Melina Mercouri is one of the great women figures of Greece in the 20th century. A many-sided and vibrant personality, she played a leading role in the struggle against the Colonel’s Junta in 1967 – 1974 and was a great theatre and film actress of international fame. The parts she has portrayed have made cinema history. She was also a politician who left her mark on Greek culture.
Melina (the diminutive of her two names Amalia – Maria) Mercouri was born in Athens on 18 October 1920. She comes from a family of politicians and was the beloved grand daughter of Spyros Mercouris – one of the most successful and popular mayors of Athens, for more than 30 years – and the daughter of Stamatis Mercouris, a deputy of EDA (Party of the Greek Democratic Left) former Minister of Public Order and Public Works. A little after she had completed her secondary education, she was admitted to the National Theatre’s Drama School after reciting a poem by Karyotakis. She studied with the great teacher Dimitris Rondiris and graduated in 1944. She joined the National Theatre and interpreted small parts on the central stage and on the Piraeus stage. In 1945 she played the part of Electra in Eugene O’ Neil’s “Mourning becomes Electra”.
Her first big success in the theatre was the role of Blanche Dubois in Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”, staged by Karolos Koun’s Art Theatre in 1949. During 1949 – 1950, she worked with the Art Theatre in plays by Aldus Huxley, Arthur Miller, Philip Jordan, Andre Roussin.
She then appeared in Paris, in boulevard plays by Jacques Deval and Marcel Achard with whom she had a very good collaboration. While in Paris she met Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Colette, Francoise Sagan. She was fascinated and her metamorphosis began.
In 1953 she received the Marika Kotopouli prize. After 1955 she returns to Greece and stars at the Kotopouli-Rex theatre in many of the plays of the classical repertoire, like Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Anouilh’s “L’Alouette”. In the ’50s she joins the theatre actor’s trade union movement.
Melina Mercouri started her cinema career in 1955 with the film “Stella”, directed by Michalis Cacoyannis. The film received special praise at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. In Cannes she meets the American filmmaker Jules Dassin with whom she would share her life and career. The next year she starred in Jules Dassin’s movie “He who must die”. From 1958, she played the leading part in many Dassin films, “The Law”, “Never on Sunday”, “Phaedra”, “Topkapi”, “10:30 p.m. summer” and also in Juan Antonio Bardem’s “The Mechanical Piano” and in Joseph Losey’s film “The Gypsy and the Gentleman”. In 1960 she received the best actress prize in Cannes for “Never on Sunday”. The film also won five Oscar nominations. Melina Mercouri worked with famous directors like Vittorio de Sica, Ronald Neame, Carl Forman, Norman Jewison and others.
During 1956 – 1967, she continued her stage career with a brilliant performance in Tennessee William’s “The sweet bird of youth” in 1960 at the Art Theatre under the direction of Karolos Koun. Melina Mercouri has starred in about 60 plays in Athens and in 19 movies by renowned directors.
Melina Mercouri was able to combine the magic of the performing arts with the realism of politics. She was very actively involved in many aspects of social and political life, first during the struggle against the dictatorship and later, in 1977 as a Member of Parliament and, finally, from 1981 to 1989 and from 1993 until her death as Minister of Culture.
At the time of the colonel’s coup in April 1967, Melina Mercouri was in the States where she played on Broadway “Illya Darling” the musical version of “Never on Sunday”. She immediately joined the struggle against the dictatorship. She traveled all over the world to inform the international public about the dictatorial regime in Greece, in a relentless campaign for the international isolation and fall of the colonels. During the seven years of the dictatorship she was best known for her anti -junta activity, as one of the most “visible” and severe critics of the military regime. The dictators took away her Greek citizenship, and confiscated her property; there were terrorist attacks against her and an assassination attempt in Genoa. Heedless of the consequences, she continued to fight until the fall of the junta with speeches, interviews, recordings, marches, concerts, hunger strikes.
In 1970 – 1973, she starred in Jules Dassin’s movies “Promise at Dawn” and “The Rehearsal”.
After the fall of the dictatorship and the restoration of democracy in 1974, she settled in Greece where she continued her political activity in the Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) to which she was a founding member, whilst actively involved in the women’s movement. She was a member of the party’s Central Committee and a rapporteur for the Culture Section. In the legislative elections of 1974 she was a PASOK candidate in the 2nd Piraeus constituency, where she obtained 7500 votes, but lost the seat for 33 votes.
