Theatre in Cyprus

Theatre in Cyprus" by Yiannis Katsouris

“Eleni”, Cyprus Theatre Organisation (Central Stage) ( Source : Aspect of Cyprus)

The most important year in the modern history of Cyprus is 1878. This was the year when the island passed from the hands of the Ottoman Empire to the hands of Great Britain. It was also the year when the first printers arrived on the island, enabling Cypriots to publish newspapers, books and magazines for the first time, in other words, to acquire a voice, and also making it easy for the more educated new generation to keep a close watch on all the political, social and cultural events and happenings.

In 1880, Cyprus had a population of 185 000. The capital, Nicosia, numbered 11 500, half of whom were Turks. The other towns had even fewer inhabitants. Therefore, we are dealing with negligible urban islets with limited potential, as they were only just awakening from their medieval hibernation.

Under British rule, education and particularly at the level of secondary education was at first organised on a communal level. However, from the 1920’s onwards, elementary education came under the colonialist regime. This was the period during which the famous “Pancyprian Gymnasium” reigned supreme, a school oriented towards Hellenism, and abiding by the stipulations of the Greek school curricula. Obviously, this hellenocentric mentality stemmed from the lack of freedom which was naturally inherent in any group of unliberated Greeks. Thus, anything Greek was important and totally acceptable.

As a result, Cyprus provided fertile ground for action to all Greek visitors on the island, even those of dubious quality. This was also true for Greek theatre companies, which to a large extent shouldered the burden of the theatrical life of Cyprus from 1878 to 1940 with shows lasting several months. They gave performances in towns but also frequently in villages, depending on their quality and ethos; they would stage the same shows that were on not only in Athens, but also in Constantinople, Smyrna and Alexandria. The only difference was that Cyprus enjoyed a larger repertoire of patriotic plays, which were censored in areas under the Ottoman Empire.

The most popular and preferred theatre shows staged in the centres of Hellenism arrived on the island more or less immediately, by contrast to the best sellers in the literary field which arrived about ten or twenty years later. For example, romantic comedies started playing on the island almost simultaneously as they were staged in Athens. “Maroula’s Fortune” played in Athens in 1891 and in Cyprus in 1893. However, the most important thing was the permanent presence of Greek theatre companies in Cyprus. In fact, local amateur theatre as well as Cypriot drama followed closely the model of Greek centres.

The fact that Cyprus was still under British rule and very much oriented towards Hellenism, contributed first and foremost to the theatre development on the island. Furthermore, the island was fortunate enough to be on the long theatre sea-route which began in Constantinople or Smyrna, continued towards Cyprus and had a last stop in Egypt but also in the Greek communities of Palestine. Therefore, another important factor in the development of the theatre on the island was its geographical position, which in fact has always influenced all other aspects of its life. Naturally and for reasons well known, the situation changed after 1960.

From the early 20th century up until 1940 various Greek theatre companies of higher or lower standard, or totally insignificant ones, kept arriving on the island uninterruptedly, except for the dead period of World War I. Special mention could be made of the following theatre companies: the “Pancyprian” - probably named out of courtesy to its public, with the then young Emilios Veakis, Xenophon Isaias, the Gonidis couple in 1906-7, the theatre company of Rozalia Nika-Edmond Furst-Jul. Lepeniotis in 1912-13, the theatre company of Emilios Veakis-Christoforos Nezer in 1923, the Kotopouli theatre company in 1927 with Veakis, Pericles Gavrielides, Vassilis Logothetides, Alexis Minotis, the Argyropoulou theatre company in 1930, the Apostilides-Themistocles Nezer, Kimis Raptopoulos company in 1935, the Aliki-Mousouris theatre company in 1938.

These theatre companies, as well as many others not mentioned here, performed plays from a wide repertoire: romantic or classicistic Greek and foreign 19th century plays, Shakespeare and Molière, romantic comedies and romances, melodramas, patriotic plays, revues, e.g. the endless series of the “Panathenaea”, operettas mainly between 1920 or 1940, Greek and foreign farces, ancient
drama, especially “Oedipus Rex” (interpreted by Furst, Veakis and Apostolides and others) and the modern foreign and Greek repertoire, including Ibsen which was disliked and Oscar Wilde which shocked with plays such as “Salome”, as well as Sunderman, Berstein and Tolstoy and Laskaris, Xenopoulos, Synodinos and Spyros Melas amongst others.

It is even amazing with what ease these companies alternate between Shakespeare and revues and between operettas and ancient drama. In other words, Cypriots living in towns until 1940 enjoyed the presence of permanent theatre shows and were able to watch hundreds of plays of different kinds, as each company on tour would present at least twenty plays. This resulted in the creation of a public of theatre-goers disproportionately large in relation to the island’s population, a public which gradually began to have a view and to put forward its own artistic requirements.

Let us now turn to the local theatre which began on an amateur level and which was soon to go through a theatrical renaissance.

