Off Balance in Greece
by Deborah Brevoort
Originally published in @nd, a New Dramatists publication, in the fall of 2002, used with permission
In October 2000 I set off for Greece with fellow New Dramatists playwright Fiona Templeton to attend the International Women Playwright’s Conference and to make a pilgrimage to the sites of Ancient Greece. Both Fiona and I were in the process of finishing new plays inspired by Greek tragedy: Fiona was writing Medead, her poetic adaptation of Medea, and I was working on The Women of Lockerbie, written in the form of a Greek tragedy, about the women whose lives were devastated by the Pam Am crash over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The Women of Lockerbie was many things for me: it was my own private love song to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. It was also my own personal argument with them. Each of the Greek playwrights have different views about the Gods, and their metaphysics run the gamut from hope to despair to silence. Depending on the day, I can alternately embrace the notion of grace-in-violence expressed in the Aeschylan odes, the bleakness and despair of the Euripidean landscape, or the silence of Sophocles who doesn’t offer much of an opinion about divine matters, but instead celebrates human achievement. I wanted to see who would win the argument in The Women of Lockerbie and in my fifteen drafts of the plays to date, all three writers have won at different stages of the writing. I was heading into what I was hoping would be my final draft and thought that spending some time in the landscape that gave birth to these writers and the tragedies would shed some light. I was also hoping that the conference would provide some insight, because the focus was going to be on re-interpreting and adapting the classics.
Day 1 : Ancient Corinth:
Fiona and I arrive in Athens on September 28th, four days before the conference is to begin. We rent a car, braving the worst traffic on the planet earth, and head north to the Peloponese. Fifteen minutes outside of Athens, we are in spectacular scenery, driving on the edge of mountains along the Saronic Gulf. In less than two hours we pull into Corinth. Fiona is looking for Medea. I just want to see where she did it.
The first thing we see at the crime site is a bleeding tree. Perfect. The trunk has a curve that is oddly reminiscent of the Venus de Milo with red sap dripping to the ground. I wonder if this tree, or one like it, was here when Medea murdered the kids. A tree like this could give you ideas. Bloody ones. Suddenly, the legend where Daphne turns into a tree also makes a new kind of sense. Anybody looking at this tree, oozing with blood, a red puddle at it’s feet, would naturally think that it’s human.
Everywhere, there are rows and rows of statues with no heads, cut off by the Christians in order to put a stop to Goddess worship. I wonder if they saw this tree too. I also wonder if they read Aeschylus. Probably not. Or if they did, were they perhaps trying to enact his notion of grace through violence?
There was a Temple in Corinth that people would visit to cure their ailments. Fiona and I stand before a display case filled with body parts made of marble. A foot, a hand, an ear, two breasts, a penis and what looks like a pair of ovaries, brought by the devoted as offerings. Fiona mentions the myth of Osiris, the god of fertility whose body was chopped into pieces and thrown across the land by his brother, the god of darkness. I think of The Women of Lockerbie, about a mother searching for her son’s body which was also strewn in pieces over the Scottish landscape. The mother finally achieves a rebirth, but only after a violent act. What is this link between body parts and fertility? Between violence and rebirth?
I see my first ancient Greek theatre–or the remnants of one. Little do I know that it is a fraction of what awaits us at Epidaurus. But I immediately “get” Greek theatre in a way I never did before, even after years of studying it. You are seated in the side a mountain, literally, and you’re looking out over miles and miles of land and sea. The landscape is the set. It’s the ultimate in site-specific theatre. And all those images of nature that abound in the Greek dramas? Well, many of them are simply descriptions of what is before your very eyes. And the narratives, the recounting of stories in the odes by the chorus? Well, I don’t know how they were performed exactly, no one really does, but I imagine the chorus pointing at the landscape to show the audience where something happened, or pointing to the water to show you where the ships left for Troy or to the distant mountains when they mention the Delphic oracle. I think of Paula Vogel who says that the audience hears with their eyes and sees with their ears, and of a commercial producer who, during a particularly confusing section of one of my musicals, said to me in exasperation “I can listen, and I can look, but I can’t do both!” At first I dismissed his criticism, but in time, came to see that he was right. The playwright must pay careful attention to the eyes and the ears, to the way they work and the way they receive their information. Looking out over the Corinthian plains to the Gulf waters and the distant mountains of Delphi, it seems to me that the Greek playwrights knew this too.
