The Greeks

My head was full of thoughts about Costas Vaxevanis, the journalist who was arrested and put on trial by the Greek authorities a few days ago for publishing a list of wealthy Swiss bank account holders / tax evaders in his country, when I went to see the American Conservatory Theater‘s production of Sophocles’ Elektra.

The play, in an intelligent, new English language version by Timberlake Wertenbaker, focuses strongly on notions of justice and what radically different things it means to different people.

Elektra isn’t extremely compelling theatre. I couldn’t understand David Lang’s noodling musical score (performed live on stage by Theresa Wong on solo cello). And Rene Augesen in the title role behaves and looks like a deranged sheep throughout. Not even the much more compelling performances by Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus and Caroline Lagerfelt as Clytemnestra could mitigate the bleating, wild-eyed monotony of Augesen’s Elektra.

As a result of the shortcomings of ACT’s production, I found myself thinking quite a bit about Vaxevanis and the weird way in which justice is and isn’t currently playing itself out in modern day Greece several thousand years after Sophocles wrote his tragedy.

In Elektra, justice is a sort of impulsive, tit-for-tat sport rather than something metered out carefully in court. Agamemnon kills his daughter so his wife Clytemnesta kills him so their other daughter, Elektra, plots to revenge her father by killing her mother.

The courts acquitted Vaxevanis on Thursday of charges of violating personal privacy laws after he published the list of 2,059 names of prominent Greeks sequestering money in Switzerland.

The journalist’s acquittal shows some measure of legal justice, I suppose. But the injustice of the divide between rich and poor in that country will continue to loom large over Greece long after the news of Vaxevanis’ case fades.

I wonder whether the authorities’ treatment of the journalist and attempt to cover up corruption will lead to more trouble?

Let’s hope that things don’t escalate to the point where they start to resemble the House of Atreus’ idea of “justice.”

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    In Greece the top 10% has 26% of the wealth. In the USA the top 10% has 29.85%. In fact, the USA has the worst ratio in the developed world. In terms of income distribution, Greece has a coefficient of 34 vs. 41 in the USA, so we are worse in that measure as well. See:

    So where are the US journalists exposing the malfeasance of our wealthy? And why are we the only developed country that relies on the wealthy to fund the arts – a system that clearly doesn’t work? Why, for example, does San Francisco only rank 74th in the world for opera performances per year? Why is the SF Opera so tight lipped about that? Seems like Elektra is a little closer to home than we realize.

    All the same, I really enjoyed your report. It is nice to see arts journalism correlated with moral concepts concerning wealth distribution. Another rarity in the USA. Keep that up and you’ll soon have an FBI file just like people ranging from Arthur Miller to John Steinbeck.

    • MWnyc says

      Why, for example, does San Francisco only rank 74th in the world for opera performances per year? Why is the SF Opera so tight lipped about that?

      William, what exactly would you suggest that the San Francisco Opera say about that? And what would they accomplish by saying it?

      • says

        The San Francisco Opera’s voice carries a great deal of weight in American society. If they and other powerful arts organizations spoke out forcefully in support of public arts funding it would have a significant effect in transforming public opinion.

        One aspect of this work would be educational. The SF Opera needs to graciously and yet candidly let American society know:
        1. That we are the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding (distributed on the Federal, State, and Municipal levels.)
        2. That our system of donations from the wealthy creates far less funding for the arts than Europe’s public systems.
        3. That this causes America to rank extremely low in opera performances per capita. (We only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year.)
        4. That the public funding systems in Europe allow even their small houses to have seasons twice as long as the SF Opera.
        5. That our funding system by the wealthy concentrates support in a few financial centers where the wealthy live and leaves the rest of the country culturally impoverished.
        6. That these problems prevent opera in America from reaching a wider demographic.
        7. That our system is irreparable.
        8. That all these problems are directly correlated to our lack of a public funding system for the arts.

        The SF Opera’s voice carries very far. They could be enormously helpful if they undertook such educational efforts because it would help to change political opinion regarding public arts funding. This is difficult work, but it is exactly our arts organizations that are supposed to stand for the truth. Now is the time for them to stand up and let the truth be heard.

