I Have Hardly Heard Silence

I have the tendency to fill silences. When there is a pause in class, I speak; I sing when I’m cooking or taking a walk. Perhaps because this is how I understand myself, this is also how I understand Greece. For my experience has been that Greece too, fills silences. I mean ‘Greece’ in a few ways: the soundscapes I’ve encountered while living here and the sounds of Greek Theater.

First in Athens and then in Epidaurus, I noticed and listened to what we might call the ‘background’ a lot: compelling sounds, difficult to tune out. Athens, like any city, was full of people and vehicles, but for me it had its own particulars: people shouting prices in Greek in our neighborhood outdoor food market; students in Martha Frintzila’s acting school chatting as they smoked, singing, chanting, debating; the soft drone of cars and the rumble of motorcycles each night as I fell asleep. I had never been able to fall asleep easily in a loud city before. I guess it must have helped that I was always exhausted by the time I slept, around midnight. Strangely, for all the incredible things we did there, when I think of Athens the first thing I think of is drifting to sleep cradled in its night noises.

In Epidaurus, in the country, night is the quietest time. It’s when the cicadas quiet their buzzing, which goes on relentlessly all day. I can hear them even behind the walls of our apartment, as if nature wants to bring its revelry indoors. For the first few mornings, in my sleepy haze I mistook their buzzing for my roommate, Feyisola, taking a shower. Also among the sounds of Epidaurus are the bees buzzing at breakfast and the waves gently breaking on the shore. A few days ago when the weather changed to cool and windy, the bugs quieted down. It’s amazing how the whole quality of the environment changed from pulsating garden to whispering shore.

I have hardly heard silence this summer in Greece, not only because of the background noises of the outside but also because of the clamor of Ancient Greek Theater. Simon Goldhill says in his book, How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, that Greek Tragedy is particularly wordy (and to be clear, he doesn’t mean that in a bad way). By the time I read this, I knew it was true from seeing, reading, and performing the Ancient Greek plays.

The first play we saw was Amalia Moutousis’ one-woman performance of Euripides’ Hippolytus. For much of the play, she spat, coughed, and breathed out words like she was possessed by them. Later, we saw a play, Metropolis, that was made up of messenger speeches from several of the ancient tragedies; I experienced the same melodious deluge of Greek. Then last night, we heard Martha (our acting teacher) and her band sing the choral odes of Euripides’ The Bacchae. I never wished to understand Greek more desperately than during that performance, even though I was moved by the sound of the music alone. I think it is telling that the silent or mostly silent works we saw were not directly based on any one Greek play. How could you stage one of the ancient plays without their words? Those words, the few texts have survived, are precious. (Disclosure: I’m an English major who loves words.)

In the last two weeks of our program, memorizing a scene, monologue, and chorus has given me the kind of close encounter with the plays that I wanted when I was reading them too quickly. The monologue I’m performing, Clytemnestra’s speech after she has killed her husband (from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon), begins, “Words, endless words.” How fitting. I love having the words I’ve memorized echoing in my head all day– as I cook, walk, sit in the car. One day, during an excursion to town, my scene partner Julia and I recited our dialogue over and over with as many accents and moods as we could think of. We drove everyone crazy. Here, there has been time to think about the possible meanings of each phrase and to experiment with their expression. It amazes me how the way I perform the snippets of these plays has evolved and is still evolving.

All I can think to say for an ending is that in addition to returning home bearing a few gifts and a lot of dirty laundry, I will also be filled with sounds…motorcycles…bugs…endless words…