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Revisiting Greek Tragedy on the Modern

Meiji Gakuin University
March 2016
‘Revisiting Greek Tragedy on the Modern Stage
The Example of Tadashi Suzuki’
Good evening, everyone. It is a pleasure and an honor to speak here, at Meiji
Gakuin University, today. Before I start, I would like to express my warmest thanks to
Professor Nakajima and to Professor Daido; Very special thanks to the Ambassador
of Greece in Japan, Mr. Loukas Karatsolis and all the Embassy staff for making this
lecture possible. My gratitude extends to the Japan Foundation for granting me the
unique opportunity to spend some time on site to research contemporary Japanese
theatre. Last but not least, thank you each and everyone of you for sparing the time to
listen to some of my thoughts on ancient Greek tragedy and its reception
So I am going to start my lecture by stating what is perhaps obvious to most:
that in the ever-revised crisis of civilization, it is becoming imperative to regain our
autonomy of feeling. I believe that contact with the ultimate archetypes of the human
condition, embedded in the ancient Greek plays, can safeguard such autonomy.
Nietzsche had long ago claimed that without myth every culture forfeits its healthy,
creative natural power: ‘only a horizon encompassed by myths locks an entire
movement of culture into a unity’ (Nietzsche 1999: 23). Fundamental and primordial,
old myths occasion a cataclysmic cancellation of most dividing lines and lend
themselves to guilt-free ownership. Particularly with respect to tragedy, the classical
works’ relevance in our ferociously mediatized times keeps resurfacing whenever a
new production comes to contemporize what is fundamentally timeless.
Internationally, avant-garde directors’ innovative versions for the most part serve to
perpetuate the ancient plays’ established value. Not only do they guarantee their
longevity; they provide a continuous –if posthumous—acknowledgment of merit and
relevance. On their part, classical works have repeatedly astonished us with their
resilience, bouncing back each time, after a ‘ferocious’ directorial ‘attack’ has been
launched. Ιndeed, through such readings, as Linda Hutcheon argues, ‘stories do get
retold in different ways in new material and cultural environments; like genes, they
adapt to those new environments by virtue of mutation—in their “offspring” or their
adaptations. And the fittest do more than survive; they flourish’ (2006: 32).
Erika Fischer-Lichte has drawn attention to the distance of the ancient texts,
which any staging should bring to the light and insists that revivals are actually unable
to access the past because [it] is ‘lost and gone forever. What remains are only
fragments – play texts torn out of their original contexts – which cannot convey their
original meaning’ (2005: 234). One of the purposes of staging the Greek texts is to
remind ourselves of this distance, find ways of coping with it individually and insert
fragments of these texts into the context of our contemporary reflections, life and
culture. Evidently, directors need to search for ways to expose the remoteness of the
classical work and celebrate the formal gap that separates us from the time of its birth.
In this way, they can startle us with new insights, as a rule uncomfortably placed
between the past of the work’s conception and the present of its reception. Seen in
this light, the term ‘requotation,’ employed by the acclaimed Japanese director
Tadashi Suzuki, to suggest that the original story has been “rearranged and
transformed” (Neely 1987: 515), would perhaps be an apt alternative to adaptation,
engaging, as it does, both past and present.
Why exactly do we ‘latch on to a theatrical world of dystopia which
relentlessly confronts us with the spilling of kindred blood and the breaking of just
about any taboo imaginable within the human realm?’ (Revermann 2008: 104). As a
genre, ancient Greek tragedy is simultaneously foreign and familiar, featuring an
enticing complementarily that is rare. In point of fact, Greek tragedy’s humanistic
perspective provides an intellectual sort of homecoming. One might argue that the key
to the viewing of Aeschylus’, Sophocles’ and Euripides’ plays as a cultural bridge lies
in the understanding, acceptance, and use of a contradiction: tragedy is both a cultural
product and a universal property. In a global community, it soothes our anguish of unrootedness. By turning politics and religion into dramatic conflict, it forces us to
consider our own position in society and also come to terms with our mortality. While
the ubiquity of hyphenated forms threatens to undermine or displace emphasis on
story and intelligible linguistic codification, the Greek plays and the myths they
encompass can function as anchors of identity—encapsulating ‘underlying,
inarticulate assumptions about the world and human existence’ (Baeten 1996: 25).
