Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Gonda Van Steen, Theatre of the Condemned: Classical Tragedy on Greek Prison Islands. Classical Presences. Oxford/ New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 354. ISBN 9780199572885. $125.00.

Reviewed by Diana Gilliland Wright (

Version at BMCR home site

The Varkiza Agreement, signed on 12 February 1945, was intended to regularize the political situation in Greece, end the fighting of the previous December, and reconcile opposing political blocs. A significant provision stated that all offences of December were pardoned except "common-law crimes against life and property which were not absolutely necessary to the achievement of the political crime concerned." The immediate result was the criminalization of political activities and the internment in detention camps of thousands of ELAS/EAM fighters, Communist party members, and left-wing supporters—actions described as "internal exile," "preventive displacement," and "disciplined living." 1 In September 1947, 19,623 political prisoners were in jail, and in August 1950, there were 23, 457—this out of a population of seven and a half million people.2

Three of these detention camps—Makronisos, Aï Stratis, and Trikeri—provide the theatres for Gonda Van Steen's stunning book Theatre of the Condemned—a double meaning there—which examines the many nuances involved in the theatrical productions of classical tragedy by camp inmates and directors. It was much to the advantage of camp theatre that so many actors, producers, and writers were leftist, and so by their internment were available to contribute to the richness Van Steen describes.

While in many cases, inmates read and acted plays on their own account, at Makronisos the camp management selected plays and actors, and provided good sets for propaganda purposes. The filmmaker Nikos Kondouros, imprisoned for three years on Makronisos, called the island "a stage of eleven kilometres long." He wrote of the performances for visitors who included the Red Cross, the BBC, the National Geographic (which had an article on the camp in the December 1949 issue3), foreign diplomats, journalists, and other selected guests: "All knew what 'play' was being performed and all pretended not to know. Following the rules of the stage direction, both parties had to act as if they were improvising and reacting spontaneously . . . the deception was organized perfectly; the production ended with applause, and . . . the happy camping returned to its role of an indoctrination camp." (82)

Torture in the camps was conducted as its own kind of theater, performed where other prisoners could hear. If torture succeeded in its stated aims, which were to return the leftist offender to an appreciation of the doctrine of the Right, the offender then had a new set of requirements to fulfill: "from composing hideous confession statements to denouncing their former comrades, to assisting in the process of 'breaking' others (to translate the modern Greek expression for 'torturing')." (120) Many were broken by the public humiliation of these requirements and the isolation and psychological punishment by the Left, which had no tolerance for the nuances of personal decision. The leftist actress Kati Kalo wrote that she finally signed simply because she had to get back to her small children, and then that was refused her. Significantly, she described it as "the sacred role of the mother." She wrote, "I was hurt so much by the signature that I put to a text that did not represent me and that I did not believe in either . . . for very many months I used to walk with lowered eyes, so as not to face by chance the look of a comrade, who would have ignored me with an air." (122)

Before the time of the camps, the Right had used classical drama to reinforce certain ideas of authority, and some of the Left had thus avoided the classics as tainted by the establishment. In the camps, the prisoners reappropriated classical drama to speak of their own situation and challenge authority, and on their rocky islands found their voices in Philoctetes and Prometheus. Antigone was more problematical and was used by both sides to make points, the Right seeing in it a statement of authority and justice, the Left finding support for the nobility of resistance. Still, particularly for women, Antigone provided confirmation of their struggle and justification for resistance.

Theatre conditions varied from camp to camp, and over time. For example, the Makronisos repertoire between Easter 1948 and the end of 1949 included no classical tragedy or comedy, (naturally) a minimal number of leftist plays and a vast majority of patriotic, didactic, and moralizing works. Plays were generally performed once or twice a month, on Sundays, national holidays and major feast days. What camp officials seemed to miss was that plays intended to celebrate Greek resistance against the Turks could also function to encourage resistance against the Right, and constituted another form of inmate theatre within the disguise of formal theatre. Some camps did not have female prisoners and when women were transferred to Aï Stratis, for example, broader choices for repertoire and casting were opened up.

The situation of women in the camps was particularly complex. Not only did they face institutionalized anti- communism, they were also targets of sexism by communists as well as by rightists, and victimized by sexual violence. Educated women were targets of anti-intellectualism on the part of the guards and many reported having to hide their books. Women in camps were expected to perform roles that required women to be obedient, pious, and uncritical. Many accounts report on the reading and acting of classical drama as key points for solidarity among the women, and for making up for the education not given to women. If some women learned to read and write, and female teachers gave classes in a wide variety of topics, there was another side and "many were deeply conscious of the value of self-improvement, which entailed self-education, but also communal training to make women with leftist sympathies more useful to the leadership of the Left." (117) Other women's accounts speak of the educational and class lines they encountered when urbanized women formed cliques for reading and performance and did not invite the less-educated rural women to participate. Still, the exposure to the common experience of classical drama gave coherence to the camp experience as rooted deep in Greek culture. As the poet Victoria Theodorou wrote, "here we lived out the clay age / we dug for roots / we coaxed the music from the reed / we made a lyre from the turtle shell." (129)

Classical drama provided opportunities for challenge away from the stage. One prisoner recalled encountering the infamous torturer Vonklis in the Makronisos camp. Seeing him, the actor Manos Katrakis climbed on a rock and began reciting from the Prometheus, "Mother Earth, Mother of all. Sun, you who see everything. Look at me! . . . I am being tortured and I will forever be tortured." Vonklis demanded to know what was going on. The prisoner responded that he was an actor going on about the ancient gods. (128) The same actor performed as Prometheus at Epidauros at the time of the collapse of the dictatorship. The cancellation of an all-female production of Prometheus just before its performance provided an extraordinary theatre for the exiles to discuss the tyrant and his servants, Bia and Kratos. (In modern Greek, Bia still means "violence," and the primary meaning of Kratos is "state.")

