There is an environment somewhere far away, where whoever hasn’t got a clue, copies the one next to them.
There, people talk, gesture, yell, run up and down, and, mainly, give orders. You can immediately tell the ones who know what this is all about. Their gaze is clear. They have the calm of the experienced, because they have heard the instructions countless times, and there’s actually moments you find yourself fooled: are they following orders or are they giving them?
The rest haven’t got a clue. They copy the one next to them (Which leg goes first? Should the hand be higher? What do you call it? What time? Is it permitted?) Some grow indignant (What ones next to us? They haven’t got a clue either). Many just leave (This is not for us). The ones who decide to stay eventually adapt and carry on. They exercise, they harden, they change. They learn to say yes over and over again (as many times as necessary). They wear the appropriate clothes, they speak appropriately, they move with symmetry, they behave. They let themselves into a new identity, fighting tooth and nail to hide their newly recruited self. The one who never really stopped copying.
Image one: London 2015. From a poster of a performance of the Oresteia: ‘Agonising, Brutal, Brilliant […] A New Version […] Part The Godfather. Part Breaking Bad. […] Bloody. Bold. Essential’. One has to hold on something. Blood, violence, a bit of Coppola, a bit of Netflix. I’m trying to remember whether I have seen something similar in Greece. No, never. This is London, though. I understand the ‘marketing’ request, the large scale, the aesthetics of television. An unprecedented phrasing catches my eye: ‘New Version’. A new ‘version’; neither a new translation nor a new adaptation. A ‘version’ as in software, operating system or service. Aeschylus is ‘updated’ –and he is not the only one. Every performance of what is considered to be classical repertoire undergoes this process.
The ‘update’ has primarily to do with the play itself. A contemporary writer receives a translator’s English render of the text. This translation is disgustingly faithful to the original, nothing more than a literal translation with no conceptual adjustments. Then, the writer, who takes credit for the new ‘version’, adjusts, interferes, adapts at will. Note that, whilst the works of the non-English-languge writers are ‘updated’ in a way that reflects the supposed expectations of a London audience, there is no question of intervention to the domestic canon. English-speaking repertoire remains textually intact, clean, and uncontaminated by the innovations allowed for everyone else. It’s a kind of undeclared dramaturgy. Any glory (or reproach) is reaped by the writer –here in a role of ‘updater’.
In Britain, it is the writer that holds the highest and most honourable position in the hierarchy of theatrical creation. So, I had a silly question for my teachers. I asked them: would an ‘update’ of The Waste Land be feasible? Of A Tale of Two Cities? Of Hamlet, at least, in the same terms applied to foreign-language plays? ‘Yes, we know, Andreas, you are Greek and it bothers you when people fiddle about with things Greek. You know, texts passed down to us by the ancients are not just yours to deal with. Learn this, once and for all, there is no original. Also, there are no masterpieces. Don’t waste your time. Spare your word. In the beginning was not the word, so anything goes.’
Theirs and ours. What a conservative have I become! Why do I try so hard to safeguard the purity of an event which, after all, cannot exist without tampering? No, I do not consider Aeschylus more ours than theirs. At the same time, though, I hear of an unwritten rule which applies to most of the British theatres: if the playwright is alive, then the first performance of the play must do right by them. It must handle the text with respect. Freedom only begins after the second staging (if there is one). Apparently this is why I evangelize about the purity of the work of the dead writers; I bump into the purity requested by the living.
I am dizzy after all these references to ‘Great Others’.
Image two: Moscow 2019. Performance of a play by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. The friend who brought me to the show is explaining. ‘It is the first time the director works with this theatre; she brings a different approach, since they stage shows here in that way. Remember the other performance we saw? The one with Misha in it? Well, completely different. They’ve studied in a different school. Here they follow another model, closer to ours but with some deviations. I’ve borrowed specific elements and I teach them at the third school I’m taking you to tomorrow. My master doesn’t like these things though, so when I work with him I forget them. I tune myself to another frequency, as he was a student of the other one, the old one, and you know how he is…’
I am dizzy after all these references to ‘Great Others’. To schools and people. Schools kept alive. Actors trained in a specific way at this one and in another at that one. Theatres dedicated to the teachings of one maestro or of a glorious old troupe. Here you may watch these, there you may watch those. The audience knows. And chooses accordingly. There hides a story everywhere, a tradition built with toil, whose light still shines, thanks to those who loved the teacher and were blessed to be his disciples. The teacher’s disciples. The master’s.
