of the dead. The comic John Byner is a marvelously funny, cranky, argumentative, and abrupt Charon, who is there to ferry the souls of the dead across the river Styx into Hades; he is equally convincing as Aeakos, gatekeeper of Pluto’s palace, employing the same dry, deadpan delivery that suits the endless laugh lines assigned to the two characters. In a production in which style is all and substance nothing, it makes wonderful comic sense to have Byner’s manner of delivery as a counterpoint to that of the Dionysos and Pluto characters.
Sondheim is famous for his clever lyrics, and he certainly does not disappoint in The Frogs; his pieces are the equivalent of the great lyric choruses that won Aristophanes such renown, especially the haunting “It’s Only a Play.” Choreographer Susan Stroman, who also directed (although one senses Lane’s hovering presence here), and the costume designer, William Ivey Long, are nowhere more effective in working with Sondheim than in the great parodos, that is, the chorus’ entrance as frogs. It is a perfectly turned combination of frog language (the famous “brek-kek-kek…koax,” as Sondheim transliterates Aristophanes’ Greek), superb frog costumes, and frog choreography, the pleasure of which is interrupted only once with an overly elaborate harnessing procedure meant to send Dionysos aloft. The high energy of the frog chorus reflects the paradox of an aggressive insistence upon their do-nothing conservative agenda; Sondheim’s lyrics for this song are a survey of negative attitudes toward any kind of change or amelioration. One is tempted to read the distinction between the chorus’ energy and the hesitating, timid manner of Dionysos as a kind of clichéd portrait of present-day conservative assurance versus the wishy-washy unfocused liberal agenda.
The production’s comic momentum is suddenly lost, however, by the curious addition — not in Aristophanes — of a kind of subplot based on a love between Dionysos and Ariadne. Ancient myth recounts how the latter was treacherously abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, only to be discovered by Dionysos, who has some kind of relationship with her, after which she dies and the wreath he had given her as her suitor is thrown into the sky, where it becomes a star. Only late-Hellenistic sentimentality could have construed a love affair here; the classical version would have been about a lovesick girl abandoned by a callous male, alone and defenseless, and taken advantage of by a god who happens on the scene. As it appears here, it is untrue to the myth, untrue to Aristophanic comedy’s alternately dry and skeptical tone, untrue to ancient fifth-century BCE notions of love and affection, and nonsense as a possibility for the Dionysos character as Lane created him; Dionysos’ mooning over Ariadne can only make the viewer cringe. Especially at the end, as the dead Ariadne leans from above to salute her lover in what is meant to be most disconcertingly a “tearjerking” scene, the generous cleavage she displays would have scared this Dionysos more than anything else. The song Nathan Lane sings in her memory is unusually harsh and unmusical even for Sondheim, requiring Lane to hold the vowels in “said,” “hell,” and “Ariadne” in a pitch that emphasizes an ugly nasality. At its conclusion, when he sarcastically says to his sleeping Xanthias, “I hope I’m not boring you,” it is tempting to read this as the authors’ unconscious defense for using the Ariadne motif.
Amid the boffo jokes, the evening has its serious side. Pluto sings a song on the virtue of being dead, the psychic peace that comes from no longer having to measure one’s actions against mortality, the joy of surrender, an ideology very much the essence of the ancient Greek tragic sense of life, the very antithesis of the Christian view of things. The parabasis, which we must remember is the moment when the ancient comic dramatist spoke to his audience, contains the lovely song, “It’s Only a Play,” which is about constructed reality and its evanescence, rather much a statement of the illusion of living, which fits into the theme of Pluto’s song. In the contest of the poets, Shakespeare wins with his song, “Fear No More,” music (by Sondheim) set to words from Cymbeline that celebrate death with such marvelous phrases as “Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney sweepers come to dust.” The tragic sense of life conveyed in these passages seems to work against the exhortation to activism that Lane as Dionysos (or Dionysos as Lane) urges on the audience. But, then again, what was the message in a dear old queen speaking out, in the fashion of someone’s adorable child doing imitations at an adult dinner party, to an audience of adoring, earnestly agreeing, comfortably smug New Yorkers? Perhaps, in the end, really just something like the tame political lampooning Aristophanes was in the habit of making. Michael Moore’s comic sensibility is more to the point.
Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
A Voice Emerging from Silence: Tigran Mansurian
At age 65, Tigran Mansurian, contemporary Armenia’s leading classical composer, is finally getting his due internationally. By turns quietly mystical and exuberantly passionate, he talks at length about simultaneously straddling three worlds: the temporal, twenty-first-century universe of his own life; the time of his hero, Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a priest who collected and notated more than 3,000 traditional Armenian tunes, and also wrote his own highly significant secular and sacred works that bridged medieval music and his own era; and medieval Armenia, which Mansurian and Komitas both evoke in their compositions.
Originally a student at the Yerevan Music Academy, Mansurian went on to take his doctorate and teach at the Komitas State Conservatory. He quickly became a leading composer in the Soviet Union, mentored by Shostakovich and counting among his colleagues fellow composers such as Valentin Silvestrov, Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, and Sofia Gubaidulina. In the 1990s, Mansurian became the director of the Komitas conservatory, but in recent years he has turned his focus entirely toward composing.
Although Mansurian is identified as the consummate Armenian composer, he actually spent his early childhood in Beirut, where he was born. “In my childhood, I didn’t know much about being an Armenian,” he says. “All of the kids just played in the front yard of our house. I was talking to one in Armenian, one in Arabic, and it didn’t matter what language I was speaking.” It was only after the Second World War, Mansurian says, that ethnic lines were drawn. “We had a friend called Panagiôtês,” the composer recalls. “After the war was over, we were told Panagiôtês was going ‘home’ to Greece, and we said, ‘What home? Home is here.’”
Eventually, Mansurian’s family decided to leave Lebanon, too. Like many other émigré Armenians at the time, his parents chose to return to their homeland in 1947, eventually settling in Yerevan in 1956. “I can’t forget the Mediterranean,” Mansurian reminisces. “Really, I’m just a Mediterranean boy who likes to swim and who suddenly found himself in the mountains. Ironic, yes? When I read Irving Stone’s book about Jack London, Sailor on Horseback, it was like I was reading my biography. My home is somewhere else.” He continues, “Skin has its own consciousness. That sea gave me that consciousness of my skin. It’s still there. All those cold and warm streams of the Mediterranean, I still feel them on my body. But going to Armenia, it was snow, mountains and snow. For many, many years, these childhood swims were my source of life. After we repatriated to Armenia, for the next seven or eight years, before going to sleep, I had to do a telepathic experience of going to the sea to swim before falling asleep.”
Mansurian also says that repatriating shaped his artistic character, both as a composer and writer. “In going back to Armenia, I found my Armenian identity,” he muses. “I started to learn the alphabet and the language; it was a defining point for me and for my music. Starting in second grade, I wrote poetry in Armenian. Playing games with the alphabet and with words was my driving force. Then music took over, and I started to play with notes; but originally I began with words.” He continues: “I was writing poetry until the late 1960s. I never published any work and then I threw it away. Both writing literature and writing music are very difficult. If I’m giving my life to music and I spend my time in music, then I would like to be respectful of all other people who spend their time with words: that’s why I threw my poetry away.”
