Following a humiliating defeat in the war against Turkey in 1897 and the Catastrophe that followed the invasion of Turkish Asia Minor by Greek troops in 1921-1922, the Greeks finally realized that their nation was to remain confined within the territory held by their state. Thus, the nationalist Megali Idea (‘Great Idea’), a highly romanticized claim for a ‘Greater Greece’, a sovereign state that would stretch over every territory inhabited by Hellenes, was finally abandoned more than sixty years after its conception.
As it happened, Tsatsos became (reluctantly?) the protagonist in a farcical episode in Greek cultural politics, involving the Liberal Left, the Right, and control over Hellenic antiquity and tradition:
On 29 August 1959, a performance of Aristophanes’ The Birds by the Art Theatre Company at the newly restored open-air Herod Atticus Theatre was interrupted by angry spectators, when a Byzantine psalm was interpolated in the play’s sacrifice scene. The show had been directed by Karolos Koun, Greece’s leading avant-garde director at the time, who attempted, with considerable success, to link his work with folk tradition and antiquity – very much in the fashion of the generation of thirties. His collaborators in The Birds included the painter Yannis Tsarouchis and the composer Manos Hadjidakis, all three united by a common vision of antiquity, folklore and contemporary culture. Tsatsos, then Minister of the Interior for a radical right-wing government, personally ordered that the three remaining performances be cancelled, on the grounds that the performance ‘distorted the meaning of the classical text [and] insulted the religious sentiment of the people’. Clearly, Hellenicity was too important to be left in the hands of irresponsible intellectuals.
As Alexis Dimaras assessed in 1983, we ended up propagating an ‘official Hellenicity’, enforced by the state educational system through a regime of fear: fear that, through a crack in the system, ‘the real face of modern Greece might be revealed’ or that the character of this official Hellenicity may get tampered with.
From my introduction to A Singular Antiquity.