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Stratos E. Constantinidis. Modern Greek Theatre: a Quest for Hellenism.

Jefferson, North Carolina: McFadand, 2001. Pp. x + 198. $34.95 paperbound.

"Can [Greek] postmodernism find its way out of the loop of Greek modernism?" This is one of the questions asked by Stratus Constantinidis (29) in his new book Modern Greek Theatre: A Quest for Hellenism, which offers a revisionist account of the state of modern Greek drama from the late Enlightenment to the 1970s. The issue of modernism can hardly be avoided in any discussion of Greek literature, though, as Constantinidis wryly observes, "Like Homer's Scylla and Charybdis, modernism and postmodernism may wreck the reputation of many a scholar and artist" (18).

In his book, Constantinidis approaches the minefield of modernism and postmodernism through the unusual vantage point afforded by three plays by women dramatists: the little-known Nikiratos (1826) by Evanthia Kairi and the neglected The New Woman (1908) by Kalliroi Siganou-Parren represent the modernist/nationalist perspective of the early nineteenth century, while Loula Anagnostaki's more successful Victory (1978) illustrates the demise of modernism. The context in which these plays are discussed (Greek modernism and its subversion by postmodernism) is subsumed within the context of gender studies, colonialism, postcolonialism, and cultural imperialism. This "provisional framework" (4ff) allows Constantinidis to discuss Greek nationalism, to conduct an "inclusive analysis" in the context of nation-building and identity, as well as to incorporate an incisive (if cursory) analysis of selected plays by the better-known authors Nikos Kazantzakis, Angelos Sikelianos, and Kostis Palamas.

The general background for this new study and the methodological process chosen for its completion are laid out with precision and thoroughness in the author's preface and lengthy introduction. In his first chapter, Constantinidis discusses the above-mentioned Nikiratos by Evanthia Kairi, "the first known Greek woman playwright" and compares and contrasts its views of Hellenism with those of Keats, Byron, and Shelley. Constantinidis provides a summary of Kairi's play ("one of the earliest Greek dramatic responses to European colonialists" [51]) as well as Shelley's Hellas. He points out that Kairi chooses not to model her play on a Greek tragedy (as did Shelley in Hellas) or to replicate Byron's "egocentric ... heroes in their Satan-like rebellion against cosmic authority" (58). Instead, Kairi's heroes and heroines are firmly positioned within the Greek family and community (58).

In the second chapter, Constantinidis summarizes and analyses Babel, a play by Dimitrios Vyzantios (Constantinidis chooses to refer to the author by his real name, Hatziaslanis, rather than the pen name with which he was, and still is, generally known) first published in 1836, with a revised edition in 1840. According to Constantinidis, Babel represents the conflict between diversity and standardization that prevailed in the early years of the modern Greek state and its new capital, Nafplio. An immensely popular play with enduring success on the stage, Babel (as its title implies) deals with the subject of miscommunication among a group of Greeks from regions as diverse and geographically disparate as Albania, Cyprus, Crete, and Asia Minor. In fact, Constantinidis sees Babel as a "subversive text" (72) since the "diversity" of the regional dialects reproduced in the play runs counter to the policy of standardization and "dynastic Hellenism" pursued by the monarchy and subsequent administrations. One might add, however, that despite the comic imbroglios occasioned by regional idioms, the characters do manage to communicate quite nicely on the whole.

As in his discussion of Nikiratos, Constantinidis presents his analysis of The New Woman (1908) by Kalliroi Siganou-Parren in juxtaposition with related works by non-Greek dramatists, specifically the satirical comedy The New Woman (1894) by the English playwright Sydney Grundy, and within the ideological and aesthetic context of a period that included Ibsen's A Doll's House and other formulations of the "New Woman." At the same time, through his parallel tracing of historical developments in Greece during Siganou-Parren's writing career, Constantinidis demonstrates the Greek characteristics and particular significance of her play. Writing during a period when classicism was encouraged by the monarchy, and before the defeat of the Greek army in 1921-22 in Turkey, Siganou-Parren's work reflects optimism and confidence. Although her play and the rest of her career as a journalist and activist identify the Greek dramatist as a feminist, unlike her Western counterparts she "portrays mothering positively" (108). Siganou-Parren's heroine can be seen as a personification not only of the New Woman, but of a New Greece entrusted to nurture a new generation of Greek men (105).

