It is surprising how many different ways Greek-Americans are portrayed in historical accounts and official government documents surrounding the very same event. At one moment, they are dumbling peasants seeking the aid and understanding of the more culturally advanced native-born American. At others, these very same Greeks are disingenuous tricksters only waiting for their chance to cheat the honorable (and so always unsuspecting) American. Still, yet again, these same newly arrived Greeks are presented as a blank slate on which anything can be written. All of these projections onto the Greeks can often be seen when following the very same historical accounts over the course of time and through a variety of documents.
The experiences of Mable Hay Barrows offers us insights into how this changing series of presentations can be revealed in just one series of historical accounts. Barrows’ first success with local Greeks can be read on the pages of the Chicago Daily Tribune, on December 7, 1899, concerning her play, and then entitled, ‘The Return of Odysseus.’ Under the headline, REALISM AT HULL HOUSE, we read:
“Chicago Greeks reproduced scenes from ancient Hellenic life last night at Hull House. And they threw into the performance a realism that brought the audience to its feet with cheers. The climax came in the scene where two Phaeacian nobles box before Odysseus. Both were in earnest and the exhibition drew yells of applause from the audience. It was as spirited as a six-round bout at Tattersall’s and when the six-foot Phaeacian went down and took ten seconds the audience gasped, so real was the apparent knockout. Not till the actor reappeared in the next scene could many believe the fight was a sham.
The play was called “The return of Odysseus” and was an arrangement of six Homeric episodes by Miss Mabel Hay Barrows of Boston. The play will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night. The first night audience was composed of large numbers of the Greek colony with instructors from the University of Chicago, Lake Forest, and Northwestern and some ministers and other professional men.
The cast of the play was: Odysseus…Demetrius Manussos; Telemuchus…Soterius Georgiades; Alelnous, King of Phaeacia…Panagiotis Lambros; Laodamas…Soterius Georgiades; Hallus…Vasillos Zeros; Clytoneus…Demetrius Glanacopulos. His sons: Echeneus, a Phaeacian Councilor…Georgios Anastasopulos; Euryalus…Elias Condaxopoulos; Amphiaius…Herakles; Athanasopoulos; Eintreus…Vasilios Georgopoulos. Phaeacian athletes. Penelope…Mavilla Mparos; Athene, disguised as Mentes…Constantinos Anargyros; Circe…Amalie Mastro-Valerio
Arete, Queen of Phaeacia…Mavilla Mparos; Nausicaa, her daughter…Helen Tsoromokon. SUBSTITUTES FOR GREEK WOMEN
The men of the cast were native Greeks, but it was found impossible to cast the women’s parts in the same way. Some of the Grecian damsels were Greek boys and others, without speaking parts, were American girls. Miss Barrows herself, as Mavilla Mparos, was Penelope and Arete, Queen of Phaeacia, while other of the Greek women were Italians.
The play developed an etymological discussion for the scholars. The Greeks refused to use the scholastic pronunciation of Erasmus and insisted upon reading the Homeric verse without metrical inflection, with the pronunciation of modern Greece. There was no attempt at retaining Greek ideas of dramatic unity and little at giving a Greek play. What was presented was a series of brilliantly colored Homeric pictures, pantomime of dignity, and dialogue of force and dramatic strength. The series of stage pictures presented was remarkable. The Greeks displayed just the amount of composure to give dignity to the statuesque mural effects and the amount of mobility to give grace and animation to their action.
The Greeks, it seemed from the audience, had forgotten the passage of nearly 3,000 years. Their spirit was in their lines and their actions. Their dances were Modern Greek and their boxing had the atmosphere of the Marquis of Queensberry rules, but the scholars who saw the play said it had a value which the more technically correct representations of Greek plays given by college students have lacked. It was the modern Greek idea of what ancient Greek was.”