Despite his decision to turn away from writing, literature plays a viscerally important role in Mansurian’s life as a composer. “When I wrote my violin concerto, it was based on a sentence from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.” He takes a short breath, closes his eyes, and recites Faulkner from memory, in Russian. “That’s the start of Quentin Compson’s narration, before he commits suicide,” he says. “It fascinated me how a man can feel pain and be very aware of time simultaneously. That whole concept of time stayed with me.” The mystic aspect to Faulkner’s work had significant resonance for the young composer. “I started to go back to my roots, and I read the sixth-century philosopher David Anhaght, who was a mystic about numbers. He says that seven is a symbol of time. I felt the number was in that Faulkner passage as well.”
Mansurian says that after this discovery, he found mystical connections to numbers embedded in all kinds of works. “For example,” Mansurian remarks, “Komitas notated one folk song about tilling the earth during springtime. In this song, the men have brought their oxen and hoes to the field to prepare the earth. The men talk lovingly to their animals, asking them to be like brothers in helping with the work. It’s a song of sweat, and you hear not just the labor song, but also the sounds of the village women calling as they approach with food, and the men shouting back to these women. All of these sounds are in this song. When Komitas was thinking of notating this particular melody, it took him two years to even come close to being able to suggest not just the song, but its overall environment.” Mansurian then makes the numerological connection. “When Komitas transcribed this song for choir, he notated it in a 5/16 time signature. Everything suddenly fit into this number — all these sounds were one big five! Suddenly, Komitas realized that this number has a certain mystery itself that connects mystically to this song.” But, he cautions, “It’s one thing when you have certain numbers in your head that you try to fit into your life, and it’s another thing when those numbers come from life and reveal themselves. But realizing those truths is what I call the responsibility of an artist: confessing to that truth.”
The composer’s most recent trip to the United States was to participate in San Francisco’s Other Minds Festival, now in its tenth year and organized by composer and new-music advocate Charles Amirkhanian (who also happens to be of Armenian descent). Held in early March, the festival encompassed not just three evening-long concerts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but also a four-day intensive symposium, for all the participating composers, which preceded the performances. Alongside Mansurian and Amirkhanian were San Franciscans Mark Grey, Jon Raskin, and Joan Jeanrenaud (the former longtime cellist of the famed Kronos Quartet), Poland’s Hanna Kulenty, Japanese composer Keiko Harada, German composers Stefan Hussong and Werner Durand, France’s Francois Dhomont, Italy’s Amelia Cuni, and Brooklyn-based Panamanian jazz bass virtuoso Alex Blake.
“It was very interesting, this whole experience,” says Mansurian. “First of all, everyone was very talented…and they were so diverse. None of their music was like each other’s. Who were they, exactly, as musicians? Everyone who walks on this earth has his shadow. I was fascinated to see each composer’s shadow — how long or short it is, where it shifts….It was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever participated in. It enriched me very much.”
In recent years, as a result of his collaboration with the Armenian American violist Kim Kashkashian, who is one of ECM’s marquee artists, a great deal of Mansurian’s own work has centered on the viola. “Before I met her in 1995,” Mansurian recalls, “I knew her music very well, and it has always been art of the highest quality. I was always fascinated by her music. I have total admiration for her as a human being and a great artist.” Since their initial introduction, Mansurian and Kashkashian (who was also the viola soloist on the soundtrack of Theo Angelopoulos’s film, Ulysses’ Gaze) have worked together frequently; at the Other Minds Festival, they performed a series of Komitas’s songs arranged for viola and piano by the Armenian composer. Mansurian says that he finds this a very organic combination. “The connection between the viola, the human voice, and Armenian music is very strong,” he maintains. The viola, he states, is also a natural conduit for his artistic vision. “Sometimes, someone opens his mouth, and, before you hear him, you already can tell that he has been silent for the past three days. The viola, to me, is that sound of that man’s voice speaking for the first time after so long. It’s my favorite type of sound: one that deeply respects silence. And when he does speak, it comes out like a confession.”
“Silence,” he continues, “is at the center of my thinking. There are musicians who gather sounds, harmonize them, move them around — and that can be very dense. The notes get lost when they’re so low to the ground. They don’t relate to each other anymore. I always want to create relationships between the sounds, so that they live together everywhere in organic and natural relationships. But you can only test those relationships on the foundation of silence.”
“For me,” Mansurian observes, “there are two types of composers, one that creates music by adding notes, and the other that creates music by subtracting notes. Silence is the key point of creating music.” The composer says that his spare esthetic was inspired, in part, by other art forms. “Thirty years ago,” says Mansurian, “I saw an ikebana artist creating a composition from flowers. The guiding principle is how to reduce. When they cut the leaves off certain branches, you can see the childhood of those plants. From that emptiness, from those spaces, you create life for yourself. That whole theory and concept of taking things off, making beauty as you take things away, has been the fascination of the last three decades of my life, and that’s how I write music. That’s what fascinated me with Komitas’s music as well — that’s how he created.
“I feel like I owe Kim Kashkashian a lot,” Mansurian continues, saying that it was her advocacy that led him to Manfred Eicher, the celebrated founder and president of Germany’s ECM Records. “She presented my music to Manfred. He heard my violin concerto, then heard the viola concerto, which Kim performed in Munich. Then Manfred asked me to write more music.” So far, ECM has released two discs of Mansurian’s music: Hayren, released in 2003, which features some of the composer’s Komitas arrangements as well as original works for the duo of Kashkashian and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky; and Monodia, a recently released two-CD set that features an all-star lineup of ECM artists, including Kashkashian (playing the viola concerto titled …and then I was in time again), saxophonist Jan Garbarek (Lachrymae, with Kashkashian), the vocal group called the Hilliard Ensemble (Confessing With Faith, again with Kashkashian), and violinist Leonidas Kavakos (performing Mansurian’s Violin Concerto).
Eicher is planning other recordings of Mansurian’s music. “Manfred is going to release a piece called Ars Poetica, a concerto for choir, which has already been recorded. Then we have to do two quartets with the Rosamunde Quartet, and Manfred offered to write an epilogue for these. I’m going to do it with lots of pleasure, and this will become another CD. These are very fulfilling plans.” Even though Mansurian’s lifework is finally reaching a wider public, his struggles as an Armenian — and as a prominent Armenian artist who has chosen, despite his country’s turbulence, to remain in Armenia — cannot be forgotten or brushed aside. Kashkashian quietly notes the challenges facing Mansurian and other Armenian artists. “When I first visited Armenia back in 1989, 1990, 1991,” she recalls, “we were confronted with the total lack of infrastructure, the deplorable lack of rules and regulations — law is a strange thing over there — and the loss of dignity, the loss of culture, for the survival of which everyone is fighting tooth and nail.”
