ELENI GASSOUKA'S THEATRE,
- Panos Delinikopoulos, Dramaturg - Director
Translation: Elena Deliou
A well-known dancer and choreographer, Eleni Gassouka first appeared to the public as a writer in 2007 with Heroes, a performance that was meant – through its many variations – to engrave an eight-year course on stage. Heroes was introduced as a "postmodern revue.” This uniqueness of style presents a number of difficulties in its integration into a comprehensive approach to the playwright’s dramaturgy. The first of them – and rather prohibitive - would be for someone to decide which version of the show he would refer to. Changes to the script which – due to the nature of the performance – is adapted to and incorporates current affairs, and possible additions to the text during rehearsals (or even the performance), do not allow its treatment as an "established" writing, independent from the performance. Due to this fact, this paper will focus on her remaining three plays; Hairpin (2009), God’s Poor Creature (2012) and Gogo (2014).
A second point concerning all her plays, is that Gassouka directs the works herself. This parameter creates two facts; firstly, the writing becomes quite free and elliptical, leaving space for the direction to "supplement" the dramatic text on stage. Secondly, the "stage directions" that the text includes become an integral part of the dramaturgy. Having a firmly-grounded knowledge of the stage rules from her past experience as a dancer and choreographer, Gassouka appears to be writing keeping in mind the performance and not the textual material itself. The kinesiological and musical patterns that the author dictates in her plays - influences that may have their origin in her dance years - strengthen this assumption, given that they suggest points equally important and eloquent for the whole world of the play, as the words are.
Addressing the three plays at a first, reading level, two appear to be the main axes that run through them; the woman and her family, and the woman in the family. Through these two important starting points, there arise the other problematics and dynamics that each play formulates.
So, in Hairpin (2009), we have the image of the woman-multitool; wife, housewife, professional, daughter and – above all – mother. Sacrificing her female side and her own individuality, the main character struggles to hold her family together. In God’s Poor Creature (2012), the concept of family is driven to the edges. A woman and her transgender cousin bring up the former’s - inexplicably - black child. The questions the author poses regarding the family deepen. What constitutes a family? What constitutes acceptance within the family? How can its members live together and accept one another? How can the family protect them from an increasingly cannibalistic world? Finally, how can it fulfill its essential role and not exhaust itself in conventionalities? It is precisely to these very destructive conventions that the playwright will return with Gogo (2014), where the family of the main character is led to an almost complete collapse.
The three women in these three plays share several common characteristics; work or unemployment, career, unfulfilled dreams, broken or dysfunctional relationships. Above all, however, it is the status of the mother that they share. What characterizes all central figures is motherhood, and a sense of guilt associated with it. This guilt has to do with their insecurity about whether they respond correctly to this role. An interesting juxtaposition of this property with the issue of love emerges in two of the three plays. In both Hairpin and Gogo, the erotic element is represented in the form of a much younger man, in an almost Oedipal interaction. A reminder of sexuality, addressed to women that have long ago resigned erotically. However, these relations fail - for different reasons - to move forward, and are unable to evolve. Perhaps in the struggle between motherhood and femininity, the former must always win.
Another parameter common to the three plays is the strong presence of the past, not as a fact that affects the future, but as an element of identity. Gassouka stages her first play in 2009 (excluding Heroes) and the last in 2014. In her works, she covers the whole period of the crisis. Beyond exploring how it changes people and relations in a socio-economic level, she also shows how it affects the perception of the self within a collective present framework which is contrasted, juxtaposed, or converses with that of the past. So, in the pre-crisis Hairpin (2009), the past – represented by the grandfather – is presented as the demented rant of the defeated ideology of the civil war, whose demands have long been forgotten. More accurately, they have degenerated into a hodgepodge of all kinds of leftist "-isms" more lifestyle than ideological. On the opposite side, as a mighty narrative, emerge the concepts of career, success, and money, along with the neurotic commands to maintain as is or reject altogether the notion of family. No attempt is made to place it in an honest basis, or combine a very near but completely different past with a present that is changing in an unbelievable speed. Antinomies that, when not integrated, threaten every sense of relationship.
