Today is National Moon Day – because on this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the Moon.
Since then, millions of people have been born for whom this is just another day. But for those of us who are old enough to remember, it will always be one of those “where were you when” days.
My story is a little bit different, because I was far from home …
I was very fortunate to spend two months of the summer of 1969 in Greece. I had signed up for a study program run by a Greek-born professor who returned home each summer to a curious village which occupied both the Peloponnesian coast, and, just across a narrow strait of water, the tiny island of Poros (not to be confused with the island of Paros.) Today, it’s overrun by resorts and condos.
The program’s colorful brochure waxed lyrical about classes held outdoors under ancient olive trees in the tradition of Aristotle, and field trips to theatre and music performances. What the brochure failed to mention was that the classes were designed specifically for students majoring in ancient history, classical languages and/or archeology. I did not discover this until I went to my first class, billed as “Beginning Greek.” The brochure had expounded on the advantages of learning to speak the language from a native-speaker.
As the sole Theatre Arts major in the group, I did not have the two or three years of Classical Greek language study all the other students had. I was the only one who didn’t know the Greek alphabet. The instructor was indeed a native-speaker – she spoke no English. Almost immediately, we were given poems by Modern Greek poets to translate into English. This was my daunting introduction to C.P. Cavafy and George Seferis.
The third day, I quit this class, and the other class for which I had signed up, also not as I had been led to expect.
I borrowed English-language translations of the poetry from another student so I could try to salvage something from the wreckage. The Greek-born professor in charge was greatly dismayed.
She felt “responsible” for me. But I was 20 years old, I had worked to pay half the cost of this trip, and none of my ambitions involved academia – my parents despaired because I was all about “the experience” and oh so not about a GPA.
She had no idea what to do with me. I was offered my choice of any of the other classes to monitor – nothing appealed, but at least the class on the Iliad and Odyssey did not require any prior knowledge of Ancient Greek because an American professor was teaching it in English.
I had already “done” Homer in two World Lit classes, and hadn’t liked the Iliad much, so it was with very low expectations that I sat in for Day Four of his class. It was a revelation. There is nothing like a wonderful teacher in full spate on a subject he knows and loves deeply. The Iliad came alive for me for the first time. My appreciation of the Odyssey was greatly expanded as well.
I spent the rest of that summer’s other class hours reading on my own, borrowing any English-language books brought by the other students. The poetry translations were exchanged for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet, and his brother Gerald’s childhood memories of their family’s life on the island of Corfu and his delight with flora and fauna in My Family and Other Animals. I devoured Journey to Morea by Nikos Kazantzakis. I re-read my own copies of Zorba the Greek and Mary Renault’s The Praise Singer and The Mask of Apollo.
We had afternoons and weekends free, so I made day trips by bus or ferry or on foot, sometimes alone but more often with other students. Two of them became particular friends and traveling companions.
One was an ex-military American doing post-grad at the American University of Beirut. He was the oldest student in the summer program. The other was a girl close to my age from Thessaloniki, an archeology major, the first girl in her family to go to college. There was an attraction between my two friends which both were too wise to act upon – it was never even spoken of – the fallout for her would have been total alienation from her close-knit family, and an end to all her hopes and ambitions. So my role was both buffer and chaperone – it was their grace and joy in what could be shared that kept my part from being unbearable. A very different “summer of love” from the one I had spent in San Francisco.
Traveling with two such knowledgeable and enthusiastic “guides” was a fabulous experience. The Girl from Thessaloniki had to be very circumspect about the political situation in Greece – it was an especially perilous time for Greek students – but she was very willing to spar with our grad student about everything from pronunciation of Ancient Greek to her insistence on calling Istanbul by its “proper” name, Constantinople. With me, it was the stagecraft of Greek theatre and the relationship of the choral chants to the “action.”
Greece is the only place I have experienced a truly national audience for live theatre. Every Greek who possibly could went to Epidaurus! They were so passionate about it – my friend translated for me letters to the editors of the major Greek newspapers, where a battle raged in print over the staging of the plays at the Epidaurus theatre festival – one camp denouncing the productions as “too modern,” rebutted with equal intensity by the other camp’s praise of the “fresh and innovative approach” taken by the directors. In America, only debates about the Viet Nam War caused such furor.
There are places on the earth where humankind feels connected to Something Greater. Epidaurus is such a place. It was built on the west side of mount Kynortio, at the end of the classical era, around 340-330 BC, an addition to the Asklepios sanctuary’s vast site, with its hospital buildings and temples dedicated to the healing god.
The Great Theatre of Epidaurus is the essence of theatre. No member of the audience has an obstructed view, and its acoustics are so exquisite that a whisper on the stage can be heard from every seat in the amphitheatre. The natural surroundings add great beauty – and spaces for picnicking. Our trio was one of many who came early to lounge on meadow grass while eating supper and talking over the play to be performed.
As we climbed up the path worn by millennia of sandaled feet through the sacred grove, the happy chatter of the crowd would gradually fade to the occasional whisper.
We saw several performances that summer. The most controversial production was of The Bacchae, because of its clever use of modern music and theatrical lighting, but it was still a terrifying look into the face of ecstasy-driven madness.
On July 20, 1969, I experienced one of Spalding Gray’s “perfect moments.”
It came during another performance: The Electra of Euripides.
Keep that date in mind.
I had been part of the chorus in a college production of this Electra, in the Gilbert Murray translation, which I viewed with increasing dislike as rehearsals went plodding on through page after page of rhymed iambic pentameter. We did have an outstanding Electra, the first American-born member of her Greek family, who knew the play in the original. She breathed some fire into the pedantic Murray.
But this production at Epidaurus was in Modern Greek before an audience well versed in the story, with a sprinkling of visitors from many other countries, like raisins added to bread. The Greeks were not a silent audience. They responded to the beats of the play like another chorus, not of words but of sound: gasps, groans, chuffs of anger, warning hisses, laughter cut short so as not to miss the next moment.
The performance edged closer to Clytemnestra’s final exit, to be gruesomely murdered offstage by her children. Our grad student checked his watch, and whispered: “If they’re on time, the astronauts should be landing on the moon in two minutes.”
Electra: “Enter our humble cottage; but, prithee, take care that my
smoke grimed walls soil not thy robes; now wilt thou offer to the
gods a fitting sacrifice. There stands the basket ready, and the knife
is sharpened, the same that slew the bull, by whose side thou soon
wilt lie a corpse; and thou shalt be his bride in Hades’ halls whose
wife thou wast on earth. This is the boon I will grant thee, while
thou shalt pay me for my father’s blood.” *
Staring at the luminous dial on his watch, my friend raised his finger – the huge moon crested behind us, shining over the back wall of the amphitheatre – his finger came down – Clytemnestra screamed.
Everything stopped for the three of us.
A coalescence of all our human past and present in a single perfect moment – io!
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* Translation by E. P. Coleridge