Tadashi Suzuki and Theodoros Terzopoulos: Crossing Boundaries, Creating Bridges

Penelope Chatzidimitriou*


In the first part, the paper focuses on Tadashi Suzuki’s relationship with Greece and Greek tragedy, a relationship that dates back to the 1970s and extends to the present. At first, Greek tragedy helps Suzuki refashion the postwar Japanese identity in its clash with the colonizing West, but in the course of the decades and the historical changes that take place, the same genre becomes the means for a global artistic project of non-discrimination and solidarity. In this framework, Suzuki’s collaboration with the internationally acclaimed Greek director Theodoros Terzopoulos is crucial and invites my attention in the second part of this essay.

Keywords: Tadashi Suzuki, Theodoros Terzopoulos, Greek tragedy, Delphi, Theatre Olympics, acting method, animal energy

Tadashi Suzuki: Revolt and Nostalgia

In my work “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa. Reinventing the Greek Classics; Reinventing the Japanese Identity after Hiroshima,” I stress that “the aesthetics of Tadashi Suzuki are rooted in the cultural specificity of post-war Japan” (95). It is then that “the traumatized Japanese national body”—the national body that bore the guilt of allying with the Nazi villain in World War II, the body that was then polluted and affected with cancer by the U.S. atomic bombs, the body that was colonized by the Western culture—that body “emerged as a site of resistance” (95).

In fact, modern Japanese theatre has always been political. Be it Shingeki, butoh or angura, twentieth-century Japanese theatre goes hand in hand with the milieu in which it is born and lives, reflecting or resisting the dominant ideology (Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 105). Early twentieth-century Shingeki imitated Western theatre realistic practices whilst angura, led by charismatic directors-auteurs like Tadashi Suzuki in the 1960s, revolutionized Japanese theatre practice when it transcended Western realism. Angura transformed the Westernized Japanese body into a body of resistance that self-consciously mirrored the violence which Western society “ha[d] inflicted on nations with different cultural backgrounds” (Marshall qtd. in Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 95). “Governed by anger at the historical control exercised on the Japanese body, a fundamental aesthetic conflict emerged” (Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 97). One needs to think only of butoh and its exclusively Japanese, anti-Western “crudeness” and “spirituality” (Sanders, qtd in Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 97).

Tatsumi Hijikata, butoh dancer and choreographer, in Hȏsȏtan (1972). Photo: Makoto Onozuka. Source

Against the background of such a collective traumatic memory, Tadashi Suzuki and other angura theatre practitioners moved toward traditional Japanese theatre codes and “a nostalgia for a pre-modern Japanese world,” as described by Takeshi Kawamura, a third-generation angura playwright and director (qtd. in Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 104). Tadashi Suzuki “looked to noh, the ‘art of walking,’ to provide ‘feet’ for the modern theatre” (Armstrong qtd. in Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 104). Likewise, he was inspired by Noh’s nonrealism, its “‘do-or-die’ battle mentality” in performing and the fixed, eclectic security of the mise-en-scène. These, combined with the dramaturgical collage of play materials, reveal a mistrust for the modern global age and linearity; they are viewed as “responsible for the atrocities of our age, since they justify inhuman expedience” (Goodman qtd. in Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 104).

Summed up, Suzuki’s effort is binary; it functions “to overcome, on the one hand, what he saw as the main problem of pre-modern Japan, its static nature, and, on the other hand, to protest against an apocalyptic future” (Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa”  105).

Powerful stamping is typical of Noh theatre. Photo: Jukka O. Miettinen (see Miettinen)
Suzuki and the Greek Classics

Still, the Greek classics and Shakespeare—the pillars of the Western theatrical canon—escaped the fury of the post-Hiroshima Japanese artists. For Suzuki, Greek classics are precious because they offer “an archetype of the fundamentals of what it means to be alive as a human being,” unlike the performance-oriented Japanese texts which seem to lack “intellectual sophistication and profundity” (qtd. in Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 97). The ancient Greeks gave Suzuki a larger ontological scale of the human experience in its confrontation with the divine or mortal other and their stories (Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 97). In ancient Greek tragedy and theatre architecture, Suzuki found the abundant animal energy required by his project (Suzuki, Culture is the Body 127). He says:

What I felt when I came to Greece, as I looked at the text as theatre, what really amazed me, was the amount of human energy invested in its construction. Huge theatres were built […] without the use of energy sources such as electricity, gas or oil […]. This same type of [human] energy fills the characters appearing in the text […]. This used to be true in Japan, too […]. The whole body was involved in expression […]. That’ s why we must produce again—as may have been the case with Greek drama, Noh and Kabuki—that kind [of] human energy which confirms human existence and entertains.

