Fragments of Thought About the Tragic Fragments: Theodoros Terzopoulos’ Views on Fragmentary Greek Tragedy
In 2003, Theodoros Terzopoulos, the internationally acclaimed Greek theatre director, staged a performance which was based on fragments of ancient Greek dramas written by Aeschylus; the play he created was called Epigonoi. Seventeen years later—on the occasion of an interview, parts of which compose this article—Terzopoulos revisited that performance and made a fresh appraisal of it: he shared his thoughts on concepts like the fragment, the fragmented narrative and the fragmented life; he related the ancient, fragmented texts with the essence of myths and the darkness of tragedy; and he contemplated on their connection with the ubiquitous notions of trauma and of vacuum. In accordance with the article’s subject matter, for the presentation of Terzopoulos’ fragments of thought, a dictum by Ronald Barthes was followed: “Incoherence seems to me preferable to a distorting order.”
Keywords: Tragedy, tragic fragments, Theodoros Terzopoulos, fragmentary tragedy, Aeschylus, directing, dramaturgy
Theodoros Terzopoulos is a contemporary theatre director of Greek origin who works in theatres all over the world and who can very successfully bear the title of the “auteur.” During the last four decades, he has gained international recognition and he has invented a personal method of directing and teaching actors that is now taught in various drama schools and universities around the world. He studied acting in Greece and at the Berliner Ensemble, and he started his directing career when he returned to Greece and founded his theatre company called Attis Theatre, in 1985, with an ensemble of actors, some of whom have become his permanent collaborators ever since. Terzopoulos’ first production of ancient Greek tragedy was Euripides’ Bacchai in 1986, and even from the early stages of his career, his work on ancient Greek tragedy has opened alternative routes to the approach of ancient drama and has placed him among the most reputable international avant-garde directors of our time.
What we know how to do very well in western theatre, even from the ancient times, is storytelling, how to narrate a story, to tell a fairy tale. We have the Aristotelian laws, there’s a beginning, a middle part, an end; there’s the exodos, the happy end, the deus ex machina. All the above constitute in our minds the structure of dramatic theatre, not only in the context of the art we call ‘theatrical art,’ but also as part of our broader ideology. The European theatre, the European way of thinking, to a certain extent, but even the behaviour of a European person, were based on this conception of structure. A European cannot stand the idea of fragmentation; fragments by their very nature drive people crazy, despite the fact that Europeans experience their lives as being fragmented.[Fragment 1]
In 2003, Terzopoulos directed a play called Epigonoi, which premiered at the Tent Theatre at Ruhrfestspiele, in Recklinghausen, Germany, and after a month it was presented in Greece, in Delphi, at the International Meeting “Apollo,” which was organised by the European Cultural Centre of Delphi. The “raw material” for this play were fragments from Aeschylus’ lost plays, and it was the second time this special kind of text was used as performance material in the Greek language, after the director and academic Spyros A. Evangelatos (1940–2017) had presented Psychostasia in 1979, a play based on the extant fragments of the namesake lost play by Aeschylus. In Recklinghausen and in Delphi, Epigonoi were presented together with Scherben [scherbe: German word for “shard,” pl. scherben], a play conceived and directed by Hansgünther Heyme, who based his dramaturgy on fragments from Euripidean plays. Heyme, who was then the artistic director of the Ruhrfestspiele Theatre Festival in Recklinghausen, had invited Terzopoulos to join him in a project of exploring ancient Greek fragmentary tragedies, and so each director chose plays of only one of the tragedians. Epigonoi remained at the repertoire of Attis Theatre for at least three more years, it was presented in indoor and open-air theatres and it toured around the world like most of its productions. Terzopoulos created Epigonoi during a period when people around the world were highly sensitised after the American invasion to Iraq (Chatzidimitriou 262), and he expressed the irrationality of war and the aftermaths of a lost war by using the surviving fragments of more than 13 Aeschylean plays. The fragments varied in length and among them there were small two-line fragments and long monological ones, all interwoven in a masterful way by Terzopoulos himself. Epigonoi was the title of a lost tragedy by Aeschylus from which only one fragment has survived.
