“All the world’s a stage” (no. 6 in series)

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In the run-up to The Ninth World Shakespeare Congress in Prague I posted a selection of blogs from grant winners looking forward to that event. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting a selection of blogs from some  more of those grant winners, giving a taste of the papers they presented at the conference.  This week’s contribution comes from Tina Krontiris, who is Professor of Renaissance Literature at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Northern Greece.


Tina Krontiris

Shakespeare in exile at the tail end of the Greek Civil War (1950-1953)

Already before the end of the Nazi Occupation, Greek theater companies had begun to envision a new type of stage, more democratic and more pertinent to the needs and concerns of the new society that was to emerge from World War II In the wake of Greece’s Liberation (Oct 1944), Greeks were divided between the conservatives, who  wanted to reconstruct the political system that obtained before the war, assuming that the right to rule was theirs, and those who, aligned with the communists, wanted to institute a people’s republic. In this political-ideological conflict, the radical tendencies in the theatre were aligned with the socialists. The conservative tendencies, which were manifested clearly after the onset of the Civil War in the spring of 1946 and were expressed predominately by the National Theatre inAthens, were linked to the rightist (neo-fascist) state that took over after the national elections of March 1946. In mainstream theatre, the radical tendencies were forestalled after 1946 because the new police state persecuted the socialists and all those who were even remotely associated with communism. During the Civil War, which was militarily fought in the provinces, a large number of artists and intellectuals joined the masses of other Greeks who were labeled “nationally dangerous” and were displaced to concentration camps on barren Greek islands, where they remained until several years after the end of the Civil War in August 1949.  Living conditions in these camps were extremely harsh and cultural activities prohibited until late 1949 (except in the camp of Makronisos, where they were permitted and used as propaganda by the state throughout the civil war period).

In the camp of the small Aegean island St Eustratios cultural activities, which flourished in the years 1950-1953, constituted an answer to the preceding war as well as to theatre as a social practice. Among the plays that were mounted on the makeshift stage of this camp were several classics, including two by Shakespeare—The Merchant of Venice and Othello. These plays were approached from an ideologically progressive stance (humanitarian, anti-racist) but directors kept a distance from the present by dressing the actors in traditional costumes (very difficult to make in such extreme conditions).

By their very setting, the Shakespearean performances in the camp produced resonances that linked them with the Elizabethan public theatre. Indeed one of the most interesting aspects of theatre in exile, as practiced on this isolated Greek island, is the number of similarities it bore to Shakespeare’s theatre: the large and heterogeneous audiences, the use of male actors in female roles (due to the absence of women detainees on this island before 1953), the spatial arrangement of the stage (its roundness and openness) and its relatively empty space.

These resonances as well as the conditions of production and viewing created a unique sense of metatheatricality—the extension of the theatre beyond the stage and its self-referentiality. In Greek the word skene (a delimited locus) means scene, stage and tent. Both the tents where the detainees lived and the makeshift theatre structure were constructed of ship canvas, and this material similarity signaled a profound symbolic and essential bond between life and stage, a bond that was strengthened by the fact that the members of the audience took part in the preparation of the performances. Indeed, in the camp of St Stratis the process of making theatre was above all collective. The director taught the play to the actors, many of whom were amateurs, and the scenographer supervised the group of volunteers who made the costumes and sets, turning the maquettes into actual objects (some cut and painted the boards, others twisted the wire threads used for the wigs, and still others, serving as tailors, cut the patterns and sewed the costumes).  So theatre regained its basic social and communal function.

Through carefully prepared productions, the detainee artists on the island of St Stratis sought (a) to reinstate their lost dignity in the eyes of the world and erase the charge of national traitor; (b) to assert that there is another, more truthful, more just and more beautiful world than the one the police state was trying to impose on people; (c) to suggest a different version of patriotism by signaling different priorities in the repertory; and (d) to rewrite Greek cultural and political history. Shakespeare and the other classic authors allowed the detainee artists to make such assertions with legitimate authority.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (along with Charles University, Prague, and The International Shakespeare Association) sponsored individuals from Argentina, Romania, Hungary, India, Russia, Canada, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, and Chile to attend the World Shakespeare Congress 2011.  Make sure that you follow this series to hear from more of our award winners  who will be talking about the ways in which Shakespeare is a subject for research, performance, and conversation across the globe.

 

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your questions Diana – here are Tina’s responses:

    1. There are photographs from the cultural events organized by the detainees, though there are only maquettes from the Shakespearean performances. I was allowed to show them at the seminar but not to publish them on the Internet, as there is a problem with their copyright. Still, the English speaking enquirer can have access to many photograps from such events through the site of the Democracy Museum (section on exhibitions), which offers overall information about the places of detention as well as images from the performance of Aeschylus’s Persians. One can see very clearly in such images the attentiveness of the spectators, the fact that they watched standing, and also the openeness of the theatrical event.  See  http://www.mouseiodimokratias.gr/english/exhibition  
     
    2. Yes, fortunately there are still with us a few survivors, getting fewer and fewer, and I interviewed them in the process of my research, but I do not mention their names because what I have posted is an extended summary of my paper, not the full length of it, which I am still working on and hope to publish in an academic volume.

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks for your questions Diana – see Tina’s response below:

    1. There are photographs from the cultural events organized by the detainees, though there are only maquettes from the Shakespearean performances. I was allowed to show them at the seminar but not to publish them on the Internet, as there is a problem with their copyright. Still, the English speaking enquirer can have access to many photograps from such events through the site of the Democracy Museum (section on exhibitions), which offers overall information about the places of detention as well as images from the performance of Aeschylus’s Persians. One can see very clearly in such images the attentiveness of the spectators, the fact that they watched standing, and also the openeness of the theatrical event. See http://www.mouseiodimokratias.gr/english/exhibition

    2. Yes, fortunately there are still with us a few survivors, getting fewer and fewer, and I interviewed them in the process of my research, but I do not mention their names because what I have posted is an extended summary of my paper, not the full length of it, which I am still working on and hope to publish in an academic volume.

  • Diana Owen

    A fascinating account – do any photographs of these productions survive?Or any of the detainees who took part in these productions? It is a moving glimpse into a world now long gone. 

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