I sneer upon hearing this very word. If he is the master, what are you? The slave? I begin to revise my romantic thoughts on apprenticeship and continuity. Tradition suddenly takes on exorbitant, oppressive dimensions. It turns into a dead body, a relic of a saint that everyone wants to kiss. And the pupil always remains a pupil. The teacher knows. Listen to the teacher. Now, you can’t have your own way. You may not deviate. I am beginning to miss my teachers in England, the ones I criticized so much because of the whole ‘update’ thing. The ones we addressed by their first name. The ones who didn’t care about having the last word. Whose admitted intention was not to pour knowledge over our brains until it ran out of our ears.
Image three (final image): Berlin 2018. I am collaborating in a series of performances related to the ‘post-democratic’ era. Our show has premiered and we decide to watch the other performances as well. The first one is a kind of participatory event, where the audience moves almost freely within an installation, guided by narrators talking about their personal experience. These are not actors. Directing and acting have been replaced by research and editing. The intelligence with which the event has been staged is obvious. The information is very interesting and comprehensive. As time goes by, I progressively get the feeling that I am in a kind of amusement park for grown-ups. In the heart of the city, in one of its most important international institutions (complete with running water fountains and sculptures in the garden), grown-ups buy a ticket to have fun and educate themselves with new technologies and participatory events.
I do not complain. I will be paid every penny for my work. This is the first time I’m working in such a safe environment. We are sponsored, receiving (large) subsidies by the German state regardless of ticket sales; we’re almost doing it for kicks. Lost in these thoughts, I haven’t realized where I am and what I’m doing. A Romanian immigrant explains how he arrived in Germany. He hands out rafters to us so we can build something too. A worker from China is narrating her daily routine. She is talking about the unbearable working conditions, the meagre salary, the exploitation inflicted by European (and especially German) companies. Right after that, she invites us to dance the choreography of the Chinese worker. To re-enact with our bodies all the manual tasks she has to perform in one day.
‘Right, let’s do it. Follow my lead. Wake up. Get out of bed, hop, hands high, wash face, get dressed, off we go and: shovel, chisel, bolt, sweep sweat and again. Shovel, chisel, bolt, sweep’ – and around this point I have grown sick of myself and of the creators of this spectacle. Swearing, I give up. Here I am, in the centre of the employer’s capital city, poking fun at the toil of the worker with her consent, let alone encouragement.
The ones who understand that our real self emerges whenever we assimilate (without imitating), whenever we embark on fruitful (and not indifferent) confrontations and whenever what ‘we’ bring meets what ‘they’ offer.
Back to us now. The three images above illustrate matters running through artistic creation and its perception, both for ‘us’ and ‘them’. On the one hand, a solipsistic adherence to the indigenous (to the ‘brotherless’, even) together with a blind obedience to a tradition or a person or an institution. On the other hand, the levelling of all qualities, the equalization of all information and, finally, a life in a world without masterpieces. I wonder which of either conservatisms is worse.
It is true that for a long time we have copied the ones next to us. Perhaps this is what we have mostly been doing for the past two hundred years. It was always the bright exceptions that would save us. The ones who understand that our real self emerges whenever we assimilate (without imitating), whenever we embark on fruitful (and not indifferent) confrontations and whenever what ‘we’ bring meets what ‘they’ offer. That’s when instructions become pointless; the one who gives them can’t be heard any more, and ‘the one next to us’ is nowhere to be seen. Today we are entering a new path. A one-way path. How do we tread it?