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Modernist drama and Eleonora Duse in fin-de-siecle Athens.

Abstract. The essay discusses the relations between European Modernism and the processes of modernization and westernization of the early twentieth-century Greek theater, taking as a paradigm the tours of Eleonora Duse in fin-de-siecle Athens. The tour was important not only because it contributed to the inclusion of the Greek stage in the international theatre market, but also because it offered to the contemporary Athenians their first (and last) chance to see foreign productions of Modernist drama at first hand (plays of Ibsen and D'Annunzio). I argue that there were serious problems in the reception of these dramas, mainly a kind of substitution of Modernism with westernization for the sake of modernization. These problems were also interwoven with a very serious domestic, pathogenic condition, i.e., a peculiar idealistic conviction of the inheritance of the glorious Ancient Greek past.

Keywords: Modern Greek theatre; modernism; modernization; feminism; acting.


During the last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th, many great stars of the European stage visited Athens. Following a long period of inactivity, celebrated names such as Coquelin, Bernhardt, Mounet-Sully and Rejane decided to include the Balkan capital in their tour schedules; presumably judging that the city now possessed a section of the public capable of supporting their tours. (1) The phenomenon manifested itself between the years 1887 and 1907, peaking in 1899-1906. The tours were important for two reasons. Firstly, they included the Greek stage in the international theatre market, particularly at a time when there was a wider attempt to modernize and Europeanize Greek theatre. And, secondly, they accelerated the parallel historical phenomenon of the coming of age of the local star system; a process which had begun around the early 1890s and was completed shortly before the Balkan Wars (1912-1913).

During the same period, certain famous European actresses were now adopting more "artistic" modes of behavior, in an effort to rise to the occasion created by Modernist drama and the "free theatre" movement. They, therefore, added realist and neo-romantic plays to their repertoire and worked with avant-garde directors. (2) At least three of such actresses visited Athens: Eleonora Duse in January 1899 (who came to Greece with her then lover, Gabriele D'Annunzio); Agnes Sorma in November 1900; and Georgette Leblanc (Maurice Maeterlinck's lover and leading lady of his theatre company) in January 1904. We do not know precisely why these famous actresses decided to include Athens in their tours. All three, however, had Joseph Schiirmann as their impresario; he was the impresario of most of the stars who toured Greece. All three were also going through a transitional phase of their careers. (3) Lastly, they shared a common characteristic which is of particular interest to us here: they all visited Athens bearing in their luggage contemporary modernist plays; and they were all treated by the inhabitants of the city not only as stars of the stage but as its 'high priestesses'. Hence, Duse performed Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabier (23 January 1899), Hermann Sudermann's Magda (18 November 1899), and the third scene from D'Annunzio Dream of a Spring Morning (24 January 1899). Of course, there were also the famous melodramas or "piece a these" dramas, which were also well known in Greece, such as Dumas-fils's La Femme de Claude and The Lady of the Camellias (21 and 25 January 1899, respectively). (4)

The historical significance of these performances is due, firstly, to the fact that they offered contemporary Athenians their first and last chance to see foreign productions of Modernist drama at first hand, as Greece remained excluded from the tours of foreign avant-garde theatre companies until the 1930s. Their importance is also connected to the limited presence of the Modernist repertoire on the Greek stage at the time: according to the information available to us, before the turn of the century only five realist plays and not a single symbolist play had been performed. (5) This was the first time Athenians had seen Magda, Hedda Gabier, and works by D'Annunzio on stage. Furthermore, the fact that the tours were highly publicized meant that a wider public was informed of the playwrights and their works through extensive articles in the press. Obviously, that public remained extremely limited to a small section of the contemporary upper-middle-class audience, that is, to those who were able, albeit even then with some difficulty, to afford the astronomical ticket prices. (6) Nevertheless, it's telling that the tours by Sorma, and especially Leblanc, were not at all great successes, as they relied more on the modernist repertoire and lacked stars of Duse's stature.

