A junction of myth, history, cinema: Aeschylus' Oresteia in Theo Angelopoulos' film "Thiassos" (The travelling players, 1975) | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU


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Wrath, vengeance, intrigue, violence, taking the law into one’s hands, justice, forgiveness: meanings emerging from the ancient Greek theatre and human life as well; this is why Oresteia, Aeschylus’ trilogy that deals with them in a complete and apt way, moves and inspires people since its first presentation in 458 b.C. until today. Many artists sought inspiration from it, either by staging it on theatre intact, or by transferring it to the celluloid or by incorporating some of its basic elements into their work.

Especially for Greek artists, Oresteia is something more than a sublime example of artistic expression; it is a part of their land’s history and cultural heritage. Modern Greece oscillates between fragments from the past, architectural remains, artistic residues of the ancient civilization, surviving bits of language which remain alive in today’s culture, through their restoration, conservation and teaching respectively. Consequently, the culture of the past is still alive and influences Greek artists[1]; besides, they themselves seek inspiration from it, in an effort to start a dialogue with the tradition and enrich it.

Theo Angelopoulos builds up such a two-way relationship with the ancient Greek culture in many of his films. In “Thiasos” (1975) the references to Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” play an important role in the film’s structure and the story’s plot. We’ll see how Angelopoulos uses Oresteia as a medium that revives the history and society of Greece during the 20th century. In other words, incorporating elements from the trilogy into the film adds timelessness to it; while at the same time the film gives a new life to the myth, a contemporary dimension.

“Homer, the ancient dramatists and the ancient Greek literature in general, used to be during my time of youth a part of our school education. The Greek myths inhabit us and we inhabit them. We live in a place full of memories, ancient stones and broken sculptures. Greek contemporary art bears the signs of this coexistence. My path, my route, my thought couldn’t help being infused by all this”[2]: these words by Theodoros Angelopoulos during the ceremony of his election as an honorary doctor in the University of Nanterre point out how important was the ancient Greek tradition to his creation.

Taking his personal story and the history of his time into account[3], we understand why some myths, like the myth of the Atreides keep coming back into his artistic creation. Theo Angelopoulos was born a year before the dictatorship of Metaxas and lived his childhood during the German Occupation and the forthcoming Civil War. Being a member of a family politically divided between the Left and the Right, he lived this conflict very intensely. The absence of his father, who was a pro-left fighter condemned to death, was very intense during his childhood – until his unexpected return a little before the end of the Civil War. If we compare this to some myth, it would be that of Agamemnon rather than of Ulysses, because the director lived with the agony of his father’s death, and also because the nature of the war, which could be compared to the massacre in the house of the Atreides: a family – a nation that wipes itself out and enters into a circle of endless violence and vengeance.

Under these circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the director resorted to the myth of the Atreides in “Thiasos” – even less, if we take into account that the film was shot during a time when Greek history was once more sinking into violence and blood, the dictatorship of April 21st (1967-1969).

“In order to shoot this film I started out by submitting the screenplay to the censorship committee: Golfo and some other tricks. But no one from the technicians group really knew what the script was about; they vaguely knew that it was a political film […]. We had an alibi: the modern adaptation of Oresteia by Aeschylus”[4]: As the words of the director reveal, “Thiasos” is a truly political film, which used the myth of Oresteia as an alibi to ensure its approval by the dictatorship censorship committee. This doesn’t mean that the trilogy acts as a complement to the work; on the opposite, it constitutes its vertebra that supports the script and gives coherence to the presentation of modern Greek history.
Through “Thiasos”[5] we watch the history of Greece from 1939 to 1952 unroll before our eyes[6]. The important events of that time period are presented directly and fragmentarily, the way the travelling players see them: the last years of Metaxas’ dictatorship (1936-40), the Second World War and German Occupation (1940-44), the Civil War (1944-52). These events keep interrupting the travelling players’ tours and shows, which always remain unfinished. The play they stage is “Golfo the Shepherdess” by Spiridon Peresiadis.

There are three different realities that function and come together in the film: the theatrical, the historical and the mythological. Very often the three are irresolvable among them, something that adds to the film’s coherence and depth.

The theatrical reality often acts as an ironical comment: the play that is always interrupted by external factors, the song and the unnatural laughter aiming to the attraction of the public, the folklore suits, the unchanged scenery that fits alternately to theatres, abandoned buildings or beaches.

We vaguely sense the historical reality through the details (see first picture from the right) – talks on the streets, banners, executions, alarms – but at times it becomes much more evident. Through three steady cams, where three of the leading characters narrate their story, the director manages to present all the violence and absurdity of this turbulent era in a concise manner. With the camera fixed and focused on the actor’s face (see second picture from the left) the narration obtains the gravity of a historical testimony, without avoiding a slice of theatricality, if we consider the fact that this kind of monologues are common in theatre. The same confusion between history and theatre is evoked during the representation of the “Decembriana”, the armed conflict between revolutionary groups and allies during the December of 1944-45, which takes place in a square similar to a theatrical scene.
The people giving life to this drama are the same people that get caught up into history’s spider web and revive through their personal story the myth of the Atreides.

