In Review: The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Greek Plays

Oberon Greek Plays

In Review: The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Greek Plays. L. Kitsopoulou, N. Rapi, Y. Mavritsakis, A. Dimou, Ch. Giannou. London: Oberon Books, 2017; pp. 312.

Reviewed by Maria Mytilinaki Kennedy

Volume 6, Issue 4 (Fall 2017)

The publication of a new collection of contemporary Greek plays in translation is a rare occasion worth celebrating. While ancient Greek plays account for a large number of published and performed translations in English, modern Greek theatre is largely unknown in the English-speaking world. The Oberon Anthology of Contemporary Greek Plays constitutes an important step in remedying this gap, as it brings together five plays written by acclaimed Greek playwrights between 1995 and 2016. All of them have stood the test of multiple productions, often in languages and contexts outside the originals’ realm. Furthermore, accomplished Greek theatre scholars and translators join forces in presenting these translations to an international readership. The plays in the collection invite foreign audiences to reconsider their preconceived notions about Greece, whether they stem from the country’s classical past or imagery constructed by the tourist industry. The book’s cover playfully evokes ancient Greece and Aegean architecture, resulting in an image very much attuned to expectations about contemporary Greece. And yet, the plays inside the book paint a fuller picture of this unknown territory. None of the plays addresses the Greek economic crisis in a direct manner, since almost all precede it. However, their careful selection, in collaboration with the Athens-based Sokolis publisher, attempts to communicate the cultural tensions associated with the present socioeconomic circumstances in Greece beyond the Greek language. In other words, the timing of this new book greatly adds to its significance.

In the general introduction to the volume, George P. Pefanis of the University of Athens opens with methodological concerns that foreground the historical focus of the introduction, as he engages the reader in a discussion on periodization in Greek theatre. Even though the frame he provides is useful, I could not fight the thought that a reader not immersed in contemporary Greek literary production would find that they are missing some essential middle steps. The introduction, while foregrounding the necessary context for non-Greek speaking readers to place the five plays in question, nevertheless stays strictly within the confines of contemporary Greek theatre, whereas it could more actively highlight helpful connections with the wider field of theatre history beyond the Greek paradigm. An important aspect missing from Pefanis’s treatise is a discussion on the philosophy behind the present anthology. It would have been interesting to read why these plays were chosen together, how were the translations created, and who was the audience envisioned. This omission is somewhat mitigated by the individual prefaces before each play, which generally address more specific issues found in the texts at hand.

Having read parts of Pefanis’s text in Greek, I could see how rendering his concise theoretical text into English involves significant effort – indeed, this could be said for any work of solid theory. The result speaks to the quality of Nina Rapi’s translational work. One note on terminology: The translator’s choice to translate δραματουργία with dramaturgy may confuse readers. The word dramaturgy in Greek means playwriting, as opposed to δραματολογία, which better describes the work of dramaturg/literary manager. Rapi’s choice to translate dramaturgy may point to the need for further discussion in the translational space occupied by bilingual theatre scholars working in the environment of Greek and English.

Even though the plays are published together in the anthology, each one is introduced independently. Following this approach, I decided to devote some space in reviewing them separately as well.

M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A.

Lena Kitsopoulou’s M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. is an explosive monologue for a female actor, confronting issues regarding primarily being a woman, in specific socioeconomic circumstances, in Greece in 2009. In the character’s vocalized stream of consciousness, the actor acknowledges and addresses her spectators. In the introduction, Maria Karananou attempts to put the play in context with the timing of its first production, right before the Greek debt default crisis. This is an event in contemporary Greek history that a foreign readership would no doubt recognize. Karananou’s choice to foreground the crisis can go a long way in facilitating reception for a foreign audience. The benefits of encouraging cognitive cultural associations when introducing a translated play cannot be emphasized enough. Indeed, it would have been useful to see this more in the general introduction and the individual prefaces as well. M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A.’s English translator also actively contributes in launching the play abroad, as she updates the Greek text with political references to the crisis. Aliki Chapple’s translation, taken together with her note that accompanies the play, is a lesson in dramatic translation. The discussion of the translator’s decisions provides a wealth of information on the process. I particularly appreciated the reference to the play’s destination, where Chapple confidently explains her choices in her trajectory of creating a text to be performed by herself. She mentions the problems of translating idioms and acronyms, the highly localized text with its references and the imaginative solutions she found. A sensitive, perceptive, creative — in a word, a charismatic — translator, who is right on point when she claims that “Greek has a higher tolerance for repetition” (32). This needed to be said, and finally liberate all those who aim at translating accurately from the Greek, but who also struggle to decide which part of oft-repeated words or phrases can be attributed to the writer’s individual style and what is simply a trope of the language. Chapple manages this important distinction in a demanding text.