The issue of reception becomes more complicated when we focus better on its object, taking as example Duse's performances, since her tour was by far the most successful and important. When, in other words, we examine the content of her performances seen by this small group of the Athenian bourgeoisie. Firstly, it is noticeable that the famous star presented the same things in their city as in every other: plays with modern, dynamic female roles. Specifically, her repertoire consisted of different portraits of the "New Woman", regardless of whether this paired Dumas-fils with D'Annunzio. In actual fact, the Athenians watched performances not of plays but of roles; the dramatic entertainment concerned the reception of female roles, which, of course, matched the star's acting capabilities. (7) Therefore, the "pale sinner" Duse played variants of the "femme fatale": Magda and Hedda Gabier from the eponymous plays, the Madwoman of the Dream, but also Dumas's Cesarine and Marguerite Gautier from his La Femme de Claude and The Lady of the Camellias. The new, more "artistic" behaviors were thus cultivated within the narrow conventional limits imposed by the laws of the market. Duse had not escaped from conventional realism, especially on tours, when she adopted an even more "iconographie" acting style in order to make herself understood by her foreign audiences. (8) On the other hand, the productions of anti-realist plays, such as the Dream of a Spring Morning, were recitals of dramatic poems on the illusionist 19th-century stage, lacking any inclination to experiment with the symbolist mise-en-scene. (9) The performance of the Dream was an interesting mix of Boulevard theatre and neo-romantic playing: in the celebrated "mad scene," Duse utilized techniques from her performance in the final act of The Lady of the Camellias. (10)

In other words, Greek audiences did not come into contact with modern plays through performances that harmonized with and highlighted their artistic and ideological content; i.e., through the circumstances, which had evolved on the stages of the "free theatres". Receiving the modern dramatic repertoire via a star's tour, Athenians were attending the developments of an exceptional moment in European theatre history, one that came after the "Theatre Libre" or the "Theatre de l'Oeuvre" only in a chronological sense. In essence, the Duse-D'Annunzio partnership represents the transition from the allusive invocation of the imaginary world via symbols, to its affected representation on the elegant commercial stage of Boulevard theatre.

The question, however, begins to assume its particular historical importance when we return more closely to the subject of reception; for what the foreign star played is one thing, and what the Athenians saw is another. Of course, in spite of the steep ticket price, probably everyone went away happy, having fulfilled their desire to see the great name close up. But as it might have been expected, for spectators uninitiated in the conventions of modern drama, the same could not be said of the plays; the vast majority of the audience was bored during the performances, and jaded as long as the leading lady was offstage, even during the conventional dramas of the repertoire. Duse's Hedda Gabier met with public indifference, drawing small audiences. Finally, it is no coincidence that the actress gave two special performances with a tried and trusted weapon of her armory, the Lady of the Camellias, to fill the hall of the Municipal Theatre. (11) Since the spectators had no way of seeing a different type of scenic presentation of modern plays, it was more or less inevitable that they would succumb to the intoxication of performances by the famous star. For the current intellectual theatregoer, pretty much weaned on the principles of the "ensemble" performance, it is hard to imagine the magic effect diva had on fin-de-siecle audiences; or to understand the almost hypnotic attraction that lasted after the performance and through which, in the spectator's consciousness, the actor was almost totally identified with his or her role. In our case, this meant that it was automatically assumed that those responsible for the failure of modernist dramas could not be the stars but the playwrights. The disappointment of Hedda Gabier was, of course, blamed on Ibsen. In other cases, the violent reactions of some literati to the "immorality" of certain modern plays were somewhat tempered by the charm of the Italian leading lady. (12)

This observation leads us to focus on another body of information, originating from an even smaller section of the public, in fact just a handful of spectators: the intellectual rather than the economic "aristocracy" of the time, the literary journalists, poets and playwrights of the city. Their attitude to modernist drama had begun to be formed in the immediately preceding years, and so the first performances found them already split into two camps. Generally speaking, most of them, the "conservatives" we might say, rejected modernist plays, using arguments reminiscent of the reactions of the corresponding conformist wing of European criticism to works such as A Doll's House or Hedda Gabier. (13) The "progressive" minority declared themselves to be fervent supporters of modern drama, led by men of letters such as Kostis Palamas and Grigorios Xenopoulos. The existence of these two camps is, of course, an important characteristic of the reception of modernist drama in Greece, but it is not the only one. Duse's tour obviously reinforced the dividing lines and exacerbated the conflict. However, it also highlighted certain other features, since, during her actual performances, the two camps reacted as one under a common influence: their unconditional surrender to the foreign 'high priestess', who was lauded by all.

