The Travelling Players
A modern Greek masterpiece

by Susan Tarr and Hans Proppe [1]

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 5-6
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

“In THIASSOS even though we refer to the past, we are talking about the present. The approach is not mythical but dialectical. This comes through in the structure of the film where often “two historical times” are dialectically juxtaposed in the same shot creating associations leading directly to historical conclusions... Those links do not level the events but bypass the notions of past/present and instead provide a linear developmental interpretation which exists only in the present.”
— Theodoros Angelopoulos

THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS (O THIASSOS) [2] is the fourth and latest work of Greek filmmaker Theodoros Angelopoulos. The film won the International Critics award at Cannes after the current Greek regime refused to sponsor it on the grounds that it was “too leftist.” Subsequently the film was voted Best Picture of the Year by the British Film Institute, won Special Jury Prize at Taormino, l'Age d'Or at Brussels and was Grand Prize Winner at Thessaloniki. The film and the events surrounding it were a cause celebre last year throughout Greece, and it has become the second top grossing feature in Athens. In European film journals the film has been hailed as an innovative breakthrough in political filmmaking and has been compared to prior achievements of POTEMKIII, OPEN CITY and the films of Godard. Hopefully its recent screening at Los Angeles FILMEX, San Francisco Pacific Archive and New York’s New Directors Series will give TRAVELLING PLAYERS the American visibility and acclaim it deserves.

THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS represents a major breakthrough in both conception and execution. The players represent characters of the past and present and portray historical forces. There are no “actors” or “stars,” but rather representations of individuals and ideas which reflect and create history. The film uses no close ups, no intercutting and no simplification in four hours. Angelopoulos assiduously avoids the trap of caricature nor does he attempt to distill characters into “essential” Nazis, British Imperialists or Communists. Throughout the film we are engaged with the forces and facets of history rather than with characters, players or individuals.

Angelopoulos has intentionally reclaimed the historical issue of the Civil War in Greece from the distortions of rightwing propaganda and mystification, breaking a thirty-year silence on the subject, a struggle referred to until now by the succeeding dictatorships only as the “war of bandits.” Combining three key aspects or levels, a play (the popular folk tale of “Golfo and the Shepherdess” ), the ancient myth of the family of Agamemnon and recent Greek political history, Angelopoulos has accomplished the task he set himself in TRAVELLING PLAYERS: a “voyage in time and space” documenting the “terrible years” in Greece from 1939-1952.

“Golfo and the Shepherdess” has been popular entertainment in Greece for decades. Angelopoulos deliberately chose it because, in his words, it is a tale that is as common as “daily bread” to the Greek people. Based on a folk tale about a shepherd who abandons his sweetheart for the daughter of a wealthy landlord, the traveling players perform it as a play. In the course of the film the performance of the play is several times interrupted by Greek history. The traveling players bear the names of the characters in the ancient Greek myth—Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra. Electra, Pylades, Aegisthos and Chrysothaeme. The complex family relationships and the events surrounding them unfold as they do in the original myth.

The myth of the family of Agamemnon is reproduced in TRAVELLING PLAYERS with a very significant difference. The myth is reproduced as a function of the intervention of history and the historical events of the period 1939-1952 rather than as the workings of fate. Aeschylus, in the original Oresteia utilizes the dynamic contradiction between philos (love) and aphilos (hate). In TRAVELLING PLAYERS, Angelopoulos transposes the central contradiction to that between revolutionary and reactionary political tendencies in Greek political history.

A brief summary of the major historical events of this period and a description of the players will be useful for audiences unfamiliar with them: [3]

1. Greece had been under the Metaxas dictatorship for four years when Mussolini attacked in 1940. Metaxas was dependent on England economically and was therefore unable to align himself with the Axis. The Italian advance was stopped in 1940 but the German occupation began on April 27, 1941.

2. Under the leadership of the Communist Party the resistance was organized into the National Liberation Front (EMI) which formed the People’s Liberation Army (ELAS). The exiled royalist government and the British supported rightwing groups. As Liberation approached in 1944, all factions agreed to form a Government of National Unity. Later EAM agreed not to occupy Athens or initiate a civil war, which allowed the British to land—“to save the country from anarchy.”

