LENOS CHRISTIDIS’S THEATRE,
- Tonia Tsamouri, Dramaturg – Dr Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki
Lenos Christidis’s first play, Cool Story (Oraia Phasi), was written in 1996. It is a play about a “normal” household, with two “normal” protagonists, Vasilis and Antonis. Everything looks “normal”, with the only difference being that, in reality, everything is… odd, different. The characters in this play, just like those in Christidis’s subsequent plays, keep their true selves expertly hidden and appear “normal”, ordinary, next-door-like. But the truth is far different from what the characters present.
In Cool Story, life goes on in a house occupied by three young men. Everything goes on as it normally would, until Mr. Yiannis shows up, the father of Dimitris, who is the third roommate and whom we never see on stage. As the play unfolds, the second father appears, Mr. Kostas, whose presence will lead to the disappearance of Vasilis, his own son. Like contemporary Mephistopheles, the two fathers bring about their sons’ disappearances through their own appearances, assuming their lives, their friends and habits. In the play’s fourth act, we can clearly see Harold Pinter’s influence on the playwright as he sets up a parody-inquisition between the two fathers and Antonis, which reminds us of the one in The Birthday Party:
MR YIANNIS: No more bullshit, Antonis.
MR KOSTAS: No more games.
MR YIANNIS: No more of that shit you’ve got in your head.
MR KOSTAS: Where is Vasilis?
MR YIANNIS: Where is Dimitris?
ANTONIS: You would know.
MR YIANNIS: Wrong.
MR KOSTAS: You would know.
ANTONIS: You’re lying. (p. 137)
This short parody-inquisition which Antonis is forced to endure by the two middle-aged men shows the authoritarianism of parents: only they are right, only they know, only they have the answers. This very authoritarianism devours any kind of spontaneity and carelessness that the three young men possess. Thus, Antonis’s turn comes, and he also disappears, bending under the weight of conservatism and responsibility with which Mr. Yiannis and Mr. Kostas are “smothering” him. In the last act, the two middle-aged men, after “devouring” their children like Zeus, are left alone to live their sons’ lives. Or was this maybe the parents’ goal in the first place?
Christidis’s second play, Two Gods, carries the subtitle “The End of the World in Four Parts”. With this play, the playwright says his farewells to the 20th century and welcomes the 21st. The play reminds us greatly of Samuel Beckett’s pessimism, not only in situations, but also in terms of writing. More specifically, Two Gods is about two people who are inmates (no clarification is given as to where: in a psychiatric asylum or a prison…) and who, like Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for something. They might be waiting for the destruction of the earth, the domination of the machines, their own recovery, the advent of some divine entity… Meanwhile, any attempt to escape will keep them more stagnant than ever. Thus, the hole that Patrick is digging in order to escape will ultimately imprison him in the ground, like Winnie. The Beckettian skepticism concerning the existence of a divine entity is also a central theme in Two Gods. Are we at the end of all hope for the existence of a divine power or at the brink of the appearance of, not only one but, two prophet-gods who will save the planet?
The curt and apparently meaningless dialogues of Christidis, which hide several multiple meanings underneath, highly remind us of Beckett’s writing, as well as the paradox of Pinter’s work, with the apparently meaningless questions that are actually full of meaning.
PATRICK: Goose-feather pillows.
MIGUEL: Stainless razors.
MIGUEL: Abolishment of classes.
PATRICK: Plastic flower vases.
MIGUEL: Fisherman’s pasta. […] Well done. Senseless.
MIGUEL: Sheepskin. (p. 55)
Through this apparently meaningless conversation of the two characters, several issues of class stratification are laid out. They talk about equality, about dissolving the social classes, but also about the sheepskins that people use to masquerade and pretend to be something they are not.
In Amazing Thailand (2005), the author becomes more specific and decides to focus on the reality of contemporary Greece. The play is written after the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which led the country, as well as its citizens, into complete social, moral and financial decay. Specifically, the author puts his hero, Nikos, in the exotic Thailand, a permanent resident in the haven of illegal sex tourism for Greeks in the 90s and 00s. However, unlike most Neo-Greeks, instead of vacationing in Thailand, Nick decides to live on scuba diving. He has cut off all ties with his family, both personal and financial. Furthermore, he chooses to occupy himself with a legal profession, with no intention to steal, mock or scam as a means to get rich. All of that makes him seem otherworldly in the eyes of the other Greeks who will find their way there.
