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Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Travel

Cultural Capital


The first time I went to Copenhagen, I flew in from Athens. As I only had 12 hours at my disposal, all I saw was the airport and the road that led to the suburb in which my brother and his family were then living (and who I had gone to see on this lightning visit). Nevertheless, it was enough – at least for me to understand that I had left Greece and had finally arrived in Europe.

Civitas, civic, civility, civilization…
“[C]ivility is not everywhere,” Lewis Thomas has written (in Et Cetera, Et Cetera), “but it does identify a city whenever the arrangement has been worked on hard enough, for a long enough time. I remember Prague for civility, also Zagreb, also Edinburgh.” He goes on to say that Paris and London “need some editing here and there” regarding civility, while “New York will take time.” I sigh audibly at that last comment, thinking of Athens.

Lewis was writing just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a couple of years before the wars of the Yugoslav succession. I assume, therefore, that his fond memories of Prague and Zagreb stem from the period of actually existing socialism. Put another way, even Stalinism (or its local derivatives) could not destroy the fabric of those two cities, whose civic “arrangements,” as Lewis so felicitously put it, had been “worked on hard enough, for a long enough time.” (I have the same memories of Budapest under the commissars.) Interestingly, Edinburgh is the only “Western” city Lewis includes in his trinity of civic virtue. Having finally visited it in August, it was particularly painful when I had to return to Greece, and Athens.

I’d wanted to go to Edinburgh for a long time, for two reasons. First, its film festival is the oldest such continuous gathering in the world (both Venice and Cannes were interrupted by the Second World War) and has long had the reputation, to echo John Huston’s celebrated tribute, of “the only film festival that’s worth a damn,” as different from the Mediterranean luxe et volupte of its two major competitors as, frankly, the city on the Firth of Forth is from the one on the Adriatic or the town on the French Riviera.

Edinburgh, however, is famously home of the Fringe – the most extraordinary concentration of theater and performance in the world. Although my primary esthetic preoccupation for the past 35 years has been movies, I’ve always wanted to go to Edinburgh more for the Fringe than for film, mostly because the (pseudo-)globalization of film culture during the last 10 to 15 years has turned festivals that were once quite distinct into infinite (indeed, because of the selection process, mechanical) reproductions of each other – with, most bizarre of all, mainstream American movies being increasingly privileged in venues originally created as esthetic and cultural alternatives to Hollywood.

Culture vs. Kultur
The Fringe was originally the sidebar to the main event, the Edinburgh Festival (now the Edinburgh International Festival), established in 1947 at the initiative of the city’s lord provost (mayor), the British Council, and the event’s first director, Rudolf Bing (yes, that Rudolf Bing). The rationale behind the Festival was to help repair (resurrect? regenerate?) the notion of a common (and benign) European culture – a notion that had obviously suffered a near-death experience in the roughly 20 years between the rise of fascism and the end of the Second World War.

The Festival thus sought to aid in the long process of proving, long before the Treaty of Rome, that there was such a thing as “Europe,” that it encompassed both the victors and the defeated in the recent continental slaughter, and, perhaps most important of all, that it was not simply, or merely, a sociopolitical convention, but an immanent cultural truth. The choice of the Vienna-born and Jewish Bing to lead this experiment was characteristic of the intentions; even more so was Bing’s expressed desire for the Festival to contribute to a “flowering of the human spirit.” Among the groups performing at the inaugural gathering were the Vienna Philharmonic, Sadlers Wells ballet, and the Old Vic. From the outset, the point to Edinburgh as a site of cultural interaction and convergence was precisely its rejection of parochialism and its embrace of an exceedingly self-conscious “universality” (to use a dated term).