Day 2: Mycenae
My very first introduction to the Greeks was back in the early 1980’s when Molly Smith directed a 4-hour long production of Kenneth Cavender’s translation of The Orestia, at Perseverance Theatre. I was instantly hooked. That production marked the beginning of my love affair with Greek tragedy which continues to this day. Since then I have seen Mnouchkin’s Les Atrides , Chuck Mee’s Orestes in several different productions, Electra, and Liz Diamond’s Trojan Women at Oregon Shakespeare. But aside from that, Greek tragedy just isn’t regular fare in the American theatre. I was about to discover it’s not regular fare in Greek theatre either. The plays are performed during the summer months for the tourists in what are reportedly dreadful productions. I am told that the Greeks generally don’t have much interest in the tragedies because they are forced in elementary school to diagram the sentences and dissect the grammar which pretty much kills the urge to have anything else to do with them after that.
If Corinth was Fiona’s Mecca, Mycenae is mine. This is the place that I most want to see in Greece. The site of The Orestia.
Walter Kerr, writing of The Orestia, says that the pleasure of tragedy is the renewal it promises. “Agony is the heartbeat. Death is the crucible. Renewal the goal.” Maybe that’s why I like The Orestia so much. After numerous murders, venom, anguish, and torment there is reconciliation and redemption. Athena washes Orestes of his sin. There is hope. Even in The Trojan Women, the bleakest of tragedies, there is hope.
It has to do with going to hell and back. Hope must be hard won, or it’s not worth anything. The lower you go, the higher you can fly. If a play can take you into the heart of darkness and show you a pin of light…well, that’s transcendent. It’s what I’m looking for when I go to the theatre, at any rate. Unfortunately, I don’t find it too often.
Fiona and I pull into Mycenae heading for the ruins of Agamemnon’s Palace. The first thing we see is a sign for “Atreus Camping.” I slam on the brakes and we sit on the side of the road howling with laughter. If there’s one thing I don’t ever want to do, it’s Atreus Camping thank you very much. I’d prefer a wilderness hike with Oedipus or a weekend getaway with Macbeth over that any day.
We continue on and the signs become more ridiculous. Orestes Pizza, Hotel La Belle Helene, Electra Laundromat. And then we come upon the piece de resistance: “Clytemnestra’s Rooms–with bath.” More laughter. This time, we get out of the car to take a picture. “Didn’t these people read The Orestia?” Fiona asks me.
It’s so great to travel with another playwright. I didn’t know Fiona very well before this trip, but I have to say that she is a perfect travel companion. She loves the tragedies as much as I do, and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the myths, history and language. Between us, we’ve got the bases covered.
The entrance to Agamemnon’s Palace is through the Lion’s Gate, a giant marble arch with lions above it. I think of Cassandra, standing outside these gates refusing to enter and raving about the “lion woman” who will eat her in the palace. Was she referring to these lions, perhaps, who look like they’re trying to eat the sky?
“This whole palace reeks like a mass grave dug open” Cassandra ranted, prophetically. How right she was. Today, the walkway to the palace is lined with grave excavations everywhere you look.
We step into the courtyard, outside the palace door. And I experience it again. Vertigo. I first noticed it in Corinth when Fiona and I were climbing the acropolis there. I thought I was just jet-lagged, and didn’t mention anything. But now, I’m dizzy again–so dizzy that I have to steady myself against the wall. Weird, I think. Then I ask Fiona if she’s feeling it too. She is. We’re looking out at Argos, in the distance. This is the spot where the women watched the ships sail off to Troy, and where Electra stood for seven years, waiting for Orestes to return and avenge Agamemnon’s death. I wonder if this landscape and the vertigo it produces had anything to do with Electra losing her balance.
