Nuclear Families and Psychoanalytic Motifs in Charalambos Giannou’s Dramaturgy
Translation: Elena Delliou
Charalambos Giannou is not an author easily located on the map; born in Famagusta, he grew up in Limassol and studied in Nicosia and later in Athens, when he currently resides. He has taken part in workshops in writing, coaching, and feedback through pilot readings in Athens, Wiesbaden (Germany), Barcelona and Nicosia, and excelled under Greek and Cypriot institutions, with works presented today at readings and as complete performances in Athens, Barcelona and Nicosia. The latest production is expected in 2016 in Limassol. Giannou employs a variety of methods in his writing, and alternative models in the staging of his works. A typical example is one of his plays written to order following an invitation of the visual artist Panayiotis Michael, to be played in a pre-designed setting, common for this and two other plays, in Lefkosia. He is a prolific writer since, from 2005 up to date, he has been writing an average of one play per year.
The themes of his plays do not give away his Greek Cypriot nationality; the action is normally located in an unspecified space-time, although there are sometimes implicit, but in no way binding for the imagination of the reader or the director, indications. In Giannou’s theatrical universe dominate eccentric families, with no apparent identity location-wise: they could be Greek, Cypriot, Mediterranean, or from many other parts of the world. Only in his first play, Who is the Enemy, are there clues that connect it to the birthplace of the author. This first work in interesting not only due to its bold themes, but also the playwright’s choices regarding its form. Although it could be described as expressionistic in tone and symbolic in dialogue, the play is a well-written reference to modern Cypriot history; the opening of the checkpoints and the first large-scale meeting of people from both the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot communities in 2003, also referring to concerns and emotions that the event provoked.
The atmosphere in Giannou’s dramaturgy often ranges from the paradox to the grotesque and the nightmare, while sometimes it is reminiscent of a film noir. The author himself characterizes four of his works (Falling Down the Stairs, Her Life as Dead, A Doghouse, Hunger) as dark comedies. Present are also elements from the aesthetics of comics, most notably in the short play Her Life as Dead, where heroes die and are resurrected with great ease. However, this one-act ends with a hug between the two main and conflicting characters. The unexpected tenderness reverses the black and white, cartoon-like climate, and opens a door to the shades of emotional demands: the need for companionship and eroticism. This play is the comic alter ego of By a Thread; both were written in 2011 and have approximately the same running time (about twenty minutes). The latter play, which is at times dramatic, at others absurd and others bittersweet, is about the meeting of someone - a form that is progressively identified with death - with an old woman.
Highly symbolic images are persistent in Giannou’s work – sometimes clear, sometimes elusive – while the dialogue is blistering and often elliptical. Surreal echoes are detected (for example the transformation in The Look of Love), while the legacy of the expressionists is evident in the choice of the author to deprive his protagonists of names, identifying only their sex (Male, Female) or their relationship to one another (Mother, Father, Son, Daughter). In A Doghouse, the characters are given names usually reserved for dogs (Max, Dolly, Happy, Molly), while the sinister Pinteresque visitor from the family’s dark past has no name. The playwright’s choice can also be connected with his claim to universality and the characters’ archetypal dimension.
Exceptionally, in his play Woman in Transition a lyric mood is prevalent, and his characteristic sharp dialogue is absent. Poetic images emanate from the television – which we hear but never see what is broadcasted – in his most recent work, titled House.
The most obvious and recurrent motif in Giannou’s dramaturgy is the nuclear family, mostly non-functional, which could also be studied as a collective theatrical person on the given play. In six of his works (Who is the Enemy, Falling Down the Stairs, Her Life as Dead, The Doghouse, Hunger, and Home) such families are in the spotlight. In the one-act From a Thread, the enigmatic relationship points to a grandmother and grandson; in The Look of Love the people live together in a claustrophobic home; in Woman in Transition the main character is a lonely person and/or the narrator of her story (noticeable, however, is the absence of a frame – place and familiar people- where the heroine would ideally register).
