Speech Milo Rau at presentation season 23-24 NTGent| 14 June 2023
What did I just do? I stepped out of the chorus. An almost historical event: among the Greeks, the chorus was the first character. Before Aeschylus, the first of the surviving tragedians introduced the actors, the chorus was the only partner of the choir leader, the singer, and the musician who stood outside, in front of the chorus. The history of theatre is, if you like, the history of the fading away of the chorus, of its disappearance. In bourgeois drama it has disappeared altogether: Ibsen, Chekhov - it would be absurd to imagine a chorus for "The Seagull" or "Nora", right?
A few years ago, I was walking through a park in Paris early in the morning. Suddenly I stopped: a group of actors was performing a play by Shakespeare among the trees. As the sun rose, I watched. For the first time in my life, I understood Shakespeare’s every word. Other people stopped, workers, commuters, pensioners and schoolchildren. And while we listened and watched, the city woke up around us. All day long the experience echoed in me: the simple beauty of performing a classic for the people who just happened to be there. For the townspeople.
That’s how the idea of the All Greeks Festival which will conclude the coming season, was born: A festival bringing together all 32 Greek tragedies – spread over the whole city. Theatre no longer takes place at night, nor in artificial light, like here and now, but outside, at dawn. For the entire spring, for the spring of 2024, Ghent will become the Athens of the 21st century. The utopia of a place where life, theatre and the city become one, the classics and the daily life. “Create your own classics“ is the slogan under which NTGent has been sailing through Flemish and global waters since 2018. A theatre by all for all, an activist art form that discovers the great mythical heroes of the 21st century. All their small, diverse stories, not only in books, but in the neighbourhoods, at the peripheries of our society, in Europe, but also in Latin America, in Africa, in the Middle East...
“Create your own classics“NTGent
As you know, the coming season will be the last season I have the pleasure of planning and artistically directing together with my team from NTGent: From Dusk till Dawn. A Season of Common Heroes. The season is dedicated to a passion I have had since my childhood: a passion for the Greeks. As a schoolboy, I studied Ancient Greek for 7 years, 5 hours every week. The New Testament, originally written in Greek, we read after two years, Plato after three years, for the tragedians, Sappho and the other poets we needed five years. In Switzerland, this is part of the classical high school education. At least in my generation and at Catholic high schools.
As a final project, I had to do a new translation of Euripides' Trojan Women - the first play I should stage later as a director – at that time, more than 20 years ago, still with the original text and with professional actors, I hope you can forgive me for this youthful sin. The other part of the final exam consisted of an oral exam on the strangely sombre victory odes of the great poet Pindaros. Strangely sombre because when Pindaros glorified a victor at the Olympics, he always reminded us of his mortality at the same time. From Pindaros comes perhaps the most beautiful sentence in Greek poetry: "Man is only a dream of a shadow." And of course, he was right: What is the span of life when we talk, as we do today, about Greece - a civilisation that goes back 2500 years?
But also something else is striking about Pindaros: The names of the victors - of course only men at the time - are often not handed down, but the cities from which they came. What today are the countries, the large corporations, and the parties, were then the Polis: the communities in which everyone knew each other, at least by reputation. First, you came from Athens, you were part of a Polis, its representative – only then you were an individual. It's the same with the Greek tragedies, you remember: the first character was the chorus, the community. Only then were the so-called protagonists invented.
The next, my last season at NTGent, is fully dedicated to the Polis: the community made up of all of us, the common citizens. Because each of us is the last and the first Ghentian right? A unique mixture of history, fate, chance, and will. I have been reading the 32 tragedies crosswise over the last few weeks because tonight's performance will end with a kind of freestyle composition of the most diverse choral fragments, monologues, newly written and classical, which will be performed for you by two actors of our global ensemble, Princess Isatu Hassan Bangura and Arne De Tremerie.