She remembers, “In the first years I went to visit, I was told that there were only a few months during the year when it would be good for us to go: basically, the best of the fall and spring months, because in winter there was no heat, no running water, nothing, and summer was not good because no one had refrigeration, and so those of us unused to those conditions would have a lot of stomach problems. I went in the middle of winter anyway, and saw people schlepping water back and forth, and saw the joy on the one day in ten when the lights go on, the electricity works, or the water runs, and everybody gets to take a bath. It’s just extraordinary how much dignity and pride is still preserved. Getting to know someone like Mansurian, or any of the musicians who choose to live there and try to keep their light spreading, is an absolutely humbling experience. You can’t imagine what they’re fighting against.”
Balancing Acts: An Interview with Angie Drakopoulos
is a columnist for Billboard
and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle
, and Jazz Times
. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America
and WNYC’s Soundcheck
. More of her work is available at www.anastasiat.com
Many ethnic groups in New York are involved with contemporary art, and the Greek community is no exception. One of the more compelling topics in art today is the specificity of background in artistic styles that are really based on American art practices from the 1960s and 1970s. Interested in seeing how the Greek artistic community in New York has been making use of local or international art practice, greekworks.com presents an interview with Angie Drakopoulos, a native-born Greek artist, fluent in both Greek and English, now living in New York. The two met at Art Omi, an artists residency in upstate New York, visited by Goodman last July. Ms. Drakopoulos’s intelligent reading of her current cultural position is made that much stronger by the fine art she makes. Subscribers to greekworks.com will have the pleasure of seeing her artwork, much of it realized on the computer, as well as reading a far-ranging commentary on what is facing the New York artist today, both esthetically and socially. We hope you enjoy both the work and the interview. We hope to publish interviews with Greek and Greek American artists more regularly in the future.
JG: You were born in New Hampshire. What brought your parents over from Greece, to make a life in the United States?
AD: Well, my mother’s parents came from Greece in the 1940s. They were in their thirties when they met here and married; my mother was born in New Hampshire. She first went to Greece in 1969, where she met my father, who was born and raised there. After they married, they decided to leave Greece and come and live in New Hampshire. I was nine when they decided to move back to Greece; they still live there.
JG: Do you have brothers or sisters?
AD: I have a younger sister, who was born in Greece. She’s been to America a few times to visit, but she’s never lived here.
JG: When you were living in New Hampshire, did you speak Greek at home?
AD: I spoke mostly English at that point, but I knew Greek as well. When we moved to Greece, I went straight from an English-speaking school into a Greek-speaking school without losing a year. It was, however, a very difficult transition. The first year in Greece, I lived in my father’s village, which was very different from New Hampshire: it was quite a culture shock. Imagine all six grades of elementary school in one classroom, with one teacher; the teacher would spend 10 minutes at most with each group, which was quite a new experience for me. The next year we moved to Athens, and that was a lot easier.
JG: Were you always interested in art?
AD: I wasn’t, because I was never really exposed to it. We didn’t have any art classes in the public school I went to, so it took me a while to realize on my own that I was interested in art. I was 17 or 18 when I decided that I’d like to take classes, so I had a late start.
JG: I remember you saying that it was very difficult to pursue an art degree in Greece, as there was only one school in Athens, with 32 places, and the program was heavily academic.AD: Yes, when I graduated from high school I decided to take the exam for the School of Fine Arts in Athens. I remember being among approximately 850 people who were drawing and painting for five days straight, competing for 32 positions. We were expected to draw and paint a statue or a still life in a very traditional manner, with correct perspective, correct proportions, and so on. There seems to be a strong belief in Greece — even among modern artists — that in order to make any kind of art, including abstract art, you must first know how to draw and paint realistically. I personally am not so sure it’s necessary, at least not to the degree that I was expected to perform in order to have a chance of getting into the School of Fine Arts. That’s one of the reasons I ended up in the US.
JG: You were in Greece until you were 21. Between the years of 18 and 21, were you taking art courses?
AD: Yes, I went to a school in Athens called the Vakalo [School of Art and Design]; it had a three-year program where you could specialize in either graphic arts or interior decorating. My teachers were fine artists and conducted their classes in experimental and interesting ways.
JG: Was it is a very classical education?
AD: There was a lot of classical drawing and painting, mostly from the model or still life, but we also had many classes very similar to those in any art program in the US: color theory, art history, photography. Overall, I think it compared quite well to my schooling in the US, especially considering that it was a program for graphic, not fine, arts.
JG: You left your family at the age of 21. Did you originally come to New York?
AD: I first went to Washington, DC, to stay with my uncle, who was living there at the time. I originally thought I’d just take some classes, maybe get a degree, and then go back to Greece. I ended up getting my degree in fine arts from the Corcoran School of Art.
JG: What were your studies like there?
AD: The Corcoran encouraged students to work with many different media and explore new ideas. What I really learned was a way of thinking about art, not necessarily how to make it, but how to think about making it. One of my favorite exercises, in my junior year, was a project to make 80 works in two weeks. We were given specific instructions on different media that had to be used, or an idea to be incorporated, or a color, or words for a piece to refer to. It was exhilarating; it really opened my mind to the possibilities of making art. Also, because of the project’s size and deadline, you couldn’t spend too much time on any individual work; so you achieved a certain degree of detachment from the end result, which allowed a lot of latent ideas and tendencies to surface. I think that was the first time I experienced art as a mind-game.
JG: After getting your degree from the Corcoran, you made the decision to come to New York?
AD: Yes. Although I really enjoyed my time at the Corcoran, Washington never appealed to me, and the art scene was very small. So I decided to come to New York. From the first day I moved here, I felt that I was at home. I think New York is a lot more similar to Athens than Washington is.
JG: There is also a large Greek population in New York.
AD: Yes, and I moved to Astoria, so maybe that’s why the adjustment was so easy.
JG: You attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. What kind of experience was it?
AD: Well, I chose to go to SVA because its fine-arts program isn’t divided into painting and sculpture.
JG: And that’s the way you conceive of your work?
AD: That’s how I work. My sculpture and painting inform each other. So it was very important for me to go to a school where I had the ability to do anything. SVA was one of the few schools that offered that possibility. In general, I don’t think that art should be classified according to the medium or material used, especially in graduate school, where the technical aspects of any work have to some degree been solved or can be solved with research. What you are focusing on is ideas, and ideas should not be limited by medium.
JG: When did you start at SVA?
AD: In 1994. It was a two-year program.
JG: And were you starting to make the kind of images you are making now? Had you arrived at this particular style?
AD: Not at all. In fact, if you saw my work then, you wouldn’t recognize it as mine. When I entered SVA, my work was very dark, very black. I was working with imagery of the body, I was working with bones, and with a lot of sexual imagery; after all these years, I’m still working with the body in a way, but I’m dealing with it on a totally different scale. I am now focused on the microscopic level. I am also dealing with it in a more abstract sense, and, of course, other issues have come into play. I often think of this work as being like a diagram of the thinking process, which is something that occurs in the body but is not about the physicality of the body.