Later in May 1900, the very same cast gave the same play at Chicago’s Studebaker Theater to benefit the Vassar Student Aid Society. Again, they were greatly acclaimed for their performance. This was not the only classical play the Chicago Greeks ever presented at Hull-House or even to the general public of the city. Nor in fact, although it is less known, was this the first public drama the Greek community showcased to the general public in Chicago. But our concern here is with the young Mable Hay Barrows and her dealings with Greeks in the United States.
Barrows came from a distinguished and well recognized family. Her father Samuel J. Barrows (1885-1909) was a Unitarian minister and a Congressman from Massachusetts. Long before that period of his life “Barrows went with the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873, under the command of General Stanley, and with the Black Hills Expedition in 1874, commanded by General Custer. In 1873 he took part in the Battle of the Tongue River. Throughout his life, Barrows was an advocate for women’s suffrage, African American rights, assimilation of Native Americans and prison reform. He fought for these reforms throughout his life and time in Congress.” Barrows also spent a great deal of time in the Balkans and Asia Minor where he learned to speak Modern Greek. Isabel Chapin Barrows (1845-1913), Mable’s mother, was an accomplished individual in her own right. Known as a woman of ‘firsts,’ Barrows “was the first woman employed by the United States State Department (in 1868). She later became the first woman to work for Congress as a stenographer. Barrows was also one of the first women to attend the University of Vienna to study ophthalmology, and the first woman to have a private practice in medicine in Washington, D.C.”
Mabel Hay Barrows, attended Boston Latin School and after an extended trip through Greece with her father she enrolled in Radcliffe where she first wrote her highly acclaimed Homeric play. Barrows then went on to study gymnastics which was meant to complement her work in dance. Upon graduation Barrows became a dramatic director, dancer, and was avidly sought out to coach Latin and Greek plays at numerous colleges and high schools across the nation. Mable Hay Barrows was a vital artist whose work went well beyond the confines of Greek and Latin inspired performances.
Having said all that let us now turn to Barrows’ 1904 rendition of Ajax of Sophocles as performed by Greek immigrants in New York City, at Clinton Hall on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
As we hear in the pages of the New York Sun, ‘The nightly rehearsals of the play are being attended by Greeks from all parts of the city, a fine looking lot of young actors. The task of handling so large a body of untrained men is no small one, yet a mighty factor is the almost religious zeal with which these men are putting in seven nights a week for ten weeks, not for money, but for patriotic pride (February 21, 1904).’ And then, at the very end of this account, we hear “Metalos, the young Greek who took the part of Ajax in Chicago, did it so well that he has come on to play it again in New York.’ Performed on March 24, 25 and 26 the play was a great success. Greek immigrant women were allowed to perform in this series of performances.
How was Metalos invited? Why didn’t some Greek immigrant from New York play Ajax? Unlike the 1899 or 1900 set of performances in Chicago I could find no mention by name of the New York City immigrant actors. Stray references or both the Chicago and New York City performances vaguely indicate that the Greek immigrants did not want to conduct the play in Ancient Attic Greek but Modern Greek. It seems they were insistent on this point, and they changed the thinking of Barrows and her Anglo supporters. So much so that Barrow continued to produce her plays in Modern Greek, even when the performers were native-Americans and not immigrants.
After her triumph in New York City Barrows was invited by the University of California to produce her play at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. In the San Francisco Call we hear the ever so subtle opinion of the writer on the point of modern versus Ancient Greek as well as their thoughts on ‘the Eastern performances,’ by which is meant Chicago and New York: “The play will not be produced in the original Greek language. It has been found that the modern language is adapted more to the singing parts than the old, and it has been used with success in the Eastern performances (August 25, 1904).” The ultimate performance was praised by local journalists and viewers alike. This play was believed at the time to be the first such classical Greek play enacted by American university students. The performance drew 2000 people and it was noted that a sizable portion of the audience were local Greek immigrants.
Mable Hay Barrow went on to have a long and varied theatrical career. Her respect for those she worked with, from a variety of cultures and social classes, can be seen in the diversity and length of her career. How Greeks are presented in historical accounts has as much to do with those who write history as it does with the actions of the Greeks themselves.
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