A modern prophet, Christidis saw that the 2004 Olympics would bring about an intellectual and emotional emptiness which would lead to stagnation, and he created his characters having this in mind. Specifically, starting with Nikos’s parents, who are “trapped” in the middlebrow mentality and the corruption of the Neo-Greek, but also through the younger people of the story (Katerina, Vrasidas and Litsa), we see a society that, even beyond the geographical borders of Greece, it continues to be willingly or unwillingly trapped in the gears of the machine that was meant to lead this country to near destruction a few years later. Thus, the old nerd classmate of Nikos and Yiorgos is now a “renowned” hustler businessman, like Nikos’s father, while his girlfriend is studying journalism and her only interest is in appearing on television.
Moreover, in this play, the parents (and especially the father) remind us a lot of the parents in Cool Story, with their authoritarianism, their intentions to “sacrifice” their children in the name of their own choices, and also with their lack of any sentimentality and sensitivity. In Amazing Thailand, there is also the figure of the mother, who is equally repressed by her husband as her children are, but who is also weak-willed and diffident. Her daughter is following in her footsteps, and she is being sacrificed under her father’s wishes, like a contemporary Iphigenia. This Chekhovian universe of Christidis draws breath in this play, through the unending and truly meaningless conversations, in which no one ever says what truly interests or troubles them.
In the end, the only ones to survive will be Nikos and his friend, Yiorgos, because they are the ones who will live their lives away from Greece and away from the Greeks. Away from the factitious material heaven of post-Olympic Greece. And that is because they will be the only ones who will dare be different from the mass.
The element of the transcendental and the bizarre that we come across in Cool Story (1996) and in Two Gods (1999) will reappear in Train (2013), Christidis’s most recent play. With this play, the author once again remembers his Beckettian beginnings: it is a deeply existential play, full of screams of agony and despair. The main protagonists are young people, worn out from the social injustice, disappointed in the loneliness of their personal lives and the middle-age working conditions that they have to suffer through. His characters are (not exclusively) comprised by a Ghost, a Murderer, a Homosexual, a Bride, a former TV-game Player. They are young people who love Greece but cannot stand injustice, or pretense, violence, racism and xenophobia anymore, or in other words the general lifestyle of the Neo-Greek.
MAHI: Don’t you understand that our country doesn’t need clashes? Our tormented home. The national ideals. The legacy of our ancestors […] Now is the time to stand as a unified body, an unbroken phalanx, just like in Marathon, with the arrows and the spears and the Persian slingshots, crowned with and bearing laurels, because… eh… the Greek will excel anywhere in the world. I don’t have anything against foreigners, but… […]
PANOS: I don’t have anything against the Greeks either, but some Greeks aren’t from around here. (p. 43)
And so all these people find themselves travelling together on a train, which has assumed the position of the “leader”, seeing as it is now the one guiding, designating, and leading their lives. It is an impersonal leader, callous and austere, that reminds them of their modern country:
FROM THE SPEAKERS: The main passengers seated in seating seats are required to stand up for a brief moment.
They all rise. Except for JUSTIN, who is distracted.
FROM THE SPEAKERS: Everybody!
Aggravated, JUSTIN rises as well.
The train is also the one that is going to lead them to their final destination.
FROM THE SPEAKERS: The main passengers are required to get off the train. The train has arrived at the terminal.
Calmly and without complaining, everyone gathers their things and “leaves” the train. The space is open and impersonal, with a lot of light and a tree (p. 45)
And so these seven people will be travel-companions in their last journey. The thing that will unite them is that they all tried to differentiate themselves from the norms of the Greek society, to live under their own terms and to do something other than what is “socially acceptable”. The differentiation from society’s musts and its norms is, after all, a main desideratum in Christidis’s works. The anti-conformism and the dissimilarity in a society of sheep is what he urges the readers – audience to do as well.
Train ends with the lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s song, “My Way”, which summarizes the theatrical philosophy of Lenos Christidis. The characters in his plays are trying to walk down their own paths, tired from the well-trodden path of modern society. They are people interested in being different while living a life full of experiences, and at the same time distanced from material and passing delights and pleasures.
And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way… (Train, p. 45)
Translated by Rozy Boutou