This unanimous submission of the intellectual section of the public to the star system constituted a specific ideological and artistic stance. It expressed, firstly, the provocative devaluation of the other factors contributing to the performance; it meant the downgrading of the costumes and scenery in the staging of the play, while the remaining actors were upstaged and pushed aside from its artistic interpretation; but it also meant the devaluation of the poetry itself. This was primarily because very few intellectuals considered the acute problem of communication arising from watching performances in a foreign language; (14) a problem exacerbated with non-translated plays or those performed in Athens for the first time. (15) The upstaging of the text also meant that nobody protested about the fact that, in Duse's performances, "many scenes were cut, in order that the public should remain constantly under the influence of the leading lady's art". (16) Perhaps the greatest downgrading of the poetry arose from the fact that this star-system tradition implied the automatic identification of the plays with their female leads. Indeed, the "progressive" intellectuals proved to be the most star-struck of all, and promoted a convenient theoretical construct to marry their fandom with the modern poets. It is probably no coincidence that the example ("between Decadence and Modernity") was set by Italy, a neighbor country that, like Greece, had not yet experienced the "free theatre" movement or the institution of theatre directorship. (17) Specifically, the model was provided by D'Annunzio and comprised the "hierophant" poet and his 'high priestess', with the latter interpreting at the material level the visions apprehended by the former at the spiritual level. (18) This view was to resonate with several Greek intellectuals, first and foremost the national poet of the country, Kostis Palamas.

There were also major problems concerning the reading of the content of the roles. Greek criticism felt the need to moralize for or against the idea of the "New Woman", as there was unanimity on yet another timely point: the limits of the individualism of the heroines presented by the foreign actress. Duse was not, however, to blame for this choice, since she generally made conscientious attempts to reveal some facets of the complex modern portraits created by the playwrights, as was the case with Magda. Indeed, some contemporary European artists and critics, who observed the actress on her tours, insisted on precisely these modern aspects of the performances. (19) Greek theatrical criticism, on the contrary, not only did not notice these aspects but also was fascinated by the more conventional parts of the plays. Thus it focused on "dramatic" scenes (like that of the "satanic" Hedda burning the manuscript), or highly affecting moments (Magda falling into the paternal embrace). This was a reading that stopped at precisely those points of the heroines' individualism, where modern drama would begin to drill down and plumb the new depths of the subject's inner consciousness. The approach of the Greek critics, assisted by the more conventional parts of the performance, viewed modern plays through an earlier stage in the development of European drama, which referred to romanticism or conventional realism and, of course, leveled differences among authors, plays and artistic principles. (20)

It is no coincidence that Greek criticism praised not only the conventional acting style but also Duse's standardized (though unprecedented on the Athens stage) "salons fermes", which were used shortly afterwards to adorn the performances of Boulevard drama in the open-air theatres of the capital. (21) But nor were the critical tributes to romantic heroines like Marguerite Gautier accidental. (22)

Conclusively, the reception of modernist drama took place through a viewpoint related to conventional realism, romanticism and the star system. The critics heard a distant, fragmentary and distorted echo of the modern repertoire and its heroines; and the critics themselves remained, of course, an integral part of the wider bourgeois public of the capital. The attitude of Greek intellectuals to the modern portraits of the "New Woman" could not be otherwise, given that this pre-industrial Balkan society, of which they formed a part and an expression, had barely yet produced a feminist movement. Much as some were desperate to differentiate themselves, an analysis of the quality of the reception agrees with the overall audience choices: everyone was obliged to operate within the specific context imposed by contemporary Greek society. The way in which the Athenian spectators understood the messages of modern dramaturgy reflected the low level of modernization. The reception of the modernist repertoire, in other words, came up against the absence of the basic historical conditions for its creation, as these had developed in Northwestern societies.