We go inside the palace and before we know it, are holding on to the walls again. This time the vertigo is coming from the mountain that stands alongside the palace. There’s something in the design of this place that’s doing this to us. It’s in the proportions and the angles. The closeness of the mountain to the palace, the size of the mountain, the hubris of the palace daring to sit this high next to the mountain. What did this mountain and these angles and proportions do to the people who lived here? To their thoughts, perspectives, world views? What happens to a culture when you physically lose your bearings at every turn? Was this deliberate? Were the architects of these palaces trying to say something by the way they positioned these walls, courtyards, walkways?
Day 3: Epidaurus
Walter Kerr also noted that the three periods in history that created the greatest plays (Ancient Greece, Elizabethan England and Moliere’s France, to his thinking) were times when going to the theatre was a common activity for the mainstream populace. He also noted that the plays that came out of those time periods were both populist forms of entertainment and “great masterpieces.” Arriving at Epidaurus, and seeing the ancient theatre makes me think that he was right. There are 20,000 seats there. That’s like Madison Square Garden, only bigger. People in ancient Greece went to the theatre, in the way that we go to the movies or concerts. The only difference is our popular entertainment today consists of movies like Home Alone 2 and Dumb and Dumber, while theirs was The Orestia, The Trojan Women, and the Oedipus plays of Sophocles.
The theatre I saw in Corinth suddenly seems like a sad little pile of rocks compared to this. I wonder if the astronauts can see Epidaurus from outer space. I bet they can. I mean, the theatre is carved into the side of a mountain. It’s huge.
Once again, I am “getting” Greek theatre in a way I never did before. Once again, I’m looking out at miles and miles of scenery. In this case, mountains. And I wonder…how the hell do you compete with that? How do you keep the play from getting lost, when you have this giant postcard thing going on behind the stage?
The evidence suggests that the Greek odes were danced, and contained some kind of abstract gestural language. Seeing Epidaurus, I suspect that is right. No realism here. It won’t work. Everything has to be heightened and enlarged. Greek theatre is about the extremes of human behavior. Huge emotions. Big ideas. Of course. What else could you put on this stage against this backdrop?
Then, some tour guide walks to the center of the stage and begins to whisper. I am up in the very last row–in what seems like a quarter mile climb up the hill–and I can hear every word she says. And then it hits me. The Greek tragedies were delivered by the word! The word was the only thing that was powerful enough to grab and hold the audience’s attention in this landscape. The protagonist would step off the choral platform, go to that spot in the center of the stage and recite words that could be heard 20,000 people away, at the top of the hill.
But it’s not just any word that they were speaking. No. It was poetry. And everything they said was expressed “on the line.” Every thought, every emotion. On the line. Language, blown out. No subtext here, guys.
Funny. These kinds of words are what I yearn for in the theatre, and never seem to find anymore. One would think that as our theatres became physically smaller, the word would become more prominent, bigger, more important. But the opposite has happened. As our theatre spaces have shrunk, so has our language.
Days 4 & 5: Athens
The International Women Playwrights conference is a huge disappointment. Not only have most of the seminars and panels on adapting the classics been canceled, but the conference leaders can’t get keys to get into the university class rooms for what few seminars are left. I cut out.
Fiona was more generous than I was. She hung in there. So did Gay Smith, who we ran into at the conference. But I spent my days roaming the Parthenon and Agora, climbing around the theatre of Dionysus, and searching for the cave where the Furies lived. This is where Orestes was tried for the murder of Clytemnestra. And where Athena uttered “Wisdom comes to us in fragments,” my favorite words from The Orestia . I found it, thanks to Gay, who had hunted it down too. The cave is about 20 feet off the main path to the Acropolis. One look at it and I know they’re still in there. The cave entrance looks like the earth’s navel and the maws of hell. It’s littered with beer cans and broken bottles and spray painted with graffiti. It looks like Dull Griet is going to charge out at any moment, turning the whole scene into a Brueghel painting.
