Thursday, March 16, 2017

Zorba and the New School of Greek Philosophy

When I was an undergrad (Truman State University), I was obliged to take a basic, liberal science philosophy class.  I was skeptical - that I'd enjoy it, that it would be interesting, or even worthwhile.  I ended up not only loving the class, but having some thought-provoking and even paradigm-shifting moments that changed the way I conceived of the world from then on.
Even in Lego form, Zorba has style.
The textbook we used was a huge part of the appeal.  I still recall the title: Looking At Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter - it was tongue-in-cheek, to be sure, but the history and translation of the basic - and sometimes very esoteric - philosophical concepts - was solid.  We also learned about the great philosophers themselves - Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, many of ancient Greece, and their concepts and thought strategies, through illustration.  Perhaps that seems a little babyish for a college class, but there was a great power to using illustrations and imagery to communicate these ideas.  

Zorba, for me, and for the writer who conceived of him, knows this power of illustrating these philosophical concepts, too. Zorba the character could be called a hedonist, or a pleasure-seeker, a philosopher who can see the finite nature of life (and all its pain) and believes in grabbing hold of it how he chooses, when he chooses.  We see throughout the story that Nikos definitely goes through changes, but it cannot be said that Zorba doesn't also change a little bit, through his love for and attachment to Nikos (Zorba tries not to get too attached to anything, although it is clear he's very affectionate and strives for trying to do individual good). 
Don't do it, Socrates!
So what can Zorba's new Greek philosophy teach us?
  • Be kind. Approach everyone with a smile and a zest for life. Bring out something in THEM.
  •  Don't put too much stock in any one thing, whether it be your future, dependence on another, or a job.
  • The present is what matters.  The future is a 'pig's behind.' Logic, however, is 'a woman's backside.' Zorba's an ass man, what can I say?
  • Death is natural and inevitable.  Live each day as though you were going to die any minute.
  •  There is an inner and an outer you. The inner you is whatever you make it.  Maybe he is slender as a reed and wears a red carnation behind his ear.
  • If a person you like expresses interest in you romantically, call their bluff IMMEDIATELY.  Go after them.
  •  Good stuff happens; bad stuff happens, too.  God and the Devil always travel together.  Good and bad karma?
  • Old birds make the best stew.  
  • Finally, never wear another man's ring.  It is not manly.   
I'm going to miss Zorba and his zest for life.  In theatre, a lot of my friends have bucket lists - dream roles they'd love to do.  I love to hear about them, and cheer them on, but I don't really have any for myself.  I have always felt that since I'm still a newbie to the scene, I'm lucky to take much of whatever comes along - I kind of "hope for nothing" in that sense, and that IS a little freeing, as Zorba says.  Here's to Zorba, and to two more excellent weekends of theatre and philosophy...washed down with raki and ouzo, of course.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


In a particular scene in "Zorba," Zorba's young friend Nikos, annoyed by his older companion's encouragement to be what he feels is inappropriately forward and amorous, protests, "I am not an animal!"  Zorba, delighted by his friend's sudden fire, rejoins "Yes, you are!"  In this musical's delightfully passionate book, we're treated to a lot of Zorba's personal philosophies, and one of them being his attitude toward women, which is all at once tender and poetic as well as lusty, spontaneous and sanguine. Zorba is never apologetic, he's nearly always self-possessed, and while it seems like he encourages spur of the moment action without thought, he is driven by his own principles of seizing life, positions he's arrived at during life experience - as opposed to Nikos, who is learned and educated, but relatively inexperienced.  

If Nikos needs to get in touch with his animalistic side, the villagers could often do with a touch of his humanizing restraint and reflection.  All at once full of life and afraid of change, the Cretans are written as often superstitious, mocking, tribal, greedy and even murderous.  It's into this world that Nikos and the mysterious widow attempt to have a relationship, and are thwarted by the town's prejudice against one of their own, though shunned coupling with an outsider after rejecting their own.  Led by the men of the town who simultaneously desire (perhaps desire to control) AND despise this proud, reclusive woman, they surround her and have her killed for "driving" a young man to his suicide, while they conveniently absolve themselves of any role in his death (in the version of the play we have, it's written he's running from his tormentors - the townspeople - when he accidentally falls from a cliff's edge, rather than takes a proverbial lover's leap).