For the scholar of the Greek theatre who wishes to escape historicism, it is self-evident that the structure of his subject cannot be detached from its communicative function. In our attempt to provide an overall interpretation of reception, therefore, we must mention yet another common denominator in the attitude of the Athenian public, one which formed a strong continuity with the ideological past of the country and for which the Italian star was not to blame: the fact that all the spectators felt the need to comment on their new acquaintance with a special reference to the Greek tragedians of the 5th century B.C. The "conservative" party did so in order to crush modern playwrights, the "progressive" one in order to raise them up. (23) The comparison attempted by both groups was not dictated so much by a modern interpretation of ancient drama, but, rather, by a deep-rooted native pathogenesis: the conviction that Greeks could acquire the passport needed to converse with their contemporary European family by selling, at no cost to themselves, on a civilization which they had deceived themselves into thinking they were related to.

Of course, it was precisely this lack of a home-grown modern theatrical product that was responsible for the fact that the Athenian intellectuals were obliged to take romantic refuge in history, albeit via an unhistorical leap of centuries; in their effort to place the country firmly in the international theatre market, they put into circulation the only assured cultural export product Greece possessed: Ancient Greek culture.

This exchange, naturally, was carried out with the necessary "understanding" of the Italian artist. Consequently, she artfully thought it lucky to visit the "Sacred Rock" of the Acropolis before her evening performance. When she visited the temple, "she remained for some time motionless in admiration and ecstasy before the ancient monuments" and assured those present "that in the theatre [of Dionysus] the ancient spirit still hovers today".24 Even when she refused the newspaper's Asty invitation to a soiree, she apologized in French, but with her mind in Ancient Greek:
   Hier soir je n'avais qu'un regret, monsieur,--dans la joie et dans
   l'orgueil de communiquer avec un peuple, dont le nom seul evoque de
   si grands souvenirs--le regret de ne pouvoir lui transmettre par
   l'effort sincere de mon art une oeuvre de haute et pure
   poesie--puisque l'atmosphere ideale, dont tout pelerin se sent
   entoure dans votre patrie, ne comporte que les apparitions les plus
   flamboyantes de la vie.

   Jamais je n'ai aspire avec plus d'anxiete et plus d'espoir vers
   cette beaute qui nous eblouit et non-exalte encore ici par ses
   vestiges divins.

   Je voudrais bien exprimer de vive voix a tous vos amis ma
   reconnaissance pour leur si large accueil et aussi pour le bienfait
   inestimable que mon esprit recoit de leur terre natale, mais l'etat
   de ma sante m'empeche ce grand plaisir; je me vois obligee de
   renoncer a cette heure geniale, que vous m'offrez d'une si noble
   maniere. (25)

In reality, with such proper references to the glory of the past she was offering her evening clientele a few minutes' national pride--as long as an illusion lasts:
   Would the artiste who triumphed in the greatest artistic centers
   have been mortified had her triumph not been perfect in a small
   capital of the barbarous east, had she not been able to defeat,
   here too, the memory of her great rival [Bernhardt]? ... And yet
   this small capital is named "Athens"; and a triumph here, near the
   immortal marbles that radiate the ideal of Art, is for every true
   artist the noblest, the most glorious and desirable triumph. That
   is why Duse felt such emotion, when she worshipped at the ancient
   theatre of Dionysus; that is why, by the careful choice of drama
   she gave, she aspired to present us with the most perfect examples
   of her art; that is why she was struck to the very heart that she
   was unable to perform an ancient tragedy, too; and that is why she
   left with the promise and the hope that she will be returning soon,
   to play Antigone, which D'Annunzio is now translating for her. (26)

