YIORGOS MANIOTIS'S THEATRE,
- Irene Mountraki, Dramaturg - Theatre critic
Translation: Despina Tosounidou
Yiorgos Maniotis’s dramaturgy is always ruminative and skeptical about man’s place in the modern world and the existential problems he faces. Through his work (theatrical and literary) the author has intensively dealt with the social structures that trap human existence in “common sense”, “success”, “prosperity”, and alleged “dignity” systems and transform life into a constant struggle with ourselves. The penetrating and perceptive look allows him to infiltrate into houses, families, in all kinds of closed systems and to use theatrically this ‘special’ material to talk using his own scathing, ironic but also exceptionally modern and sharpened language for the ‘general’ and social issues of a country in a constant crisis and redefinition of values.
He often retraces a world that seems to have been overcome because of the speed and evolution of life, a country, Greece, which is still fresh through memories and stories. The immediacy and identity that his works exude makes them more effective and strengthen the intensity of voice. The return to the past is not used in the style of ethographia (study of manners), it is used without effort of idealization. The past is used as a distorting mirror of today.
New Horizons, Little Epic, Trials, Agia Kyriaki, Wet Dreams, The Battle of Peace, Tinnitus are seven works of Maniotis Yiorgos, all dedicated to Life. A life that a man tastes, feels, and experiences consciously as opposed to the stressful, vain and automatic life of reality which is alienated and stylized and is conquered by the modern man. The titles suffice to describe their world. Each of these works is a tinnitus in the silence of the subjection of modern man to the formulation, homogenization, the conditions and rules of what is called happiness, success and recognition. Every work is a self-existent and complete part of a strong awakening sequence in the dizziness of absurdity and mechanization.
The author’s gaze focuses this time on the calamitous fury of man. In a ferocious fury that follows his anxiety to survive, to prevail, to stand out. In the Battle of Peace and New Horizons war and horror scenes of the past century are displayed. The image either on screen or stage comes to serve as an irrefutable witness of the frenzy and insanity of the modern civilized world. War is extended beyond the battlefield. Mundane and ruthless, war extends to every human expression and action, reflecting this incomprehensible fixation with destruction. Life as a whole has been converted into battlefield. The struggle for dominance spreads to the workplace, family life, and social interactions. Man is always the loser. In order to feel safe in this perpetual battle, he abdicates himself and fights relentlessly against all. Death emerges as the ultimate winner. This is because beyond physical death, loss, exile, alienation, human’s distancing from life itself also equal death. Little painful deaths.
Leni in Trials has struggled throughout her life to survive, and help her children do the same. She has lived wars, has lost her own people and is left entirely alone, deprived of any kind of success. Her only alive son, Serapheim has abandoned her, refusing to take responsibility and care of her, and he is imprisoned, as she says, in the state. And when Dragatis says to her that he is not in prison, she responds: “Prison ... Prison, there is a dungeon beneath the earth where he sits, he is imprisoned by his wife and children!”. At the end of the play her dead corpse remains on stage along with garbage and leftovers of the excursionists, useless as waste.
Uncontrolled consumption, the continuous effort to gain more and more, the homogenization of people to common standards and the loss of personality, isolation and distancing are favoured themes on which the author falls back. Forms rendered with surreal and transcendental character –little men, clowns and gypsies–, remind us sometimes of the absurdity of human existence, sometimes of “amorphous” oppressors and threat and sometimes of man’s connection to his roots, emotion and life. Crowds on stage act as a modern Chorus, carriers of expectations and truth, but also as a mob that is recklessly subordinated to social requirements.
In New Horizons we see couples engaged in a vicious cycle of continuous shopping and notes urged by clowns. Unnecessary material objects are imposed on them indirectly as tangible evidence of prosperity, success and happiness. The tragedy of modern man is not found in his struggle to secure a living, but in his “needs” which increase continuously. Accordingly, the fat kid in Little Epic becomes the oppressor that forces them to go on purchasing goods. Whether the oppressor lives or dies remains at the judgment of the viewer in the finale.