JG: I’d like to talk about how you go about making your art, and about your visual influences. I do think that they are suspended, balanced between sculpture and two-dimensional work; and I think that’s the way a lot of people make their art interesting nowadays, which is to be sort of in between genres or media.
AD: Well, I’ll talk about my technique first. I usually find images in science books, or on the Internet. Then I begin to manipulate them on the computer. The amount of manipulation is different for each image; sometimes I draw over the image and rescan it, or I flip it to create symmetrical shapes. I then print these images onto transparency paper, which is then layered into the painting with clear resin. So, it’s a very slow process of building up many layers. With each new layer, I try to introduce an image that is slightly different from the image layered below, and then I try to find the most interesting way to interconnect the different elements, either by adding another layer of transparency with a new image or by painting directly on the resin.
JG: I’m not sure I fully understand. You develop the imagery on the computer?
AD: Well, I develop one image at a time, one layer….
JG: …And you print directly onto the resin?
AD: No, the images are printed on transparency sheets, and then the resin is poured. As the work builds up, it becomes very much about energy. So I am thinking a lot about such questions as: What regulates the movements of elementary particles? How is it that light can be measured as both a wave and a particle? The world around us is mostly void, so how is it that it appears solid? How does this transformation occur between the immaterial and the material world?
JG: Are you trying intuitively to relate that scientific knowledge to the work you make?
AD: Yes, in a very intuitive way. I’m also very interested in Eastern philosophy and the idea of observing the mind and creating a balanced state of mind, and this is part of where the symmetry comes from.
JG: How about color? You do use color, but not a lot.
AD: What I’m trying to describe is a space in the mind that is possibly void of color, or maybe a space that is flooded with light. I am very interested in the idea of light. Yellow and white seem to be the best colors to represent that.
JG: Do you refer to these works as paintings or relief sculptures?
JG: Do you consider these a series or individual works of art?
AD: They are definitely a series.
JG: And do you have a name for the series?
AD: Yes, Sequence.
JG: During the course of the year, how many do you finish?
AD: Last year, I finished seven.
JG: Can you talk about the opposition between geometric and organic forms? Is that something that interests you a lot?
AD: Yes, definitely. That’s how I begin the work, and I’m always trying to mix the two: I’ll create one layer that’s very organic and the next layer will be very geometric. I like combining things that are opposite or seem opposite. By combining things that are opposite you can enter into a balanced state. It’s similar to the idea of making something that’s complex and simple at the same time, which is something that I think about a lot. How to pull simplicity out of complexity, how to create complexity from simplicity. Something geometric and rigid can have a biomorphic and organic feel, and something organic can have a geometric structure. I’m interested in understanding how everything is interconnected in the universe. When I first started making art, I worked with images mostly from the biomorphic organic realm, and, over the years, I’ve really come to love the structure that the organic form is built around.
JG: The images seem as if they come from structures: snowflakes or cellular structures. Are you consciously copying a particular structure, or are you getting things from your sources the way you described and improvising upon the basic structure?
AD: I think I do a bit of both. Sometimes I use them directly, and sometimes I improvise.
JG: Can you speak a little bit about the translucency and light, because the light seems to come almost from behind the image. Is that the result of the resin, or is that just how the light bounces off the image?
AD: Well, in some pieces I’ve actually used light. I did a series of sculptures in 1998-1999 that were shaped Styrofoam with white resin surfaces, with lights in them. Some of them even had video and pulsing lights.
JG: They are mechanical and organic, even erotic, at the same time. That connection makes me think a little bit of Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder and The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even.
AD: Oh yes, I love those pieces.
JG: What about the imagery here that looks like soap bubbles?
AD: That’s actually from a photograph of a slice of root. But it’s modified, and made symmetrical. Most imagery you see is modified on the computer to fit my format.
JG: Your format is relatively small. How do you feel about that?
AD: Because each piece is so labor-intensive, it seems to make sense to work on this scale. I’ve worked larger in the past, but what happens is that I end up having too many ideas and not enough time to execute them. So this size seems to work for now. But I’m interested in making larger work in the future.
JG: Do you see yourself as part of a particular generation, being in your mid-thirties? Do you see yourself very much as part of the international art world that has developed so much in New York? What is your connection to Greek culture? It’s not easily available in the artwork — I wouldn’t say that you’re a Greek artist, looking at the artwork.
AD: Yes, that’s true. I’m very interested in creating art that overcomes cultural boundaries, so, in that sense, I’m not interested in making work that has to do with my personal identity. I’m trying to find something common to all, regardless of cultural background. At the same time, Greece is best known around the world as the birthplace of ideas, which transcended the borders of Greece and were adopted throughout the world. So I think it is this search for a universal truth and knowledge that I connect with.
JG: But you don’t make use of Greece’s literary history; you are not retelling myth.
AD: No, I’m not doing that. But I am very interested in myth. I believe that myth is an extremely essential element for society, and inextricably linked to the human psyche. But I don’t work in a literal manner; I have a more intuitive and abstract approach. That doesn’t mean that the work is not informed by myth on some level. I also hope to connect to the Greek art world at some point. I’m very interested in exhibiting in Greece.
JG: So you would want to go back?
AD: Yes, definitely.
JG: I think, sometimes, if you are too literal about your influences, it can really be a weakness in the art.
AD: I think it can, and I think it can sometimes be limiting, because you may just be referring to a very small audience that understands the specific imagery. I think that every artist has a unique perspective. Some artists choose to deal with cultural or social issues. In my case, the ideas are more about understanding human consciousness. I think it’s important for an artist to explore what they find most fascinating.
JG: What do you see or like about the New York art world and its internationalism? Do you think there is room enough in the artworld for people to really make sense of your work, say, or other peoples’ work from other cultures?
AD: I think the scene can only get more interesting with more artists. The reason I decided to apply to Art Omi [International Arts Center, an arts colony] is because of its focus on the international community. I think this is what brought me to New York in the first place. Having direct access to people from other cultures makes it easier to find out what we all have in common, and this is something that feeds my work.
JG: I still find it very interesting that you are not bringing specifically Greek content to your work. Not that you should; it’s just that, as an observer seeing so many people from so many different backgrounds, and not being able to tell what background they belong to, it makes me wonder if we’re coming to a point where internationalization is so complete that it’s going to be impossible to tell anyone’s cultural, ethnic, or national identity.
AD: Well, I think that’s just a result of what’s happening in the world in general. If you go to Greece today, you’ll see that it is becoming very Americanized.
JG: One of the reasons I respond to the internationalization in New York’s art world the way I do is that I worked for three years as an editor for ArtNews, handling the national and international reviews; and the quality of the work coming from faraway places was just as good as anything done in New York. That really opened me up to this notion that, well, it’s good for your career to have a gallery in New York, but you don’t necessarily have to be in New York to fulfill your career.
AD: I hope that’s definitely the case, as I want to move out of New York sometime in the future; although I love New York and would probably miss the energy, I do miss nature.