The manifestations of intrafamilial relations can reasonably lead to the linking of Giannou’s dramaturgy with the basic concepts of psychoanalytic theory. A common feature is that, in a first level, the family members are not after values like love or communication, because at stake – missing or circumvented – are the most fundamental in the pyramid of human needs: food (The Doghouse, Hunger, Falling Down the Stairs), housing (House, The Look of Love, Woman in Transition), security (Falling Down the Stairs, Woman in Transition, Who is the Enemy), self-determination (Woman in Transition, Her Life as Dead, Falling Down the Stairs), and even survival itself (Who is the Enemy, From a Thread, Hunger).
One of the patterns associated with psychoanalytic theory is the fixation in the oral phase: in The Doghouse everyone is craving – even putting their lives at risk –a forbidden cigarette, while the much-awaited food during the annual family reunion is repeatedly burned. The awarded Hunger is a dark comedy that revolves around food, both literal and emotional, excesses, and the failure of care. The banning of smoking in adolescence haunts even the sons who are in their forties in House, alongside talks about the difficulty the two boys had in getting rid of the habit of sucking their thumbs. The father actually uses his granddaughter’s the pacifier to fall asleep. In Falling Down the Stairs, the terrifying mother with the ambivalent sex is dependent on chocolates. In the same work dominant themes are childlike behavior in adults, and the denial or failure of adulthood.
Similar situations are presented in Hunger, Home, and From a Thread. In the latter, as in Falling Down the Stairs, the dream-turned-nightmare dominates. The suppressed or frustrated libido invades the House through the pornographic movie broadcasted on the TV. Besides, Falling Down the Stairs reproduces characters and themes from Hansel and Gretel, the classic Grimm brothers' tale; it is well-known that the archetypal relationships and symbols in traditional fairy tales have notoriously and repeatedly been interpreted with psychoanalytic tools. In the House, the older son returns to the paternal (or maternal) home and indulges after tepid protest in his mother’s somewhat excessive care.
In Giannou’s works we can also both latent and explicit social and political connotations; in the minimalist The Look of Love there are references to human trafficking. As the cloudy landscape of the play is gradually being illuminated, we understand the relationship between a pimp (Tommy) and an underage prostitute (Mailinda). The play contains violence and entrapmment on the one hand, and a game of symbols and role-play on the other. While these two individuals have names, the third character is an enigmatic figure named Saint. In The House there is explicit reference to domestic violence, while similar allusions permeate Falling Down the Stairs. Woman in Transition is an ambivalent play: a woman deserted in a literal migration, whose situation throws a dim light at the existential side of a political issue. In another reading, the work is preoccupied with the transition of the heroine to the other side; that of psychopathology. Finally, through an expanded view, the work could actually refer to an internal path of painful redefinition.
In his latest play – with which the author makes a decisive step towards maturity, presenting us with a tight, deep and multi-layered play – Giannou focuses on the archetypal familial space; the house as a symbol, without an article, Home. Beyond the classic shape – Mother, Father, Big (son) and Small (son) – the television invades as a quasi fifth person: popular, firstborn (purchased before the birth of the children), it initially functions as the messenger of the upcoming overturn, while later it breaks down and is stuck on one channel, which only broadcasts porn movies. The play’s motto derives from Paul Gauguin’s painting "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?", Which provides the titles for the three acts of the play, undermining its realistic nature and placing it beforehand in an expanded, more universal, existential plan.
Making total evaluative ascertainments about a writer whose work is ongoing and developing, always presents a risk. What is certain is that both the Greek and the Cypriot dramaturgy – since Giannou can be integrated in both – have been enriched with an interesting new voice and a clear personal touch.
The text draws from an unpublished presentation made at the conference "The Theatre in Modern and Contemporary Cyprus”, Limassol, 30/10-1/11 2015