        • says

          Another approach would be for the SF Opera to simply speak about the advantages of public funding systems as evidenced by Europe:

          1. Funding is very consistent because it is an established part of government budgets (which are far more stable than donations by the wealthy.)
          2. Public funding is far more efficient since it alleviates the need for massive development departments and administrators with huge salaries.
          3. Governments do a better job of controlling costs because they generally bargain with all of the country’s orchestras at once.
          4. Governments have an inherent desire to connect their cultural institutions with the public (the voters) through outreach programs.
          5. The governments see an inherent connection between culture and education and organize their orchestras along those lines.
          6. Governments fund all areas of the arts and thus make sure that orchestras receive their due share but not more. (Top orchestras are not allowed to hog resources like they do in the USA.)
          7. Governments make sure that all regions of their country have decent orchestras, not just the areas where wealthy donors are concentrated.
          8. Subsidies allow the ticket prices to be far more reasonable, thus allowing the arts to reach a much wider demographic.
          9. The subsidies allow for more independence from the market thus allowing for a better balance with unusual programming and new music.

          I hope someone form the SF Opera is reading this. They would probably need to adapt these thoughts, but they represent perspectives Americans need to consider.

        • MWnyc says

          “The San Francisco Opera’s voice carries a great deal of weight in American society.”

          Wow. William, you really have been living in Europe for 30 years …

          I’m afraid that you vastly overestimate the clout that San Francisco Opera – or any opera company, even the Met – has with the wider taxpaying public in the United States.

          Even in liberal California, voters haven’t been able to agree on taxing themselves enough to properly fund their public schools and universities, which were the best in the nation 40 years ago but have slipped badly since.

          And our inability to get a critical mass of American voters to accept public funding of health care and health insurance (outside of the long-established Medicare program for seniors) is notorious throughout the industrialized world.

          However good your arguments for government funding of the arts may be, a voting public and a legislature that can’t even agree to fund basic healthcare for all citizens will not agree to large-scale public funding of the arts.

          You’ve often expressed impatience and frustration with artists and arts organizations in the US for not advocating more forcefully for comprehensive public arts funding here. Well, they don’t do it because they can see that, in the current political climate, it would be wasted effort.

          • says

            You are interpreting my strategy for advocacy much too simplistically, and of course in a way that is rather American in its short-sightedness and impatience. I forget that Americans are so ignorant and brainwashed about public arts funding that every single little point has to be spelled out and explained. Thanks for the reminder.

            It should be obvious that a long, step by step process has to be followed before we reach the general public with our message. The first step is to develop a consensus within our own arts community about the *unavoidable* need for a public funding system and how that system should be structured. And we need to create the belief in this community that over the long-term advocacy will indeed make a difference. It is exactly within the arts community, and more specifically, within the classical music community where the SF Opera’s voice carries significant weight. They and other arts organizations need to their responsibility for social and political leadership more seriously. (There’s a very interesting history for why they don’t, but that’s another topic.)

            In these initial stages of the struggle, there are four groups that need to be our focus in educational efforts about public arts funding:

            1. artists
            2. arts administrators
            3. arts journalists
            4. music educators (on both the university and public school levels)

            By developing a consensus among these people (which will in itself take a lot of time,) they could begin the long process of educating the public in a way that would gradually change our primitive political culture. And even the education of the general public would need to be differentiated into multiple groups and conducted over a long period of time.

            People will say, of course, that this would entail such a long process that it is pointless. I would guess it will take about 30 years of consistent effort before we see the needed changes. In reality, this endeavor is not pointless, because it’s the only workable choice we have. Your comments represent exactly the defeatist and short-sighted mentality within our own community that we need to begin to overcome with proper education. To use the old cliché, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Cultured societies never are.

  2. MWnyc says

    Chloe, have you seen a production of Elektra (the play, not the Strauss opera) that you thought worked? The title role is somewhat bleating, wild-eyed and monotonous by its very nature. (That’s why her remaining family is so frustrated and fed up with her: twenty years and she’s still completely crazed and just won’t let it all go – and she won’t even go after Mom herself instead of waiting around for her brother.)

    I can’t help thinking it’s the fault of the play – of the story, really – rather than of the poor actress trying to give the part of Elektra some nuance. So I wonder if you’ve seen an actress make the role work, and if so, how did she do it?