MEMORY AND THEATRICALITY,
- Dimitra Petropoulou, Dramaturg
[Translation: Vasiliki Misiou]
“Death passes by, the dead remain present”
Pavlos Matesis, Mother of the Dog
Experiencing the pain of the death of intimates is common and our fear is also common: not to forget the dead.
“The dead and the lost, those whom life leaves, I forget – their shape, everything. I only know that they are missed”. This is the heretical stance of the main heroine against the deceased in Pavlos Matesis’ novel Mother of the Dog. She chooses to value and consider life, which is “full of deaths”, in her own way. A way thought by some to be naive and by some others brilliant. A saying as if it popularized the teachings of Epicurus, a beloved philosopher to “reviler” Matesis. Though, intelligence is not a trait that characterizes his famous heroine. On the contrary, she constantly and deliberately acts “naive”. After all, the real focus of the story is not on people’s personal perspectives, nor on the recording, critical or not, of historical events. It focuses on history as it was experienced by insignificant figures that do not influence but endure historical events. It is about the “holiness of the secret life of the insignificant”, as director Stavros Tsakiris underlines.
Pavlos Matesis’ novel, one of the most loved ones in Greece and abroad, with many translations and publications, includes many elements of theatre. Not because the main heroine declares to be an actress, but because its structure itself is such that it could be a theatre monologue. Matesis’ relation to theatre is also known, since he wrote twelve plays, he translated more than one hundred plays and wrote numerous acts for variety shows and revues. However, Mother of the Dog is the novel that established him as a fiction writer. In its theater version the simultaneous narrative and action move through two time spans which act at the same time as successive worlds. Raraou recalls, narrates, and makes a confession under the influence of tranquillizers, far from being in a romantic mood, without ever addressing directly the audience. She is a human being who turns to herself and prompts the audience to do the same, having memories and faded images, which lie deep in their soul, evoked. Next to her, without special effects or some sort of theatre within theatre, persons long absent move in the simplest and most familiar way possible. The world of the dead is a “vivid”, vigorous world parallel to the present one, anxious about the future. The perception of the world is the perception of time.
The Greek history of the Occupation and postwar years unfolds in a psychiatric hospital room with Raraou talking in fragmentary speech of the battle she, her mother and all heroes of the play had to fight to survive. At first, the dead return one after another, making Raraou wonder why “do the dead come here?”, till she accepts living with them in this crazy circus of time, which can be turned into tangible reality only in theater. It’s not that she fears them. “The dead do not disturb anyone... they are good people”, her mother says. The only worry is whether “death is contagious”.
Matesis’ rather childish repulsion is as a crooked counterpart to the Ancient Greek burial ceremonies which, acting repulsively, may actually be the descent customs that created the theatrical expression. It may also be a simplified reading of Andreas Embeirikos’ verse “... those who turned the fear of dying into an urge for life”.
Reminiscences act as atonement and the reference to past events as a memorial service, a short memorial service, and also a ritual. The line-up of memories is a theatrical act. Memory selectivity is the initial dramaturgy.
Pavlos Matesis borrows names and events from his place of origin differentiating and embellishing them with his great writing skills and imagination until he coins the ingenious phrase “the patient distorts names and place names in order to protect them mainly from the dishonour they were minded to make her suffer by associating with her”. What heartbreaking appropriation of falsehood. What a deeply psychoanalytic and of great wisdom act. “Rampartville” is Pyrgos, Ilias, and the neighbourhood Matesis describes is his neighbourhood. There lived Asimina (mother), Roubini (Raraou), Kyria Kanello (neighbour), Salome (neighbour), Aphrodite (neighbour), Alfio (an Italian corporal), papa Ntinos (priest of the neighbourhood), Roubini’s father, and a collaborationist gendarme. They want to defend themselves in retrospect and be vindicated.
It was the “wish of human beings who suffered injustice –like Raraou, the heroine– to state their complaint”, which led him to write this novel, as Matesis himself reveals in an interview given to the magazine “Images”. And at the same time “the wish of a proud but also humiliated country to confess its truth”.
At the heart of the scandal is Raraou’s mother, Asimina Meskari, “mother of the dog”. She is a strong human being with the laws of survival written in her DNA. A naïve woman, with dignity, who does not hesitate to get involved in acts of high tension that expose her even to public ridicule when her daughter loses temporarily her power of human speech and she communicates with barks. At that moment she chooses to sacrifice her own voice – something that lasts until a while before she dies. Heroism or natural economy? Fictional ingenuity or an unorthodox definition of the Aristotelian idea of quandary? Heroes are not theatre models, but the theatre itself.
The theatre in Mother of the Dog is represented by a shadow theatre group, in the dual Greek sense (myth characters – dead characters) which derides History because it fell in love with people.
Pavlos Matesis did not like fairytales. He was never told ones, nor did he want to. He loved literature and theatre. At the age of eleven he read Dante’s Divine Comedy. He dreamt of becoming an archaeologist, a taxi driver, a dog... He studied drama, music and foreign languages. He worked as a bank clerk, but he found his true self in literature when it entered his life – he was 34 years old and it was eternal. His works include pain and sadness, the basic ingredients of life according to him. His theme is the dead and their effort to make us keep them close.
It’s been two years since he died (January 20, 2013). He is still alive in our minds and hearts. Our memories of him do not fade, “sorrows fade”. His books will fascinate readers, his plays will attract the audience, and his “jest” will inspire artists.
We will continue to keep each other “company for two moments”.
 Mother of the Dog was staged at the Contemporary Theater in 2014-2015 under the dramaturgical guidance of Stavros Tsakiris, director of the performance.