3. As the Germans withdrew in October 1944, General Scobie, the British officer in charge of the occupation, demanded the disarmament of ELAS despite earlier agreements. EAM resigned from the government. A mass demonstration on December 3 resulted in bloodshed when police fired into the crowd. This began the Battle of Athens which eventually culminated in the Varkiza Agreement on February 12, 1945. EAM was promised parliamentary representation and amnesty for ELAS provided they disbanded within 15 days. The amnesty did not include violations of the “Common Penal Code” which gave the right wing the legal excuse to persecute tens of thousands of resistance fighters.

4. Realizing the bluff, some ELAS groups refused to obey and instead returned to the mountains. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Blevin insisted that elections be held immediately, despite the chaotic situation. The government was forced to resign, all democratic parties withdrew from the elections and the royalists won an easy victory in March 1946. By October the guerillas had formed the Democratic Army and the Civil War raged more bloodily than before. In February 1947 the British informed the United States that they wished to withdraw. On March 12, 1947, Truman announced U.S. intentions to “aid Greece,” marking the beginning of an imperialist intervention in the internal affairs of Greece that continues to this day.

5. Military operations ceased by 1949, the right wing fortified by continuing U.S. presence and aid. The 1952 elections brought Field Marshal Papagos to power heading the extreme right wing of the Greek Mobilization Party. By winning 49.2% of the popular vote he was given 82.3% of the Seats in Parliament as a result of an election law imposed by the intervention of the American Embassy.

This is the historical background in which the traveling troupe pursues their work and their lives. Agamemnon returns to Greece from the bitter 1922 defeat of the Greeks by the Turks in Asia Minor, goes to war against the Italians in 1940, joins the resistance against the Germans, and is executed by them after being betrayed by Clytemnestra and Aegisthos. Aegisthos, Clytemnestra’s lover, is an informer and collaborator working with the German occupiers.

Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, fights on the side of the Communists, avenges his father’s death by killing his mother and Aegisthos. He is arrested in 1949 for his guerilla activities and is executed in prison in 1951. Electra, his sister, helps the Communists and aids her brother in avenging the treachery of their mother and Aegisthos. After the death of Orestes she continues the work of the troupe and her relationship with Pylades.

Chrysothaeme, Electra’s younger sister, collaborates with the Germans, prostitutes herself during the occupation, sides with the British during liberation, and later marries an American. Pylades, close friend of Orestes, is a Communist who is exiled by the Metaxas regime, joins the guerillas and is arrested and exiled again. Finally he is forced to sign a written denunciation of communism after torture by the right wing and he is released from prison in 1950.

Angelopoulos describes himself as having a “passion for history.” He characterizes TRAVELLING PLAYERS as the enactment of a “series of occupations” of Greece continuing to this day. Most of the film, which was almost finished at the time that the military dictatorship fell in July 1974, was shot during the period of extreme right wing dictatorship. For this reason Angelopoulos deliberately obscured most of the political implications of the film. In order to protect actors and crew, Angelopoulos alone had a complete script. He used the alibi that he was producing a modern version of Aeschylus’ ancient trilogy when questioned by the government, local military and civil officials.

The style of TRAVELLING PLAYERS is, nevertheless, more an intentional departure from traditional cinematic convention for the purpose of establishing a new relation with the film audience than an attempt to obscure explicit political analyses and statements. Several key scenes, however, those most explicitly political, were added only after the fall of the military junta and revolutionary and forbidden songs were dubbed in later as well.

In the above quotation, Angelopoulos refers to his approach as “dialectical.” The dialectic of historical continuity is maintained by the utilization of three primary structural devices:

1. Time shifts within one sequence: For example, the players enter a town during the 1952 election campaign and arrive at the central square in 1939. In another brilliant scene, a group of fascist collaborators leave a New Year’s Eve celebration dance in 1946. As the camera tracks them for some 300 yards down the street they gradually undergo a transformation from a group of singing, drunk, staggering and seemingly “harmless” right wingers to a full-fledged fascist group marching in lockstep to martial music. As the uncut seven minute shot ends, the camera continues to track this group as it merges with the crowd at a victorious Papagos rally in 1952.