As far as the ancient fragments are concerned, the important question is, what you can do with one phrase from a tragedy which is only two lines long or there are two lines here and half a line there, or there are only five or six lines known from the whole text. How can you complete the fragment? Do you have to complete it, to restore its wholeness? It is my opinion that you don’t have to complete it, you don’t have to restore its wholeness, you don’t have to rewrite it. You must leave it exactly as it is. Because a fragment is also a trauma. Just like the columns in the archaeological sites, which have fallen on the ground, and they bleed, they are injured. The incision bleeds and bleeds over time, continuously, just like the oracles of Pythia, which bleed as well. Her sayings are uncanny, incomprehensible, but it is the priesthood that decodes them using a secret code.[Fragment 2]
It is about the moment at its limits. And sometimes, once or twice, the material side-tracks completely and everything becomes scherben. You do not organise the fragment, you do not make it compact, in order to create a dramatic one-act or a complete play. You shatter it even more. And by shattering it you enter the core of tragedy. Because this shattering is the notion of deconstruction, as I have been arguing for 50 years. Which means that the whole material opens up and we have the shattered parts of it, with which a new synthesis can occur, a composition de novo, a re-composition, a new structure, a new axis and an axis of energy. I have done it many times in my other performances as well.[Fragment 3]
The protagonist of the play is a Chorus of five men, from which five male characters emerge one after the other. Three of these characters are heroes from the Iliad, Achilles, Philoctetes and Ajax, who lament for either the loss of a friend and a lover, or the physical pain of an inflicted wound, or the deed that was done during the moments of divine madness. The other two characters are two heroes from Greek mythology, Heracles and Actaeon, who also bring on stage their sufferings as they come closer to the moment of their death. One character at a time becomes the lead in what can be considered as the “episodes” of the play and by using lines from the lost plays in which he originally appeared, he talks about his deeds and sufferings. There are two female characters in the play: the main one is Europe, who at the beginning of the play describes how she bore her children and how the god of war Ares is now taking them away from her and kills them in war. During the rest of the performance, Europe remains silent at the back of the stage as if the mother of the most catastrophic wars in the twentieth century is unable to react to what happens to her children and she is there only to take care of the victims of all these wars just before they die. She is the present-absent witness of the end of European history, a history full of wars, violence and losses (Chatzidimitriou 270). Only in the Achilles’ “episode” does a new female character appear: the actress who plays Europe, now becomes Thetis, the mother of Achilles, and responds with a long monologue to her lamenting son.
What I did in Epigonoi had the structure of an ancient tragedy. Yet, I wasn’t really interested to create a proper play and I worked based on improvisations of the actors with the fragments of the ancient texts. Those improvisations were very specific and not at all abstract, because this is the way I work. And during the phase of organising the material, if I felt that a story was being formed, I prevented its development. Because then there would be no fragment. Something else would then be formed, a hermaphroditic construction that would be nothing. I kept the fragments, these moments of the characters, as they were.[Fragment 4]
A fragment, particularly in its original language, has great depth, it resonates to different frequencies. A contemporary dramatic text lacks these characteristics. A fragment is a piece of ancient material, that has within it elements of primordiality, it has a dark side and thus it has value. A contemporary play does not have the depth of a fragment; it is there, in that depth, where you fight with your own demons. On that note, there are the plays of Heiner Müller, which do not have a dramatic flow. Müller creates fragments, he destroys the dramatic flow, he does not conclude his plays with a climax, with a happy ending. He constantly changes direction, and he dismantles. This is not easy. I was talking to Kannicht at some point, and he used to tell me about the fear of philologists: fragments create fear.[Fragment 5]
Those who were in a state of madness, feared not the fragment; it is madness that makes you want to keep the fragment in particles, to fragmentise it even more. Because madness equals tragedy and tragedy equals madness. And this is the core of tragedy; the fragment is the core of tragedy. And all the rest is a seminar of Max Reinhardt, an obsession with beauty, a continuous circular movement, a pseudo-dramaticism. It’s nothing. Because tragedy is a very dark genre and all the dark genres have endured, while the light ones eventually come to an end. And fragments are in the core of the darkness of tragedy. Fragments always guide you away, they dissociate you from the rationale of the dramatic structure or the Aristotelian way of thinking. Then fragments come apart and become scherben, they turn to particles and right at that point, a new matter is created, which can be reconstituted as matter full of energy, and with this material something new can be constructed, something else can be re-created.[Fragment 6]
Terzopoulos’ staging of ancient Greek tragedy can neither be considered ordinary nor traditional; it is based on his method and it emanates from his determination “to practice the kind of theater which incorporates the energy of the body, human memory, and life experience and images which have been stored within the human body” (McDonald 159). Most of the elements of his method, which has been presented by the director himself (Terzopoulos) and also has been extensively studied by contemporary scholars (Chatzidimitriou; Decreus) can be found in Epigonoi. The semiotics and materiality of the naked body, the long and deep breaths, the rhythmic connection between text and movement and the geometry of the actors’ configurations on stage are some of these elements. Paramount among them is the gesture, the most characteristic element in Terzopoulos’ performances. The body of the actor who is trained in Terzopoulos’ method creates “new corporeal—non canonical and perhaps pre-expressive— gestural elements” (Sampatakakis 111). Since the director primarily works with actors’ bodies and then with words, “actors’ bodies tend to be led to clear-cut angular schemata which help each body member to create a hieroglyphic stylised gesture (guided to signification by the study of a particular tragic text and its performative requirements)” (112). Gestures allow a body to be displayed in extremis and lead the rhythm of the tragic words which are now embodied. In the world of Epigonoi, lamentation for the loss and anger for the divine are expressed through a metaphorical double fragmentation, of the speech one hears and of the gestures one sees as images of a fragmented body.