Suzuki and Terzopoulos 88–89
The Ancient Theatre of Delphi. The Open Air Theatre in Toga was modeled on the classic amphitheatre (see here). Source

Greek tragedies offer Suzuki the theme of mania—be it ecstatic, erotic or vengeful—to justify and foreground the high levels of energy that his trained performing bodies unleash on stage. For Erika Fischer-Lichte, Suzuki may also explore “the supposed kinship between Noh and ancient Greek tragic theatre” (166), as the Noh actor Kanze Hisao and his theatre company Mei No Kai did before him, in the 1970s, when they staged a number of ancient Greek tragedies in the Noh style on the premise that both genres depict the confrontation of Man with Fate (Fischer-Lichte 164; McDonald 56–57).

Kanze Hisao performing Harlequin in the 1955 experimental production of Pierrot Lumiere in Tokyo, created by Jikken Kōbō and Takeshi. As the mask shows, avant-garde and Noh elements were combined in the performance. Photo: Kitadai Shōzō, see Tezuka

Although Suzuki feels a strong affinity with the Greeks, his sentiment does not preclude the possibility of collision. His tour de force lies partly in his strong clash with the ancient Greek tragedies. The ancient Greeks gave him a larger ontological scale in which individuality is simultaneously transcended and yet paradoxically grounded in a plagued collective and social sphere (Varopoulou qtd. in Chatzidimitriou, 97). In his theatre, classics are collaged and replayed, resulting in a new textual vortex that sweeps away psychological interpretation to reveal tensions, struggles and traumas which are rooted in historicity before they become a trope, that of the world as hospital.His recurrent framing device of the world as mental hospital can be partly attributed to “Japan’s instability and social conflicts and the sensibilities these created” (Allain, qtd in Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 101). This is a “mad world,” Suzuki implies, “in which texts and bodies lose their ‘sane integrity,’ ending up butchered and irrational” (Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 101). 

Waiting for Orestes: Electra, directed by Tadashi Suzuki, Edinburgh International Festival, 2012

Interestingly enough, the Japanese body of resistance in Suzuki’s productions of Greek tragedy, starting with the much celebrated The Trojan Women in 1974, is often female. It is on the female body that masculine aggression and violence is inscribed, especially at times of war. Suzuki’s The Trojan Women, for example, is set among the ruins of a bombarded cemetery immediately after World War II. His women, though surviving a war, are deprived of any cathartic tragic glory and his spectators of any hope for the coming of a harmonious future for humankind. Here lies what Fischer-Lichte calls “the double-edged character of Suzuki’s theatre”: on the one hand, there is his “attempt to develop a theatre aesthetics rooted in the human body as the common ground of all cultures” (169); on the other hand, he “expos[es] the cyclical nature of political history as a repeated clash of cultures leading to death and destruction,” like, for example, “the clash between the Trojans and the Greeks […] [in The Trojan Women] or between the Japanese and the Americans in World War II” (Fischer-Lichte 169, 166).

The cruelty of war in The Trojan Women, directed by Tadashi Suzuki, SCOT, Japan. Source

In any case, in the post-Hiroshima era the Japanese theatre can no longer be received as “the art of a culturally inferior ‘nation of children’” (Lequeux, qtd in Chatzidimitriou, “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa” 98), and Suzuki’s contribution in this project is crucial. Changes in international politics opened the way to cultural changes so that Japan today receives the attention and respect of the West. Likewise, Suzuki’s love of the Greek classics and Shakespeare granted him a valid passport to the West and to culturally diverse audiences. As I write in my article “Tadashi Suzuki and Yukio Ninagawa”:

After all, Western theatre has long revealed its urgent need of the East to escape its aesthetic logocentric impasse, a need that the emerging global culture could satisfy. Japanese directors like Suzuki could now become an essential part of an international theatre avant-garde.


Nevertheless, the high risk of Orientalism and commercialization created when the Japanese director moved from the fringe to the mainstream has been pointed out by Paul Allain and further noted by Marianne McDonald (Allain 42; McDonald 66–68). 

Suzuki and Terzopoulos: After Dionysus

Suzuki’s interest in the Greek classics goes beyond the love of Greek texts and theatre architecture; indeed, it reveals a set of values and a worldview that have taken various shapes in the course of his career, from his adolescence, when he first visited Greece as a tourist, to his adult years, when he met and developed a friendship with Theodoros Terzopoulos, the internationally acclaimed Greek director. The two men share a common interest in Greek tragedy, and they both believe in the power of theatre to reform mental and social ecologies and to resist globalization and the cultural homogeneity it brings to the modern world. They both depart from mimesis and in their own unique styles they work with the physical body as a means of resistance against hegemonic discourses and the invasion of technology. What is more, they are both intrigued by the figure of Dionysus and Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae.

