TSIMARAS' TZANATOS THEATRE,
- Elsi Sakellaridou, Professor Emeritus of Theatre Studies, AUTH
[Translation: Elena Delliou]
Tsimaras Tzanatos is a writer with a multi-faceted profile: he has studied acting, film direction and art history, and has many years of experience as a theatre, television and movie actor. Moreover, his background in diverse artistic activities includes radio music shows, scriptwriting for television, lyrics, poetry and journalism. This pluralistic indulgence in the arts proved a valuable asset for his subsequent emergence as a playwright, as far as both his thematic and his art of writing are concerned.
As a dramatist, Tzanatos belongs to the generation of the new millennium creators, who inherited all the weight of the global turbulence of the last decades of the 20th century (war, population movements, violence, unemployment and terrorism, ecological disasters and new infectious diseases), only to later have to bear the new anxieties and pains of the 21st century; the climax of terrorism and political violence, the prolongation of the economic crisis, the rise in unemployment, and the increasing pressure put on a system crumbling under the weight of basic health, education and public administration issues, from a new unmanageable wave of immigrants. In this vast landscape of individual and collective misfortune, fatigue and sense of urgency- which most modern writers prefer to reflect through the prevailing aesthetic of hard and direct documentary realism – Tzanatos, from the beginning of his literary career, chose a minimal, poetic, detached look, seemingly closer to the minimalist Beckettian aesthetic of the absurd than the modern socio-political proceedings. However, a more detailed analysis of his works reveals a deep understanding and sensitivity for the particular social causes that lead his suffering, fragmented characters to desperation, paranoia and self-destruction.
He emerges as a playwright in 2004 with a two-page sketch titled ‘Exodus’ in the modular play A Dream’s Odyssey, which Chrysa Kapsouli edited and directed for the National Theatre of Northern Greece. It is a short text with distinct thematic and morphological elements that return reworked and enriched in later plays: a closed door, two characters unable to communicate. A young girl bitterly soliloquizes, addressing a woman who never utters a word. It's like talking to a wall; emotional stalemate, despair, the desperation of loneliness, of the skin which separates.
The "wall" is the prop that dominates in the conception of his next play, Never Together (based in Fatih Akın's 2009 film of the same title) and which, apart from the signalling of actual spaces that relate to the plot, symbolizes the difficult – even tragic – relationships between the play’s heroes. The conception of this play reflects Tzanatos’ tendency to a multiform, artfully woven intertextuality, and gradually develops as one of the main features of his writing aesthetics. The structure and theme of this play are strongly reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy, but for the sharing of his characters and plot he mainly borrows from the cinema, with a special reference to Michelangelo’s work and ideas. The dancing and singing, the terse dialogue, the shattering of the self, self-destructiveness, the inhospitable and hostile social space, and several philosophical connotations, all emerge as major structural and narrative elements, which return as more mature, reworked versions, in the web of his next works. For example, in a note regarding his later work, Miss Misery, and his theatrical transcription, the author makes the following, explicit reference when speaking for the characters’ function: "Like a Chorus that enters the koilon. But also Messengers of tragedy". Moreover, the mouse that appears in Never Together as a light motif of horror and death, is the first zoomorphic symbol in Tzanatos’ plays, expanding in his subsequent ones to include dogs (Suspense, -C-), fish and monsters (Miss Misery), cats and roaches (How Many Animals Constitute a Man?), with varied symbolic action; from threat to revolt and liberation.
Suspense (2010) is Tzanatos’ first complete, original play. Although it is essentially a dramatic monologue (as was his first one, Exodus), its morphological inventiveness provides the dramatic fullness of a play in dialogic form, ensuring inner movement, conflict and tension. The main dramatic finding is the creation of the enigmatic character of a woman-dwarf, who sometimes acts as a narrator or prophet, and others as a prompter or the alter ego of the equally enigmatic protagonist. The dialogue gradually turns elliptical and iterative, existential concerns peak and take a surreal form, while the clock and mirror are introduced as persistent symbolisms that reappear in later plays.