The actors repeated their training before every performance, otherwise nothing would have happened; things would have remained only in the head. You need to know the material and work with your whole body, or else it is simply a cerebral condition, the movement will be external and without energy. On the contrary, you have to work with the sources of energy, so that things can be rooted and exist. If not, they are just descriptive. Performances that are called physical happen all the time, but the bodies are frivolous and void, they just do some schematic movements and there’s nothing inside. From my own performances only very few moments have remained in my mind, specific moments of acting; all together they sum up to ten minutes at most. Whatever I do, I cannot do again; I keep denying myself with each new performance and I tend to do theatre that is different, difficult and inverted.[Fragment 7]
Each fragment by itself is some kind of very strong matter, through which you can even reach an absolute depth, and in moments it can create a fissure inside you, and you can thus meet the brink of danger. Because I believe that tragedy is on the brink of danger, it is on the verge, it is dangerous, there lies danger. Tragedy is clearly the most dangerous genre, the one that does not calm us down. We tend to calm people down and we fill up the box office, by telling them the grandmother’s fairy tales; we behave to them as if they are children, children who simply listen to the tale.[Fragment 8]
And this attitude derives from our education. Because you cannot substitute the aforementioned madness with little moments of postmodern foolishness, you cannot simply create an effect through the use of a ludicrous scenography on which there’s nothing but absurdity; I’ve become sick of all these in our country. Both the country and theatre are doing so badly. I watch the younger generations abroad and I watch them here too and I become really sad. There is no risk and that starts with education. There is no danger and there is no sense of the fact that ‘I come on stage to support a position.’ In most cases I come on stage to wink to the audience, to present my autobiography or to be, what we may call, ‘interactive,’ a condition that the actor enjoys and also helps a lonesome person to find some kind of contact in the theatre. My own aspect is completely different.[Fragment 9]
During the last fifty years the notion of fragmentation has progressively become more centralised in the fields of the arts particularly because one’s individual life is lived less and less as a coherent story but much more as a series of fragments, phases and episodes. To reflect this, and to turn towards abstraction and alienation on stage, “theatre takes on a fragmentary and partial character . . . trusting individual impulses, fragments and microstructures of texts in order to become a new kind of practice” (Lehmann 57). Theatre nowadays favours the fragmentation of narrative and the method of collage, thus offering an adequate sub-structure and providing an excellent environment for exploring the performance potential of textual remnants, like the tragic fragments. Moreover, the notion of fragmentation implies the literal and metaphorical concept of rupture, which itself can be seen either as the cause or the result of trauma. The ubiquitous idea of trauma links the fragmented/traumatised text to the fragmented/traumatised self. “[F]ragmentation is a vital key to the current understanding of the notion of the self in the discipline of social psychology” (Hall, “Subjects” 139), and trauma is closely associated with theatre because “the development of trauma theory is underpinned by a history of theatricality, and performativity is inherent within the structure of trauma” (Duggan 17). If the specific association of trauma with communication is also considered, it becomes evident that in order to attend to the performative aspect of trauma theory, a particular kind of text needs to be invented or employed. Since “the strange journey across time taken by the physical fragments of tragedy―their survival―also resonates with the idea of the survivor of trauma that is central both to Greek tragedy and to our contemporary sense of historical identity” (Hall, Greek Tragedy 337), tragic fragments have strong affinities both with the notion of the fragmented self in trauma and with the textual/linguistic demands which this fragmented self poses. In the performance of Epigonoi, Terzopoulos brought on stage war trauma sufferers who had no other way to express themselves vocally but only through the fragmented speech which Aeschylus’ tragic fragments provided to them.
