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  • Arthur W. Pinero and Cavafy the Dramatist:The Parallel Quest for the Quality Play
  • Gonda Van Steen (bio)

Introduction: Cavafy the Dramatist, in Search of the Well-Made Poem

Άλκηστις και Κλυταιμνήστρα,την ζωήν μας διηγούνται την δεινήν και την κενήν

—Constantine Cavafy, «Η αρχαία τραγωδία», Ποιήματα 1882–1932 6–7

Alcestis and Clytemnestratell the story of our life, eventful or empty.

—Constantine Cavafy, “Ancient Tragedy”1897, repudiated poem; translation mine1

It is not a new idea to read Constantine Cavafy’s poems from the perspective of theater, performance, stage directing, and role-playing, but these productive connections may gain new meaning and relevance from a detailed analysis of Cavafy’s fascination with Arthur W. Pinero. The prolific Pinero was a London-born playwright, actor, and stage director and a slightly earlier contemporary of Cavafy. Pinero was of Portuguese and Sephardic Jewish descent. Despite his initial status as an outsider, he managed to integrate himself fully into the London theater world, but only with unrelenting dedication to his profession and with a life-long awareness of audience expectations and of social control in general. Pinero gained tremendous popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and was knighted in 1909 (Griffin 129). Even though most of his plays are now long forgotten, many were among the holdings of Cavafy’s personal library.2

George P. Savidis expresses an interest in Cavafy’s theatrical perspective and speaks of the poet’s “semi-dramatic technique” (“Cavafy” 369). His ideas, however, did not morph into a systematic publication, except [End Page 73] perhaps for his 1985 essay “Cavafy versus Aeschylus,” in which the above characterization occurs: this older essay treats but also diminishes Cavafy’s reception of classical Greek tragedy. Emphasizing Aeschylus (but referring also to Menander’s New Comedy), Savidis qualifies Cavafy’s creative competition with Aeschylus, hence the “versus” of his essay’s title (361, 362, 363, 373). A creative competition of Cavafy versus Pinero may not be too farfetched. A few more succinct mentions of Cavafy and the theater appear in Savidis’s Mikra Kavaphika A and B and in his commentary on Cavafy’s unfinished poem “Tigranocerta” of 1929 (“‘Tigranocerta’”).3 Other scholars and translators note the theatricality and the mise-en-scène potential of many poems of Cavafy, who himself was an avid theater-goer.4 Even though Cavafy’s life was closely linked to theater and stage practitioners, according to theater aficionado Kostas Nitsos, the poet believed that he himself would never be able to write drama.5 Paradoxically, Cavafy then went on to infuse his poems with a profound sense of the stage, rendering him writer, actor, director, set designer, and prompter all at once (Nitsos 29). Moreover, Cavafy’s feeling for action and gesture, his calibrating of plot twists and reversals, and his elliptic, laconic treatment of some subjects are, once again, truly theatrical. So, too, are the poet’s imaginative use of direct speech and collective monologues (imitating choral speech), his penchant for subversive irony, and his tendency to tell, retell, dramatize, and effectively re-perform parts of the actions or contents of his poems, as in, for instance, “Young Men of Sidon (A. D. 400),” «Νέοι της Σιδώνος (400 μ.Χ.)»; this last poem in the Cavafy canon pivots on the epitaph ascribed to Aeschylus and presents itself as an encounter (even a battle of wills) of reiteration and reinterpretation between an actor and a group of young male literati. Vassilis Lambropoulos concurs that this poem renders Aeschylus’s epitaph multiple times, and he characterizes it as an “interminable series of interpretations and reinterpretations, some of which acquire enough validity to form temporary constitutions of its knowledge” (“Classics” 207; “Violent Power” 204).6 Recently, the performative dimension of Cavafy’s cross-cultural communication has been the topic of newspaper articles, blogs, conference papers, and so on.7

Cavafy eagerly read, recognized, and conversed with masters in the realm of theater. He himself never formally published his poems, but he did keep ledgers of the select people who, he thought, might appreciate receiving his work in the mail. Among the recipients on those lists feature many actors, actresses, and other stage practitioners, including the big names of the Greek theater world of the first...


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