JG: How influenced are you by the art in museums and galleries around you? Do you go to see a lot of things, or are you too busy?
AD: I think the older I get, the less my influences come directly from art. There are very few artists at this point who inspire my work directly. I do go to galleries and museums, and I sometimes come across work that I appreciate and like, but it usually doesn’t relate to my work. Other times, I feel that the work is very uninteresting; actually, most of the time it’s quite disappointing.
JG: Tell me about your exhibits. Have you been in a lot of shows — or has that not come about yet?
AD: I had a one-person show at a gallery in Paris called g-module in 2002, and it went very well. But I can say that in the eight years since I’ve been out of school, I’ve been preoccupied with trying to survive in New York, to just stay afloat and make enough money month to month to survive and make work — and it’s also taken many years to build and develop the work, especially since it takes so long to complete. This year, however, I’ve shown work in Chelsea, and I’m in two group shows at the moment. One is at Feature, entitled “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and the other — “Synthesis” — is at Axel Raben Gallery. I have three paintings at Feature; at Axel Raben, which is a show about collaborations, I have an animation that I did with my husband, Daniel Hill.
JG: Can you talk a little bit about your sense of things in terms of the cost of a life in art? Do you think that numbers have actually changed the way a person has a career in contemporary art, or do you think the numbers make critics or curators too powerful, because they are the ones to choose who will be shown and who won’t?
AD: I think it’s hard for me to say because I don’t feel like I’ve been part of the art world. New York is an extremely difficult place. It’s probably more difficult now than it was when I got here 10 years ago. I can just imagine that it must be very hard for a young person coming to New York to go to art school; the tuitions are much higher and the rents are much higher. I don’t think we are headed in the right direction.
JG: What would you like to see? What do you think can be done? How can we make it better?
AD: I don’t know that I have the answer to that question. One thing I can say, having gone to SVA, is that everyone left there with huge debts that are very difficult to deal with when you don’t have skills for making money, and it’s unrealistic to expect to make money after art school. So that’s a very big problem. As far as critics and curators are concerned, I haven’t had the opportunity to be exposed to that world because I’ve been too busy trying to survive. It’s a difficult situation, and I don’t know where the solution lies. Artists definitely do need more support. I feel that there were many times when I could have slipped through the cracks. It’s been hard to hang in there all these years and put art as a first priority, and I’ve suffered in other areas of my life as a result. At the same time, I consider myself very fortunate, because I’m still making art. I think there are a lot of talented artists who are not making art because the system has let them down.
JG: So it must of been a pleasure to be accepted by Art Omi — the numbers are incredible, I think they have 600 people applying, and they take only 32.
AD: Yes, it was a great surprise.
JG: Maybe that is a sign of increased recognition for your work.
AD: I hope so.
Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to greekworks.com.
The Wild One
Female: Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whaddaya got?
— The Wild One, in which Brando played Johnny
“He gave us our freedom.”
— Jack Nicholson
It would seem that the respect for principle and the love of one’s neighbor have become dysfunctional in this country of ours, and that all we have done, all that we have succeeded in accomplishing with our power is simply annihilating the hopes of the newborn countries in this world, as well as friends and enemies alike, that we’re not humane, and that we do not live up to our agreements.
Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards?…
— Marlon Brando, in his statement explaining his decision not to accept his Academy Award in person for best actor in The Godfather, in protest against the historical treatment of Native Americans, 1973
Brando always scared the hell out of me. At least until I turned 16 or so (hormones can liberate the mind as well as confound it). Growing up in the Fifties as a shy, socially and culturally inept, kid in an immigrant family, Brando was, for me, about as overdetermined a male film icon as a male film icon could possibly be. Put plainly, he freaked me out. Watching him on the tube (because I wasn’t old enough to be taken to any of his movies), it was obvious that he was — to put it simply — dangerous. And while that has by now become a cliché in describing this (self-)construction of radical discord, it was no less true for a timid six- or seven-year-old who had no idea of (self-)constructions of radical discord and for whom, above all, “dangerous” was the last thing a child was supposed to be in McCarthyite (Greek) America at the height of the Cold War.
Still, one of my favorite movies as a kid was The Teahouse of the August Moon, which was broadcast regularly on TV. Although it had a “mature” theme (the need for eros in civilization), I was pretty oblivious to it (I was not a precocious child) and just lapped up the situational byplay. While Teahouse was a comedy, of course (and one, moreover, made in politically incorrect times), suffice it to say that at a historical moment when the United States is occupying another Asian nation, any movie in which the American occupiers are, ultimately, laid low by the cultural coherence — and resistance — of the occupied has lessons aplenty to teach to this day. (In Teahouse, the Okinawans take the money given them for a school by the culturally clueless Americans and rebuild their village’s destroyed teahouse in order to genuinely reconstitute their prewar, non-American, life.) Many critics have rightly remarked on the “broad” — nowadays it would be called racially insensitive — aspect of Brando’s performance. If I remember correctly, however, his portrayal is both sly and subtle: in any case, his character is, by far, the wisest one in the movie (and in the play on which the movie was based). For me, as a kid who loved war movies and went to pieces at the ending of The Purple Heart, it was a revelation in 1956 to see the Japanese portrayed not only as human beings, but as actually more humane than the do-gooder Americans who, in their vast cultural confusion — and arrogance — try to make over a small Okinawan village in their own image.
Thinking back on Teahouse, I now realize that it was also in that film that I first laid eyes on Machiko Kyo, in the role of the geisha Lotus Blossom. Although Kyo subsequently became one of my great screen crushes, I had no idea who she was at the time, let alone that she’d be so central to my own future film experience, starting with Rashomon, of course, but moving on much more sublimely — indeed, transcendently — to her transformation under Mizoguchi in Ugetsu, Princess Yang Kwei Fei, and Street of Shame (and, in a very different role, in Ozu’s Floating Weeds), just to name an obvious few. Now that the American cinema has been hopelessly disarticulated — formally, functionally, and at its core of narrative intent — by teen esthetics, computer graphics, and a kind of rampant diegetic aphasia that I can only describe as Tarantinoism, it is instructive to reflect upon an era in which (to echo film historian Thomas Schatz) “the system” did in fact possess an indisputable structural genius: in this instance, casting America’s most potent male presence and Japan’s most incandescent female actor in a comedy directed by…Daniel Mann. Such sheer esthetic audacity, which was once standard procedure for American movies, is unimaginable today.
Brando’s first six films, made within five years, were The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, The Wild One, and On the Waterfront. His last six films, made within a decade, were Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, Don Juan DeMarco, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Brave, Free Money, and The Score. The disproportion here is so manifest, so extreme, that what seems initially to be a matter of “decline” ends up, on second thought, to be clearly one of existential purpose. Brando being Brando, moreover — his performances in his final work were, if nothing else, tours de force of a sort of wonderful, and lucid, contempt for acting. But I won’t belabor the obvious. I assume that very few people know or care about the films Brando made in the last couple of decades of his life. I cannot imagine, on the other hand, that there’s anybody in the world today who cares about film who doesn’t consider the first five years of Brando’s film career as a singular reinvention, if not of cinema per se, certainly of the American cinema.