Through the first shots we see the unfaithful mother–Clytemnestra, her lover-Aegisthus, the unsuspecting father-Agamemnon, the heroical son named Orestes, Electra, Chrysothemis, Pilades. After the beginning of the Second World War the men of the family leave for the battlefield. Thus Aegisthus grasps the opportunity to become the leader of the traveling players and to stabilize his relationship to Clytemnestra. After a little while Agamemnon is executed because of his traitorous denouncement. Orestes gets revenge on the traitor by executing him and his own mother on stage. A few years later, during Civil War, he will be executed as well because of his cooperation with the powers of the Left.

If we pay attention to the details, we’ll see the film’s similarities to Aeschylus’ work: in the scene of the execution of the father, when he asks “I came from the sea, Ionia, where are you from?” he reminds us that it’s the same place where Agamemnon returned from – the shores of Asia Minor. His wife’s dream, that her son Orestes came back to her uterus, echoes the much more intense and violent dream that Clytemnestra had before she met her son, that she had given birth to a snake. What’s more, the executions remind us of the ancient tragedy, especially the scene of Aegisthus’ and Clytemnestra’s murder.

In this particular moment the three realities – theatrical, historical, mythical – come together as one. The murder takes place on stage, during the theatrical play. In addition, the actors wear theatrical costumes and the public starts clapping, thus mistaking the act for a part of the show. At the same time, we have the utmost moment of the myth, when Orestes takes revenge for his father’s death. On historical level, it is the murder of a traitor and collaborator of the Germans by a guerilla. As the director says, “Orestes kills his mother and Aegisthus, but at the same time his act is a part of the Theater, because he accompanies it with verses from ‘Golfo’ ”. Similarly, during the show that they stage for the allies there is a violent intrusion of reality, resulting in the murder of one of them at the end of the play.

However, the history of Postwar Greece is so bloody, that no happy end similar to Aeschylus’ trilogy can fit with. Thus, in many parts the director strays away from the theatrical play to create a much more verisimilar picture. Orestes doesn’t survive the Civil War; the winners execute him. In his funeral he is applauded as a hero and as an actor; when Electra sees him dead she farewells him with a verse from ‘Golfo’”[7].

Pilades undertakes Orestes’ part in the group of the traveling players and the mythical allegory of the story. Pilades assumes one of the hero’s traits, his faith in a sublime ideal, and one of his torments, his being stalked by the “Erinyes” (Furies), that are his torturers in the film .The “Erinyes” turn into “Eumenides” (kindly ones) and set him free, but not without making him pay the price; he has to sign that he repents his actions and denounces his beliefs. In other words, the “Eumenides”, are nothing but such; in contrast with Aeschylus’ work, where they are transformed with the power of persuasion, here their change demands a very important exchange from the hero: the denouncement of his beliefs. Echoing once more the Greek Mythology, the tortures of the exiles in Makronisos are presented as the torture of Sisyphus: they carry stones up on a slope just to let them role – a torture that he has to go under until his liberation day.

After the end of the Civil War, Electra decides to reestablish the group of the traveling players. Thus, at the end of the film there is a repetition of the first scene, with the traveling players outside the Egion railway station[8] (see third picture from the left). According to Angelopoulos “it is like a big family picture where the future is destined to happen, and this future, to which we have all become witnesses, contradicts this picture”[9]. There we can see all protagonists, even the ones who have died. Once more the director chooses to make a circle. The end-beginning is a challenge for the viewer to see the film from the beginning, while contemplating on the unbreakable interdependence of the events.

The connection of the film to Oresteia was certainly chosen to “camouflage” its political context, but it turned out to be an ideal vehicle that helped the director narrate his country’s history. Without any need to consort to Hollywood big talk and heroic pictures, he managed to make a superb and emotional film.

1 Andrew Horton, The films of Theo Angelopoulos, A cinema of contemplation, New Jersey 1997, p.35.

2 Θεόδωρος Αγγελόπουλος, «Ο λόγος στη Ναντέρ», Καθηµερινή, 20-6-1999 (Theodoros Angelopoulos, “El discurso en Nanterre”, Kathimerini, 20-6-1999).

3Α. Κυριακίδης (επιµ.), 41ο Φεστιβάλ Θεσσαλονίκης, Θεόδωρος Αγγελόπουλος, Αθήνα, 2000, σσ. 7-10 (A. Kyriakidis (edit.), 41. Festival de Thessaloniki, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Atenas 2000, pp.7-10).

4 Michel Ciment, “Teo Angelopoulos”, Positif, No.174, 1975.

5 Θεόδωρος Αγγελόπουλος, Ο θίασος: σενάριο, Αθήνα 1975 (Theodoros Angelopoulos, Thiasos: Guión, Atenas 1975).

6 Κωνσταντίνος Θεµελής, Θεόδωρος Αγγελόπουλος: Το παρελθόν ως ιστορία, το µέλλον ως φόρµα, Αθήνα 1998, σσ.58-61 (Konstantinos Themelis, Theodoros Angelopoulos: El pasado como historia, el futuro como forma, Atenas 1998, pp.58-61).

7 Arecco Sergio, Θεόδωρος Αγγελόπουλος, Κριτική ανάλυση του έργου του, Αθήνα 1985, σ.67 (Sergio Arecco, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Crítica y análisis de su obra, Atenas 1985, p.67).

8 Ειρήνη Στάθη, Χώρος και χρόνος στον κινηµατογράφο του Θόδωρου Αγγελόπουλου, Αθήνα 1999, σ.37 (Irini Stathi, Espacio y tiempo en el cine de Theodoros Angelopoulos, Atenas 1999, p.37).

9 Arecco Sergio, ibid., σ.61.