For the most part, in the analysis of tragedy, the literary author’s assumed
intentions will remain uncharted. While the dramatic canon grants us the comfort of
re-understanding fundamentals and reconsidering absolutes from afar–thus sparing
ourselves the pain that ensues from instant identification with violent or atrocious
emotions—the practice of adaptation seems to legitimize directorial choices that
would remain mostly unacceptable in mainstream theatre. No longer will directors
treat Greek tragedy’s linguistic, structural and contextual limitations as a sacrosanct
given; on the contrary, most will tamper with the form with a desire for appropriation,
which in itself betrays a sense of entitlement over tradition and the interpretation
thereof.1 As Umberto Eco had suggested, since the past cannot be destroyed, because
‘its destruction leads to silence,’ it must be revisited: ‘but with irony, not innocently’
(Eco 1984: 67).
Still, many radical productions of Greek tragedy have consistently manifested
an ambivalent attitude towards the classics, their means of reframing the source
(original) text resounding a broader disquiet regarding the treatment of the ‘great
narratives.’ Their wavering shelters some of the insecurities that Roland Barthes had
been suggesting in his 1979 discussion of Greek drama:
[W]e never manage to free ourselves from a dilemma: are the Greek
plays to be performed as of their own time or as of ours? Should we
reconstruct or transpose? Emphasize resemblances or differences?
(Barthes 1979: 59)
A classic, tells us Italo Calvino, is a work which persists as background noise,
even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway (Calvino (1985)
2000: 8). No less firmly, George Steiner attributes the classic’s integral authority to
the quality that allows it to ‘absorb without loss of identity the millennial incursions
upon it, the accretions to it, of commentary, of translations, of enacted variations’
(Steiner 1984: 296-7). Simply retelling the story that Euripides or Sophocles have
already given us, with no consideration of the factors that can still render it relevant
today is no longer a viable artistic endeavour; every time such ‘ghost productions’
open, the vital text falls into deep slumber and eventually dies, having aged
inexorably in the first few minutes. Much of modern theatre’s inability to arouse any
genuine reactions in today’s disillusioned audiences could be partly attributed to the
fallacy of recreating–or slavishly aping–the imagined conditions of an era no longer
See more of this in Sidiropoulou 2014 and 2015
applicable or interesting to us. What French semiologist Patrice Pavis terms
‘archaeological reconstruction’ has long ceased to be the ‘representational ideal of a
classical work’ (2013: 207), since it ignores the unique circumstances of the audience
at the point of reception and thus results in an echo–rather than a distillation–of the
original story. In fact, as Fischer-Lichte argues, ‘whatever we think we know about
the past is a kind of reinvention-a construction, a fantasy’ (Fischer-Lichte in Hall,
Macintosh and Wrigley 2004: 352).
Essentially, the strains that corrode revisionist stagings have a lot to do with
critics’ and spectators’ opposing sets of expectations of fidelity: on the one hand, a
faithfulness to the original work, a conservative attitude, and on the other, a furtive,
unacknowledged desire to be surprised by the product. Fully aware of this paradox,
directors like Suzuki–whose eclectic style is a ritualistic, almost religious reflection of
a world that has been torn to pieces and put back together in new forms— turn to
tragedy not as ‘simply a thing of the past, an archaeological relic [but as something]
totally projected into the future,’ [something] ‘inevitable’ (Castelluci in Laera 2013:
185). Suzuki’s revisionist interpretations of Greek tragedy ever since the 1970s have
carried within them the paradox of a conflicting desire/ to remember and to change, to
revive and to bury. Ιn his own words: ‘I don’t do a reading of the script. The best
action is to create a whirlpool of new material creation out of the old’ (qtd in
Carruthers and Takahashi 2004: 152-153). Suzuki’s art testifies to the conviction that
this “rootedness” of Greek drama, combined with its “otherness”, has turned it into an
ideal shortcut, a liberating format which helps the artist, and the political activist, to
circumvent, legitimately and with playful ease, centuries of cultural baggage’
(Revermann 2008: 108). In this sense, ‘the mythical, dysfunctional, conflicted world’
of the Greeks has established itself as one of the ‘most important cultural and
aesthetic prisms through which the real, dysfunctional, conflicted world of the late
twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries has refracted its own image’ (Hall in Hall,
Macintosh and Wrigley 2004: 2).