Bing and company’s vision needed the good citizens of Edinburgh to embrace it, however – and they did, with a passion. Postwar austerity had left them hungering for anything that vaguely resembled normality, let alone civilization as they once knew it. It was this spontaneous popular response that led to what would become the Festival’s defining moment. As it became clear soon after the initial announcements that the event would resonate tremendously among the public, two English and, even more important, six Scottish theater companies showed up without an invitation, obviously hoping that vox populi would take care of the rest.

It did. Although the eight gatecrashers had to set up stage in buildings near the official Festival venue, they proved successful and were back the following year. The next year, indeed, journalist Robert Kemp inadvertently and forever christened the artistic squatting that had occurred by noting that these uninvited spontaneous productions were “the fringe of the official festival drama.” The rest is, well, history.

In 1951, the four-year-old Fringe published its first program (the idea, once again, of a local printer), while the Fringe Society was created eight years later to coordinate and publicize the festival independently of the official Festival. From the outset, the Fringe has remained faithful to one unswerving principle: that there is absolutely no artistic vetting of performances. Anyone – individual or troupe – that comes to Edinburgh can display her or his wares in the very embodiment of the “Hey-gang-let’s-put-on-a-show” notion (or dream) of every aspiring (or wishful) performer. Clearly, this cavalier (not to say willful and contemptuous) disregard for the official Festival’s criterion of the “highest possible artistic standard” was decidedly not what Sir Rudolf had in mind when he set out to make Edinburgh “flower” with the human spirit.

Think globally, act locally
It is, frankly, impossible to give a sense in words of the Fringe’s (literally) staggering magnitude. Here are some vital statistics: roughly 2,700 separate productions, with 12,000 performers, in 200 different venues, within a little over three weeks – which all translate into 1,500 distinct performances in every part of the city occurring every day. It is mind-boggling, a kind of intellectual-esthetic extreme sport. It is also an extraordinary rush, again of an unusually intellectual kind. To be in Edinburgh in August – when the city balloons from half a million to a million and a half residents – is to share an almost palpable energy from morning to night, in mist and (rare) sunshine, dry or (almost always) wet. 

My wife and I were in Edinburgh for 10 days, during which time I saw 11 plays, two films (both documentaries), and a performance by a jazz trio from New Zealand. (I should add here that, although my wife saw several more films, she excused herself for a couple of days to trek the breathtakingly beautiful Scottish countryside, which, in point of fact, actually rings the city and sometimes is just a couple of blocks away from where one happens to be standing. This unique cohabitation of the utterly urban with the thoroughly rural – and extreme delimitation of the former for the sake of the latter – is not only something I’ve never seen before anywhere in the world, but is a remarkable environmental achievement in itself. It is yet one more reason that Edinburghers should be profoundly, justly proud of their city, and of their own collective vision and wisdom as its citizens.)

It is in the nature of a mammoth event like the Fringe that performances and productions will be terribly uneven; what was truly astounding is that, at least in my limited experience, they weren’t. Quite the opposite, with the exception of two productions, the quality was unusually consistent and, more to the point, unfailingly thoughtful and challenging, especially in comparison to what is normally on offer in New York. Again, while my sampling touched upon a mere two-fifths of one percent of what was available this year, I purposely tried to see as representative a mix as possible.

This entailed three musicals (including Jerry Springer – The Opera, a hot ticket); three productions based on classical Greek themes; a production by an important European company whose work is little known, if at all, in the United States (the Russian troupe Derevo, again a hot ticket); a new play produced at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh’s most prestigious theatrical venue; a play by Neil Labute (also based on Greek tragedy); and two other productions. I saw plays in churches, hotel meeting-rooms, a school auditorium, and performance spaces, as well as in major venues such as the Traverse. In the event, I believe a got as accurate a picture of the Fringe as one can get the first time around and within a limited schedule.

