Once upon a time, there was the theatre. We would leave our houses and go to a place in order to see a performance. We were sitting next to strangers and we were left in a personal and at the same time collective experience, the imprint of which we did not know in advance. Maybe sometimes we knew it but we were fooling ourselves as much as we could because we really wanted to be surprised. This is in the past, a year – or is it a century? – ago. Every performance we watched ought to feature: (a) at least two women, (b) talking to each other (c) about something other than a man. Right?
(Let’s pretend that we try to remember…)
No, absolutely not. Since the above criteria are not a reflection of the contemporary Greek theatrical scene, but the criteria of the Bechdel test for the representation of women in fiction. The test was named after cartoonist Allison Bechdel, as the idea first appeared in Bechdel’s comic book ‘Dykes to Watch out For’ in 1985.
Statistics and criteria certainly do not ensure the quality or the depth of a narrative. At least for me. For these we probably need the freedom of the creators, the language they are struggling to find, the story they want to tell, we need their connection to life and their personal, authentic voice. I believe in these materials. However -and this is an actual and not a rhetorical question- where are these creative voices that are genuinely burning to talk about women, as well as about the issue of gender in general in a groundbreaking way? Though this is a huge, consequent field, related yet different at the same time. If these voices do exist, why do they not succeed? Why do we not see this trend yet? I try to remember the last time I saw a performance of a Greek play that jolted the existing narrative of the female as an entity defined by others. I try to remember a writing where the female is not, in essence, the mirror on which the male reflects and affirms itself. Or a writing which tries to talk about some version of the female experience of the world in an unexpected way, without being interested in keeping anything at all from pre-existing dramaturgy. A writing that would change any certainties I, myself, may have about my gender, that would justify me as a plurality. This inability to remember, my poor relationship with the contemporary Greek drama, but also something else, something arbitrary and instinctive, made me ask four strong, distinct, and temperamental writing voices, Alexandra K*, Vassilis Mavrogeorgiou, Glykeria Basdeki, and Antonis Tsiotsiopoulos, to have this discussion together about whatever we cannot remember but can happily imagine around the female subject in contemporary Greek work.
I try to remember a writing which tries to talk about some version of the female experience of the world in an unexpected way.
I chatted with each one individually, but asked common questions. All four of them, each one of different nature, shared with me firstly their huge writing loneliness. Is this perhaps what causes a Greek work to stagnate? In Greece, writers are very much alone, they do not belong to currents… Everyone does something autonomous of their own, everyone has their own universe and protects it. In order for fermentation to take place, many modern Greek texts must be performed every year, both on national and smaller stages and, in this way, there must be a dialogue, because dialogue doesn’t mean to meet and chat, dialogue means to see the reaction of the world on a work, it means to have somebody to stage a work in response to what is happening at the moment, then for somebody else to be influenced by it and so on. This is what fruitful authorial dialogue should be. Attempts are fragmentary, so everyone stays in their own space where they create, Vassilis says. Glykeria also talks about individuality in both the field of Greek playwriting and the one of Greek theatre, believing in the strength of the team: A collective work is also needed. Two, three, four, a hundred people must have a common ideology, a desire rather, because it’s more of a desire, to achieve something together. Alexandra also identifies the issue of lack of communication between the works but also that of motivation: The problem is that we all work experientially and that a network hasn’t been developed, we have nothing to feed into. It is at the discretion of each person to proceed with their work. Therefore, and since you cannot make a living from this job, you do not have much room to develop the quality of your work. In Spain, for example, the Ministry of Culture has a special budget to get its authors out of the country, their translations are sponsored, they do residencies around the world, which lead to performances of their works. Here there is no provision and no support from the state. Antonis also speaks about motivation: The problem in Greece is not that there is male writing or female writing. It is that there is no writing, almost none at all. Modern Greek works are as rare as hens’ teeth. If you do not write, how will you become better? How do you break free from all these centuries-old stereotypes? It is from our tenth work onwards that our writing ceases to be characterized by our masculine or feminine nature. I try to write better female characters with each of my works. But there is no motivation, motivations for Greek playwrights today are scant, null really. I write only because I like it. In order to have more women playwrights, in order to widen our subject matters, in order to grow, we have to look at the problem of writing as a whole.
Somewhere inside me their words rest, even though I am not a writer. Like ungrafted trees, Greek plays are looking for culverts by themselves , sometimes emotional culverts, since scenic ones are nowhere to be found, in order to come out of solitary plantations. Digging ever deeper, our discussion goes even further. For Glykeria, the issue is linguistic: Even when someone tries to leave the dominant narrative, language betrays them. They speak in the dominant language about the different. I would really like to hear a language, even a realistic one, which avoids imitation. It’s very difficult, there’s a lot you need to consider. However, you cannot break a dominant narrative with traditional materials -and by that I do not mean tradition itself- with clichéd materials which repeat the dominant narrative. It’s like saying that if there is a revolution, it will be total. It’s all or nothing. When you want to change into a new narrative, you need to do it holistically.
I perceive the multiplicity of her thoughts as essential to the prime matter all of us are working with. Doesn’t stage language also repeat dominant narratives? Once, a distinguished theatre critic tried to convince me as a director that the stimulating charm of Clytemnestra was enough for Agamemnon to step on the red carpet, in the famous scene of the homonymous tragedy; a hackneyed reading, which underestimates, in my opinion, both characters and sexes. Perhaps as hackneyed as is today, according to Alexandra, female ‘self-infliction’ in modern Greek works, that is the story of a woman suffering from love, permanently in love and defeated, in a way that, in her own words, I, as a woman, never bought into.