All over the world, in the work of avant-garde artists involved in staging
tragedy (Katie Mitchell, Ivo van Hove, Romeo Castelluci, Frank Castorf, Jan Fabre
and Τheodoros Terzopoulos, among many others), the dialogue between the original
text and its re-writing has kept alive the fascinating battle for authorship and
parenthood of the adaptation. At the heart of the process of revision, recontextualizing an established myth by means of ‘proximation’ (Sanders 2006: 21) is
a mechanism of bringing home to the audience its essential yet uncompromisingly
remote elements. In the Greek plays, such is, for example, the presence of a Chorus
and of the Olympian gods. Using strong metaphors and timely cultural reference,
directors rethink fundamental archaic notions such as hubris, nemesis, suffering and
Being the ‘closest “other” there can possibly be’ (Revermann 2008: 110),
placed as it is in a kind of ‘public domain,’ Greek tragedy has become an ideal place
for Tadashi Suzuki, based in Toga, Japan, to vent off his social, political and
ideological discontent. His stage metaphors imaginatively substitute for tragedy’s
elements of alterity, while the synthetic ambiguity of his mise-en-scène
accommodates both the distance and the timelessness of the ancient text, avoiding the
dangers that belie such conjunction. For the Japanese director, staging tragedy’s
constitutional ‘strangeness’ in the end also means returning to his own tradition’s
performance forms, such as Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku, in order to confront elements
as alienating as the tragic Chorus, the heightened language, the stylized movement
and the use of masks. This dialogue between different methods and traditions is also
present in another celebrated Japanese artist, Yukio Ninagawa, whose 1978 Medea
was done in the Kabuki tradition, with an all-male cast. Such revisiting suggests a
desire to ‘recapture the energy of the primitive theatre’ (McDonald 1992: 29).
Suzuki’s stage versions of Euripides are set in thoroughly changed
environments, always of noted cultural significance, yet also of an archetypical
nature, and are replete with emotional resonance. In the acclaimed production of
Trojan Women (1974), the action takes place in a cemetery, among the ruins of a warwrecked city. Wishing to put forth to his audience a deathly milieu recalling the
Hiroshima atrocity, Suzuki opts for perhaps the most symbolic of all sites.
Fundamentally, reinterpreting Greek tragedy for him comes from the need to
‘exorcise the emotional wounds of his childhood’, but is also an attempt to process the
social and political transformations of Japanese history, traditions and identity (Allain
2002: 20). Suzuki’s work, however, has always managed to transcend national
barriers, providing powerful humanistic commentaries. Trojan Women —an
expressionistic, almost ‘plotless treatise against the horrors of war, where narrative
tension is replaced by emotional anxiety’ (Allain 2002: 153)— reverberates with
imagery from the holocaust: an old woman survivor, assumed to have lost husband
and children in the war, roams the destroyed city, carrying a sack which contains
several household objects mixing the old and the modern (characteristically, a teapot,
an empty can, ‘Priam’s shoe’). The function of a bag containing the last cherished
possessions that a war victim can hold to, feels particularly poignant, and its use on
stage gradually transforms into a resonant, emotionally charged metaphor for family
and home. As Carruthers relates, Suzuki’s motifs have sources in his memories as a
child growing up during the war, attuned to the ‘shriek of the bombs, their sizzling
missiles in the harbor’ (Carruthers 2004: 153). More than anything, he remembers the
women trying to protect their children. In a most visceral scene, Andromache’s son,
Astyanax, portrayed on stage as a ‘white muslin doll with long arms’ is
metaphorically slain by the soldiers, ‘its arm cut off, and hurled at the grandmother
for burial’ (McDonald 1992: 37). Thus, in more than one way, Greek drama has
become a significant site for working out these antinomies of nostalgia for a past,
which is unrecoverable (Hardwick in Martindale and Thomas 2006: 211). Through
the specific depiction of Japan and its post-war identity crisis, Suzuki ‘symbolized the
general, without making it banal’ (Allain 2002: 154). As the director intimates:
I do not think any other work has so successfully expressed one
aspect of universal man. Nor is this just because war itself remains a
present reality for us. The fundamental drama of our time is anxiety
in the face of impending disaster. (Qtd in Allain 2002:154)
Years later, in 1995, using another striking metaphor, Suzuki situates his
version of Euripides’ Electra, Electra, Waiting for Orestes in a psychiatric clinic; one
is instantly struck with the bizarre appearance of five wheel-chaired men in shorts–the
Chorus–who circle the stage, moaning and howling, virtually justifying the director’s
conviction that ‘all the world’s is a hospital, and all men and women merely inmates.’
The metaphor of a wheelchair reveals not ‘a physical dependency on something
outside of ourselves, but rather a psychological dependency that occurs within
ourselves’, in the director’s own words (qtd in Cooper 2012). Specifically for the
production at the Delphi Stadium in Greece, Suzuki used zebra-crossing walkways
that intersected ‘at the navel of the world’. These suggested both a modern traffic
intersection and an abode of the dead, for the black and white strips of cloth he used
were Japanese funeral awnings. Such flexible playing spaces, allowed architectural
structures and set designs to frame and accentuate actor rhythms and proxemics
(Carruthers in Mitter and Shevtsova 2005: 168), besides bearing symbolic resonances
of universal plight.