For Suzuki, “Bacchae is “an alteration between a political authority and a religious sect […], a battle of conflict” (“Director’s Note”). Photo: SCOT

Suzuki first staged The Bacchae in 1978 and since then has often returned to and redirected the play, renaming it Dionysus in 1990. Similarly, Terzopoulos’ all-important relation with The Bacchae began in 1986 with his groundbreaking and internationally acclaimed production in Delphi. Since then, he has directed the play in world centers such as Bogota (International Festival of Bogota, 1998), Dusseldorf (Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, 2001), Moscow (Stanislavsky Electrotheater, 2015) and Taipei (National Theatre of Taiwan, 2016). His acting method is described in his book, which also bears the name of Dionysus (Terzopoulos, The Return of Dionysus), while symposia dedicated to his work often allude to this god in their title. All the above are no surprise because the Greek director has chosen Dionysus as his so-called guiding god ever since his 1986 Bacchae, when he first foregrounded a kind of theatre that comprises a space of liminality, a space-between.

For Terzopoulos, Dionysus “is the ultimate exemplar of becomings, “the exponent of mutually excluded and fluid identities,” “man and woman,” “god and animal,” “order and chaos,” sanity and insanity (13; my translation). Accordingly, the actors in his theatre inhabit the space between conscious and unconscious, memory and reality, dream and reality; they unblock and release their animal energy, prioritizing the reptilian brain over the Cartesian brain (24); they extend the limits set by the everyday body and surpass what they can mentally and physically endure; they overcome the fears and restrictions of everyday life, and break down temporal and spatial linearity, creating fractures in the concrete image of the world as perceived by the human animal (14).

Dionysus in the Bogota production of Bacchae (1998)features in the poster of the “Tribute to Theodoros Terzopoulos,” organized by European Cultural Centre of Delphi in 2018. Photo: Johanna Weber. See here

Both Suzuki and Terzopoulos are Dionysian (and Artaudian) as they invest in the performer’s “animal energy” (Suzuki, Culture is the Body 127) and “energy body” (Terzopoulos 15; my translation). Terzopoulos elaborates:

Dionysus, the god of fertility, calls on the actor to search for the archetypal body which is hidden in the depths of his structure, suppressed and repressed by the mind. This Body, with its sources of unique psychosomatic energy, is the actor’s material and its limits extend beyond the limits of his physical body.

14; my translation

Intrigued by Dionysus, both directors see theatre as the key site to foreground a new mental and social ecology because “it permits the imaginative reconfiguration of […] bodily forms, comportments and behaviours and allows the body to act in ways that are profoundly anti-social” (Scheer 42). In Bacchae (1986), for example, Terzopoulos “voiced the otherness within Greek historicity […] digging out the most violated bodies of [Greek] history” (Sampatakakis 198–99). As Terzopoulos describes it, “Dionysian energy is […] destructive” (83), but this is a sort of positive, creative destruction because it combats the present mental ecology which is in crisis, fighting for a better future, for a new mental and social ecology.

Bacchae, directed by Theodoros Terzopoulos, The Stanislavsky Electrotheater, Moscow, 2015

In that regard, ritualistic and physical Violence plays a central role, promoting a “true [mental] ecology” of “the phantasms” of death, “aggression, murder, rape, racism,” one which does not censor them “in the name of great moral principles,” but allows their aesthetic expression in art (Guattari 57). Terzopoulos believes that “Any persistently intolerant and uninventive society that fails to‘imaginarize’ the various manifestations of violence risks seeing this violence crystallized in the Real” (Guattari 57–58). It is at this point that his aesthetic experimentation and practice become an ethico-political intervention. As for Suzuki and his life-long relation with Dionysus and The Bacchae, this particular tragedy appears to fuel “the double-edged character” of his theatre. As noted above, in terms of aesthetic form and stage representation this play “cultivates an encounter or the interweaving and even fusion of different cultures, for example, modern-traditional, Japanese-Greek, Eastern-Western, religious-political, and male-female,” whereas in terms of content it “expos[es] their clash” (Fischer-Lichte 169). The latter is tellingly depicted in his staging of The Bacchae in 1981 through the clash between the Japanese Dionysus, portrayed by S. Kayoko, and the American Pentheus, interpreted by T. Hewitt. In the end, “Pentheus/Man/West survived the sparagmos and was resurrected […] to reinstate the civilization of oppression” (Sampatakakis 204).