2. The interruption of the players’ performance by history: Several times in the course of the film, performances of “Golfo and the Shepherdess” are interrupted by historical events. During a performance taking place at the time of the Metaxas dictatorship, Pylades is arrested. A gunshot from the guerillas interrupts the troupe’s “command performance” before the British occupiers. Orestes’ revenge against his mother and Aegisthos takes place during a performance. The performance of “Golfo and the Shepherdess” is a “normal” event and yet “unreal” in the sense that such performances often disguise what is transpiring historically. Angelopoulos, through the mechanism of Interrupting the performance with history, subsumes the unreal performance to the real historical events.

3. The use of soliloquies spoken to the camera with the simultaneous use of time shifts within one sequence: Agamemnon, on the eve of the 1940 war against the Italians, describes the events of 1922 in Asia Minor (the defeat of the Greeks by the Turks) while addressing the camera directly (present). Electra, after being brutally raped in 1945, described events of December 1944 regarding the betrayal of the “Government of National Unity.” Pylades describes his experiences in exile and prison when he returns in 1950, again addressing the camera (present).

As the camera moves within scenes or remains stationary from the perspective of the “audience” (both the play’s audience and the film’s audience) the spectator draws connections between events and thereby becomes a participant rather than only a passive consumer of ideas and sensations. Angelopoulos uses time and structure to create distance and “space” in which a critical consciousness in the viewer can develop. He does not emotionally manipulate the audience or prescribe conclusions. He intentionally alters traditional structure to encourage reflection, perception and synthesis by the audience.

This dialectical task of creating critical distance for the audience while engaging them as participants on the cognitive level has been tackled before. Brecht and Piscator in theatre and Vertov and Godard (most notably) in film have struggled with this task with more or less success. This pursuit is more difficult in film as the real being filmed by the camera mitigates against distantiation by constantly intruding into the distance that the filmmaker is attempting to create. In Godard’s films, a certain self-consciousness in regard to this task results in a high level of audience consciousness of the techniques utilized. Content becomes subservient to technique. Angelopoulos’ technique is neither self-conscious nor gratuitous, allowing critical audience consciousness about the issues, not the film, to develop. In most Hollywood films, camera and editing techniques serve to manipulate the audience to a place within the action, to a personal vantage point and emotional identification with the individual character and his activities.

Angelopoulos brilliantly transcends this fictional “here and now” and replaces it with a historical continuity to which both action and acting are subordinated. By utilizing the transposition of time and events within one continuous uncut scene, presented visually as across a proscenium, the relationship between past, present and future is dialectically maintained. Through the use of long takes within which time shifts both backwards and forwards occur, the relationship between past and present and the implied future potential of history is presented in a dialectic manner to the film audience. The structure prods the audience to synthesize what it is witnessing and filmic time is manipulated to provide room for this participation.

TRAVELLING PLAYERS is a brilliant film on many levels, artistically, structurally, and in its content. While American audiences may miss some of the finer points due to their lack of familiarity with Greek history and mythology, the film constitutes a recognizable breakthrough in political filmmaking.


1. This review was written utilizing material provided by Antonio Ricos, who is Theodoros Angelopoulos’ representative in the United States. He can be contacted through the authors for further information.

2. O THIASSOS has been translated in other English language reviews as THEATRE COMPANY (Peter Pappas, JUMP CUT 9), ACTORS TRAVELS by Richard Corliss in The Village Voice. If the film is distributed in the United States, it will be distributed under the title of TRAVELLING PLAYERS.

3. This summary is based on a four-page tabloid special edition of Thourios, put out by the Youth Organization of the Greek Communist Party (Interior), Rigas Feraios. This paper was widely distributed and available to film audiences when TRAVELLING PLAYERS opened in Athens.