For Suzuki, tragedy’s expansive inner space houses the perennial extremities
of the human condition and addresses current disquiet. For one thing, his subtle
treatment of politics finds in tragedy fertile ground on which to grow. His first version
of the Bacchae (1978) was set up as a metatheatrical gest of revenge, which had the
inmates of a prison reenact Euripides’ play/ and impersonate the oppressed
Bacchantes, who come in direct confrontation with the state ruler Pentheus.
Ιronically, however, the performance ends in the way in which it began, with King
Pentheus returning on stage in an allegorical resurrection of the oppressor’s power; a
visual statement echoing Suzuki’s profound disillusionment and pragmatic awareness.
In his own words, ‘a nightmarish vision but a brutal fact repeated ever since the
beginning of political history –a moment of festive liberation cruelly crushed down by
the despot’ (qtd in McDonald 1992: 61). By virtue of its play-within-a-play frame, the
production clearly makes a shocking use of the Chorus idea. Indeed, as an ‘uninvited
guest’ (Laera 2013: 132), the Chorus has often stretched the limits of directorial
interpretation to phenomenal extremes. Sometimes, as is the case with Suzuki’s
production, its central position serves to highlight a more political and socially driven
perspective. Challenging the authority of the Greek plays, a revamped Chorus carries
the tension of a ‘body’ that is simultaneously foreign (an archaic convention) and
public (representing the humanistic and democratic ideals of community).
In daring to put out in the open the big, unresolved issues that continue to
trouble people and societies, Suzuki finds in the Greeks a forum for easing or settling
mental and psychological unrest and simultaneously ‘mourns and celebrates’ Japan’s
loss of innocence (McDonald 1992: 39). A cultural mélange and a bringing together
of different temporalities is a recurrent motif: contemporary popular songs interrupt
the past, mass culture intruding into the rituals of the ancient world. Intense
preoccupation with the effects of consumerism also allows him to intersperse his
performances with several popular art tokens, such as the cylindrical red-and-white
Marlboro ashcans in his Bacchae. Such patterns of defamiliarization force us to look
beyond the expected for a meaningful connection between text and sub-text. In the
second treatment of the Bacchae (first performed in Milwaukee, US, in 1981), the
dialogue between Japanese and American actors strikes a fundamentally ‘strange’
chord, while in Clytemnestra (1983), based on the tragedies that relate to myth of the
House of Atreus, the actor performing Orestes is the sole Western figure on stage.
The action takes place in Orestes’ mind; after the son murders the mother, she comes
back as a Ghost who kills him while he is committing incest with his sister, Electra. In
this performance, which essentially deals with family conflict and the battle of sexes,
the eclectic costuming heightens the clash between tradition and modernity: the play
opens with the trial scene from Eumenides, in which Apollo and Athena–both
performed by male actors–are in traditional Japanese attire, while Orestes enters the
stage in a T-shirt and shorts. Electra is scantily dressed in a slip, so that the siblings’
vulnerability becomes even more pronounced and the discrepancy between the
ancient and the modern–both the traditional and its rejection–more manifest
(McDonald 1992: 47). In addition, Clytemnestra’s white-faced avenging ghost mixes
vestment elements from the Noh tradition with Japanese folklore. Once again, Suzuki
instills elements of his native tradition into the equally heightened form of Greek
tragedy: aesthetic stylization and a concern for the other-than human forces that guide
humans’ lives meet in the ritual form of both tragedy and the Japanese Noh. Indeed,
as Allain aptly relates, ‘resurrected by Suzuki, Greek protagonists walked alongside
the ghosts of noh’ (2002: 153).
Some Conclusions
In analysing contemporary performance of Greek tragedy, the following
observation becomes clear: in order to be able to do justice to the director and the
production, one must always take into account the time, place and specifics of
reception. In other words, interpretations that felt irrelevant to one specific audience
were enthusiastically received by another, seemingly serving the spectators’ particular
socio-cultural circumstances. Therefore, the question of the ‘right’ or wrong
‘production’ and the ethics of directing should, if anything, be addressed in terms of
context, which ultimately ‘conditions meaning’ (Hutcheon 2006: 145). Evidently,
striking ideas and visual imagination can only work if they originate in the artist’s
deeper connection to the world. It is this connection that holds the material together
and breathes life into it. In examining innovative stagings of the Greeks, we are
stunned at Suzuki’s cultural scope, Romeo Castelluci’s transcendental scenography,
Robert Wilson’s ever-expanding colour palette, Ariane Mnouchkine’s exotic figures
or Katie Mitchell’s mediascapes, to name but a few of the most radical directors
worldwide. We are grateful for the beauty and the visual insights they provide for the
old plays. This is when form deepens, magnifies and amplifies the original work,
building worlds that transform the writer’s imagination into a moving sensory
experience. No doubt, such encounters are fuelled by a burning desire to understand,
to express, to connect.
