The Travelling Players and a new Greek tragedy

Dimitris Christoulas was a retired local chemist , 77 years old and described as decent, law-abiding and dignified. A committed leftist, he was active in citizens’ groups such as ‘I won’t pay’, one of the largest elements in the Greek anti-austerity movement.   Like so many of Greece’s older generation, the retired pharmacist had found himself paying for his debt-stricken country’s monumental crisis after his pension was cut and cut and cut again to below the poverty line.  On Thursday he took his own life in front of the Greek Parliament building, shooting himself in the head.

In a handwritten note, Christoulas said he had decided to end his life because he did not want to be reduced to foraging through rubbish bins to survive. The note continued:

The Tsolakoglou occupation government has nullified any chance of my survival which was based on a decent pension that for 35 years I alone (without state support) paid for.

Christoulas  was comparing the Athens government to that of Giorgos Tsolakoglou who led the collaborationist administration appointed  by the Axis powers after the Nazis invaded and occupied Greece in 1941.  ‘My father’s note leaves no room for misinterpretation. His whole life was spent as a leftist fighter, a selfless visionary,’ said his only daughter, Emy Christoula. ‘This final act was a conscious political act, entirely consistent with what he believed and did in his life’.

The note left by Christoulas was a conscious summoning of Greek memory; I learned about  his tragic act shortly after re-watching Theo Angelopoulos’ great cinematic invocation of Greek myth and 20th century political tragedy, The Travelling Players.

Mourners gather at the spot where Dimitris Christoulas committed suicide in front of the Greek Parliament

Derek Malcolm once wrote of The Travelling Players, Theo Angelopoulos’ monumental, near four hour epic, that it was ‘not everybody’s idea of a good night out’.  It’s true that the slow pace and austere style of the film may put off many viewers: the content is, in common with all his work, is formidably intellectual, requiring some knowledge of 20th century Greek politics and Greek myth to fully appreciate its allusions, while its pace is glacially slow with shots lasting four minutes or more.  Yet, like all Angelopoulos’ films,  it is also inspiring and poetic, an example of cinema at its most exalted.  The Travelling Players is Angelopoulos’ masterpiece, as relevant now as when it was made in 1974.

The Travelling Players was filmed in Greece in 1974 when the military dictatorship was still in power.  Somehow Angelopoulos managed to hoodwink the military police who occasionally observed the shoot by telling them he was making a film about the myth of Orestes adapted to the time of the German occupation – which was, at least partially, true.  Perhaps they thought that a story about a troupe of itinerant actors performing an old folk drama Golfo and the Shepherdess was harmless enough.  But it wasn’t, since Angelopoulos’ intention is to demonstrate that the period in which The Travelling Players is set (1939 to 1952) contained the seeds of  the military coup that brought the junta to power in 1967.

When the Greek regime came to see the finished film it refused to sponsor it on the grounds that it was ‘too leftist’.  But it met with universal acclaim elsewhere in Europe, winning the International Critics award at Cannes,  and voted Best Picture of the Year by the British Film Institute.  By which time the junta had fallen.

The film operates on three levels.  Firstly there are the players performing the drama of  Golfo and the Shepherdess.  Then there are the conflicts and tensions within the troupe that parallel the ancient myth of the family of Agamemnon. Finally, as the players traverse Greece they become involved in the terrible political events that unfold around them.

Angelopoulos  chose to have the players perform Golfo and the Shepherdess because it has long been popular entertainment in Greece: in his words, it is a tale that is as common as ‘daily bread’ to the Greek people. Based on a folk tale about a shepherd who abandons his sweetheart for the daughter of a wealthy landlord, the performance of the play is repeatedly interrupted by the political violence of the period. This is Angelopoulos making the point that Golfo is an escapist play about an idyllic Greece of happy peasants that never existed.

The players themselves bear the names of the characters in the ancient Greek myth – Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra. Electra, Pylades, Aegisthus and Chrysothemis.  The complex family relationships and the events surrounding them unfold in a way similar to the original myth, but with significant differences. In the myth, Orestes’  father, Agamemnon, on returning from the Trojan Wars, is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia to obtain favorable winds during the Greek voyage to Troy.  Absent when these events take place, Orestes return seven years later and, with his sister Electra, avenges his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover, Aegisthus.