Amateur theatres, apart from school drama which was devoted exclusively to ancient plays, were run by various associations of political or social orientation which used theatre in order to promote their values, or by some other clubs whose main object of activity was the theatre.

So, in the early 20th century, when the island was in the grips of the so-called “Ecclesiastical Dispute”*, two associations, “I agapi tou laou”(The Love of the People) and the “Kypriakos Syndesmos”(Cypriot Association), the former representing Cypriots who took an intransigent stance, and the latter those who adopted a conciliatory position towards the British, had a very intense theatrical activity. In one year they managed to stage a new theatre performance every month or even more often.

After 1920 and under the influence of new socio-political ideas, namely the October Revolution, workers’ unions were formed, especially in Limassol and Nicosia, dedicated to the theatre or rather whose interests were served by the theatre. So, in the 1920’s
and after that we see the emergence of the “Panergatikon” and soon afterwards the Shoe-makers’, Barbers’ and Printers’ unions develop an intense theatrical activity, usually staging plays depicting the oppression of the poor by the rich. Therefore, this led to the establishment of a kind of primitive workers’ theatre. At the same time, a number of artistic associations become active, especially in Limassol, usually presenting revues written by their members. There was such a frenzy for revues that in 1936 the policemen of each town staged separate performances in an effort to bridge the gap between the police force and the public. The judges and lawyers of Limassol did exactly the same in 1938!

The pioneers of this interesting activity from the beginning to the end of the British rule were a number of Cypriot actors with relative experience, but mainly Greek actors, not of a particularly high caliber, who for various reasons were left stranded on the island. These people were the driving force behind the theatrical activity in Cyprus and in a sense, they were instrumental in preparing the ground for the professional theatre that was to follow.

In the early years of our century, the figure behind the many theatrical activities was Xenophon Isaias, an actor who lived and worked mainly in Constantinople. He started visiting the island with his own theatre companies in 1882. However, between 1904 and 1914 he stayed permanently and participated in various ways in the life of the theatre: as an actor in Greek theatre companies, as a manager or director of companies he himself founded, as a theatre director and actor in the amateur groups of the various associations and even as a publisher of theatre plays. His publiciations include a prose translation of “Oedipus Rex”, “The Social Death” by Giacometti and “Justinian and Theodora” by a Cypriot playwright named Karageorgiades. It is not known when he left the island. What is certain, though, is that this man was loved by Cypriots, and especially by amateur actors who later also formed the workers’ theatre.

The second and more important case is that of Angelos and Marika Vaza who were active from the beginning of the 1930’s until the end of World War II. The Vazas together with their son Minos and daughter Hora, formed a theatre company and toured the entire island with their plays. More often they joined forces with Cypriot amateur actors and gave various performances. They also
participated in amateur events as teachers-directors, actors or even providers of theatre plays from the great selection they had in their possession, costumes and props. And during World War II, when the Cypriot theatre had a more permanent basis, the Vaza family was also present. It has to be stressed, however, that quite a few Cypriot actors who played an important role in the history of the theatre up until 1970 or 1980, studied at the school of these long-suffering thespians whose fate had brought them to a theatrically primitive Cyprus.

Besides Isaias and Vazas there were other Greek actors who were active for longer or shorter periods, always working alongside local amateur actors: Yiorgos Vogazianos, Costas Moustakas in the 1920’s, Anthi Miliadou, Themistocles Nezer, Athanasios Kavvadas, Nicos Deloudis.

There were, however, also Cypriots who offered similar services to the newly-emerging theatre on the island; the most distinguished case was that of Aristides Zenonas who at the dawn of the 20th century was a law student in Athens and at the same time an “initiate” in Constantinos Christomano’s “Nea Skini” even from the first performance, that of “Alcestes”, alongside a few other young actors, such as Kyveli, Mitsos Myrat, Nicos Papageorgiou, Emarmeni Xanthaki as well as Angelos Sikelianos and Soteris Skipis. He remained with “Nea Skini” for one year and appeared in seventeen roles.

At the same time he worked alongside George Mistriotis in the “Society for the Teaching of Ancient Drama” usually playing parts of the Messenger, but also those of Teiresias in “Oedipus” and the title-role in the ancient tragedy “Ajax”. Now, it is a mystery how this versatile young man who engaged in so many things managed to combine Constantinos Christomano’s aesthetism and European orientation with George Mistriotis’ fanaticism, conservatism and fixation on antiquity.

When he returned from his studies and settled on the island, he brought with him his love for ancient drama and penchant for Christomano’s theatrical values. He dedicated himself passionately to both these causes through his teaching of “Antigone” and
“Oedipus” in schools and at the same time through contemporary theatre groups that he himself founded. Moreover, he attempted together with a few of his scholarly friends to found a drama school in Limassol in 1915, but these plans were unfortunately met with fierce reaction from his fellow-citizens.

He also wrote plays, the majority of which are still unknown, poetry and militant articles about cultural and political life. In other words, he was involved in theatre not in order to serve the purposes of clubs and associations as was customary, but also to create a theatre based on new and contemporary ideas not reflected in the traditional popular plays such as “Esme”, “The Zallongos Dance” and “Golfo”.