Angelstate

Angelstate, written and translated by Nina Rapi, is a play about human relationships far from the usual dysfunctional family plot that concerns so many Greek plays. The purgatory environment offers opportunity for theatricality. In an intriguing intertextual twist, the character of “the bodyguard” at a certain point almost shares lines with Inès from Sartre’s No Exit (Huis Clos). George Sampatakakis, assistant professor in the Universty of Patras, who introduces the play, celebrates Angelstate as representative of a new wave of Greek playwriting. Specifically, he notes Angelstate’s absence of temporal and geographical specificity. These characteristics certainly enable a smoother transition into a foreign language. However, the lack of a specific geographical or political context, seen in the absence of characters’ names for example, does not preclude the stereotypical. Leaving characters unnamed is a common strategy for many contemporary Greek playwrights,[1] a trait that could be explored more in translation as a marker of “Greekness.”

Rapi’s familiarity with the British stage ensures that her translation produces a performable English text. For this publication, it would have been interesting to frame the play with a note on the issues encountered by the bilingual writer in her translation of her own work.

Wolfgang

Wolfgang is a chilling study of a kidnapper’s microcosm and his objectives through his interactions with his social and familial circle. The play is structured in a series of powerful and disturbing scenes, masterfully written without a superfluous word. Yannis Mavritsakis draws from Natascha Kampusch’s story, a real event that made the news in 2006. The playwright seems to be exploring issues regarding Greek-as- European identity in his Greek play with foreign characters’ names, inspired by a story that took place in Austria. Christina Polyhroniou expertly translated the text in a manner that made Mavritsakis’s regular use of ellipsis points seem natural in English. Dimitra Kondylaki provides the introduction, a perceptive commentary on the play’s themes. Given the anthology’s scope, the writer could have included some information on the play’s position within the playwright’s oeuvre, as well as Mavritsakis’s place in Greek theatre. It would be interesting to see what Kondylaki, herself a translator of Mavritsaki’s work in French, would have to say about the process as well as the opportunity provided by this published translation, which makes this magnificent play available to a much wider audience.

…and Juliet

…and Juliet is in some ways a play destined for translation into English: The playwright, Akis Dimou, draws from a story for which the characterization “well-known” is an understatement. The play, an elaboration on Shakespeare’s character, Juliet, is a monologue spoken by a lonely woman in an old house on a summer night. The challenges in this endeavor have more to do with conveying Dimou’s poetic language rather than establishing the cultural context. The accomplished English theatre scholar and professor emerita in Aristotle University, Elizabeth Sakellaridou, manages the considerable task with flair. I enjoyed reading Sakellaridou’s translation enormously, both because it carries the original affectionately between the English lines, but also for the thoughts it provoked in me regarding translation as a process and product. I read the original play many years ago, as an undergraduate theatre student in Greece. Words and phrases from the Greek resonated in the English version, and ultimately, served as proof that Dimou’s language is as unique in Greek as it is in English.

Framing the play with a concise and to-the-point introduction, Irini Mountraki includes important information about the playwright and the impact of his work. Mountraki, who serves contemporary Greek theatre greatly in her capacity as founder of the Greek Play Project (a database of publications, productions, and translations of Greek plays, and a network of people working in Greek theatre) possesses the skills necessary to successfully address the foreign readership targeted with this collection.

Of all five plays, …and Juliet may seem the least suitable for the anthology because it was written some fifteen to twenty years earlier than the others. However, its inclusion significantly contributes to the collection’s range. Contemporary Greek theatre, as the book’s jacket affirms, “does not stop at ancient tragedy and comedy.” But neither is it solely commentary on the socioeconomic situation. Dimou’s …and Juliet is representative of a growing trend in Greek theatre of adaptations that are in dialogue with foundational myths beyond classical Greece.

