A Greek — or American
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
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
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
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
"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
New York Times March 3, 1968.