The illustration accompanying this article has been supplied by my five-year-old daughter, drawn two days after she attended the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria (GOCMV) Creative Drama and Arts Group’s staging of renowned Greek children’s writer Eugenios Trivizas’ story The Magic Pillows (Τα Μαγικά Μαξιλάρια.)
The rather ferocious crown bearing figure that dominates the picture is the egotistical and thoroughly oppressive king of Ouranoupolis, the aptly named Arpatilaos, since he is wont to arbitrarily seize his subject’s goods, upon a whim, hence the precarious speech bubble that purports to say «Το θέλω,» one of Arpatilaos’ catchphrases. To his left, is the rather oily, obsequious and thoroughly unpleasant archmage of the palace, Saurilios Vriselie, the inventor of a particularly horrific method of ensuring suppression of social and political discontent within the kingdom.
According to Saurilios, the reason the subjects of Ouranoupolis poke fun at their king, thus contravening legislation which provides that they should worship him, is because they are able to dream of a better world, and in their waking hours, compare and contrast it to the drab and repressive regime of Arpatilaos.
The cynical Saurilios sets out to deprive the kingdom’s subjects of their dreams and thus, their last vestige of hope and freedom, by making them sleep upon magic pillows, which send them nightly nightmares, tormenting them and turning them into compliant, law-abiding drones, too frightened and exhausted to resist the ever increasing oppression visited upon them.
Thus, a small child languishes in Arpatilaos’ clutches, a victim of his totalitarian bent. By virtue of the fact that he is so infernally evil, my daughter has also exercised artistic license and depicted Saurilios with a devil’s tail.
Towards the right of the picture, Arpatilaos is about to receive his just desserts as the nightmares he has inflicted upon his subjects emerge from the pillows that once contained them and are turned against him, annihilating him and his cronies.
The translation of The Magic Pillows onto the stage is an event of historical significance for our community.
The actors that so vividly brought the complex story to life were all young second- and third-generation Greek Australians; the ones who, supposedly, shouldn’t have to learn Greek, let alone be fluent enough in it to be able to use it as a medium for acting, because it is just too hard to master.
Admittedly, the pronunciation employed by these actors was not always of an Athenian standard; their Greek was often heavily inflected with an Australian accent, yet, at a time when watching terrorised, barely prepared children clutching pieces of paper almost to their noses who then stumble incomprehensibly over the Greek text contained therein, as their bored and uninspired teachers blandly look on, not even prompting, has become commonplace, these remarkable actors managed to learn and deliver all of their lines not only faithfully, but with feeling and a true acting flair; the glint in the eyes of the populous cast betraying their absolute delight in their performance.
On the stage, anything is possible, even the speaking of modern Greek.
For it is evident that their thespian training, provided by talented and dedicated drama teacher Katerina Poutachidou, has granted these acting students added self-confidence and a true appreciation for the translation of the Greek written word into performance art.
To witness an imperious young Miss Koukouvitakis in her role as King Arpatilaos strut upon the stage as if she is entitled to it, assuming fearsome poses, and at the same time subverting her own narrative through artfully contrived expressions and gestures, to subtly convey how farcical a figure her character actually is, is a truly breathtaking experience.
To observe in wonder as the rest of the young cast feed off her energy to expertly lend extra cheekiness to the narrative, through carefully choreographed and brilliantly executed movements, all the while exposing just how much they have grown and matured in participating in this singular experience, was simply awe-inspiring and profoundly moving.
Even more astounding is the fact that this production evidences that within the GOCMV’s schools an artistic renaissance is taking place.
In having committed local students and gifted Greek teachers combine to create magic on stage, the GOCMV is providing a blueprint for the future of Greek language studies, one in which Greek language is not only taught, but is made relevant and rendered an object of delight and artistic communication for those learning it.
In this remarkable way, it actually indicates one of many sure pathways that ensure our linguistic and cultural survival as a Greek entity within the broader Australian multicultural fabric. After all, it is through shared experiences of this nature that we not only build language proficiency, but also, through working together, community as well.
Our community has, up until now, largely ignored the power of drama in pedagogy, to its peril.
The mark of a well-executed play is in whether it serves to move the audience sufficiently to make it ponder the deeper issues that it seeks to address.
Travelling home at the conclusion of The Magic Pillows, and each day since, my daughter has been plying me continuously with such questions as:
“Why was King Arpatilaos evil? Why did he have a different crown for each month? Why did he abolish Sunday and call it ‘Pre-Monday?’ Why did he want to take everyone’s things for himself? Why was he spying on his subjects with a telescope? Who made him that way? Why did Saurilios Vriselie want to send the children nightmares? Why did the nightmares agree to scare the children? Why wasn’t Saurilios punished by the people? Where did the nightmares go after they finished off Arpatilaos?”
All of her queries, ethical dilemmas deriving out of a masterwork that eerily find their parallels in the modern world, are centred around the nature of power and its exercise, suggesting just how powerful and transformative great works of literature can be for children.
Even her two-year-old sister, who also watched the play, turned to me and asked: «Βασιλιάς, θα σε φάω, μπαμπούλας, γιατί» which is, I suppose, as close a discourse as to the exercise of arbitrary power by the ruling classes, as a toddler can articulate.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the GOCMV, its teachers and its associates for exposing our children to such magic and inculcating within them, a palpable and practicable love for the Greek language and its literary tradition.
We owe them our thanks for positioning drama on the forefront of Greek language education, where, in the context of a multi-faceted approach to our offspring’s Greek pedagogy, it most certainly belongs.
We owe them appreciation for showing us that we do not have to accept language decline as a given, and for suggesting enjoyable ways in which we can arrest decline.
Most importantly, it is incumbent upon all of us to get involved and to support the amazing cultural commitments of the GOCMV and its equally amazing children, who exhaust superlatives, in any way possible.