The Greek people have grown up caressing dead stones. I’ve tried to bring mythology down from the heights and directly to the people.
- Theo Angeolopoulos

In The Travelling Players  the myth is transposed to the historical events of the period 1939-1952, and rather than reflecting the working of fate and the myth’s contradiction between love and hate, Angelopoulos uses the story to illuminate the conflict between revolutionary and reactionary political tendencies in Greek political history.  So in his retelling, when civil war breaks out, Orestes leaves the troupe to join the Communist partisans in the mountains.  He returns and walks on stage during a performance and shoots dead his mother, Clytemnestra, and his uncle, Aegisthus, a fascist collaborator.  Together they have betrayed his father, Agamemnon, to the Germans who executed him.

Three other members of the troupe are involved in the EAM, the Greek Resistance movement – Electra, Pylades, and Chrysothaemis.  In the film’s most horrifying scene, Electra is seized in her hotel room by fascist thugs wearing clown masks.  She is dragged to a taverna where four of the men hold her down while the fifth rapes her as they attempt to extract information about Orestes’ whereabouts.  The rape seems to last an eternity as Electra refuses to tell her interrogators anything.

The next scene is one of three monologues, spoken direct to camera, in which a character narrates a period of recent Greek history.  Here, Electra, abandoned by the fascists on a riverbank, gets to her feet and gives a description, over five minutes long, of how the civil war began once the Germans had left.  In his book, The Films of Theo Angelopoulos, Andrew Horton comments:

The juxtaposition of the rape and the speech is important.  The contrast is complete: from victim to a woman historian, and from a person denied individuality to a complete human being before us who, iun the way she recounts her history of events, demonstrates that she is strong enough to survive it all.  This is her finest performance, and it is not onstage but in the open, by a river, for us, the viewers, and it concerns history.

In a later monologue, Pylades tells of being captured in 1947 and thrown in prison.  He says that prisons all over Greece were full of political prisoners like him.  He speaks of the torture he suffered and the efforts of the guards to get him to sign a confession renouncing his beliefs.  He did not sign.

Electra is a powerful presence, especially in the second half of the film.  In a later scene it is 1951, and Electra is seen entering a prison where she is led to the morgue.  There she is shown the body of her brother Orestes, the Communist resistance fighter who has been  arrested and executed in prison.  Later, the travelling players attend the burial of Orestes.  As his body is lowered into the grave, Electra begins to clap and the others join in.  The camera draws back with the group continuing to clap, as if for the liberated soul of Orestes.

What were to become the distinctive features of an Angelopoulos film are apparent from the outset of The Travelling Players.  The troupe are seen leaving a railway station (top), and the way their movements are choreographed as they cross the square and walk towards the camera, carrying their cases, will become emblematic of Angelopoulos’ style, with its shots held for minutes at a time as the camera slowly tracks the characters’ movements.

In The Travelling Players, too, there will often be a time shift within one sequence. For example, in this opening shot, the players enter a town during the 1952 election campaign, but as they arrive at the town square, without a cut, it is 1939 and blaring loudspeakers make it clear that Metaxas, the military dictator is in power. In another superb example, a group of fascist collaborators leave a New Year’s Eve celebration dance in 1946. The camera tracks them for several hundred yards down the street as they undergo a gradual transformation from a group of singing, drunk, staggering right wingers to a full-fledged fascist group marching in step to martial music. As the uncut seven minute shot ends, the camera continues to track the group as they merge with the crowd at a victorious rally celebrating the victory in the 1952 election of Field Marshal Papagos, heading an extreme right wing government backed by a continuing American presence and US aid.

September 1944: the arrival of the Allies

Another fine example is the sequence shown in the YouTube clip below.  A town square is packed with a crowd waving Greek, American and Communist flags.  A resistance song is being sung when shots ring out.  The crowd flees, leaving the square littered with bodies.  Then a Scottish soldier crosses the square, playing the bagpipes.

This sequence represents the end of the German occupation and the arrival of the Western Allies in September 1944, by which time most of Greece had already been liberated by Greek partisans.  The Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) controlled virtually all of the country and awaited the arrival of Georgios Papandreou, the leader of the government in exile, agreeing not to occupy Athens or oppose the British intervention.

However, General Scobie, the British officer in charge of the occupation, demanded the disarmament of ELAS overruling earlier agreements. The Resistance EAM resigned from the government.  Then a mass demonstration on December 3 resulted in bloodshed when police fired into the crowd (the incident represented in this scene) . This began the Battle of Athens, represented in the continuation of the sequence, during which the British helped prevent the seizure of Athens by the leftist EAM, eventually securing an amnesty and the disarming of the EAM.