If a fragment says nothing, then therein lies the adventure for the artist. To say nothing, to fight within nothingness. The shocking nothing about which Beckett talks. Our purpose is this nothing, this vacuum. I talk about this form of nothing that instead of a core, it has a hole inside it, a vacuum; I also talk about the artist who is in danger of falling into the hole and getting lost or drown; this is something really dangerous. No directorial, or scenographic, or musical idea can replace anything. Never, nothing. This is where magic lies. The fragment starts and ends with a vacuum, it does not close. This is the basic principle. Exactly like the injured fragment of an ancient vase that cannot be completed, and you see in one fragment a hand, in another an eye, in another a chest and a thigh. That is to say, this is precisely their value, that they are like this. If you try to stick them together, their value gets lost.[Fragment 10]
We also live in this vacuum today. We live in fragmented way. Any normality, that bears within it the sense of narration, the myth of the everyday, the alibis, or the lies, is gone. We live in a vacuum and we fear the vacuum. We are afraid to look at the bottom of it because we may fall and then the vacuum will devour us. The vacuum has such great power.[Fragment 11]
Instead, we are used to close the gaps, to put stuff in them, to fill them in; we create a story on top of them as well and we continue our carefree singing and whistling. In this sense, a fragment with its curves, with its corners, with its sounds, with its completely unconventional and inaccessible elements, might eventually tell you something. Exactly as it happens with modern music. The Russian Suprematists were closer to the idea of the fragment, also some of the Structuralists and, of course, atonal music. A piece of atonal music has the power to stand up or even hover, and then you have to follow it.[Fragment 12]
Yet, we feel the need to support the fragments by telling various grandmother’s fairy tales. We need to support them so that we ourselves can calm down. The fragment creates insecurity inside us, because it does not contain within itself those conditions that may lead to its completion, to a complete reading, as if the fragment is hiding itself. Nevertheless, something is concealed inside the fragment and we must find it. Truth is never told from the excerpt, from the fragment, from the scherbe. There are philosophical views on the idea of fragmentation, various thoughts, and also fragmentary readings of things.[Fragment 13]
In the summer of 2020, seventeen years after the performance of Epigonoi, I approached Theodoros Terzopoulos and had a long discussion with him, as part of my PhD research on the use of tragic fragments in contemporary performances. In the case of Terzopoulos, I asked him to think back to the production of Epigonoi and contemplate on his work with fragmented texts. He responded in a very generous way by offering his insights on the notion of fragment and its connection to tragedy, his remarks about fragmentation and contemporary life in European societies, his perception of the vacuum around the fragment and of the depth of tragedy, along with his strong views on how fragments should be treated by theatre artists. Terzopoulos’ words are presented here in the form of fragments of thought, a way most suitable for the subject of our discussion.