Man’s agony to stand out on the road to “recognition” is expressed through the need for studies that will propel him to the top. However, the competition is high and the pressure so intense that the supernatural tootsie in New Horizons screams buried within the books. In Little Epic the Janitor opens the play shouting “The letters, the letters are here today ....” The choir of the Dead shout “Live” and the students “Excursion”, while the chorus of the parents motivates children to study by listing all material goods needed by a comfortable life; on the other hand, the oppressed children in Wet Dreams try to bear the “burden” of education having giant notebooks and huge colorful pencils.
The play Agia Kyriaki is the concentrated energy of the world. The whole microcosm of a village is gathered in the sanctuary of the church, people that pass by and leave their mark within a few hours, that is, during a typical Sunday service. Discord, jealousies, passions, love, injustice and mistakes, social inequalities and issues of power and management, a small world, all are revealed, accumulated and culminated thanks to a catalytic event: the declaration of war. And the outburst of joy that follows the declaration results from the fact that people have been violently dressed with a form of life that chokes them.
Wet Dreams with the subtitle Spectacle for the Museum is a play structured in such a way that the audience watching the performance passes from one room to another. Τheir guide is a masked man dressed in blue. The images we observe are images of strife, allegiance to work, to learning, to the form of life. The pattern of time as the ruler of modern man is dominant. The heroes drink quickly their milk and at the bottom of the cup there is a huge clock that pressures them. It pressures them to catch up with the time. The time pattern is also prevalent in the Battle of Peace and New Horizons, where the first thing the seven couples see upon their arriving in the Big City is a huge clock.
Speech in Wet Dreams, in the Battle of Peace as well as in Tinnitus is condensed, limited to the strictly necessary. In a world of speed everything has been said, although man almost no longer manages to utter a word. Theories and thoughts are reproduced and words have lost their meaning and significance. The author always paid particular attention to images. Here images are more lively in the absence of speech. They turn into tinnitus: Tinnitus is the buzz inside people’s ears or inside their head. It is not a disease but a symptom and among its causes it is stress and noise. People suffering from it are unable to calm down and relax. This is how the world we live works. The author’s intention is the autonomous scenes, especially in Tinnitus, to function as tinnitus for the audience. The scenes in the Battle of Peace work in the same way. Scenes from modern man’s everyday life are inflated and organized schematically to bring about awakening, awareness of danger.
The philosophy and practice of the modern world is ideally crystallized in the final note of Wet Dreams: “To climb over others is the only way to exist in the new order of things. This is important only during the first years. Eventually you are forgotten and forget, you just push through others and suppress them and that’s all”.
Three works of Yorgos Maniotis -Sedentary life, Common Sense and The Match- form a special trilogy. Maniotis’s themes exist within the four walls of a family home in these plays. A careful, parallel reading reveals that this is the “test” of the same theme in different but similar environments and correlated situations. It is the same tragedy that unfolds in the four walls of a house, a family tragedy, where people that are tied by bonds of family and “love” give a fight for survival and dominance till the bitter end, as generations, their wills and ideals clash in a merciless way. In these three works, and through three different images, unfolds before us the tragedy of the struggle between desire and need, soul and cold reasoning, yearning and compromise. But, at the core, the plays are a splash of soul, an explosion burst in the struggle between real life and a pseudo-life, a guise of life.
The author focuses on this struggle between the female and male element and specifies it through the relationship between Mother and Son. The female is presented as a rigid representative of stability, and common sense, as guardian of the future. The paradox is that the Mother, who waves like banner the “good” of her own people, is the one that leads them to devastation. Mother-Oppressor holds a future-scarecrow which she brandishes above her entrapped, frightened children, while at the same time she brandishes above her husband the failure of his past since he is always the defeated figure, the example to be avoided as he collapsed in his effort to resist. This fate waits for those who try to “escape”. However, the author has the same relentless attitude towards the young women who enter the life of sons, too. While at first they seem as a way out, as a supporting force, as soon as they become mothers themselves, they change and take the side of the Mother. Only the Daughter in Sedentary life manages to escape and tries to live her life. This is because she is deprived of her natural “role” - she can not have children.
