Many of the theaters I had seen before -- all over the Mediterranean world, in fact. All western theaters modeled themselves on these first ancient ones in Greece: a steep circular bank of stone seats surrounding the flat pavement of the orchestra (what we would call "the stage" today). To sit where people first sat to watch the full horror of his situation dawn on Oedipus, to sit where they smiled and nudged one another as Aristophanes showed them the comic collisions of egos so like their own, where they hooted and brayed their approval of obscene satyr dances, is to sit at the very dawn of the art as we know it.
Theatre has always been a bit off-color. It has always spoken things not discussed in polite company. At its best, it has always said things we won't say and gone places we won't go. In those instances when it has not, it hasn't been very interesting. And it learned to do this in Greece. All those centuries ago, to a greater or lesser degree, it presupposed a society's willingness to examine itself. You didn't go to plays if you didn't want to be changed. You still don't.
Theaters in Athens, in Knossos, on Lindos, other islands. There was one in most of the ancient places we visited. Theaters built for Greek drama, sometimes clumsily remade into amphitheaters for Roman games later on, but too small, too intimate for much in the way of blood sport. Never mind, let's just build an ENORMOUS new one -- a colosseum! The Romans were like us, in many ways: eager for bigger things, impatient with things requiring too much thought, unwilling to listen quietly, in continual need of ready-made excitement. They didn't want plays, not anymore. Just shows.
The beginning of the end, I guess. Our last visit was an odd one, in some ways: a city on Syros, very European. There were no ancient sites. The theater was designed to remind us of La Scala -- its most colorful ceiling medallions showed us images of Mozart, Dante, Verdi. Mozart? Verdi? Behind them, grey as ghosts and just as silent, three busts of ancient Greek poets. The theater was small and comfortable -- with nice red velvet seats and drapes, gilt trim on the boxes, good lighting. It was an Off-Broadway size proscenium theater. It could have been anywhere. Those ancient theaters, hewn out of the rock, were silent and very far away.
The stage was ready for a performance later that afternoon. The set was simple: against a black flat, one Greek word, "OXI." Tomorrow was October 28, Ohi Day, The day in 1940 when Greece refused to allow Mussolini to pass through and occupy it, thereby entering World War II. The Italians vastly outnumbered the Greeks, and had better equipment. But they were beaten, and the Greeks chased them clear into Albania. Maybe they didn't know what "Ohi" means. "Ohi" means "No."
Outside in the bright sunshine, school children were massing for the Ohi parade: hundreds of them, all in blue uniforms, arranged by their school classes. The best student in each class had the honor of carrying the Greek flag at its head. The bands beat snare drums, all in the same persistent proud rhythm, a drumbeat that would not be turned back. Wave after wave of sturdy young legs marched along the street and rounded the corner. Parents and grandparents lined the sidewalk, and a great wave of love poured from them, washing over their children and everything else its path.
As I stood and watched, it poured from me, too. I felt tears fill my eyes and wet my cheeks, and I wondered exactly what brought them. Of course, I missed my own children, but it wasn't that. It was something about the theater and the parade. The theater, its velvet-and gilt longing to be something that it was not -- on display for all to see. Its dismissal of its own heroic past in favor of the giant figures of someone else's.
The frustrating pressure to be more western, more European, seeking to smother the people's pride in their Greekness, to ease the great difficulty of being both.
And the parade. Children in a parade. Proud of themselves. Proud that their great-grandfathers had said "NO!" and meant it. Safe with their parents and grandparents, some of whom had known what it was not to be safe. Marching, now, along the streets of a town that is theirs, in a country that is theirs. An argumentative country, one willing to question itself.
Whatever we are, we are. Everything in our history composes us, but we also walk into our future, which will not be quite like anything in our past. We should be ashamed of nothing that we have been. All of it has made us what we are, even -- especially, maybe -- the parts in which we really didn't come off very well.
And we should envy no one. Not ever. We cannot be them and they cannot be us. We belong to ourselves and to God, and it is more than good enough.
This morning's Ways of the World, by business economist Carol Stone, does as good a job as I have encountered of helping me to understand what the recent crisis in U.S. sub-prime lending is all about and how it appears to be unfolding now, after several months in the headlines. The news is decidedly mixed, and in very interesting ways. Take a look -- www.geraniumfarm.org, click on Ways of the World.
Debbie in the HodgePodge has a warning for you if you have a beloved doggie friend. It only takes a minute to read,and it could save your dog's life. Sign up to receive HodgePodge in your inbox at www.geraniumfarm.org, click on "subscribe" and check the HodgePodge box.
Many readers commented on an eMo of a few weeks back entitled "The Face We Show the World," in which I protested the pervasive sexualization of so much in American life. "Our Daughters, Our Sons, Ourselves" is the theme of a one-day conference at Monmouth University in Long Branch, New Jersey, and it's about this very thing. Prof. Diane Levin, author of the forthcoming book So Sexy,So Soon, is the keynote speaker. Her topic: "The Sexualization of Childhood and What We Can Do About It." For additional information, contact Monmouth University Gender Research Center at 732-263-5648. Long Branch is an easy train ride from New York City and about a 3-hour drive from Washington, D.C. I hope some farmers will be able to attend this important and timely conference.