Fischer-Lichte has described the revised hierarchical structure between text
and performance in ‘directors’ theatre’ in terms of Nietzche’s understanding of
‘dismemberment,’ a kind of sparagmos, relating to a process of tearing apart the
original text, in order for the performance to take shape (2005: 233-234). Within the
postmodern freedom and tyranny of choice, one often notices a tendency to
overcompensate meaning with form: On occasion, in their relentless pursuit of
imagery and metaphor, experimental artists may become oblivious to whatever
threatens their work’s deliberate, if hazy, abstraction, verging on cultural
appropriation and or a-historicity. In such context-free performances, the desire to
revive the universal elements of the story seems detached from any social or political
But theatre cannot really claim absolution from memory or history. Given that
the social, civil, and religious import of the Greek plays harbours a strong emotive
value –the very texture of drama being intertwined in their cultural specificity—
depoliticizing them by means of aesthetic filters divests them of a perspective at once
historical and timeless, a reproach that many conceptualists have been systematically
charged with. It also diminishes their ability to move; a fixation on perceptual frames
without an underlying discursive exploration causes an obliteration of dramaturgical
specificity, an erasure of metaphysical viewpoint; in effect, an undermining of
experience as a critical re-evaluation of memory (Sidiropoulou 2014: 60). At the same
time, one should also consider whether a form as open as that of tragedy could ever be
made to fit the dicta of small-case circumstance. Greek director Theodoros
Terzopoulos’ condemnation of the current directorial trend/ to bend tragedy’s
structure and stature in order to create ‘plausible’ characters is worth noting. His
conviction that ancient theatre cannot be turned into chamber drama/ is grounded on
an awareness of tragedy as an ‘open form’:
[Tragedy] has several levels, which are extremely dense. We can only
interpret few of them, but the greater part remains unexplored,
adjusting itself to new social, political and human conditions. We can
adjust the timelessness of wars, modernise it, transfer it to human
situation, to the city, and other contemporary matters, such as the
environment, to the issues of love and death, even to cloning; but we
can never transcend certain principles that have to do with selfconcentration, the grand stature, the grand energy . . . because we can
never whisper those issues by adapting them to the new circumstances.
(Qtd in Karali 2008)
Suzuki’s long-time collaborator and co-founder of SITI Company in the U.S.,
director Anne Bogart, thinks of plays as ‘little pockets of memory.’ She makes special
reference to the Greek texts, describing how a director can use a play about hubris as
a ‘chance to bring that question into the world and see how it looks at the time you’re
doing it.’ Moreover, she understands artists’ fascination with revisiting old works to
be part of the need to reclaim something that has been lost, ‘the sense that theatre has
this function of bringing these universal questions through time.’ The attempt to
globalize the local and temporalize the universal has been an instrumental force
behind Suzuki’s theatre, an ability to construct powerful modern equivalents that will
correspond to the heightened style of the classical work.
In closing: It is no surprise that the lofty, enduring stature of tragedy, with its
larger-than-life characters and the representation of forces beyond human
comprehension has in one way or another become a viable medium for artists to
comment on the absence of grandeur and heroics today. Essentially, as Suzuki argues,
‘theatre provides no relief. It makes us see. There is no way out because we no longer
have ideals strong enough.’ In rethinking the tragic spirit, revised forms can act as a
kind of umbilical cord that can nourish the relationship between past and present.
While in any directorial production of Greek tragedy it is still useful to ‘distinguish
between deconstruction and provocation’ (Pavis 2013: 233), the question becomes
how setting, time period, language, character portrayal and action can tune into new
rhythms and be defined by new concepts, whose power to revise, update and render
meaningful does not originate in the desire to merely shock, nor in a complacent
attitude towards reception; concepts, which are constantly put into trial in order to
both safeguard and further stretch the boundaries of interpretation when confronting a
classic. In reality, as Tadashi Suzuki’s performances of tragedy have demonstrated,
the Greeks are there to remind us that any new reading is ultimately both an
opportunity and a gift.
Thank you.
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