In God’s Poor Creature, written in the midst of the crisis, a more collective identity is sought, which rests on two basic elements of the Greek society; the Orthodox tradition and the ancient culture, represented by a monk and a veteran actor of ancient Greek tragedy respectively. The collective past invades as a cultural load of this society, as a counterweight to the vision of prosperity which has now been disproved. In no case, however, is it presented in the form of a sterile worshipping of the past of a hysterical ethnocentrism. Besides, the transgender cousin who is the provider of the family undeniably excludes any such oversimplification. The need of a degraded society is to start an honest, collected dialectic with its past - since it bears this past with it, no matter what – and through this relationship to be able to redefine and reach an acceptance of the other, the different, and finally of the self.
In 2014, when Gogo was staged, the social reality had touched levels of difficulty that no one would have been able to imagine a few years ago. The picture that the Greek society had painted for itself had completely collapsed. Embarrassment, depression, anxiety, guilt, fear for the future, and despair were now catholic. Unfortunately, despite their universality, these feelings cannot – by nature – be collective; instead of creating communities, they crush the individualities that solitarily seek their self-definition in imaginary conversations with the radio, or monologues that are not addressed to anyone. Every concept of communication is degraded since, even when there is a receiver, there is no answer. The memory of the past provides the only possible escape for the individuals, as they want to become once the person they once were. Not for consolation; strictly and sternly for reasons of physical survival.
However, although Gassouka’s plays are about societies – and by extension about individuals – in crisis, there is room for hope in the end of the tunnel. In all three cases, there comes an awareness that results in some sort of catharsis, and it is interesting to explore which fact motivates it. In both Hairpin and Gogo, it is the upcoming death or the fear of death that forces another perspective. In the case of God’s Poor Creature, it is the birth of a "different" child. In all three cases, it is an event beyond the control of the person, beyond any rational explanation (the birth of a black child by two white parents is purely - and intentionally - surreal, while death always remains the ultimate triumph of the absurd), but which – even if the respective protagonists fail to explain – they choose to confront to the end. This stubbornness in the face of the inevitable is what ultimately lifts these everyday and familiar presences above their measures.
Apart from the content, one should not fail to mention the means – as far as the form is concerned – that Gassouka employs as a dramatist. Beyond a "realistic" dramatic form (whether a dialogue or a monologue), she does not hesitate to involve a wide variety of other media. So, in her plays she incorporates music and dance, actors directly address the audience, there are diverse symbolisms, as well as recorded disembodied voices in direct dialogue with the actors and not as mere background sounds. In general, the author employs anything that promotes the communicative function of her plays without feeling that she should be bound by rules, but also without having these media contradicting each other. Something very interesting is that their use is evolving, to come to a complete removal in Gogo, with an overt metatheatrical reference to Beckett – a bold venture – that, however, did not betray her (hence the award she received for this play), and showed that Gassouka feels confident about her writing. Her next choices are expected with great interest.
To conclude, what remains as a last impression is that the writer does love her characters. She doesn’t spare them, but neither criticizes them. She wants to converse with them, with her main goal being to understand them. And that’s what she also asks from us, without attempting to raise our sympathy by resorting to naive melodramatic devices. She loves them precisely because they are human; with obsessions, with guilt, with mistakes, with desires, with betrayed dreams. They are familiar. They laugh at themselves, they suffer, and they balance between the comic and the tragic. The characters’ main weapon is an omnipresent humor – one that may sometimes seem disproportionate to the severity of conditions in which the author places them, but is appropriately permitted by the author. In the face of the greatest difficulties, Eleni Gassouka’s heroes choose to laugh in their faces. Their humor protects both them and us from the on stage events, not to reassure us, but to provide us with a way to deal with them.
One could argue that, in a sense, Eleni Gassouka’s later work is a – different in form – expansion of Heroes and, as in their case, here too the tenderness and affection for them and – by extension – for humans becomes evident. Her intention is to open a conversation with them and with us, a conversation with a loving mood; one could say almost maternal.