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…
The hardest part of my trip here was the last leg: dragging my suitcase through the national gardens. My body thought it was 5 am and here were the hot, damp gardens of midday Athens.
We saw Amalia Moutousis’ Hippolytus; she played every character and it was all in Greek. I had copied the chronology of the play into my notebook ahead of time, to help me follow what was going on, but it wasn’t much help. Sometimes the characters’ names were projected onto the wall in Greek; I had fun puzzling over the new alphabet and I was mesmerized by Moutousis’ concentration, her rapid fire interplay of different voices, her cryptic gestures…
We saw Dimitris Papaioannou’s The Great Tamer– yesterday’s obsession with language replaced by movement and dance. The stage was covered in giant black magnetic strips, full of strange holes. The dancers were often nude and moved slowly (to a slowed down Blue Danube waltz.) Scenes bled into each other, dreamlike; people came in and out of the earth; grotesque bodies made up of multiple dancers assembled, collapsed, reassembled. It had the quality of Greek myth; it made me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Roman, I know, but perhaps apt since it too is a reimagining of Greek myth). Afterward in my apartment I wrote down what I could remember from the show feverishly.
Our first day of re-staging the Greeks was in fact about staging the Greeks. How did the Greeks do it? Professor Cadden described it vividly: Masks, large gestures, competition, song and dance, outside.
6/12 – 6/15
I decided I would read all the extant Greek plays. This was Aeschylus’ week: a week for the old master, the father of tragedy. I read the Eumenides in the park above the Olympic Stadium, having veered off the street during a walk around the neighborhood. I found a quiet dark grove, and while I was reading there it hit me viscerally for the first time: Ancient Greek theater was performed outside. Not those darkened indoor theaters; this terrain, this air, this light.
Martha took us to one of her favorite tavernas before seeing a show, Metropolis, in the Gazi neighborhood. It’s easy to be a vegetarian in Greece; I love the appetizers– fava, cheeses, vegetables, decadent salads. I ate enough to be drowsy in the hot, smoky theater after dinner; in Greek again, but the geometric set, always shifting, was enough to keep me awake. During the talk back after the show I said that I liked the sound effects accompanying the scraping and pounding of long metal rods on the stage; it reminded me of the clamor of battle. The director said that the abstraction of the rods was essential to imagining something like that. A few of the actors, slightly languorous, smoked enough to fill the upper atmosphere of the theater with ghostly fumes.
We were taken on a tour of the Athenian Acropolis and Agora by the extremely talented, knowledgeable, and commanding Sophia Theona. Climbing the Acropolis was the only thing I’d imagined before coming to Greece. At the bottom, I stood in disbelief in the Theater of Dionysus. Every play we read was first performed here, Professor Cadden said. Staggering in the heat, I tried to digest it. I’d already read about 8 plays. All done here. The Acropolis was crowded; not one for crowds, I tried to tell myself that this was like experiencing the festival for Athena that Sophia had just told us about. Then, there was the Parthenon, that seat of Athena, that marvel of creation, which I looked on with eyes aching from the bright midday sunshine. Divine power hurts, I thought.
Later that day I followed Drake, Professor Cadden’s husband, and a few other people to a wine place, where I had deliciously bright white wine and a variety of cheeses from different parts of Greece.
With a fresh uncharted Saturday in front of me I set off for Lycabettus Hill (–well, only after getting my daily coffee). The big hill had been nagging me almost since I arrived. It took me a long time to find the entrance to the upward trail, but I got to see a new residential neighborhood in my confusion. Finally I stumbled on a wooded park with steps leading up. It was 11 am, a wholly inappropriate time for a climb. Heart pounding, out of breath, sweaty, I climbed resolutely, and then was ecstatic as I first saw the city: white, beige, pink, shimmering and flickering in that same midday sun that blinded me the day before on the Acropolis.
In my somewhat delirious ecstasy I thought I finally understood why they brought us to Greece to study and perform Greek theater– something I’d known in theory but could never articulate. This is the land, the terrain, the air; this is what your body feels like here; if you want to act in and understand an Ancient Greek play your body needs to know what Greece feels like. (I should note that our acting classes had been focusing a lot on the body: how it moves, feels, looks, communicates, etc.)
All I could think about was climbing more hills, so I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to climb the Hill of the Muses before sunrise. I wasn’t prepared for the clammy chill of the night air, but I didn’t mind the sensation after experiencing so much heat in the past few days. Predictably, the city was almost empty, and so was the hill, except for one couple sitting on a bench at the bottom. I sat down on some rocks at the edge of the hill and under the purple sky. This is what it takes to be alone here, I thought, eating cherries out of a plastic bag and taking in the spread of the city. I was a bit afraid of being bitten by a bat, but luckily they were flying around a different part of the hill. I watched the city emerge out of that purple darkness, watched the lights go out in big blocks, and watched the arrival of the cloudiest dawn I’d ever seen. I thought about the Prologue of Antigone (the play I’d been assigned to specially study and act) and the choral Parodos: night to dawn in Thebes. Did Sophocles imagine a brooding dawn like this one?
Afterward, as I walked home, I saw a new city. Someone said kalimera to me; police drank coffee near my apartment; I stumbled into bed in my bright room.