As I said, I thought the final result was impressive. More important, I thought that the sum was manifestly greater than its parts: one can only begin to process the Fringe – and its contribution to the notion of a living, organic, continually developing, and innately open and constitutionally expansive theater – after flying back to wherever it was one came from before arriving in Edinburgh. The clearest danger to culture today is its extreme, unprecedented commodification, and the consequent “globalization” of one, ersatz, definition of it. Hence, the greatest assault being perpetrated against the world’s culture(s) is the promotion of the noxious (and willfully obtuse) view of it (them) as nothing more than a “product” whose “trade” has to be policed by GATT. This is, of course, the stubborn and fundamentally perverse (in truth, fundamentalist) crusade that has been waged for many years now, virtually alone, by the United States (for obvious reasons, i.e., AOLTimeWarner, Disney, Viacom, et al).

The Fringe, in its creatively delirious but (don’t be fooled) organizationally astute anarchy stands opposed not only to the Bing paradigm of “highest possible artistic standard” but to the infinitely more dangerous economistic model of culture as just another “industry” whose “products” are as consumable – and disposable – as last year’s Air Jordans or next year’s Gap whatevers. It is, or should be, for that reason – and several others – the essential model for comparable ventures.

From the sublime to the contemptible
Upon leaving Edinburgh, I returned to Greece, which naturally led me to reflect upon (and lament) the sad state of that incoherent behemoth called the Athens Festival. A huge part of the problem, of course, lies with the ministry whose presumptive mandate is culture’s stewardship in Greece. I know I’ll be castigated for this, but with the singular exception of Melina Mercouri, the ministry of culture has suffered tremendously from lack of leadership over the last two and a half decades. (Mercouri herself, after the first years of her administration, lost her focus and did much more harm than good by throwing money around disjointedly, without any essential strategic vision, and to no apparent purpose, other than to prove her ministry’s “relevance” and “vitality.”)

  What is truly instructive about the Edinburgh “paradigm” is its rare combination of local initiative, worldly vision, and, most of all, democratic organization. As indicated earlier, the Edinburgh Festival was launched by local authorities, a concept that is still virtually foreign to Greece, where, if the central apparatus of the “kratos” (state) doesn’t undertake the job (no matter what it is), nothing gets done. (The flipside of that is that the selfsame kratos gets blamed for everything, from flash floods to mind-numbing traffic to blazing woodlands, since the notion of civil society – that is, of individual responsibility and initiative – is as retarded and underdeveloped as the state is overdeveloped and unchecked in its authority.)

Centralization has in fact been the bane of Greek society since the establishment of the Greek state. The Thessaloniki Film Festival (or, as it solecistically dubbed itself some years back, the “International Thessaloniki Film Festival”), for example, was founded in 1960 as a local initiative, albeit under the auspices of the city’s annual international trade fair (which meant that, despite local inspiration, it was beholden to a centralizing apparatus reporting to Athens). Nonetheless, both idea and realization were locally determined, at the outset and for many years thereafter. By contrast, the “International Thessaloniki Film Festival” is now not only international but also completely run from Athens. Actually, there’s nothing especially Salonikan about it any more other than the venue itself, and the fact that most organizing activity is transferred up north from Athens for a few weeks each year.

Equally relevant in the Edinburgh model – and as equally strange to the Greek mind – is the notion of culture as independent of a “nation.” I do not believe that any Greek ministry of culture – let alone government – either of PASOK or New Democracy could possibly entertain the notion of a cultural festival that was not ostensibly, or automatically or exclusively, organized to “promote Greece.” The idea of a cultural gathering simply to promote…culture is unheard of.

Again, much of the blame lies with the ministry of culture, which virtually prides itself on its insularity and cultural “defense” of Hellenism (whatever that inherently inexplicable notion might entail). It is particularly distressing that, under the Simitis government – which is in every other way unusually enlightened – we have what is easily the most egregious, and pathetically self-important and self-congratulatory, leadership in the ministry of culture. Ironically, and to return to Salonika’s film festival one last time, it should be pointed out that for a ministry so keen on defending Greek “identity,” its active abetting of the festival’s “internationalization” (globalization?) – in order to “promote Greece,” of course – has, for all intents and purposes, made it easier for the event to abdicate any practical role in alleviating the truly contemptible state of contemporary Greek cinema (although, just for the historical record, that happened to be the reason for its founding).