Terzopoulos and Suzuki: Delphi and the Theatre Olympics

Suzuki’s pessimistic view of history, as revealed in his futile juxtaposition of Dionysus and Pentheus, contrasts sharply with his aesthetic ideals and theatre practice which suggests, as mentioned above, “the utopian vision of a harmonious encounter, even fusion, of different cultures” (Fischer-Lichte 171). Such an aspiration has often brought Suzuki and Terzopoulos together. In fact, Suzuki and Terzopoulos share a common belief in the need for international artistic collaborations that cross borders and merge beliefs, cultures and styles. As the artistic director of the Ancient Greek Meetings at the European Cultural Centre of Delphi in the 1980s, Terzopoulos introduced Suzuki, along with other major foreign directors and theoreticians, to Ancient Greek theatre, transforming Delphi into “an alternative space of research on the tragic genre, a space where directing and dramaturgical voices contradict the more conventional ones that are heard mainly in the theatre of Epidaurus” (Chatzidimitriou, “‘Sandglass’” 286).

More specifically, Terzopoulos invited Suzuki to Delphi to present a number of his productions of Greek tragedy, starting with The Trojan Women in 1985. In 1986, their collaboration was extended when the municipalities of Delphi, where the European Cultural Centre of Delphi is located, and Toga, where Suzuki established his centre, came together for the mutual benefit of both communities. Clytemnestra was staged in the Ancient Stadium of Delphi, followed by Suzuki’s Electra (1995) and Oedipus Rex (2000), adapted once again for the Ancient Stadium. In addition to the productions staged at Delphi, Suzuki’s tragedies also reached Greek audiences in Athens. In 1995, Suzuki’s Dionysus was presented in the Festival of Athens, in Herodus Atticus Odeon, while in 2009 Electra was staged at Attis Theatre, Terzopoulos’ base in Athens. Similarly, many performances directed by Terzopoulos were presented in Toga, Tokyo and Shizuoka, including The Bacchae in 1986, Persians in 1992, Quartet in 1995 and 1997, Medea Material in 1996, Antigone in 1997, Heracles in 1999, Heracles Enraged and Heracles’ Descent in 1999, Ajax, the Madness in 2006 and The Trojan Women in 2019.

Tadashi Suzuki and Theodoros Terzopoulos in the Theatre Olympics 2019. Once again, they cultivated cooperation, not competition. Photo: Junko Nagata © GreeceJapan.com

Spanning forty years, the friendship and collaboration of Tadashi Suzuki and Theodoros Terzopoulos has inspired several creative projects of international scope. In 1994, Suzuki embraced Terzopoulos’ vision of the International Theatre Olympics and actively supported all efforts to bring this vision to fruition. Their shared endeavor resulted in performances held in Delphi, 1995, dedicated to tragedy, followed by performances in Shizuoka, 1999, and most recently in St. Petersburg and Toga, 2019. In April 1994, two months before the first official meeting of the International Committee of Theatre Olympics was held in Athens and the Theatre Olympics Charter was signed by Theodoros Terzopoulos, Tadashi SuzukiHeiner Müller, Robert Wilson, Tony HarrisonYuri LyubimovNuria Espert and Antunes Filho, Suzuki expressed his sentiments in a note dedicated to Terzopoulos:

We are at the end of the 20th century […]. The prospects of humanity don’t seem too [sic] bright […]. Two thousand years ago, Greek theatre existed as a spiritual manifestation serving humanity […]. Now […] we have to reaffirm and re-conquer the power of the theatre and construct with this medium a bridge to the 21st century. In this light, Terzopoulos has reunited the greatest stage directors of the world.

Suzuki, “Tadashi Suzuki and Theatre Olympics” 37
The 9th Theatre Olympics trailer reveals its multicultural and aesthetically diverse character

In conclusion, expressions of anger and resistance, dating from the post-war 1960s, to Western cultural forms have been transformed into a theatre project of world peace, non-discrimination and solidarity that has engendered positive change across the years. Especially during the post-Cold War era, a time of unrest, ethnic strife, immigration and political instability, theatre professionals have exerted great effort to forge new rules of coexistence and a “shared heritage” that “has been lost in politics and economics” (Suzuki, “Tadashi Suzuki and Theatre Olympics”). As Fischer-Lichte notes, “Even if history will never bring about such a restoration to wholeness, theatre can do so—not by creating an illusion on stage but through its particular aesthetic means that highlight the human body as the common ground of culture and theatre, wherever it takes place” (182).


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*Penelope Chatzidimitriou has an MA in Theatre Studies and Directing, Royal Holloway University of London and a PhD in Theatre Studies, English Department, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She is particularly interested in modern directors, performance and the interdisciplinary connections between theatre and science. In 2010, she published (in Greek) a monograph on the work of Theodoros Terzopoulos. Other publications are included in editions of Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, Peter Lang, China Theatre PressCambridge Scholars PublishingTheater der Zeit, Critical Stages, etc. She lives and works in Thessaloniki, Greece, as a freelance theatre lecturer and researcher.

Copyright © 2021 Penelope Chatzidimitriou
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