The townspeople are cloistered but intrigued about the arrival of Zorba and Nikos.  Wary of outsiders, they still treat Hortense, an older Frenchwoman who has lived on the island for decades, like a stranger.  Her house is the only decent lodgings in town (which a song assures us still isn't very good), and still the townspeople try to offer unappealing, primitive-sounding accommodations.  They are largely idle and are excited by the prospect of work in a mine.  One of the main characters basically lives on his odd jobs - being a messenger, carrying luggage, etc. - and the kindness of people like the widow.  Nikos even calls the island a "wild place," and we see the women descend like the "crows" in the song to pluck the widow's fine house clean just moments after her death.  In these moments, though - it is Zorba, not Nikos, who is the humanizing force.  He appeals to Nikos for calm after he shakes the hand of one of the murdering mob as the mine is opening, and asks him not to judge the scavengers that snatch the widow's belongings - "you can't hurt the dead. Only the living."

As individuals, we see the characters of the townspeople as colorful, curious, and passionate, if rough around the edges.  Together, however, they often are a faceless mob, mocking, grabbing, attacking, ravaging.  John Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors, loved to write about how mob mentality could destroy an individual's ability to think as well as human lives.  In literature as well as history, mobs are deadly at worst - part of peaceful protest training throughout the years has been to prevent a group of protestors from becoming the mob, from getting aroused to anger as a result of groupthink, because it's very easy to slip into the hypnotic power of the masses.  To Steinbeck, a person's ability to think individually and rise above the "phalanx" was key.  I'll never forget getting groped and grabbed at Mardi Gras years ago by I'm sure otherwise normally-acting men - somehow given license to do so by the rowdy crowds gathered.  I gave them the benefit of the doubt for their awful behavior - blaming it on mob mentality, hurricanes, and hormones, but it doesn't make it right.  If anything, it reinforced my belief that we should keep striving to be a voice of reason and rise ABOVE our "animal" instincts - Zorba knows the animal side of human nature and human psychology, but the important part is that he acknowledges that it's a two-sided coin.

So did Tom Joad.
In the mob scenes in this musical, we see Zorba, ever the rugged individualist, ever the singular philosopher, emerge as the hero - not a sinless person, by his own admission, but a self-possessed person who is fully in control of his own ability to react to a situation.  That's part of what makes him such an appealing character - he ACTS as opposed to just REacting, and he acts decisively and based on his own personal truths, while encouraging his friends to do the same.  What would Zorba do?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Vive la Difference

It's been a few weeks since we started rehearsals for Zorba, Kander and Ebb's spirited but occasionally apologetically brutal musical based on the book and movie, Zorba the Greek.  Set in early 20th-century Crete, the plot follows the story of a Niko, former Athens teacher who finds himself mixed up with the aging but lusty, spontaneous and impish title character while on his way to try to make his fortune by re-opening the island's mine - his new inheritance.

Good Call, Niko

The people of Zorba's world are full of life and welcome as they are often crude, superstitious and mistrusting.  As the two acclimate to Crete among its curious inhabitants, we see them embark on romances - one, Zorba and his paramour, the charming but companionship-starved Madame Hortense, and Niko with a quiet outcast, a mysterious widow who is both hounded by advances and rebukes from the other townspeople.  In the audience, we're treated to two seemingly different female figures who are remarkably alike in their unapologetic fearlessness to live and operate by their own rules despite constant mockery. Madame Hortense is a former courtesan who reminisces about her glory days protecting her adopted homeland through sexual favors (and having quite a bit of fun while doing it), while the Widow (that's all we know her by - a moniker which in itself evokes surviving a painful past and inner strength) chooses who to be kind to by who is kind to her.  The men of the town seem to want her, but also hate her for what they see as her prerogative to only show favor to certain men - mostly the humane ones.  I'll blog more on her later.  Hers is an age-old problem universal for all womanhood, in a way.  In Greek mythology, Venus (her Greek name was Aphrodite) was also self-determining in the face of being overpowered; myths recount that she chose her lovers - most famously, Mars, or Aries, god of war - after a husband was chosen for her, the decidedly duller Vulcan, or Hephaestus. 

Probably not a real blonde, though.
Around the women of Zorba, the story ebbs and flows, and is also led.  Among the villagers, there is an enigmatic figure that is known as the "leader," played in our cast by the outstanding Lindsey Jones.  I love that this strong, almost godlike lead role was written as a woman - a knowing, respected, wise and powerful woman who takes the aspects of the story - the journeys, the losses, the joys - and celebrates, mourns, witnesses and marks them with the audience and the characters alike.  She AND Zorba call us to be present for our lives through their songs and philosophies.  They both remind us to be participants in our own stories, to reach out, to speak out, to embrace immediacy, but also to accept and remember. What I appreciate is that as much as this is Zorba and Niko's story (Niko is our audience stand-in as we're on this journey), that this is a story that couldn't happen without these self-determined, independent-minded female entities.  After all, in Zorba's story - "man is only a passerby."