Hungry

The plot in Hungry follows a family of three in their unsettling adventure. A man and a woman become entangled in crime in their attempt to care for their ailing child. Charalampos Giannou’s tragicomic play articulates many issues within a recognizable context. His characters share an escalating anxiety that resonates with audiences facing dire socioeconomic circumstances, such as those presently in Greece. In the introduction, Constantina Ziropoulou recognizes the writer’s departure from a realistic form and rightfully ascribes elements of the absurd. However, I disagree with her assertion that the play is devoid of a defined Greek context. In my view, a particular localized pattern emerges in the central family dynamic, but also in glimpses afforded in events woven into the plot as the family interacts with the wider community. In fact, Giannou’s play seems to develop as a critique on Greek attitudes regarding disability and mental health issues and their impact on family dynamics. That is not to say that the plot could only take place in a Greek home; rather, that the particular Greek texture could serve the play’s translation in grounding the action in a social specificity beyond stereotypes. On a related note, it would have been interesting to read more on the playwright’s decision-making process in his work translating his own play.

Self-translation

Self-translation is often part and parcel in translations from Greek into English. In many occasions, Greek playwrights themselves translate their work in order to facilitate their launch into a foreign market, as they wish to disseminate their work abroad. The collection under discussion is no exception, with two out of the five texts being self-translations (Angelstate, by Nina Rapi, and Hungry, by Charalampos Giannou). However, this important issue is not addressed in the anthology’s general introduction, or the relevant separate prefaces to the self-translated texts. Indeed, the process of writers translating their own work is a rather under-analyzed aspect in Translation Studies. Among the limited academic attention afforded to the practice, which has mainly been historical,[2] Anthony Cordingley’s edited collection Self-Translation provides a wide spectrum of examples that are similar to the Greek paradigm.[3] Self-translation raises challenging issues that illustrate translation’s power in negotiating identity, past and present. In the present economic conditions, writers who are not native in English may be forgiven for choosing to translate their own work. However, there is an associated cost, which they may need to consider.

Speaking of the marketing aspect in promoting Greek literature in English, David Connolly deftly argues that “foreign publishers and readers alike are not interested in Greek literature but in good authors and good books in good translations.”[4] This is what this anthology does: it makes available five established Greek playwrights, expertly translated, to all those who wish to read, produce, or teach contemporary Greek theatre.

Maria Mytilinaki Kennedy

 

Maria Mytilinaki Kennedy is a theatre translation scholar. Her research focuses on ancient, modern, and contemporary Greek theatre in translation. She recently completed her dissertation Theatre Translation as Historiography: Projections of Greek Self-Identity through English Translations during the European Crisis. She regularly contributes to the works of the Translation, Adaptation and Dramaturgy Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research. Her chapter “From Greek into Neutral: Translating Contemporary Greek Theatre during the Eurozone Crisis” appeared in the anthology Ethical Exchanges: Translation, Adaptation, and Dramaturgy (Leiden: Brill, 2017). She has taught Theatre and Communication at Hunter College, Baruch College, and the College of Staten Island, and has worked as a dramaturg for the New York Shakespeare Exchange and the National Theatre of Northern Greece. She received her BA and MA in Theatre from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, her MA in Translation Studies from the University of Warwick, and her PhD in Theatre from the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY).

 

[1] See, for example: Zoi Ververopoulou, “Θεατρικοί ήρωες δίχως όνομα: η ανωνυμία ως ταυτότητα στη σύγχρονη ελληνική δραματουργία,” [Dramatic Characters without a Name: Anonymity as Identity in Contemporary Greek Playwriting] in Identities in the Greek World (From 1204 to the Present Day), ed. Konstantinos A. Dimadis (Athens: European Society of Modern Greek Studies, 2011), 687-99.

[2] Such as Jan Walsh Hokenson’s and Marcella Munson’s book The Bilingual Text: History and Theory of Literary Self-Translation (Manchester, UK: St. Jerome, 2007).

[3] Anthony Cordingley, ed., Self-Translation: Brokering Originality in Hybrid Culture (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[4] David Connolly, “Love’s Labour’s Lost, Or A Tale of Modern Greek Literature in English Translation,” public lecture at the Society of Modern Greek Studies, Hellenic Center in London, June 6, 2015.

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