I haven’t thought of working again with fragments, because nowadays everything is a fragment. And in a way, it has no special meaning for me, because in my work I like to fragment everything, to shatter the material. My work for the Epigonoi was fragmentary in every sense and as far as bodies and voices were concerned, they were fragmented in most cases. The notion of fragmentation was kept in many levels; I didn’t try to smooth the corners, to give to the material a false appearance, so that the actors fall in love with the words of the story they narrate. The whole process was anti-narrative. I mean, its function was to create more fissures so as to become a physical code; and indeed it happened.[Fragment 14]
We are usually based on myth, but the ancient myth is also fragmentary. It is the subconscious essence of the world, the wild nightmares of humanity. Myths lie deeply inside us and when they come to surface, they are not tidy. They were tidied up and arranged by classical thinking. Then, myths were emancipated and the tragedies were made. There are still some fragments, sounds that have not been emancipated and which say nothing—for example, they can be identified in the monologue of Tecmessa or the monologue of Medea—and which we cannot interpret. Let’s take as an example of a sound, ‘a-y-meeeeh . . .’ which can be from an African monody and it came from North Africa, and which can last up to five hours. It is very difficult to get into that area.[Fragment 15]
That is the reason why European classicism has cut off all these sounds. The Europeans did not deal with the roots of things, with the dark side of things, with Dionysus. They just explained them, they only cared to explain them. And then, this whole edifice was constructed. And in it, the tradition was formed, and directors who approached ancient tragedy through classicism were born, and Universities were created, etc., in short, what we call the Apollonian tradition. We explain everything; we avoid the risk of the vacuum and of the fragment. This is what science tries to do, to explain everything and that is why science is only distantly related to art. And this is why the philosophers of theatre are more important than the scientists of theatre.[Fragment 16]
Theodoros Terzopoulos has been one of the most prolific theatre directors of our time, one who never stops travelling around the world in order to direct a show with actors in a foreign language or to teach his method in a masterclass. The theoretical analysis of his work by prestigious scholars advances in ever deeper levels and it appears continuously in scientific journals and books, while Terzopoulos himself is an artist who offers every possible assistance to the requiring researcher. His latest contribution to the theoretical approach to fragmentation and tragedy, which is presented here, can be used as a starting point for quest for researchers and pursuit for theatre artists. Looking back at his views of twenty years ago it seems that what was then expressed in an initial form, it has now become a strong way of making art and a solid theory that supports it. Maybe the depth of tragedy that used to provoke Terzopoulos’ mind then has become deeper with time for him and those who follow his work, but over the years he has been proved to be fearless, or crazy, enough to delve into it and explore it by directing ever more ground-breaking and exciting productions.
Note: Translated from Greek by the author.
 Terzopoulos had worked on Aeschylus plays before the Epigonoi, and he had directed The Persians, in 1990 and in 1991, and Prometheus Bound, in 1995 (Sidiropoulou). From the beginning of his career, Terzopoulos liked to revisit ancient Greek tragedies and to create new performance material for every new production he directed either for his own company or for the co-producing ones.
 For this research project, I examine the performances in which tragic fragments have been employed, looking for the possible patterns that govern the connections of the fragments with the other textual elements. An essential part of the project is the communication with the creator of each performance, either the director or the dramaturg or the playwright, and the conduction of an interview in which specific questions about the process of the creator are asked.
Chatzidimitriou, Penelope. Theodoros Terzopoulos’ Theatre: From Personal to Universal, from the Centre to the Ec-centric [Το Θέατρο του Θεόδωρου Τερζόπουλου. Από το προσωπικό στο παγκόσμιο, από το κέντρο στο έκ-κεντρο]. Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, PhD dissertation, 2004.
Decreus, Freddy. The Ritual Theatre of Theodoros Terzopoulos. Routledge, 2019.
Duggan, Patrick. Trauma-tragedy: Symptoms of Contemporary Performance. Manchester UP, 2012.
Hall, Edith. “Subjects, Selves, and Survivors.” Helios, vol. 34, no. 2, 2007, pp. 125–59.
—. Greek Tragedy: Suffering Under the Sun, Oxford UP, 2010.
Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Translated by K. Jürs-Munby, Routledge, 2006.
McDonald, Marianne. “Theodoros Terzopoulos’ Talk.” Ancient Sun, Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage, Columbia UP, 1992, pp. 159–69.
Sampatakakis, George. “Gestus or Gesture? Greek Theatre Performance and Beyond.” Receptions of Antiquity, edited by Jan Nelis, Ghent Academia Press, 2011, pp. 103–15.
Sidiropoulou, Avra. “Greek Contemporary Approaches to Tragedy: Terzopoulos’ Revisions of Aeschylus.” Contemporary Adaptations of Greek Tragedy, edited by George Rodosthenous, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 53–72.
Terzopoulos, Theodoros. Dionysus in Exile: The Theatre of Theodoros Terzopoulos, Theater der Zeit, 2019.
*Menelaos Karantzas is a theatre director and dramaturg. He holds a BA (Hons) in Theatre Studies from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA), Greece, and an MFA (Merit) in Theatre Directing from East 15 Acting School of the University of Essex, U.K. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Theatre Studies Department of the NKUA and his research focuses on fragments of ancient Greek drama and their use in contemporary performances. He has directed more than 20 full productions and stage readings of plays in Athens and in London and he teaches Acting, Dramaturgy, and Directing at various drama schools in Athens.
Copyright © 2021 Menelaos Karantzas
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411
This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.