But before this medley in the best classical tradition - for the tragedies themselves are often remixes of older models - six of our artists will speak about six central questions and characters in the tragedies: the apocalypse (or the figure of the seer Cassandra), rationality (or the goddess of ratio, Athena), empathy (or the often-sung fate of prisoners of war, from the “Persians” to the “Trojan Women”), power (ah, Creon!), resistance (and the hundred embodiments of “Antigone”), justice that so often shows itself extremely violent (told and delivered by the figure of the messenger, a kind of Sisyphos present in absolute every tragedy). Man as a radiant but always endangered crossroads: of freedom and providence, individuality and ideology, capital and resistance, love and hate, connection and solitude, that is the theme of the season 23/24. Theatre as the space of the collective, a place that no figure or group or story can claim for itself, but only all of us, the city.
Reading some of the tragedies again in the last weeks, I thought, like so many before me: No one knew as well as the Greeks what forces we are exposed to. The forces of providence and nature, the forces of damnation that span generations, the forces of the community as well as the forces of loneliness. And above all, and again and again: the forces of friendship and love. In many tragedies, the most beautiful song is dedicated to the Gods of Love, Community, Ecstasy, Aphrodite, and Bakkhos. For it is only love that allows us to truly experience the other person and thus ourselves. It is only love that tears us into the whole depth of what it means to be in the world. I believe the theatre is a place where we look lovingly at each other - as if together we could even overcome our mortality.
When I started reading the Greek tragedies as a youngster, as a child actually, one thing astonished me: the almost pornographic pleasure in violence that speaks from the tragedies. Later I learned that the tragedy contests in Athens always took place at the end of summer, in autumn - at the end of the war season, when the citizens of the Polis were returning from the destruction of another Polis. The experience of war, the line of battles, and the row of spectators, the hoplite Phalanx and the Chorus were two interconnected spaces, two interconnected rituals, and experiences. Just as we too, when we sit here, are in reality not listening to what is said on stage, but to the response that our own inner selves give to it: our daily battles, right?
"I believe the theatre is a place where we look lovingly at each other - as if together we could even overcome our mortality."Milo Rau
There will be so many wonderful artists performing this season - we're about to watch a video that will introduce the whole season, all the common heroes, the modern messengers, the Cassandras, Elektras, Medeas. But the highlight of the Greek season is, let me remind it, the All Greeks Festival: a tragedy marathon, a dream I have cherished for many years. But unlike the tragedy marathons of the Ancient Greeks, it takes place in the spring and heralds not a summer of war, but a summer of debate, a summer of joy, love, and friendship. Because the Greeks, 2500 years away, at the basis of our strange and violent, so-called Western civilization, created the form of the Tragedy to abolish the Tragic itself – to overcome the tragic mind, the idea of the hero, the division between man and nature, Polis and citizen, war and peace. Perhaps this will happen next spring, in Ghent: The last time we perform the Tragedies, together, in the light of a new day. But perhaps it’s only my hybris speaking.
I don't know how to thank this city and all of you for the wonderful years I was able to spend here. I thank you for your patience and generosity with our City Theatre of the Future, the last seasons, and the coming ones. And unfortunately, I have to give some bad news at the end of my speech: I'm staying after Season 2023/24, the last one I program and direct, at NTGent, as a house artist. There are people who leave without saying goodbye - and others who say goodbye but don't leave. I belong to the second group. In the summer of 2024, after the All Greeks Festival, I will step back into the chorus, but I'm not disappearing.
But however, theatre, Ghent, our Polis is bigger than all of us. May art and friendship continue to sustain us next season like in the last years. And let me conclude with a few lines by Anne Carson, my favorite translator of the Greeks. It is a choral piece, a song to Aphrodite and Bakkhos, the Gods of love, ecstasy, friendship, of community:
“I dream of a perfectly clear afternoon
On the island where Aphrodite sits
Counting her blessings
I dream of rivers
With a hundred mouths
Where the leaves turn over
like silver fire.
O god of a thousand names
you who are there
begotten of thunder
moving in mystery
visible in fire
going where rivers go
green in the vine shadow
you who are there
hear our cry
make us well!”