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A Greek — or American Tragedy?

BERKELEY, CA — Jan Kott sees a vision of doom for America today in the lines Euripides wrote some 400 years B.C.: "Greece is in grief and in trouble. This is what I think — Greece some God has driven mad."

Kott, the Polish scholar who has been involved in all the war, revolution and anguish of his own times, has taken an ancient Greek tragedy and moved it to modern Washington, D.C., to lay bare the madness and violence that he sees threatening America. His production in hippie dress of Euripides' neglected play "Orestes" has played for the last three weeks at the University of California. The controversial reverberations may equal those created by his book, "Shakespeare Our Contemporary."

As a backdrop for all action, Kott uses a photographic blowup of the Capitol in Washington to take the place of Agamemnon's palace in Argos at the end of the Trojan War. It is six days after Orestes, egged on by his sister Electra, has killed their mother Clytemnestra and her lover to avenge her murder of Agamemnon, their father. The play is concerned with the efforts of Orestes and Electra to escape punishment. Without changing a line of Euripides, Kott makes the degeneration of a great Greek ruling house seem a mirror of our own.

Through a loudspeaker, an interracial chorus pleads with the Furies to release Orestes from his madness, mourns the blood drenching the shrine of Delphi, "holiest of holies and navel of the world," as silent scenes of the war in Vietnam and of anti-war demonstrations in Oakland, California, flash across a screen.

Kott says he wanted to find a way to express his sense of the Greek drama and to stage a Greek play within the limitations of a college production, to discover a new use for the chorus where there was no amphitheater for it to move about. The use of some lines taped and amplified through the loudspeaker frees the chorus for movement and for mime — including a flashback to the murder of Agamemnon. Kott made only minor cuts in the text and added music ranging from John Cage to rock-n-roll and an anarchist anthem.

"My goal was to play two instruments at the same time — to save the Greek topics and relationships and the Greek meanings about Argos and the Trojan war and, at the same time, to find a relationship to modern times," Kott said. "I want to translate from one to another language, both theatrically and ideologically."

In Kott's staging, the victorious Menelaus, an opportunist and a coward, wears the khaki of a U.S. general. In tropical suit and Panama hat, Tyndareus, father of Clytemnestra and Helen, becomes a Southern senator whose devotion to law and order is hollow and vindictive. Pylades, Orestes' pal, is a Hell's Angel on motorbike — tough, effeminate and loyal; Helen, a painted, petulant whore in black bra and panties, still shirking responsibility, still blaming the gods for singling her out for the seduction that caused the Trojan War. Orestes, in his hippie love beads, prepares to murder Helen and her daughter Hermione to escape the punishment for his first crime, while Electra screams: "MURDER! BUTCHER! KILL! Kill the whore who killed so many brave young men, the wounded and the dead, those for whom we mourn."

Orestes and Electra, self-righteous but consumed with destructiveness, start to set Argos to the torch and tongues of flame — liquid projections — slowly stain the Capitol's facade. Then the deus ex machina Apollo, transformed into a headless Statue of Liberty, intervenes to halt the destruction. In a wild, ironic ending, the chorus waves streamers of black and red ribbons and bursts into the Italian revolutionary song "Bandiera Rossa" with its resounding "Viva l'anarchia e la liberta," while others march on stage to rock music, carrying placards that say: "Burn, Baby, Burn," "Apollo Kills," "We're All Murderers," "Get Out of Troy Now" and "Violence Against Violence."

The play, effectively acted by a student cast, was sold out prior to the start of its 13 performances. The literal-minded who came looking for obvious parallels to today were confused about the points that Kott was trying to make; some felt that the symbolism was strained and pretentious. Those who expected an evening of "moving" Greek tragedy were disappointed. Others, like this reporter, were fascinated and disturbed by the subtle insights and ironies Euripides-Kott provoked about the themes of alienation, responsibility, law and order, violence, about the multiple levels of meaning each carries within itself.

Kott, who is now writing a book on Greek drama, "A Fool Against the Establishment," ( since re-titled "The Eating of the Gods — An Interpretation of Greek Tragedy" ) is teaching drama at Berkeley this year while on leave from the University of Warsaw. He pointed out that something like the new wave of violence in American life existed in Greece during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The violence was reflected in Greek domestic life as well as in foreign policy. A year after Euripides wrote "Orestes" in 408 B.C. he went into exile, disillusioned with Greece.

Sympathetic to Euripides' feeling about Greece, Kott said, "I see America driven mad in the same way. To foresee this moment when the old values are destroyed…" He paused, searching for the precise phrase, rubbing his right thumb and forefinger to strike the spark that would produce the exact word. "I think of England; the time of the olde merrie England has ceased to exist. The olde merrie America stops existing too. In this period of transition, we have in reality violence against violence. We have riots against the police and, as in the play, right and wrong exist in the same act, confusing the same act. It seems to me that the irony in this play, this bitter taste, is what we are feeling now. This bitter taste of the war, this bitter taste of the demonstrations, this bitter taste of the riots. It is rather like the pessimists' forecast: this vision of destruction when people from both sides — the people of the establishment and the people against the establishment — become mad. This is the tragic dilemma of America. The violence is at the same time necessary — and pernicious.

"The tragedy of American civilization, the tragedy of the Negro, is that it is impossible to find a good solution. But the business of a play or a director," Kott added, smiling slightly, "is not to find solutions, but to visualize this bitter taste, this great fear for the future. It seems to me that is done in the last dance of the production which begins happily — and then the music goes down and down and the actors dance like paralyzed puppets into a nightmare."

Kott has had nightmares enough of his own. No, not of his own, he would say, but of his generation: "that whole lost generation of the left in Europe." Born in Warsaw in 1914 into an assimilated middle-class Jewish family, he was raised as a Catholic and even thought for a time of becoming a monk. He got a master's degree in law in Warsaw and then a Ph.D. in French literature in Paris. Before World War II in Paris, he was part of the surrealist poets' circle and associated with the Progressive Catholic movement. During World War II, he fought with the Polish army and served in the Polish underground.

He didn't think the young would ever learn from those old stories, but he loved their new and universal taste for tolerance, for "each one doing his own thing."

"History is a very good thing — for scholars," he said. "But every generation has to go through it themselves, just as every girl has to go through it even though love is full of despair and deception. We can say at the end will be despair, but we have no choice. We have to go through it. I'm for the involvement even though I know very well the price of involvement is despair."

* Kott died in Dec.,2001 at the age of 87 in Santa Monica, California

The New York Times March 3, 1968.

 

 

 

 

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