The Greek playwright, novelist and poet Iakovos Kambanellis
was born in 1922 in Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades, the island traditionally
identified with Dia where, according to myth, Theseus landed with Ariadne
after she had aided him to kill the hideous Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth.
In 1935 Iakovos’s family moved to Athens where he has resided ever since with the exception of an unbearably long period that – as we shall see – he spent in Germany against his own will. As a teenager he had to work during the day and was not able to go to school regularly, he could attend only erratic evening classes and was not able to get a high school diploma.
In 1940, while World War II was ravaging, he joined the anti Nazi Resistance movement and fought against the Germans who had occupied Greece, till a moment came when it was necessary for him to escape. After an unsuccessful attempt to flee to the Middle East, he tried to reach Switzerland via Austria, but here the Germans caught him and deported him to the nightmarish concentration camp of Mauthausen where he remained until May 5th 1945 when the Allied Forces liberated the camp.
Back in Athens Kambanellis realized that Greek theater was enjoying a thriving period mostly thanks to the performances of Karolos Koun (1908-1987), a stage director who left his inimitable imprint on Greece’s contemporary history and also on Kambanellis’s personality and work. Born in Prousa, in Asia Minor, Koun was naturally possessed with that peculiar oriental ethos which became such a characteristic trait of many of his theatrical works. In the 1930s he staged in audaciously experimental ways comedies of Aristophanes and Euripides using school children as artists. The drama schools he founded (“Laikì Skinì” 1934, “Art Theater” 1942), produced many gifted actors.
Kambanellis was amazed by the emotional power a theater performance could exert even over a person like himself, a man who having spent years in a concentration camp, had seen all kinds of atrocities. It was then that he understood that theater would never come to an end and that this ancient art belongs to the future as well not because playwrights, actors and directors want it to be so, but because people, who constitute the audience, will want it to exist. This optimistic vision regarding the future of the art of the theater derives from the instinctive, psychological need each one of us has for theatrical performances. This immemorial correlation man-theater goes back to the time when the first human beings started to commit to memory their experiences and represented them in their imagination. In other words, every man and woman has both a natural necessity and the potential talent to act.
Kambanellis would have loved to become an actor, but since he did not have a high school diploma he was not allowed to enroll for a drama school, he decided to start writing. This turned out to be quite a judicious decision because since his first play Dance on the grass was staged in 1950 and received immediate acknowledgement, he has written more than fifty plays both for the theater and the cinema. Some of them, like The seventh day of creation, The courtyard of miracles, The age of night, A fairytale with no name, Three cheers for Aspasia, A comedy, The Supper, Letter to Orestes, are being continuously performed in Greece and abroad and have been translated into many languages.
Kambanellis proved to be an excellent renewer of ancient mythological types by creating poetical narrations that comply – up to a certain extent – with the message of ancient myths that he modernizes and transfigures through the prism of his own personal emotions. But in spite of his own interpretation and imprint, the essence of myths continues to perform its function.
In A comedy, for example, Kambanellis tackles a modern topic through the prism of Greek mythology: the subject of this play is the tourist exploitation of Hades, the Underworld, whose permanent residents – Pluto, Persephone and other deities – become the managers and stockholders of a multi-national corporation whose central aim is to promote the tourist development the Underworld by turning it into a new Mykonos.
In the dramatic monologue Letter to Orestes, Kambanellis gives his own account of events described by Aeschylus in his monumental Oresteia, introducing into the classical text the subtlest nuances of meaning, and we – the audience – are left again with harrowing doubts and uncertainties.
Kambanellis’s contribution to Greek cinema as a producer has also been substantial. His name is connected with avant-garde directors to whom we owe movies such as ‘Stella’ directed by Kakoyannis and ‘The Dragon and the river’ directed by Koundouros. He has directed his own the ‘Canon and the nightingale’.
In 1963 he wrote a book entitled Mauthausen, his only prose work, in which he gives an account of his experiences there. The book starts with the liberation of the camp by the Americans and goes on through the months that followed before the prisoners were finally sent home. The author recounts the story of an extraordinary love affair between two former prisoners. Although the events narrated are all real, they sound like an odd fairytale.
His collaboration as a poet with some of the most distinguished composers like Hadjidakis, Theodorakis and Xarchakos, has considerably contributed to enhance the quality of Greek song.
Kambanellis is a member of the renowned Academy of Arts and Sciences in Athens and a member of the Hellenic Center of the International Theater Institute and its Board.
The works of Iakovos Kambanellis in Greek are published in Athens by Kedros Publishing House
A. BAKALOPOULOS-HALL, Modern Greek Theater: Roots and Blossoms, Athens 1982
S. CONSTANTINIDIS, Existential Protest in Greek Drama During the Junta, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 3/2, 1985, pp. 137-144.
P. KOKORI, “Kambanellis’ The Courtyard of Miracles: A Refashioning of Theatrical Tradition.” To Yofiri: Journal of Modern Greek Studies 12 (1992)
Iacovos Kambanellis in Bulletin Franco-Hellénique, 31, Paris 2000, pp. 34-36