I go to the Temple of Zeus. Once again, I’m dizzy. Everywhere I go in Greece, it seems, I experience vertigo. Why, why, why? The brochure tells me that the Temple is not perfectly symmetrical. It was designed this way, so that the monument would look like it was alive and breathing and so that it would have a sense of movement. Well, it does that all right. It has so much movement, it gives me sea legs and I keep having to look at the ground to regain my balance. But I think there’s another reason for the design that they don’t mention in the brochures. It’s a reminder. That we are small, small, small. That we are mere bugs in this landscape, specks of dust under these massive, elegant pillars. And for some reason, as I’m standing there, reeling, it makes me think that Aeschylus was right. There is grace in the world, even in violence. And violence is often the way that it comes to us. Why this Temple makes me think this, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the beauty of those pillars, the shock of blue sky between them that slaps you to the ground with it’s sheer intensity and power. I mean…it’s so damn beautiful it hurts. And I think that perhaps this is the pleasure of tragedy, too. Beauty that hurts. That makes you wince.
God bless Fiona. She’s been hanging in there at the playwright’s conference, while I spend my days climbing the ruins of Athens. I lure Fiona away for a day to join me and Gay on a day trip to the Temple of Poseidon. On the bus ride down the coast I read in another brochure that this Temple is also asymmetrical, like Zeus’s. I’m beginning to think that there’s a conspiracy afoot and prepare myself for another case of vertigo.
The wind is blowing hard at Poseidon’s Temple (perfect, huh?) which stands on a point of land jutting into the Aegean Sea surrounded by water on three sides. It’s blowing so hard you can hardly walk. Bus loads of tourists are swarming around the site. I hear a tour guide say that Lord Byron carved his name into Poseidon’s temple and later died by drowning. I back away. I’m not going anywhere near that temple. I hear a tourist scoff at the story and say that it’s just a coincidence. But I don’t think it is. Poseidon is real and he’ll kill you. I lived in Alaska, I know. And the Lord Byron story is just weird enough to be true. Life has that kind of crazy poetry to it: carve your name on Poseidon’s house, and the sea will be your grave.
Athena’s Temple is on the hill below. As I’m standing there looking out over the Aegean, I just know in my bones that Euripides had this place in mind when he wrote the opening scene of The Trojan Women . I imagine Poseidon and Athena sitting here, in their respective spots on the hill, plotting the havoc they will wreak on the Greeks when they sail by on their way home from Troy. A large cruiseship passes by and it looks so small that for a moment I think I can reach out and pluck it from the water as if it were a toy. And I think…Aeschylus was wrong. Euripides was right. There is no grace. The Gods kill us for sport.
Day 7 & 8: Delphi
But maybe Sophocles is the one who’s really got it right. I mean, he’s smart enough not to venture a viewpoint on matters metaphysical and perhaps I shouldn’t either. The next day, as we begin to wind our way up into the mountains heading for Delphi after crossing the Theban plains where Oedipus once ruled and wandered, I think of his celebration of human achievements in my favorite moment of all in the Greek tragedies, the Ode in Antigone, “Countless are the world’s wonders, but none so wonderful as man.”
The world is full of man’s wonders. I’ve just spent the last week looking at them. When we finally reach Delphi, and climb the mountain to stand beneath the tall pillars surrounding the oracle, I’m looking at them once again. The world is full of women’s wonders too, I think, especially in places like Lockerbie, Scotland where the women of that village, through the simple act of washing the clothes of the dead, created a monument of action that had as much size, depth and magnitude as these monuments of stone I’ve come all this way to see. As a playwright, I guess all I can do is celebrate them in my plays by summoning the biggest and best words I can find, and leaving it to the audience to figure out what the hell it all means.