Saturday, October 26, 2019


My earliest memory of the broader Greek community in Melbourne involves being taken to an open air theatre as a young child, to watch a production of Euripides’ Medea. The scene where Medea stands over the corpses of the offspring she has just murdered, is indelibly etched into my memory, as is my mother’s comment to my father as we drove home, I, in stunned silence: “Greece is a Medea that destroys her children.’

Greek theatre in Australia is one of our most enduring community institutions. It has maintained a continuous presence among successive generations within the Greek communities of this continent for over one hundred years. During that time, Greek community organisations and personalities have come and gone but for some reason, Greek theatre as a form of entertainment has survived right up until the present day. Compared with comparable theatre-going rates among the broader Australian population, a disproportionally large percentage of Greeks within the Greek community still patronise the ‘Greek’ theatre, speaking not only to the vitality and relevance of theatre as a community institution, but also to the manner it is, as a form of expression and communication, deeply ingrained within the culture of the Greek people, wherever they reside.

Coupled with the above, there has emerged, over the years, an entirely new type of Greek-Australian thespian, one which draws inspiration from, or responds to, issues of identity, acculturation or perceptions of ethnicity as these are articulated and/or imposed both by the community and the broader mainstream, creating works primarily in English and postulating new perspectives of self-awareness. To what extent, for example, can the Wogs Out of Work phenomenon be considered Greek? How relevant is its assertion of a post-migrant identity that cuts across ethnic boundaries today? Indeed, it what way can Anglophone actors and writers of Greek origin within the mainstream, be considered Greek? How does their hybridity impact upon the way we define ourselves and the communities we create and maintain?
These are the complex phenomena that are examined in actor, educator and academic Dr Eleni Tsefala’s magisterial history of Greek-Australian theatre, “One Hundred Years of Greek Theatre in Australia,” recently launched in various centres of Greek culture in Australia, including Melbourne. Dr Tsefala, though resident in Greece, is no stranger to diasporan communities of the Anglosphere, having been born in Canada and having spent three years teaching and researching her chosen topic in Australia. Like others before her who have attempted to write histories of sundry facets of the diasporan experience, Dr Tsefala could have restricted herself to a simple narration of historical facts and the dry and artless listing of authors, productions, actors and production companies in chronological order, with no attempt to analyse those productions or the socio-economic factors that gave rise to their creation, nor indeed to evaluate the evolution of such works over the century focused upon by her study and to draw the appropriate conclusions as to the place of Greek-Australian theatre within the broader Greek and Australian cultural framework. Instead, in a breathtakingly complex and ambitious work, Dr Tsefala achieves what few historians of Greek-Australia dare even attempt: a cross-disciplinary examination of this aspect of Greek-Australian history via various theoretical frameworks, anthropological, sociological and theatrical. What emerges is thus far more than just a narrative about migrant players strutting their stuff upon a stage. Through Dr Tsefala’s exhaustive study, we are treated instead, to a sophisticated social history of our community, one that tracks the manner in which it has evolved, tracing and sometimes critiquing its own self-perceptions, narratives, values, as well as those imposed upon it by the dominant cultural group, and most importantly, the conflicts of those caught between the two sets of values and significantly, languages.

For it is in her understanding of the composite bilingual nature of the Greek-Australian hypostasis that underlies and validates Dr Tsefala’s deep appreciation of the Australian diasporic theatrical tradition. Her thorough analysis extends past a discussion of Greek-language theatre and the conditions that engendered it, such as racism, fear of assimilation, the White Australia Policy and in later years, social, class and political activism whereby theatre was seen not only as a means of education and entertainment but also, of propagating change, to a generation that slips between Greek and English registers, sometimes importing Greek into its English in order to impart an exotic ‘gloss,’ thus responding to expectations of stereotype held by the dominant cultural group, other times, employing exactly the same terms or appropriating others, such as “wog” in order to undermine their paradigms of cultural and political sovereignty. It is Dr Tsefala’s contention that this linguistic and cultural dialectic has achieved some type of resolution in our own time, in that there is a tacit acceptance of each other’s ontology, a conclusion based on painstaking research and intricate analysis. It is definitely a conclusion that bears further discussion, especially given that in the ten or so years after her study concludes, the arrival of Greek Crisis migrants has altered the theatrical scene in ways that we are yet to fully comprehend.

Dr Tsefala’s conclusions with regard to linguistic diversity, our bilingual reality and our social position all derive from her close scrutiny of the texts and the values and messages they encode within them. Rather than merely just list the works the subject of her history, she actively engages in literary criticism and deconstructs them. She interrogates the assumptions embedded within them and explores how the language employed by the author disseminates or perpetuates these. Further, with regard to more contemporary works, Dr Tsefala engages with the writers of those works through interviews, from which she is able to glean their motivation, their understanding of their own mission and the manner in which they articulate their message. She reveals for example, how “Wogs Out of Work,” by far the most famous and influential Greek-Australian theatrical phenomenon, with regard to the mainstream, arose out of its protagonists not being able to obtain ‘mainstream’ work owing to their looks and ethnic origins. What also emerges is that despite its pervasiveness, the identity constructs it sought to propagate were ultimately superseded, nor was it able to break down social barriers to any appreciable extent. Those of its successors that exist, purvey a form of inverse orientalism. Further, it appears to have not impacted upon Greek language theatre in any way. In other interviews, we note how Greek literary motifs, (rather than aspects of Greek-Australian life), drawn from the broader western Classical Tradition, are re-packaged as Greek and employed within English language works directed towards the mainstream. Dr Tsefala’s ability to discern the two separate linguistic streams that comprise Greek-Australian theatre, to identify where they diverge thematically and where they once more converge and apply a sociological framework to their evaluation that is truly awe-inspiring.

“One Hundred Years of Greek Theatre in Australia,” a truly multifaceted work, is a significant contribution to the historiography of the Greek-Australian community. Simultaneously penetrating and all-encompassing, it is, in its scope and method of delivery, a work of art in its own right. Dr Tsefala’s study cries out for translation into the English language, for that history forms an intrinsic part of the socio-cultural history and identity of broader multicultural Australia, a narrative that, owing to language and focus, our community is largely written out of. Furthermore, as it constitutes an ark that preserves and highlights the vast corpus of Greek-Australian theatrical works, its translation into English will grant future generations with no facility in the Greek language, access to those works, the keys with which to appraise them and the ability to draw upon them for inspiration in their own theatrical endeavours. For this alone, Dr Tsefala deserves our heartfelt thanks. As for the legacy of her seminal work, in the words of Medea, “Not yet do you feel it. Wait for the future.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 26 October 2019