Duse never set foot in Greece again, but her tour remained alive in the memory of her intellectuals, precisely because the big winner was not, of course, the dramatic art, but, rather, the star system. Her visit boosted the introduction of modern European drama, at a time when some Athenian troupes were renewing their repertoire, replacing the melodramas of the earlier era with plays from the wider field of conventional realism. Indeed, over the next few years, nearly all the plays performed by Duse were translated into Greek and played on the Athenian stage by domestic protagonists. If Adelaide Ristori's and Ernesto Rossi's tours in 1865 and in 1889 respectively were a watershed for the first steps and the development of Modern Greek professional theatre, Duse's visit was important in that she offered a model for home-grown future "high priestesses". (27) In the following decades, the heroines of Ibsen, Sudermann and D'Annunzio would be squeezed uncomfortably into the "salons fermes" of Boulevard theatre. Modernist drama became a naturalized part of Greek society, according to the codes of the star system and, as a necessary, adjunct to it. In the final analysis, the yoking together of all the different trends took place under the common denominator of the irrepressible desire for Europeanization of Greek theatre, at a time when the latter was experiencing its first modernization. From this point spring the most important and long-term repercussions left behind by the model of the "wandering high priestess"; at least until the Second World War, the artistic experimentations of foreign dramaturgy were historically condemned be importing and running along the rails of the domestic star system.


Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Institute of Mediterranean Studies


(1) The population of Athens-Piraeus rose from 149,000 in 1889 to 180,000 in 1896 and 250,000 in 1907.

(2) E.g., Duse with Craig or Komissarzhevskaya with Meyerhold and Evreinov, or even stars of an earlier generation, such as Bernhardt, who performed Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande with Campbell (1904).

(3) Duse was living the brief dream of creating an "Italian Bayreuth" alongside D'Annunzio. Duse decided to take her ill and pale daughter on her tour of Egypt and Greece. In the years immediately following, she would turn to Ibsen and collaborate with Lugne-Poe and Gordon Craig, before effectively abandoning the theatre in 1909 (see Bassnett 119-120, 150-151, 161-165; Richards 83-94; Sheehy 181-182; Re 86-129). Sorma was attempting her only pan-European tour after leaving Brahm's n after the First World War (Kindermann 73-75; Horst 73-85). Finally, Leblanc had just left Carmen and the world of opera and was trying to establish herself as an actress in prose theatre, through the plays of her famous companion (Halls 47-50, 53-6, 65).

(4) And in the other two actresses' Athens performances modernist drama was represented by famous names. Sorma played Ibsen's A Doll's House (8 November 1900), Sudermann's, The Fires of St John (9 November 1900), and Schnitzler's Liebelei (10 November 1900); Leblanc was somehow "obliged" to play only in the plays of her lover (Monna Vanna, Aglavaine et Selysette, The Intruder and Joyzelle (11-13 January 1904). On the contrary, Sorma was able to present more conformist plays such as Georges Ohnet's The Iron Master (15 November 1900) or The Daughter of Jephthah (1886) by Felice Cavallotti (the latter seems to have been performed in Greece, then, for the first time, 10, 16 November 1900).

(5) Apart from The Ghosts, Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness had been presented in 1895, Sudermann's Honour in 1898, and Sudermann's Sodom and Gomorrah and Ibsen's A Doll's House in 1899. See Glytzouris 3-12.

(6) According to calculations, some heads of households with a monthly salary of 400 drachmas paid 100 drachmas for one performance by Duse (Acropolis 21 January 1899, Hestia 13 November 1900). Such salaries were, of course, far out of reach for the Greek middle classes, considering that a clerk received a monthly salary of 120 drachmas, a sergeant of gendarmes 79, a magistrate 180 and a mid-ranking bank clerk 200. Calculations lead us to the conclusion that, in some cases, ticket prices were four times higher than normal.

(7) On the interpretations of the "New Woman" based on Magda, see Donkin 48-59.

(8) Stokes, Booth, Bassnett 4-8 and Bassnett 138.