Some ELAS groups refused to accept the terms of the amnesty and returned (like Orestes0 to the mountains to carry on the fight. In the chaos that followed, Papandreou’s government collapsed, and the British forced an election despite the withdrawal of all democratic parties, with the result that the royalists won an easy victory in March 1946. The guerillas formed the Democratic Army and the Civil War raged on. In February 1947 the British informed the United States of their intention to withdraw. A month later, President Truman announced the American policy to ‘support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures’.  Military and economic aid helped defeat the Communist-dominated ELAS.

Angelopoulos’ intention is always to encourage the audience to see the parallels between the history depicted in his film and the present.  It would not be lost on Greeks that Georgios Papandreou, the leftist Prime Minister forced out of office by British manoeuvering, was the father of Andreas Papandreou, forced out of office by King Constantine II prior to the coup of 1967 that brought the military to power, and also the man whose election in 1981 ended a 50 year period of power exercised by conservative forces.

It will not be lost on Greeks watching the film in 2012 that Andreas Papandreou was, in turn, the father of  George Papandreou, who resigned as Prime Minister in November 2011 after being forced by European Union leaders to drop his plan for a referendum on the terms of the EU debt crisis relief package.  He was replaced by a national unity government headed by an unelected economist and former Vice President of the European Central Bank.

Describing The Travelling Players as one of the major neglected movie masterpieces of our times, the American critic Michael Wilmington wrote in 1990:

The Travelling Players is about dramas that can never unfold without interference, about governments that fall, revolutions that are aborted and entire streams of history that are diverted… It is about the world that lies just outside the viewpoint of the drama, ever thwarting or changing it. And it is about the transcendence of time… The form gives The Travelling Players its distinction; history and contemporaneity give it intensity; the execution gives it its beauty. [...]

In The Travelling Players, the characters are less individuals than groups, less groups than figures of the Earth, lost in what surrounds them: the land, the sky and the sea.  Angelopoulos – and his virtuoso cinematographer Giorgio Arvanitis – give us bewitchingly lovely landscapes, made increasingly significant because of the terrifying events enacted against them. National betrayals echo personal ones. The Metaxas dictatorship falls with its Hitlerite allies; the resistance fighters are duped into giving up their arms; the British assume greater control; the left splits; finally Papagos, a scant improvement, takes over.

The Travelling Players, melancholy, profound and humane, is a great anti-fascist epic. Incredibly, most it was shot in a country under the tyranny of a military junta. The ellipsis and indirection, even the parallels to Aeschylus, were all part of an elaborate strategy to dupe the censors and speak to the audience, right over their heads. The film, one of the biggest popular hits in Greek history, did just that – though the ‘colonels’ fell before its release.

Poetry in the movies is always rare; Angelopoulos’ is to be particularly cherished because it is wedded to such profound intelligence, such stunning sensitivity and courage. The Travelling Players has … high artistic significance…. A classic of our times, it is a work whose purpose … is to make you hear and feel: above all, to make you see.

In The Films of Theo Angelopoulos, Andrew Horton describes the richness of this great film:

So much is presentation and representation, and it takes many forms.  There is history as spectacle: marches, gatherings, battles. There is violence disguised as ‘play’,’ as in the rape of Electra by fascists wearing clown masks. There is direct camera address in long monologues to us,  the viewers, by Agamemnon, Electra, and Pylades, a technique that alienates and thus distances us from the narrative while simultaneously allowing us to glimpse another vision of these characters. There is the presentation of history and life as a ‘musical’: folk songs, Greek blues (rebetika), political hymns – from the Left and Right – show tunes, American jazz, and British melodies as well as Nazi marches become, instead of direct
dialogue between characters, a primary form of communication and means of ‘fighting’ in The Travelling Players. And there is the constant double vision of events and characters that the viewer must experience because the characters echo the ancient myth and tragedy of the house of Atreus.

Horton concludes his analysis of the film with these words:

No simple dichotomies exist in The Travelling Players. While the film is interwoven with threads of triumph in which Orestes and his spirit survive and in which Electra becomes a focus of strength and integrity, we must note that Angelopoulos presents no simple Marxist dialectic of good and evil, Left and Right, conservative and radical realities   with the ‘workers’ winning out against the ruling class. Greek history and culture caution against such reductionism. … Angelopoulos’s vision as presented in The Travelling Players suggests a complex, troubling, yet finally replenishing view of reality in the twentieth century.

The film ends with the same shot that opened it: the travelling players, suitcases in hand, back at the same train station in 1939.  We hear a voiceover by one of the players: ‘It was autumn 1939, and we had reached Aigion.  We were tired. We had two days to rest’.

Back where we started; the struggle continues.

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