The last time I saw On the Waterfront was exactly 20 years ago this summer. My wife and I, after spending a year in Greece, were slowly making our continental way to Paris for our flight back to the States, and we were in Budapest. As we are always wont to do whenever we spend more than a couple of days in a place, we checked out the local movie scene, and — again, as always seems to be the case — we were fortunate in that we had run into an American film festival, this one an official cultural-exchange affair organized by the US embassy. Because it was a program of classic American cinema, we had both seen most of the films multiple times, but then there were the Brando films — or, more accurately, the Brando-Kazan films.
I’ve written before on this site that I don’t think much of Elia Kazan as a filmmaker; more to the point (and here I have to make my unavoidable confession), I never liked Brando. I said that he scared me as a kid; but after I grew up and made movies the core of my esthetic education, he simply irritated me. To this day, I can’t even begin to fathom the notion of Brando as American cinema’s “greatest” actor. More resonant, iconic, or emotionally volcanic and brutal than Jimmy Stewart? Hitchcock and I would both disagree. More esthetically adept, intellectually taxing, and deeply revelatory than Cary Grant? I don’t think so — and, again, Hitchcock wouldn’t have either. It’s no coincidence that Brando’s most evocative performances were for a mediocre filmmaker — who, however, happened to be a deeply talented theater director. Brando never left the stage. The “secret,” in fact, to both his notorious “style” of mimetic incoherence — his role as the anti-Olivier, so to speak — and to his well-publicized contempt for his craft lay in the manifest falseness of stage-acting, to which he was tied almost umbilically (and which, not at all paradoxically, unites his film performances with those of the master of applied histrionics, Lord Olivier). No, Brando was not a film actor; Brando was…Brando.
Which brings me back to that night in Budapest. We decided to catch On the Waterfront. Neither of us had seen it in years, and I learned a long time ago that even bad art has an enduring half-life. When the lights went up, we were both nostalgic, in the sense of John Kerry’s appropriation of Langston Hughes: why couldn’t America be America again? It was the summer of 1984, and it was obvious that Ronald Reagan was going to be reelected president of the United States; meanwhile, in Budapest, the only thaw we could detect in the Cold War was among the Hungarians themselves, who made us feel more comfortable to be (and were amazingly hospitable to us as) Americans than our fellow citizens back home, who were about to reelect the Teflon president in a landslide.
When the movie was over, we turned to each other for a moment. We were sitting in Budapest having just watched Terry Malloy give up all illusions of being a contender in order to become a stool pigeon — albeit in a “noble cause” (there is, in fact, more than a touch of Waiting for Lefty in the film’s almost prolecult climax). A young Hungarian woman sitting next to us, having heard us speaking American-accented English as the lights went on, asked of the film’s ending — and not rhetorically (after all, the stool pigeon becomes the dockworkers’ hero-leader) — Does that make any sense? We shook our heads, but neither Melanie nor I was prepared at that moment to quibble, either dramatically or ideologically, with Budd Schulberg’s script. (I repeat: 1984 — the year of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, two years after E.T., and a year before The Color Purple. That last film was particularly telling: from On the Waterfront to The Color Purple in one generation.)
Most of the audience in that packed theater that night was in its twenties and even younger, but it reacted as one reacts to the end of a religious service: quietly, slowly, internally negotiating the transition from an alternative moral and intellectual engagement to life “as it is lived,” automatically, submissively, as an infinite series of concessions. Needless to say, this particular film carried an additional, and painful, poignancy for this audience, which, after all, had come of age in a society in which betrayal was the official definition of survival (the bullet-holes of 1956, and maybe even of 1945, still riddled the facades of Budapest’s buildings.) Under the circumstances, hearing Brando’s “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am,” in Budapest, in 1984, in front of a young Hungarian audience, proved, to me at least, the truth of the subconscious sense that we all have that art is an ethic and not an escape.
And that it is more than the sum of its parts. I’ll never think highly of Kazan as a filmmaker; I’ll never look to a script by Budd Schulberg as a model of either efficiency or penetration; and as for Brando, he probably allowed himself to be a film actor only once in his life, in Last Tango in Paris — a movie that’s considerably more problematic now than when it was made over 30 years ago. But so what? In 1984, I saw in Budapest why the American cinema was — until about 20 years ago — arguably more relevant to the world than the American constitution. Because freedom is not a policy, but a seduction. It is not a “choice,” but a craving. The point to freedom is its excessiveness, the world of plenitude that it both heralds and shields; it is not its utility, which makes of it a degraded (and corporate) functionalism and — unfortunately, the world being what it is — aggrandizement. (If anything explains the ghoulish nature of what passes as the current government of the United States, it is how absolutely wrong it has gotten the meaning of freedom.)
Freedom for much of an entire generation — in Moscow and Madrid and Buenos Aires and Havana and Cairo and Bombay to, of course, New York and Chicago and Omaha, where he was born, a true son of the heartland — was Brando in a torn t-shirt. Which is why any discussion of Brando as an actor doesn’t really matter in the end, and certainly doesn’t even begin to explain — or register — his affective power, which might or might not have been artistic, but was undoubtedly, for most of the world, existential. I now understand why, although I never “liked” Brando, I felt subliminally that I, and the American cinema even more, needed him, at least to show the flag; to make the world understand, in other words, that American movies were, in a fundamental way, about America, and that everything people read in their daily newspapers about napalm and burning crosses and spooks in dark glasses always a step ahead of — or hiding behind the curtains during — coups in Iran and Guatemala and Chile, was nowhere near as real, or descriptive of this country, as Brando was. Which is also why Brando’s parallel life as a political activist was so natural; in the event, there was nothing “parallel” about it. It was part and parcel of his own definition of himself, the “public” side of a human being whose acting represented — and this is what so few people, especially his fans, really understood — his private resistance(s).
From the moment he died, the culturati have been speculating about Brando’s “heir,” but what Brando achieved — and the reason he achieved it — was tied to a specific historical moment that is not only gone but impossible to summon again. The current reality of American cinema will no longer allow any actor to accomplish what Brando did. To put it simply, and in the words of Norma Desmond, the pictures are just too small — which brings us back to Brando in a torn t-shirt. Everything else considered, that’s probably the most liberating image of America the world has had in the last 50 years.
Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
Wednesday, August 04, 2004
Sailing From Byzantium
This special edition of greekworks.com is dedicated entirely to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), which closed last month. It has been guest-edited by Maria Georgopoulou, founder of the program in Hellenic Studies at Yale University, to whom we are very grateful for putting together this wide-ranging critical review. We are equally grateful to Helen C. Evans, curator both of the exhibit and of early Christian and Byzantine art at the Metropolitan, for agreeing to contribute the introduction to this edition. We believe that the reader will find all six essays that follow both illuminating and (if may we use the term for a quasi-theocratic empire that fell over 500 years ago) intellectually germane. In the current “clash of civilizations” in which the “West” is being told that the barbarians are at the gate — and that they are all coming from the “East” (although, once upon a time in the West, it was the latter that the ancients feared as the barbarian threat to Greco-Roman civilization) — the cultural afterlives of “Byzantium” are instructive, to say the least. (That is especially so since the very notion of Byzantium is pure invented tradition, as Helen Evans points out in her introduction à propos the term’s coinage by a German in 1557.) Nobody at greekworks.com is a Byzantinist — and we will, in any case, leave the scholarly analysis to the scholars whose analyses follow — but anyone who saw the exhibit, Byzantium: Faith and Power, or has even perused the show’s catalogue is struck by two inescapable conclusions.
The first, actually, is the well-known “perceptual” antagonism of the medieval West to the Byzantines that of course led in 1204 to Constantinople’s sacking in the Fourth Crusade. One can’t help but be shocked and awed by the Crusaders’ sanguinary consistency; it obviously took a certain severe definition of ecclesia to dispatch one’s co-religionists with the same savagery with which one exterminated the “infidels” (i.e., Muslims and Jews). The lesson here, in any case, is not only that one man’s West is another man’s East, but that communion with God is — as most of us have always feared — an inscrutable grace.
The second point, which Faith and Power proves with extraordinary coherence and depth, is that Byzantium was not a monolith, but — for reasons of sheer survival if no other — infinitely more syncretic, or at least assimilative, than it has been seen to be by all those prejudiced against it, from Gibbon to our own day. Moreover, it gave as good as it got — if not more so — especially after it “fell.” That’s an old tale, naturally. (Is there anyone who still doesn’t understand the connection between medieval Hellenism’s fall and Europe’s renascence?) Nevertheless, while cause(s) and effect(s) are matters for scholars to debate and confirm, there was, at the very least, a “permeability” — as they say nowadays — and a profound interaction that bespoke a truly worldly, and anything but hermetic, culture, even (especially?) when it was at its weakest, right before the end, in 1453.
Faith and Power: a provocative title, and eerily resonant. We all take away from it what we all always take away from any major examination of a culture that is utterly distant (not only historically but existentially): wonder and recognition. Of others, of ourselves, of the incalculable cultural migrations back and forth between others and ourselves. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Helen C. Evans for fashioning an exhibition about a culture’s “end” that was really about its afterlives and continuing reimagination. Which is finally to say that what really matters in this exhibition is what has always mattered in human culture: not what was, but what is — or, more accurately, how what was still is.
The Power of Faith: Public Worship and Private Devotion in Late Byzantium
Now you may know that those who had never before seen Constantinople looked upon it very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in all the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces, and mighty churches of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes — and the height and the length of that city which above all others was sovereign. And be it known to you, that no man there was of such hardihood but his flesh trembled: and it was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the creation of the world.1
— Geoffrey de Villehardouin (c. 1150 — c. 1213)
This well-known text was written some years before the event that marks the beginning of Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), namely, the rather humdrum reconquest of Constantinople by the Byzantine army. Geoffrey of Villehardouin was one of the leaders of the Fourth Crusade (which eventually sacked Constantinople in 1204), and thus a “foreigner.” The excerpt from his Histoire is valuable for several reasons, but here I would like to emphasize that his impression of Byzantium is particularly modern: it resonates with the perceptions of many who visited the seminal exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. People in North America may or may not have been familiar with Byzantine art, but almost everyone, including Byzantinists, were astounded by the splendid pieces brought together by this show, the ingenuity and diversity of creative expression, and the quality of art produced by an empire that, truth be told, was in decline. In fact, one result of this exhibit will surely be to redefine late Byzantine decline, and its permutations and manifestations.
Most of the objects assembled in New York were religious in use or, at least, in character. This fact reflects a reality of the art produced in late Byzantium, but it is not to say that secular objects were nonexistent. Their absence is due, on the one hand, to their nature — usually small pieces made of precious materials — and, on the other hand, on accidents of preservation: it is easier, in other words, to lose a small jewelry box than a large icon. In purely Darwinian terms, an icon, because of its content, context, and (sometimes) size, was more likely to survive in the Middle Ages, as is also the case today. The goal of this essay, in any case, is to use some of the objects exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in order to illuminate religious behavior during the late Byzantine period, be it at home, in church, or in city streets.2
In Orthodox practice, public worship plays a vital role even today. There is abundant textual evidence describing the Byzantines’ lavish religious processions, in Constantinople and elsewhere.3 A common manifestation was the procession of an icon through the streets. One such icon (double-sided, so that it could be viewed from both sides) is the centerpiece of the first gallery of the exhibit, depicting The Virgin Pafsolype (of the Cessation of Sorrow) and scenes from the Great Feasts on one side, and the Crucifixion on the other. The reasons for these public manifestations of devotion were manifold: to honor the saint (or event) depicted on the icon on his or her feast day, to ask for help in an exigent situation, or as a customary expression of piety toward a cherished relic. A magnificent depiction of a religious procession aimed to invoke divine protection for a city (in this instance, Novgorod) is the splendid fifteenth-century icon depicting the battle of Novgorod and Suzdal’. According to the legend, the city was besieged in 1170 by Andrej of Bogoljubovo, prince of Suzdal’. As a protective measure against the invaders, Novgorod’s archbishop, John, had the icon of the Virgin transferred to a wall of the fortress. The upper register of the icon depicts this procession: a person carrying a cross leads a group of people, which includes deacons, priests, the archbishop, and laymen. Although this icon comes from outside the Byzantine empire’s borders, it is an excellent representation of what a Byzantine procession would have looked like.
Public demonstrations of piety were relatively frequent, but the most common expression of communal faith took place indoors. It is very difficult to recreate the feeling of a late Byzantine church in a museum gallery, but several of the exhibits helped visitors to reconstruct the setting in their minds. A Byzantine church was typically divided into three spaces: the narthex, serving, among other things, as a kind of entrance hall; the naos, or main nave, habitually topped by a dome; and the bema, or sanctuary. The church interior was lavishly decorated with mosaics or, more commonly, frescoes and rich liturgical furnishings. The figural decoration is, as a rule, a microcosm of the universe: Christ Pantokrator (Ruler of All) is situated high up on the dome, among angelic powers; standing figures of saints are found at the lower parts of the walls; and the Virgin, the connecting link between divinity and humanity, is placed in the semidome surmounting the sanctuary’s apse. Events from the gospels or other narrative cycles complete the decoration. Outstanding examples of late Byzantine frescoes were to be found in Gallery III. Some of the most striking examples of such frescoes depict figures of military saints, such as the one from the Church of Saint Nicholas in Pyrgos, Euboea, which dates to the thirteenth century, with the saint’s elegant pose, his armor’s decoration, and the pearl diadem crowning his thick, curly hair. Since Byzantium faced difficult political situations and was threatened by numerous enemies at that time, the prominent role of military saints in iconographic programs, and as the empire’s protectors, is easily understood.4
The church’s interior decoration was completed with a number of fixtures, some of which had a practical purpose. A great example was the choros on display in the exhibition’s second gallery, which probably came from Asia Minor. A loose equivalent of a chandelier that was lavishly decorated with metal crosses and stylized mythical beasts, it hung under the dome of a church and provided light through candles and lamps. The Metropolitan’s installation was particularly instructive, since the lighting of the choros recreated the original effect it would have had in a church.
