Americans and the Experience of Delphi

Edited by Paul Lorenz and David Roessel. Somerset Hall Press, 2013. 318 pages. $34.95.

By Amy Muse

In 1927 and 1930, a group of Americans created the Delphic Festivals, which not only revived but reinvented ancient Greek theatre. Their generation was the first to see what tourists now think of as Delphi: the procession of treasuries, Temple of Apollo, and surprisingly intimate 5,000-seat theatre with its majestic view over the valley of olive groves. Earlier travelers such as Byron found their pilgrimages to Delphi unceremonious: the site wasn’t yet a “sight.” Over the next century, from 1835 to 1935, the village of Kastri that stood on the primal ground was relocated and the ancient site excavated. “Restored as a ruin with broken benches, cracked dancing floor, and despoiled scene building, the theatre felt like it had been standing forever,” Artemis Leontis writes, and the American theatre artists bearing witness to the disclosure itched to create performances there. This post-Great War, weary-of-mechanization cohort also craved a revival of the human spirit—a “beloved community of lifegivers” in George Cram Cook’s words. Living in spruce huts, fraternizing with shepherds, wearing tunics they wove themselves, in Delphi they sought redemption.

Leontis’s metaphor of a dense “intertextual web” for the Delphic Festivals aptly describes Americans and the Experience of Delphi, a pleasantly allusive, interwoven collection of papers from the 2008 Stockton Hellenic Studies Symposium, as well as the cast of American characters whose destinies were bound up together in Delphi. In these pages the central figures are festival masterminds expatriate Eva Palmer and her husband, Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos (whose sister Penelope married Raymond Duncan, brother of Isadora Duncan); and playwright Susan Glaspell (who read classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison en route and was inspired by her vision of a matriarchal Greek past) and her husband, director George Cram “Jig” Cook, who urged Provincetown Players colleague Eugene O’Neill to cast aside realism for dithyrambic theatre, died in Delphi, and is buried there near Eva Palmer. Poet H.D., whose Delphic vision permeates her novel Majic Ring, studied, like Eva Palmer, “Ladies’ Greek” at Bryn Mawr. Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell (he and Harrison the Brits in the bunch) are somewhat tacked on at the end, their experiences so much of the interwar story of Greece they couldn’t be left out. Although the appearance of the book is regrettably unpolished and inconsistently copyedited, the knowledge packed into it will richly inform future visits to as well as research on Delphi. The material on Glaspell—nearly half the collection—amounts to a retrospective of her Greece-related journalism, playwriting, and novel Fugitive’s Return; thoughtful additions to the volume include her previously unpublished poem “Stones that once were [a] temple” and a review of The Road to the Temple, her biography of Cook and their travels to Greece.  

Amy Muse is Associate Professor and Chair of English at the University of St. Thomas and a former Fulbright Scholar to Greece.