LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 23, No.2 - Summer 1977
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1977 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
CONFRONTATIONS WITH TYRANNY. Six Baltic Plays with Introductory essays, edited by Alfreds Straumanis. Waveland Press, Inc., 1977.
It was Charles Lamb who preferred the theatre of the mind to that of actual performance, which testifies to the vitality of his imagination and to the excellence of the material he was reading — he dealt with Shakespeare and not the ordinary theatrical fare of the day. But first and last, drama is meant to be seen in performance: the study is an arid place for drama, and it is a tribute to the power of the writing and of the translations that these six plays are able to be visualized, to be heard, almost to be touched, even in a mere reading.
Perversely, my joy at discovering these plays is mixed with some anger for not having discovered them sooner. This is the first collection of Baltic dramas to be published in English, and its appearance made me aware of how I, an American of Lithuanian descent, have been cheated of my past. The egoist in me is vexed that I was unaware of the richness of my heritage. The aesthete in me regrets the inaccessibility of that literary heritage, not for nationalistic, but for purely personal reasons — that I have been deprived of such beauty.
This collection satisfies the need for an introduction to Baltic drama, but reveals a greater one: the need for at least some of these plays to be disseminated among not just those who already have an interest in Baltic theatre and literature, but those who are interested in theatre and literature, regardless of the nationality. I hope and urge that the work that Alfreds Straumanis has begun as editor of this series not be lost on some unvisited shelves of the university library. Let these plays gain audiences in performance and gain readers from this collection and even more readers from inclusion in general anthologies meant for wide circulation among students and lovers of dramatic literature.
Significantly, the collection is dedicated to Straumanis' son and all other second-generation Baits. Behind that short quiet dedication is, I think, a passionate plea for survival. Any nation or culture can live only as long as there are people to carry on or interpret its traditions. With the last citizen or lover of that culture, the nation dies. That statement is not an advocacy of separatism, nor is the book a brief for isolationism. The collection is, rather, a plea for understanding — for undestanding from the children of immigrants placed in a culture that was so different that the least important element of that difference was the several thousand miles separating them from the homeland; the more important differences amounted to an entire way of life. These plays become, for me, a method by which I can explore and understand the lives of my parents.
But I make the book of plays sound like an unpleasant burden for the anthropologist or sociologist to study in the course of his duties as recorder of cultures. Not so. The collection proceeds from a whole complex of motives: fear, anger, and frustration from not being heard and believed, as well as hope, love, and an affirmation of the process of communication. If the plays are an indication of the culture, then, the Baltic culture is vital and can produce playwrights who have an abundant talent to share with the world. To second-generation Baits, the plays reveal the goodness of a particular heritage; to those who are not of Baltic origin, the plays demonstrate the goodness of variety.
For each of the plays there are separate introductory essays that briefly outline the careers and major themes of the six playwrights. The theme of the volume — confrontations with tyranny — should not put off the casual reader: these are not narrowly political plays, but plays about tyranny in more than the political domain. The theme of tyranny is expressed in an anthology of plays that range from modern tragedy (Five Posts in a Market Place, and The Awakening) to fantasy (Mad Christopher, Mad) to realism (The Blue One) to absurdism (Conderellagame, and Illuminations).
In Martinð Ziverts' Mad Christopher, Mad, the tyranny is that of materialistic society, an authoritarian government, and a dictatorial science academy that does not trouble itself with discovering the laws of nature when it is easier to decree them. The geologist, Christopher, is first committed to the asylum because he contradicts established theories of science and because he would give a newly-discovered mountain of ore to the people of the nation; his folly and altruism are taken as evidence of madness. In the asylum, Christopher meets the King of all madmen, His Majesty, Doremifasolasido, who bemoans the fact that he has so many subjects all over the world that it is difficult for him to recognize all of them. The madness of Christopher and the King, like that of the Madwoman of Chaillot or Don Quixote, transcends itself to become the divinest sense. In the end, Christopher offers the world knowledge about "invaluable treasures against which the mountains of ore are nothing but dust." True wealth resides in the human soul. Christopher prefers the wise madness of the asylum inmates to the unwitting madness of an outside world that is bent on cupidity and hate.
Paul-Eerik Rummo's Cinderella game and Enn Vetemaa's Illuminations push fantasy into the seriocomic theatre of the absurd. Cinderella game (the title is, of course, an allusion to Beckett's Endgame) makes the simple fairy tale into a parable about the inscrutability and otherness of the universe. Nine years after Cinderella and the Prince have married, they do not live happily ever after; the Prince returns to the house of Cinderella and encounters another Cinderella and two sisters, any one of whom may be the real Cinderella he ought to have married. He may not even be the real Prince, but merely his substitute. When the Prince confronts the one person who may know the truth, the Mistress of the House, she reveals that she rules by chance. She gives the Prince the record of events, but the pages are blank or covered with illegible symbols. They are doomed to repeat the game and the search in an endless cycle.