The exhibit assembled a number of smaller objects that would have been used regularly during worship, including several liturgical manuscripts from Byzantium, Russia, and Georgia. They were decorated with miniatures, inspired by either Biblical texts or the liturgical calendar, and were remarkable for their workmanship and artistic quality. The Evangelion (lectionary), probably the most commonly used book, contained the gospel passages read during the liturgy throughout the year and was usually decorated with portraits of the evangelists.5 Such a portrait was contained in a lectionary from the monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai found in Gallery VII. Luke is presented sitting on an elaborate wooden throne and, instead of writing his gospel, is painting an icon of the Virgin and Child. According to tradition, Luke was the first to paint the portrait of the Mother of God. Another often-used liturgical book was the Psalter, which contained the 150 Davidic psalms. A remarkable example of book decoration was the leaf from a psalter depicting King David standing between Wisdom and Prophecy. David was an archetype for the Byzantine emperors, and is dressed as one in this miniature. Moreover, he is holding an open book, on the page of which is quoted a psalm referring to kingship. Psalms were an integral part of Christian worship from its inception, and these books would have been used during the services for the recitation of the appropriate texts.
Expensive manuscripts frequently had luxurious bindings made of precious metals and stones. Three magnificent examples could be seen in the central case of Gallery III. Some bore crosses, such as the manuscript from Armenia. Others were illustrated by complex symbolic iconographic programs. The book in the middle, probably produced in Thessalonike, had a front cover decorated with the Crucifixion and a back cover depicting the Resurrection, two antithetical yet complementary images evoking Christ’s passion. The prophets, apostles, saints, and angels grouped around the two scenes act as witnesses to these two key events of salvation history.
Rhipidia, or liturgical fans, is another category of liturgical objects. At first, they were made of fine skin, peacock feathers, or linen,6 and deacons used them to keep insects from falling into the chalice. As often happens in liturgy, a purely utilitarian action acquired symbolic meaning, and these objects came to be identified with seraphim or cherubim. They were eventually manufactured of metal and carried in processions. A rhipidion from Serbia in the second gallery bore inscriptions in Cyrillic inspired from texts quoted in the liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. In keeping with the rhipidion’s symbolism, it was decorated with four medallions displaying six-winged seraphim.
Textiles, either worn by the celebrants or used during the ritual, played a major role in the liturgy. Because textiles are fragile, few of them have survived, but some astonishing examples could be seen in Byzantium: Faith and Power. The so-called “Dalmatic of Charlemagne” — which is, in reality, a Byzantine sakkos made sometime in the fourteenth century — was displayed in Gallery V. A sakkos was a vestment worn exclusively by patriarchs or high-ranking metropolitans on feast days, although it is standard for all bishops today. The complex iconography of this sakkos includes, on the front, a depiction of the Church Triumphant gathered around Christ in Heaven and, on the back, the Transfiguration. The latter image is notable for its amazing mannerist poses of Peter, James, and John below the transfigured Christ. In fact, the quality of this embroidery, made of silk with silver and silver-gilt thread, is equal to that of contemporary Palaiologan monumental mosaics and frescoes, such as the ones at the Chora monastery in Istanbul.
In the same gallery, one found an intriguing group of liturgical textiles commonly known as epitaphioi (the singular, epitaphios, means “upon the tomb”). Although the epitaphios is used exclusively on Holy Friday and Saturday in Orthodox practice today, it appears that it was originally used regularly in worship to cover the paten and chalice during the preparation of the gifts; it was then paraded around the church during the Great Entrance, when the eucharistic vessels were transferred to the main altar. A magnificent example of such a textile is the fourteenth-century epitaphios from Thessalonike. As usual, its central section is decorated with Christ, lying dead on the tomb, surrounded by lamenting angelic powers and the symbols of the four evangelists. At both ends, we have two scenes from the Communion of the Apostles, a clear allusion to the Eucharistic use of this textile.
One of the most charming stories of Byzantine piety is that of the Holy Mandylion (“towel”).7 The legend recounts that Abgar, king of Edessa, fell ill and sent a messenger to Christ, asking Christ to go to Edessa and heal him. Christ instead took a towel and wiped his face: his features were miraculously imprinted on the towel. He then sent the towel to Abgar, who was immediately cured. The Mandylion was kept in Edessa until transferred to Constantinople in the tenth century. Believed to be a true acheiropoieton (“not made by human hands”) image of Christ, it became one of the most venerated relics in Constantinople, and there are several painted “copies,” two of which could be seen in the exhibition. One was the celebrated Holy Face of Laon, still an object of veneration and pilgrimage in the Laon cathedral. The iconographic type follows that of the Pantokrator, although only the face is depicted, without the shoulders. The icon from Laon is meant to represent the actual textile, as indicated by the fringe at the bottom and the yellow background pattern. The Mandylion might have influenced the very similar Western legend of Veronica. European paintings of this saint holding the towel with the face of Christ on it could be seen in the exhibit’s last gallery.
The subject of popular piety offers a smooth transition to the last category of religious behavior examined in this essay, namely, private devotion. Most of the objects found in the Metropolitan’s exhibit — miniature mosaic and steatite icons — are assumed, because of their small size, to have been used in a private setting. Although we know little about private devotion, we can imagine that it was similar to the present-day Orthodox practice of keeping icons at home for prayer, protection, and meditation. Such would have been the case with the fourteenth-century icon of Christ Pantokrator, now treasured at the parish of Saints-Pierre-et-Paul in Chimay, Belgium. Miniature mosaics are remarkable for their workmanship.8 Hundreds of tiny, variously colored cubes, called tesserae, were densely set into a bedding of mastic or wax. In fact, one has to view the objects closely to appreciate fully their rich palette and naturalistic style. A noteworthy example is the icon with the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia, now at Dumbarton Oaks, which depicts the martyrdom of forty Roman soldiers who were condemned to die in a frozen lake because of their Christian faith. In addition to the elegant poses, facial expressions, and gradations of color, what is remarkable is that the tesserae used to create the image measure less than 0.5mm. This icon might have belonged to a person with special devotion to the Forty Martyrs.
In closing, I would like to return to Villehardouin’s impression of Byzantium. It was, I trust, that of most visitors to Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), and one certainly justified by the splendid objects on display. This comprehensive and far-reaching exhibit of late Byzantine art, culture, and spirituality illustrated the broad influence of Byzantine art beyond Byzantium’s borders. The show revisited old problems with a fresh perspective, and introduced numerous new issues and ideas. Above all, it provided scholars and laypersons alike the opportunity to admire beautiful art. To cite yet another often-quoted text, from Yeats this time, it gathered together “monuments of unaging intellect.”