A proposal
What the Fringe has proven with spectacular success over the last 55 years is that if you build it, they will come. But “it” has got to be built to meticulous specifications, a structure that will not only withstand the ravages of time, but actually weather gracefully and become more beautiful and inviting and richer in aspect as the years pass. We’re clearly not talking here about modern Greek notions of permanence, cultural or otherwise. Nonetheless, there’s no reason why we can’t dream – or at least provoke.

One thing that struck me immediately on the first day I was in Edinburgh, trying to make some sense of the Fringe program, was the number of productions based on classical Greek themes. As it turned out, of the 11 performances I did see, four had some kind of Greek “connection.” One was a failure, pure and simple; one, the Labute play, was…a Labute play; but the other two were of more than passing interest.

Prometheus, a recasting of ancient Greek cosmogony in a modern (social as well as cultural) vernacular was performed by the Side by Side Theatre Group, a genuinely impressive English company that, since its establishment five years ago, has become the first group of amateur actors with learning disabilities to garner a number of prizes and recognition in Britain. Prometheus was the first Fringe production to use Makaton signing. I know this all sounds like some extremely strained political correctness, but the truth is that Side by Side’s purposely symbolic and abstracted reconstruction of ancient myth was infinitely more accurate, moving, and, in fact, authentic than the thoroughly denatured, insensibly “updated” productions of ancient drama that have become the stock in trade of the National Theater of Greece, to name a notorious example.

The other production was ODC…After Homer by the ODC Ensemble, a Greek-British company that premiered this piece in Cairo earlier this year, but has still not staged it in Athens (although its program indicates the intention to do so). A retelling of The Odyssey, partly through rock, partly through rap, and always with complete sensitivity to the original nature of the epic (and its form), the production was a sophisticated, dramatically compelling reimagining of Homeric narrative in a mode that was actually extremely faithful, esthetically and culturally, to the original. Unusually, Greece’s ministry of culture did support this production in a rare departure from longstanding policy to subsidize only the most established, and therefore by definition most conventional, troupes.

This plethora of Greek-inspired drama at the Fringe made me wonder, Why here and not in Greece? Specifically, instead of an Athens Festival of the “highest possible artistic standard” that has, during the last few years, been additionally afflicted by the Megaro Mousikis (Athens Concert Hall) syndrome – in which a culture that has no authentic social tradition in Western classical music nevertheless must prove to its incurably insecure, lumpenbourgeois self (because, frankly, nobody else cares) that it is truly, genetically European and so create a ridiculous (and, of course, private) performing-arts center whose only apparent function as far as anybody can see is to allow a certain class of people with friends in the highest places to self-delusionally consider themselves as latterday Medicis, and to repeat this grotesque cultural engineering in every city in Greece – why not a festival of contemporary theater inspired by ancient Greek drama, or simply ancient Greek culture as a whole, open to all, without any prior restraints, multi-venued, and, most important, democratically administered by a group of Greek citizens who would come together voluntarily, not to put on a play, but to let others, as many as can get to Athens (or Rethymno or Yannina or Kavala or Molyvos or Ermoupoli), do so? There would be no arbitrary imposition of equally arbitrary standards, no “artistic committees,” no judges, no juries, no verdicts. (And there would certainly be no didaskalia, that is, Greeks “instructing” the barbarians on the “true” meaning of ancient drama, how it should be produced, and why we Greeks – God keep and multiply us – are the only people on the face of the globe who “really” understand and therefore can recreate it.) A kind of Fringe-on-the-Aegean. As I said, a dream, although something tells me that this dream verges on hallucination – we Greeks might finally have our Megaro, after all, but we’re not that European yet.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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