Special mention should also be made of the Markides brothers. They were the first to write a Cypriot revue in 1918 which was performed in all the cities starting from the small town of Pafos, followed a little later by the artistic associations of Limassol and Larnaca and during World War II by the organised and by then professional theatre companies of Nicosia, Efskios Pefkis, Kyriakos Hapesis and Nicos Nicolaides in Limassol, and Achilleas Lymbourides and poet Costas Montis in Nicosia. The latter has also published the only theatre magazine in the history of the Cypriot Press, entitled “To Theatro”. In those days, namely during World War II, the Cypriot Theatre reached its first heyday.

There were years when in Nicosia with a population of thirty thousand, there were three theatre companies showing mainly revues, as well as Greek and foreign operettas, and of course farce. It was during those years that the first Cypriot actors emerged and gained distinction, namely Nicos Pantelides, Merope Lambrou, Filis Karaviotis, Papis Philippides, Stala Xenou and others.

From 1945 to 1955 there was another mass wave of Greek theatre companies arriving on the island. It was the time when Greece faced very serious problems (the aftermath of the German occupation, the civil war and the ensuing famine) and those working in theatres were forced to search for work in the Greek diaspora communities outside Greece. A number of theatre companies visited
Cyprus during this period such as the “Manolidou-Aroni-Horn theatre company” and the “Vembo” company in 1945, the “Kakopouli” company in 1946, “Katerina’s theatre company” and “The National Theatre” in 1947, “The Anna and Maria Kalouta theatre company” in 1949, the “Marika Kotopouli theatre company” in 1951, the “Mimis Fotopoulos”, “Lambeti-Papas-Horn” and “Demetris Myrat” theatre companies in 1954. Of course, this whole activity with so many leading Greek names restricted considerably the efforts of Cypriot theatres to expand.

So, since under British rule (1878-1960) there was not a single piece of legislation governing the development of arts, it was the Greek and Cypriot private individuals mentioned above, but also the artistic and mainly workers’ associations and unions that kept the local theatre activity alive. Immediately following the war, the communist party of Cyprus, AKEL (which stands for the Reformatory Party of the Working People), established the first prose company-cum-drama school, “Prometheus”, again with the help of a couple of Greeks, Adamantios and Mary Lemos.

With the founding of the Republic of Cyprus and during the years that followed, things changed dramatically. From the very first year, a theatre Organisation known as OTHAC was established, funded for the first time by both the Republic of Cyprus and the Greek government. OTHAC attempted to work on the basis of the rules of theatrical praxis and it achieved this for several years before it deteriorated and fell into disrepute by limiting its repertoire to farce.

The Municipal Theatre, Nicosia ( Source : Aspect of Cyprus)

In the period 1969-1971 the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation set up a kind of an Arts Theatre which gave the best performances ever, even broadcasting them on television (on the single channel that existed at the time) for the Cypriot as well as the Greek public to watch. Unfortunately, this theatre was dissolved in 1971. In the same year the Cyprus Theatre Organisation (THOC) was founded as a semi-governmental organisation, aiming, of course, not only at creating a theatre company, but also at developing theatre more generally in Cyprus, but this latter objective was not realised early enough.
It is only in the last ten to fifteen years, following a legally stipulated development policy, that Independent Theatre has emerged and evolved, particularly thanks to funding from THOC (there are currently four permanently funded companies), as well as amateur and school theatre. Moreover, theatre facilities all over Cyprus have improved tremendously. Besides, since 1960 a number of people have been instrumental in helping particularly the Cypriot theatre to develop: the Greek theatre director Costis Michaelides, actor-directors Vladimiros Kafkarides, Nicos Shiafkallis and Socrates Karantinos who thanks to his ethos has given a new dimension to the role of the theatre, Monica Vassiliou, Nicos Charalambous, Evis Gavrielides and many others. Actors deserving mention include: Andreas Moustras, Theodoros Moreas, Florentia Demetriou, Despina Bebedeli, Stelios Kafkarides, Jenny Gaitanopoulou, Spyros Stavrinides, Annita Santorineou, Costas Demetriou, Popi Avraam, Eftychios Poullaides, Antonis Katsaris and others.

There is, however, one area in which the Cypriot theatre lags behind and this is playwriting. Plays such as “Dikigoros” (The Lawyer) by Evgenios Zenonos (1923), “Dimoprasia” (Auction) by Tefkros Anthias (1935), “Apogonos” (Descendant) by Dem. Demetriades (1950) or the more contemporary attempts by Panos Ioannides, Yiorgos Neophytou, Rina Katselli, Irena Ioannides-Adamides, Maria Avraamides, or even the ethnographical attempts in the vernacular, do not alter the picture very much.

Subsequently the study of the history of the Theatre in Cyprus is currently a particularly hard and painful task.

( Source : Aspect of Cyprus)

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