Miss Misery (2011) is a work that intensifies the author’s surrealistic viewpoint and speech brevity – whether it is prophetic and cataclysmic, retractive and nostalgic, or surrendered to the anguish and the pain of reality. Although it is a narrative, the work has a dramatic structure and iconography, movement and economy and, hence, it was very natural to be adapted by the author himself for a first stage reading. The existential deadlocks, which in Suspense unfolded into anti-poetic urban landscapes of residential blocks, balconies, staircases and apartment buildings’ skylights, and the unavoidable waste places – mass produced by a squashed urban population – in this play take the terrifying dimensions of an incontrollable water landscape that threatens with floods and cataclysms, and the mysterious animal world it engulfs. The sense of imminent death and the agony of devastation and destruction are moving reciprocally – as in Suspense – between the microcosm of the individual and their macrocosmic dimension, either in the form of a collective, social dislocation, or that of an absolute ecological disaster. Heraclitus’ epigram regarding randomness and the irresponsibility of spacetime – the frontispiece in Suspense – is here replaced by a quote of a similar style, taken from the biblical text that refers to cataclysm. Finality is now firmly established in Tzanatos’ work, even if its occurrence does not prove to be a real fact, but a nightmare or psychosis of the hero’s cancelled ego, which cannot be verified.
Tzanatos’ love for surrealism culminates in his next play, How Many Animals Constitute a Man? (2012), where his surrealistic look is manifested through direct references to the work – mainly the artistic one, but also the essayistic – of René Magritte, while the context that marks the play’s plot is the protagonist’s reading of Kafka's Metamorphosis. This combination of intertextual references to art and literature functions as a meta-language that absolutely justifies the zoomorphism of two of the characters. In this utopian situation triumphs a wild sexuality, liberated from the commitments of social gender and the sanctification of love. However, beyond the absurdist atmosphere that derives from the clear references to Kafka and Magritte, the play is loaded, on a more subtle level, with a pervasive, aristophanic satirical mood and with continuous Oscar Wilde-like witty language games, in a series of aphoristic dicta and their constant inversions. So, the zoomorphic protagonists’ chaotic thought is consolidated through the use of an aphoristic and paradoxical speech, the articulation of a stance and its ironic contrast, in a delirium of Deridian deconstruction. Dancing and singing frame the frantic pansexual feast, with the Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as a distant overtone, but also with a sudden, final turn to a darker reflection, melancholy and suspension; the need to restore the regular, measurable time of the clock. The pessimistic thought of being trapped in the order and safety of the status quo or the lonely skin cyclically returns, as in his previous plays.
-C- (2013) is a play worked with HIV-positive drug addicts inside Corydallos prison, intended to be performed by the prisoners themselves. Surprisingly perhaps, it is Tzanatos’ most optimistic play; through the gray background of the prison and the inmates’ individual traumatic narratives, the author attempts not only to convey the collective despair of the prison world, but also present a chink of hope and positive thinking through the creative process of art. The theme of the individual’s isolation and the existential void points to previous works, but here it is geared to the prisoners’ personal stories. The "wall" becomes concrete in the prison walls of confinement and isolation, but is also evident in the personal isolation within the individual’s skin. This play once again bears chorals and narratives of tragedies – albeit in a more relaxed and grounded form – in order to emotionally engage and secure the theatrical collaboration of individuals that lack any previous theatrical education or experience. Like Tzanatos’ previous works, this one indicates the comfort with which the author moves in the fields of music and versification.
If one attempted a thematic classification of Tzanatos’ works, he could securely propose a conceptual thread from the existential scream in Exodus, to the identity crisis, threat and existential guilt of the emotionally necrotic and ecologically destroyed universe that Suspense depicts. This image further evolves with new symbolic tools and pictures in Miss Misery, to become more dynamic and revolutionary with the intense interference of ironic reversal in How Many Animals Constitute a Man?, and evolve – in C – into an appeal for positive restart, despite the destruction and the unbearable traumas of the past.
It would not be correct for one to reach the conclusion that the suicidal thoughts that hover over all five of Tzanatos’ plays – culminating in the brutal and bloody murder/suicide scenes of Never Together – suddenly give way in his most recent one – C – to a writing that aims to the individual’s encouragement and empowerment towards a vision of ascend and improvement. Tzanatos remains a deep thinker of the grey and black aspects in human existence, which are softened only by the comforting intertextual artistic and intellectual games, and an invocative gesture towards the other/self to endure the painful prolongation of his irrational pain.
What distinguishes his writing from the similar thematic of other modern or older writers is the function of his speech in a dual – linguistic and meta-linguistic – level; a permanent dialectic relationship of uttering and objection, a game between the aphoristic and its challenge, the logical reference and its rejection, where demureness along with sarcasm and irony. Hence, the tools themselves of his palindrome, thoughtful and playful discourse exacerbate the characters’ self-torture in the plot’s mythical world. Tzanatos has found his parlance, a personal form that borrows provocatively from every direction, thus shattering the boundaries between genres and appropriating all these heterogeneous elements in a postmodern theatrical expression of speech, riposte and silence, verses, musicality, physical movement, erotic invocation and rhythm.