(9) This was, in fact, the main reason they had not met with success with either the general public or in avant-garde Western circles, cf. Richards 83-88; Woodhouse 150-151, 177.

(10) Bassnett 157; Re 92-93, 107-108; Hestia 25 January 1899.

(11) Duse's four performances brought in 60,000 drachmas, while the Dumas play alone yielded 22,000. La Femme de Claude was also a success.

(12) "Only a Duse is necessary to restrain the indignation of family men, who do not share the German sociologist's ideas on emancipation," commented Palingenesia on Magda (19 January 1899). Cf. also Kairoi, 25 January 1899.

(13) Egan 101-125, 218-244; Innes 78-122; Marker 162-163; Templeton 204-208.

(14) According to the Acropolis (21 January 1899), not even 1% of Athenians spoke Italian. "Few in the hall of Parnassus would have understood Italian," admitted Palamas, "but understanding Italian or not, meant little. The language was in Duse's art and soul" (He Techne [1898]: 95). As Palingenesia concluded, "the throngs of art-lovers, most of whom did not understand the Italian tongue, did not come for the drama", but "to see Duse, Duse, and only Duse" (19 January 1899).

(15) Hestia, for example, mentions that some of the audience watched Magda with the translation of the play in hand (19 January 1899). The Acropolis disagreed with this tactic and recommended that spectators "learn off by heart, if not the whole play, then at least the role of the great tragedienne" (19 January 1899).

(16) "Interventions" on the text were common practice by Duse (see Bassnett 154; Innes 86-87; Marker 56).

(17) Re passim, Carlson 187-188; Taviani 207-222; Puppa 223-234; Richards 87 88.

(18) Richards 89-93, Re 113-118.

(19) Stanislavsky, for example, in My Life in Art commented on the acting of Duse and other actors he admired, although with the intention of examining the issue of emotional identification in depth (253, 257); or Copeau, who referred admiringly to Duse's "inner silence", in order to develop his own speculations on the "paradox of the actor" (224).

(20) "Magda, Cesarine, Hedda are modern women, bearing the stigmas of their degeneracy to a morbid degree," commented the "conservative" Lidorikis (Hestia, 18 January 1899). Hedda Gabier is like Dumas's Cesarine, added the "liberal" Episkopopoulos: "she is the personification of woman's low instincts; she is the woman who absorbs any vigor of spirit who declares war against mind, the doubly criminal, because she kills not only the body but the idea" (Asty, 17, 12 January 1899).

(21) According to the Acropolis, Duse's scenery had been built at Milan and belonged to Schurmann (27 January 1899). Shortly after her departure, the pioneer Greek actor Eftihios Vonaseras bought it "for the more human performance of family dramas" (Hestia, 27 February 1899). The stage manager Georgios Lagadas then bought the scenery from Vonaseras and so, in 1900, he prepared Sorma's performances using Duse's "salons fermes" (Hestia, 10, 19, 24.10, 7, 8 November 1900).

(22) Asty 26 January 1899.

(23) Ephemeris asserted, "the dramatic art has, in the view of the Athenian public, which has preserved its ancestral tastefulness in this matter, ideals other than those of Hedda Gabier" (24 January 1899). Palamas, on the contrary, had a different approach (see below).

(24) Asty, 29 January 1899, Hestia, 28 January 1899, Acropolis, 19 January 1899, Asty, 21, 23 January 1899, Ephemeris, 26 January 1899.

(25) Duse's letter was written on 20 January 1899 and published next day in Asty.

(26) G. Xenopoulos, He Techne (1898): 93. Duse had promised to play Sophocles' Antigone "at the theatre of Dionysus" (Asty, 28 January 1899). The Hestia even called Duse the victim "of our ancestral glory," since "she has but one ideal: to restore the dramatic art to its original Classicism" (28 January 1899).

(27) Papageorgiou 161-175; Georgiadi 115-137.


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Author:Glytzouris, Antonis
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Date:Sep 22, 2015
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