The male, the young man is entrusted with the weight of success. He is not allowed to fail. His Mother is there to remind him constantly of doing the right, decency, interest and liberation. She stays up late with him when he studies, she brings in her house with the same ease a turntable or a woman in order not to let him leave and she does not hesitate to play even with his soul in order to achieve her purpose. The figure of Mother in the work of Yorgos Maniotis is a dangerous spider that methodically and regularly weaves its web inside the house so as not to leave any room for escape, not only for her son but also for anyone else. The web is so stifling that she can’t breathe as well.
In the late 70s and early 80s that these plays were written in and presented (The Match and Common sense in 1978 and Sedentary Life in 1983), they depicted a picture of the reality of Greek society. There is a generation of parents who have come through war, who have fought, have been wounded, have been deprived of many things and sacrificed a lot. This deprivation will lead to the establishment of a model that will work thereafter as proof of success: a steady job, children, a house, a beach house, a car, journeys, vacations. Young people had to fight for that dream and fulfill it, not only for themselves but also for their parents who had suffered wars, poverty and dictatorships and had somehow to be compensated for their sacrifices. On the one hand there is a model of life that seeks to be imposed as a model of a successful man and on the other hand there is a young person who wishes to determine his “musts”, to fly away from the cage in which they have imprisoned him and from the future that they impose on him as a one-way path. Personal choices are not free. People are not free. They do not even have the right to have free time, which means that they can not think, choose, determine their own course. In this suffocating environment, the author does not leave room for anything. Reason, through the voice of Mother, always finds appropriate ways to constrain things, people and situations. A Mother always finds the right plan to keep her children (and especially her son) on the right track. Caught into the safety of the house, having lost access to the world outside, she tries to prepare her child for what’s “out” there and its dangers. Life is a match, and you have to be the winner.
Nevertheless, dangers do not lurk outside their house but inside it. In Sedentary Life the daughter may give the clearest and most representative image of the Mother: Day and night keeping watch with the needle in hand, she screams at her because she can no longer withstand the repeated pricks, the wounds that keeps them open. Everybody ends up with a forlorn present and a hopeless future. There’s no glimpse of joy nor room to breath or a ray of light to beam. Only the TV flickers lighting up more the isolation, the inability to communicate, their despair, the false dreams. The heroes suffocate, they want to be heard, but they can not find a way to speak.
It is important for someone to notice that the institution of family is not mentioned anywhere within these plays: they talk about children and marriage, but never about family. The heroes of Maniotis in this trilogy are more like beasts, who have lost control and devour greedily each other in their effort to be released from the weight of responsibilities that bear down on them. And in this struggle the author makes you wonder: when is life true? In the fantasies and false world of the Mother in Sedentary Life, in the wheelchair of John in The Match or maybe in the life of the displaced father in Common Sense? When does someone really live and when does he pretend? Is there happiness in life dreams that are imposed on you by someone else in order to chase and fulfill them? How many self-sacrifices does one have to do in order to fill the void of his life? Does this weakness for escape mean that one does not truly believe in themselves?
With the Pit of Sin the author turns the lens onto a transvestite group, whose members seek their freedom, thrown into a “pit” behind the posh neighborhoods of Athens. The Pit is the shelter of people who have chosen covertly or overtly to live outside the social norm. Each transvestite, who works there, has chosen a new face for himself. Their clients do the same. Each one of them comes into the Pit in order to satisfy a part of himself that he suppresses. Even local residents are dressed as hunters when they invade in the scene as an angry Ballet that comes to restore order and morality, to “cleanse” the area and “dignity”. Nobody is true to himself. Nobody dares to accept his real self. Maniotis writes theater in an exemplary way using as material the masks that people alternate in their alleged real life and the theater they play in their alleged reality. Maniotis knows that there are no safe limits. He knows the mechanisms of “targeting” specific groups and how society and authority uses them to lead the public mind against its interests and service of individual needs.
So what is the real happiness of life? These plays of Maniotis express fundamental conflicts, basic existential human issues. They express the tragedy of modern man to stand in a world where the light is switched on and off according to the wishes of others, a world in which he is no longer master of himself.