A full chapter is given to a discussion of a production of The Persians at Aï Stratis in September 1951, supported by the camp administration, who saw in it a presentation of the glorious Greek past and a celebration of victory. The participants, however, saw it as a response to the losses and defeats of the Civil War and a possible alternative form of heroism. The chorus was large, to include as many exiles as possible who wanted to participate, and the poet Yiannis Ritsos taught them the choreography. The sheeps' wool wigs, costumes (dyed and sewn in the camp workshop), and set were carefully constructed to present, even for a short time, an alternative world. Most of the cast had never been on a stage before. The audience included 2,500 prisoners, many of the residents of the village of Aï Stratis, and representatives of the Red Cross. In fact, prisoner productions made it a point to welcome the villagers and often gave several performances so they could attend.

The memorable scene where the Persian messenger describes the Greek advance—ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων, ἴτε—was taken as a patriotic affirmation by camp officials and probably many of the visitors, quite removed from its context and narrator: to the participants this was a triumphant affirmation of their participation in the resistance. This may be a simplistic example, but over and over prisoners found that these plays insisted on reexamination of conventional assumptions of patriotism, victory, and resistance.

Van Steen has constructed Theatre of the Condemned like a drama. While the first four chapters movingly demonstrate prisoners' experience of classical drama and primarily emphasize the Right's oppression of the Left, the fifth chapter brings the reader up short with the insistence that both leftist rigidity and the oppression by the Left of individuals within the camps, demand ethical attention. She includes here the text and her translation of Aris Alexandrou's Antigone, written first in the camp on Moudros and then destroyed, as it was finally presented in Thessalonike in 2003. A narrative of the resistance, the plot concerns Antigone's (a resistance fighter) sympathy for a wounded German prisoner, and then her concern to give his body forbidden burial, a symbolic burial after he is executed by the partisans. We learn that she has become pregnant by him. Refusing to show remorse, she is sentenced to execution. Refusing her jailor's offer of marriage, which would at least allow the child to be born, she choses to sacrifice herself and the child for the sake of her integrity. It is an unattractive play, burdened with symbolism, and sub-plots, but leftist graduates of the camps who saw the performance must have found it profoundly unsettling.

The language of the play is often moving. Lyrical passages alternate with stichomythy. The opening chorus sets the tone:

The tracks of the tanks passed through our yards. Their horses passed through our fields. The rains passed, and we have no sun. We have no bread. We drag the palms of our hands over our aged cheeks—as one drags them over thick butcher's paper that won't lie flat—all those years—with a bad wind coming in through the cracks. We close the doors. We close our mouths. And yet they circle around and enter everywhere. With a helmet on their shoulders—and our blood on their heels hasn't even dried up yet. Our men ran away during the night. They sleep outdoors amid the stones, amid the clouds. They've blown up the bridges. There is no way for us to return close to them. There is no way for them to return close to us. We're alone here now and the wells have dried up. Our breasts have dried up. We go to haul water, and we draw mud . . .

Van Steen has beautifully translated Alexandrou's lyrical text: both have paid a great deal of attention to the needs of actors in speaking. Oxford has seriously let down Van Steen by printing the text and translation consecutively rather than on facing pages. If OUP has no one able to write a program to handle that layout, I live with a type-setter who can and has. The translation is too good to be treated so casually.

Gonda Van Steen has the Cassas Chair in Greek Studies at the University of Florida. Her first book is the brilliant Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece.

A word about production: Nothing is said about the font, which looks like a press version of Times Roman. It makes for simple reading, but without the quality due such scholarship. The photographs from the camp theaters are printed much too small to convey the detail. I regret the $125 price which puts the book beyond the reach of a great many individuals intimately concerned with the experience described, but who do not have access to academic libraries.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Collectivity within the Confines of an Island
1. Selections, Occasions, Origins, and Objectives
2. Makronisos: Island of the 'Greek Inventors of Barbarian Evils'
3. Female Prisoners Learning (in) Defiance: What's Playing on Trikeri?
4. The Prison and the Past as Theatre: Aeschylus 'Persians' on Ai Stratis, September 1951
5. 'Suspect Always Like the Truth': The 'Antigone' of Aris Alexandrou
6. Alexandrou's 'Antigone' (Greek text and English translation) Conclusion


1.   P. Volgia, "Between Negation and Self-Negation: Political Prisoners in Greece, 1945-1950," in After the War Was Over, M. Mazower, ed. (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2000) 75.
2.  World population aging chart for Greece 1950-2050, Population Division, DESA, United Nations
3.  Maynard Owen Williams. "War-torn Greece Looks Ahead", National Geographic Magazine Vol. XCVI, no. 6. December (1949): 711-744. I found this article so disturbing in its implications that I have put it on-line here.

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