Illuminations is also an absurdist allegory. Seven characters are waiting as part of a TV program about to be telecast from the summit of a mountain which is identified with the mythological Parnassus. It is Bernhard's task to keep rolling a globe of lightning around their house, and the globe becomes ominously larger and larger. The characters, who have solemnly farcical names like Muse, the Classic, a Sufferer, a Profligate, and In Search of His Identity, give their farewell speeches on the program. Bernhard, who had asked for help in rolling around the globe and been refused, discovers that the way to assert his freedom against his fate is to choose death by the foreshadowed or, should I say, fore lightened, "bang at the end."
The most realistic of the plays is Gunars Priede's The Blue One, reminiscent of Ibsen's middle plays with its omnipresent, vaguely defined, ever-growing terror in an otherwise ordinary bourgeois setting. The suspense derives from the piecing together of the small incremental revelations about past events which have been grotesquely and almost fatally misinterpreted by the participants. Juris feels guilty for having survived a car accident in which his father, grandmother, and a friend were killed, but he is also a victim of his mother's possessiveness. She, in turn, is a victim of a terrible misunderstanding which sent her husband to his death. There is no easy closure at the end, the ambiguity of which suggests that the characters are inextricably tangled in the web of past actions.
I hope it is not a latent chauvinism that finds the Lithuanian plays the most interesting in the volume. I do, however, admit a bias in favor of ironic tragedy, which is rare in a world that does not believe in heroes, epic struggles, and absolute values. In five Posts in a Market Place, Algirdas Landsbergis, like Garcia Lorca, uses impressionistic songs and nature symbolism to achieve an atmosphere of simplicity and homely universality. The protagonist, Antanas, is the leader of the last remaining cell of Lithuanian guerillas struggling against the occupying forces. He will not accept the proffered amnesty of the government; he will not listen to his fiancee's pleas for peace. He is determined to carry out the orders of central command to assassinate the Prosecutor even after his headquarters is destroyed, and even though the Prosecutor, the man who has tortured and caused the deaths of innumerable patriots whose ghosts now torture him, is a fitting antagonist for Antanas, and quite noble in his own way. Both the Prosecutor and the rebel are presented with the suggestion to forget the past, but the ineluctable process of history will not allow it. Those who would not forget the past, who would not relinquish their heroism, who would not join in the New Order, will be destroyed: only the small, practical people will have a semblance of peace and prosperity. Time is the great engine that grinds up heroes.
The Awakening, by Antanas Ðkëma, is also about life in extremis. Kazys, a member of the underground, has been captured by the N.K.V.D. and is to be tortured until he reveals where the revolutionaries have a cache of arms. His interrogator, Pijus, was once a close friend to Kazys and was in love with Elena, now the wife of Kazys. The situation is immediately compelling — neither man can back down. Elena, whom Kazys has protected from the knowledge of his activities, and whom he affectionately and patronizingly calls "kitten," becomes entangled in the situation as the interrogator asks her to persuade her husband to reveal the information. At the critical moment, in the heat of the furnace, the characters are refined: the kitten becomes a woman; the underground rebel conquers his fear and affirms his life in his death; the modern-day Inquisitor renounces the heresies of nihilism and self abnegation. It is Pijus who is most interesting to me: the villain whose villainy is mirrored in his appearance (a small, dark man with a missing tooth and a crooked smile), whose villainy is compromised by love for the wife of the man he must torture and by the realization that his devotion to the system was misplaced. When the moment comes for his own replacement, he does not embrace his fate as he expected he would, blessing the wisdom of the system that uses and discards its laborers, but is humanly terrified. When Pijus decides to sacrifice himself, it is not to the system which he religiously served, but for the woman he loves, for his old friend, and for himself. His allegiance if finally to individuals, not corporate entities. The fate of all three has already been sealed: they can only choose to meet it freely and as human beings.
These last two plays are on the surface the most "political," yet, I think, the least topical. They are morality plays that happen to be set in Lithuania. This is not to diminish the particular Lithuanian setting; it is to universalize the for particular, to extend it, as Macbeth has political roots, but is more importantly about the individual who happens to be a political figure.
My responses to these plays are necessarily double: as a student of dramatic literature, I look at these plays, their characters, structures, symbols, and I am pleased. Another part of me, the less objective part, is engaged in another way: my egoism and curiosity are involved since I am discovering my Baltic heritage. I am proud of the artistry of these Baltic plays. But that is a subordinate experience, finally. The plays stand by themselves, on their own merit, without requiring the support of the reader's nationality. Throughout, I have been making comparisons with more famous plays and playwrights. The comparisons are not meant to be invidious; they are not intended to diminish any of the figures. What I mean to suggest is that where we study these more famous modern authors — Ibsen, Lorca, Giraudoux, Beckett — where we perform their plays, there we might also enjoy and study these lesser known but masterly dramatists. It is a misfortune that because these plays are labeled Baltic, they will not reach many who would have loved them had they been printed in a mixed anthology. This collection is a necessary first step to reaching the deserved larger audience.
Southern Illinois University