Unlike the authors discussed in the preceding chapters, Kazantzakis, Sikelianos, and Palamas hold a prominent place in anthologies and historiographies of modern Greek literature. However, their fame rests on their nontheatrical works: in the case of Palamas and Sikelianos, on their poetry, and in the case of Kazantzakis, on his novels. Commenting on the poor stage history of these plays (though this neglect is only relative, and hardly compares with the almost complete absence from the stage of Kairi and Siganou-Parren), Constantinidis cites the preference shown by critics and public alike to the realistic drama of the first half of the twentieth century (116). In his analysis of these plays, Constantinidis observes that the subversive elements of each play and the "Satanist concept of purposeful change" (119) offered "alternative definitions of identity that could lead to new states of mind and being" (117). In his 1903 play Trisevgeni (Thrice Noble), for instance, Palamas presents a character of Nietzschean proportions and ambitions, who, despite her aristocratic name, was born and nurtured in a small Greek village. In his play The Dithyramb of the Rose (1932), as well as in his other Messianic plays, including Sibyl (1940), Daedalus in Crete (1943), and Christ in Rome (1946), Sikelianos constructs an alternative reality with its own dynamics and ontological imperatives, while Kazantzakis pits his heroes against the fundamental realities of the human condition. The three dramatists are compared to George Bernard Shaw, especially with regard to the social engineering discernible in their plays, while the notion of Superman and the presence of sexual undercurrents, the dramatization of the subconscious, and the conflict between Ego and Superego point directly to Nietzsche and Freud. But as Constantinidis notes, Kazantzakis, Sikelianos, and Palamas, differed fundamentally from Shaw by elevating intuition over the intellect and emphasizing vitalism (124). Furthermore, the almost superhuman individual will bestowed on the heroes of these plays does not preclude their authors' unwavering belief in a collective memory and culture (113), characteristics associated with modernism and nationalism. The case of Kazantzakis is particularly interesting, since the dramatist can be seen as a precursor of modernism (29). However, as Constantinidis concludes, Kazantzakis's attempted rupture with modernism remains incomplete, and the dramatist ultimately returns to modernism (29). Regrettably, Constantinidis discusses a relatively small selection of plays by Kazantzakis (whose dramatic opus was considerable and varied), and these rather summarily: Melissa (1937), Buddha (1941), The Prometheus Trilogy (1943), Kapodistrias (1944), Constantine Paleologos (1945), Kouros (1948), and Christopher Columbus (1949).

The author ends his discussion with an overview of late-twentieth-century drama and an analysis of the factors that contributed to the erosion of "modernism." Constantinidis differentiates his position from that of commentators who, like Aliki Bacopoulou-Halls, discern a continuity between the Greek modernist plays of the twenties and thirties and the post-World War II generation, preferring to define these works as plays of "existentialist protest" rather than "existentialist commitment" (146). While a number of other dramatists, such as Iakovos Kambanellis, are also identified as belonging to this category by virtue of their perceived emphasis on images of moral and physical decay, as well as a greater distance between playwright and character, one play, Victory by Loula Anagnostaki, is seen as a"landmark play" because it "challenges the legacy of Greek nationalism" (152-53). In his discussion of the plays of this period, as in the previous sections, Constantinidis establishes parallels between drama trends in Greece and movements in European drama, notably the theater of the absurd during the 1950s and 1960s (151). In terms of its particular significance for Greece, the play signals the demise of modernity, an end that came about, according to Constantinidis, when the military dictatorship of 1967-74 appropriated the concepts of nationalism and cultural identity and effectively divided the Greeks. The full extent of the clash between modernism and postmodernism in the work of Anagnostaki (and others) has not yet been definitively assessed by Constantinidis in his present book, but the author envisions a sequel, which will examine "the dawn of the postmodern period in Greek drama and culture" (9).

Modern Greek Theatre: A Quest for Hellenism is a valuable and much-needed resource for scholars of modern Greek theater history and provides a useful guide to the complex relationship between classical Hellenism and modern Greece. The long-standing neglect of Kairi and Siganou-Parren is finally remedied, and while their coexistence with Kazantzakis, Sikelianos, and Palamas in the present study might raise some eyebrows, the theoretical framework developed for the discussion of the selected works sets the stage for the renewed reading and discussion of the dramatists and their work.


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Author:Pittas-Herschbach, Mary
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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