EVA PALMER SIKELIANOS: A LIFE IN RUINS

Artemis Leontis

Princeton (2019) h/b 339pp £27 (ISBN 978691171722)

To describe Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874-1952) as ‘the most influential philhellene after Lord Byron’ (p. 228) initially seems a bold claim. Most of us, familiar only with grainy black and white film clips of chorus maidens with heads in profile and forward-facing torsos moving in rigid synchronisation before Prometheus’ rocky crag, might consider it too bold, but only before reading this thoughtful book, inspired by a 2005 workshop at the University of Michigan and realised after eleven years of dedicated research.

This, the first major study devoted to this neglected figure, is not a formal biography, but a self-declared ‘cultural biography’ (p. xxv) with an introduction and five separate chapters on the main media of Eva’s performance history, which proceeds in roughly chronological order and concludes with an epilogue tracing the afterlife of her papers, photographs, woven handiwork and Delphic Festival costumes. The book also contains a detailed chronology of Eva’s life, an appendix of the wide cast of characters, extensive notes, references, bibliography and index. It is accessible to the interested general reader, as all the Greek is translated, but will be of particular relevance to students and scholars of Classical reception studies.

We owe L. a debt for her major re-evaluation of this intelligent, rich New York débutante with flowing auburn hair, who studied Greek at Bryn Mawr College and thereafter launched herself into a life that became a ‘performance of defiance’ against early twentieth century conventions. Before this painstaking investigation, which contains many previously unpublished writings and photographs, a simplistic version of Eva’s life was all that was on record: the romantic tale of an American heiress who married an idealistic Greek poet and departed from Paris to live in Greece, to weave, build houses and pay for an eccentric organ and the extravagant Delphic festivals that bankrupted her. 

But L.’s book certainly goes to prove the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction and real life more interesting than easy schemata. We trace the progress of Eva’s beliefs as she moves from youthful posing in Sapphic tableaux and a lesbian lifestyle in the orbit of Natalie Barney in Paris, to marriage with the talented but self-centred Angelos Sikelianos in 1907. In Greece she learns to weave textiles, adopts ancient Greek dress, gains a Master’s in Byzantine Music from the Athens Conservatory (never before granted to a woman), builds two Greek houses in Sikya and Delphi, funds, directs and co-ordinates the revival of the Delphic festivals of 1927 and 1930, thus saddling herself with a crippling debt that forces her to return to America to try to support herself by directing Euripides’ Bacchae at Bryn Mawr, weaving for fashion orders and making costumes for choral productions at Jacob’s Pillow as well as joining a craft community at Rabon Gap, Georgia. We follow the evolution of Upward Panic, the book justifying her life philosophy, and how her concern for the fate of Greece during and after the Second World War turned her into a political activist. Her black-listing for outspoken criticism of American imperialism in the Cold War meant that she was unable to return to Greece before 1952 with the aim of collecting and publishing her dead husband’s papers, where she died shortly after the celebration of her last Delphic Festival.

L. amply demonstrates her firm belief that Eva is more than a mere eccentric moving in a world peopled by more influential early twentieth century artists like Isadora Duncan, Collette, Ted Shawn, George Seferis and Martha Graham. She proves that Eva made a major contribution in her own right to questions that are still of concern to us now such as lesbianism, the freedom of the individual and democratic ideals, and breathed new life into ancient practices not by rigorous scholarly authenticity but, by the process of ‘anadrome’ (remounting the current or working backwards), using creative freedom and modern tools as a non-specialist promoting the relevance of Classics to new generations. L. reveals how Eva influenced the vocabulary of modern dance by her re-interpretations of Delsartean mythic posing and observation of archaic pottery and Greek folk dance, advocated the dignity of labour in a post-industrial world and spurred on the revival of the Greek nationalistic spirit by her show-casing of folk music, the use of demotic and the post-war tourist fashion for handicrafted Greek objects.

But L. also highlights the heavy cost of Eva’s life of performance art upon her health and personal relationships: the stress of love triangles with women, the realities of her fractured marriage, as well as her frustrating financial imprudence and the rigid stubbornness of character that impelled her to break up a productive artistic collaboration with the dancer Ted Shawn over the mere pronunciation of the letter R. Although Eva’s ‘indefatigable idealism eclipsed any sense of practicality’ (p. 120), throughout her life she remained unswervingly dedicated to a set of noble ideals: high aspirations for world peace, the preservation of a country’s native music and customs, and the regeneration of humanity through drama, sports, poetry, discussion and song. We gain a real sense of her tireless support for personal creativity and different ways of being in the face of the uniformity imposed by modern consumerism, and of the way she constantly questioned the forms and boundaries of modern life and the West’s own vision of Hellenism. This book encourages us to take stock of our own aspirations and engage with ethical debates about what we should believe in and how we should live our own lives in the modern world.

Claire Gruzelier

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