Alongside her political action and party membership, she started working on a TV program called “Dialogues”, on social issues. Of the 14 episodes, only the two, on Cyprus, were broadcasted and then the National Broadcasting Organization (ERT) did not allow the program to be aired. The matter came before Parliament but with no result. She made two more films on the “Provinces of Athens” and “The Ahmet Aga estate in Euboea”. She continued her theatre and cinema career with unforgettable roles in Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera”, directed by Jules Dassin (1975) after 15 years of absence from the Athenian stage and as “Medea” in Euripides’s tragedy staged by the State Theatre of Northern Greece and directed by Minos Volanakis (1976). The performance was shown in the whole of Macedonia and in the Lycabettus theatre, but was not allowed on the official program of the ancient drama festival in Epidaurus. This interdiction by the chief executive of the National Theatre appointed by the government then in power, gave her the title of the “exiled Medea”. In 1978 she starred in “A Dream of Passion” based on the Medea character directed by Jules Dassin. In November 1977, Melina Mercouri was elected as a Member of Parliament for PASOK in the 2nd Piraeus Constituency, garnering the highest number of votes in the whole of Greece. After her victory, she devoted all her energy to politics and culture.
For a short time she played in a performance with texts by Brecht “An evening with Bertolt Brecht” 1978, directed by Jules Dassin. During the winter of 1979 – 1980 she starred in Tennessee William’s “Sweet Bird of Youth”, directed by Jules Dassin and in the summer she interpreted Clytemnestra’s part in “Oresteia” staged by Karolos Koun’s Art Theatre in Epidaurus. Her international fame and appeal brought her in contact with the great European leaders and she never missed the opportunity to promote Greece.
She was again elected deputy in 1981. During the next elections (1985, June 1989, November 1989, 1990 and 1993) her name was on the list of the top national parliamentarians. When PASOK won the October 1981 elections, Melina Mercouri was appointed Minister of Culture, a post she would keep for the whole 8 years of the PASOK government, the first Minister of Culture in Greece to remain in office for so long. Amongst her wide-ranging activities at the Ministry of Culture Melina Mercouri:
– Started the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles presently in the British Museum. At the same time, she gave special attention to the restoration of the Acropolis monuments and held an international competition for the design of the New Acropolis Museum.
– She commissioned a study for the integration of all the archaeological sites of Athens, i.e. the integration of Athens’ historic center at Iera Odos – Plaka – Temple of Olympian Zeus triangle, so as to create a 4 km archaeological park, a pedestrianized area free from traffic where residents and visitors could learn and enjoy the history of Athens.
– She introduced free access to museums and archaeological sites for Greek citizens as part of an overall education effort aimed at the people, youth in particular.
– She organized a series of impressive exhibitions of Greek cultural heritage and contemporary Greek art in all five continents.
– She gave priority to the protection of Greece’s recent architectural heritage, supporting the restoration of important buildings throughout the country and especially in Athens (Schlieman Mansion – Weiler building).
– She gave full support to the completion of the Athens Hall of Music (Megaron Mousikis Athinon). She bought and commissioned the reconstruction of the REX building.
– In 1989, she backed the Thessaloniki Byzantine Museum project; the largest Greek museum built in Greece in the 20th century.
– She established annual literary prizes.
– She established the Municipal Regional Theatres and contributed to the creation and operation of Municipal Conservatories.
– She supported and promoted Greek cinema.
– She was one of the devoted supporters of the Athens bid for the 1996 Olympics to commemorate the centennial of the first Modern Olympic Games of 1896.
– In 1983, during the first Greek presidency, she invited the Culture Ministers of the ten European Union Member States, at the time, at an informal meeting in Zappeion where she asked them to participate in a joint action to increase the people’s cultural awareness, since there was no reference to cultural questions in the Treaty of Rome. So, on her initiative the sessions of the EEC Ministers of Culture were established.
– One of her greatest achievements as Minister of Culture was the establishment of the institution of the Cultural Capitals of Europe, with Athens being chosen as the first capital in 1985.
– A fruitful and constructive dialogue with the countries of Eastern Europe began on her initiative when in 1988, during the second Greek presidency, she supported the idea of a cooperation between Eastern Europe and the European Union and tried to open up the borders despite the strong reservations of her European partners. The idea was implemented in 1989 with the celebration of the Month of Culture in Eastern countries.
In the legislative elections of 1989, Melina Mercouri was elected as a national parliamentarian and remained a member of PASOK’s Executive Bureau. In 1990 she was a candidate for the city of Athens at the municipal elections. In 1992 she played the part of Clytemnestra in the opera “Pylades” by Kouroupos and Chimonas, directed by Dionysis Fotopoulos, at the Athens Hall of Music. Following PASOK’s victory in the 1993 elections, Melina Mercouri was back at the Ministry of Culture. During her short, second term of office, Melina Mercouri had the program:
– The creation of a cultural park in the Aegean to safeguard and enhance the civilization and environment of the Aegean islands.
– To link culture with education at all educational levels, by creating a new system of post-training of teachers so that in all subjects there be included cultural references. And above all the children find pleasure in learning. She advanced the slogan Education through Enjoyment.
Melina Mercouri died on 6 March 1994 at New York’s Memorial Hospital and her funeral was held, with Prime Minister’s honors, on 10 March 1994.
But more important to Melina Mercouri was that the love she had for the Greek people was returned to her and that her memory is revered and cherished by all.