I feel that we are living in a time where the existing reading of the world starts to crack, a time of questioning of the constant roles and archetypes. Art needs to sit behind the wheel though.
So what is the reason that, although in recent years we have been dealing with other taboo issues, such as the Greek family, we are not yet writing about women in a new way? (Excuse my use of the plural.) Antonis expresses his fear of writing female characters: When writing a female role, I carry with me all the films I have watched, all the performances I have seen, I mean my stereotypes and those of others’. So, as a matter of course, I reproduce them. And because I understand that by writing a female character I will fall into this trap of the stereotype in a much easier way, as I know the male psyche better, I finally avoid writing female characters. I’m afraid, it’s fear. I believe that fear of the unfamiliar has a tender sincerity, which I personally deeply appreciate when confessed, but at the same time it turns out that it may have defined the output of male drama for centuries. For Vasilis, however, we are about to witness big changes in new works and he has a very specific interpretation for it: Something is happening right now -I tend to notice it in my students, in the younger generation- because the institution of marriage is gradually being brought down. We will move on to another perspective of the female model in Greece, when this ‘tower’ that is marriage, falls. There has been an underground revolution in Greek society, which has never actually been discussed, to the effect that no-one believes much in marriage anymore; more importantly, no one believes that if they do not get married they are ruined, or that marriage is the only way. Religion is also losing ground, even if this is an undercurrent. I think that when we stop seeing the male and the female through the model of marriage, that will be the moment when we truly start looking for a new field of relationships between them. We should not forget that we are a country with a huge and strong tradition as far as the meaning of marriage is concerned, just as we are a society that has a very high sense of what is normal, irregardless of what that actually means in each era. In other words, social status in Greece has mainly to do with normality. It is unthinkabe that we are still “on talks” about homosexuality. He is actually in the process of writing a new play for the Art Theatre (Theatro Technis) around this theme of the insult that a society experiences when one of its members does not follow the basic standards. Alexandra, just as optimistic as Vasilis, is witnessing the conception of new stories: Until now, women creators held ourselves back from talking about our gender because we were afraid it would not be considered something feminine. We imagine the first critique saying “it is a tender graceful record of the female experience, there is no lack of hysteria” – I can see that happening. I believe that what is happening now is empowering on all levels, it will definitely have an artistic effect as well, it will be expressed creatively because we all feel that we deserve to belong to this space, we begin to realize that we have things to say, which have not been said, and that others have spoken about us. The few attempts that have been made so far to tell them were disguised because these are things that a man, especially an old-timer, does not want to know, it is a reading of the world that is not convenient for him. WithinGreece -for outside Greece things tend to be a bit better- I do not feel that these efforts have been given either space in public speech or careful reading. However, I believe that all this is coming to an end, this omnipotence of the male critic is ending, everything has been deconstructed, everyone has been deconstructed. I rely on fresh blood and especially on women writers. This year, I teach creative writing and literature and because of that I have the pleasure of being in contact with women aged 20-25 who do not bear any of our guilts and no anxiety to belong somewhere.
I believe that fear of the unfamiliar has a tender sincerity, which I personally deeply appreciate when confessed, but at the same time it turns out that it may have defined the output of male drama for centuries.
I also feel that we are living in a time where the existing reading of the world starts to crack, a time of questioning of the constant roles and archetypes. The last decade is simmering, in that sense. This gives me hope, and hope to change the world, no matter how unreal this might sound, is still the only capable starting point for change. Maybe Art needs to sit behind the wheel though. Isn’t this why it is confronted with the obsession of the dominants of the world? Because it is capable of doing it. When discussing why we reproduce the dominant patriarchal narratives, Glykeria disarms me with her purity: Society is not ready. Have women or the persecuted of all sorts really been treated in terms of equality? I mean what can poor theatre do, when we socially go from kitten to Robocop? I don’t see the social context granting normality. Nor do I know many couples who share social happiness on equal terms. So since it cannot exist in reality, let it be represented, maybe in this way it will be liked and eventually become a reality. I mean theatre has to begin, art has to begin. Art should provide the context and society should follow. Art should not follow society because society is far behind.
Through these meetings, I felt overwhelmed by a feeling of melancholia, thinking that modern Greek work is alone in the search of its voice, moving jerkily. It needs to break through a lot of personal and collective stereotypes. Antonis believes that our perception of a strong woman is still that she has masculine characteristics. I totally agree with him and I wonder how far we have to go, are we already there? Writers seem to be trying to raise the bar of themselves on their own, as if they popped up somewhere by chance. It is no coincidence that the example of the Spanish was brought in the conversation by Vassilis to touch on the fact that they are not so anxious to write the masterpiece that will survive the centuries; they want, above everything, to talk about Now. Maybe we feel too much guilt to do so because, as Alexandra says: in this country it is as if there are rules in public discourse regarding Art: what we should do and how we should do it.
Gender hierarchy constantly produces its own mechanism. In other words, it is constantly self-consolidating. We are part of this mechanism, even if we do not want to. Within it we grow, within it we fall in love, within it we vote, within it we make art or give birth to children. It is digested in our organs. That’s why a network is needed, a substantial, persistent, groundbreaking network; what is needed is motivation in order to write. The need to think in ways we haven’t so far, to tell the stories we have not told, the need not to stop ourselves -as Glykeria wished and I keep the wish– is terribly demanding and cannot be met by individual initiatives alone or by genius individual voices. After all, regardless of gender, they will always be ahead of their time and will be able to say in a few words:
A woman. Yes, but a million other things as well. *
* The phrase is by Virginia Woolf from her novel ‘Orlando’.