LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 52, No 3 - Fall 2006
Editor of this issue: Mykolas Drunga
Rewriting the Canon: The Nature of the Political in Contemporary Lithuanian Theater
Jurgita Staniškytė heads the Theater Studies Department at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas. She is the author of numerous scientific and critical publications on contemporary Lithuanian theater and performance art and actively participates in various scholarly and artistic organizations.
Theater, by its definition, is a communal and social institution, representing as well as establishing certain sociopolitical values. However, at the end of the twentieth century, the ambition of theater as a cultural practice that inspires social change was corrupt. Looking back on the development of Lithuanian theater of the last few decades, one of its features is its unwillingness to engage in critical debates about the current sociopolitical situation. Only a small number of Lithuanian theater works relate critically to the social reality around them. Very few performances are able to provide a content of resistance or to deliver political consciousness through performance. However, the paradox is that the notion of political has not entirely disappeared from the stage of contemporary Lithuanian theater – it exists in a complex representational matrix, variously situated between opposing forces of the real and the fictional.
This article will seek to outline several strategies that are employed by contemporary Lithuanian theater in dealing with the political. I will try not to confine the notion of political to works that incorporate overtly social and political narratives and images. Therefore, I will exclude from my analysis a body of work that attempts to engage in political or social debates with the help of new Western European plays, the so-called theater of new brutality, represented by Marius von Mayenburg, Sarah Kane or Mark Ravenhill.1 These plays embody a quite simplistic notion of social drama. It is possible to describe the poetics of such plays as “miming” or, in other words, a representation that documents the structure of contemporary social order and its flaws, but does not necessarily open up a space for criticism. Moreover, in Lithuanian theater the plays of new brutality are usually staged in a very visual and metaphorical manner that romanticizes and neutralizes the message of the dramatic text. On the contrary, this article will investigate performances that, although removed to some degree from social or political “content,“ nevertheless establish an unstable and complex relation with the political which seems most appropriate to the postmodern cultural context.
Paradoxes of the Political
The last decade of the twentieth century in Lithuania was marked by discussions about the theater’s place in a transitional society. Most of these debates have focused on a specific area of concern: the inability of Lithuanian theater to define its role in the changing reality, to create adequate means of expression or at least to modify the old ones. Under the conditions of Soviet occupation, Lithuanian theater had formed a metaphoric poetics of Aesopean language that allowed for criticism of an ideological enemy in between the lines and the creation of an invisible community between performers and spectators. In the seventies and nineties, the works of such directors as Jonas Vaitkus, Jonas Jurašas or Modris Tenison formed a tradition of radical, active and provocative theater that paradoxically ceased to exist after the sociopolitical situation had changed. According to theater critic Indrė Daunytė, it is a paradox that the lack of ideological and creative freedom in the Soviet period had served as a stimulus for the creation of a political and artistic alternative.2 However, Lithuanian theater directors have discovered that it is extremely difficult to find a new model of relations with reality under the conditions of freedom offered by independence. One of the few examples of active and social performances of this period was the Šėpa theater founded by director Gintaras Varnas. It existed in 1988–1989 and parodied current political events by means of puppet theater.
After the shift in the sociopolitical situation, the Lithuanian theater turned away from everyday reality toward purely creative imaginative and symbolic theatricality. Critics claimed that the imagination of directors overcame the language of the real. At the end of the twentieth century, Lithuanian theater lost its interest in things happening beyond the margins of theater; it developed an internal monologue reflecting upon itself. While staging classical plays or contemporary drama, directors would transfer the protagonist’s conflict with external reality into his/her inner world. The dialogue with society or even the creative dialogue with other artists has disappeared from the Lithuanian scene. According to Oskaras Koršunovas, the representative of the “transitional” generation of Lithuanian theater, “undoubtedly, after 1990 Lithuanian theater lost the monopoly on truth; it stopped being the exceptional place of spiritual resistance; ethical Aesopean language was transformed into the purely aesthetic (...) Theater has become antisocial art...”3
More critics agree that the significant turn toward visual theatricality that occurred in the Lithuanian theater during the last decades had a considerable impact on the formation of the gap between theater and society which is currently increasing. Moreover, it is possible to provide at least several reasons for contemporary Lithuanian theater’s apolitical approach and noncritical attitude toward the world outside the playhouse. One of the reasons is the notorious nature of the term social/political theater in post-Soviet space. On the other hand, there is a good deal of disagreement as to what it means to be critical of the status quo in the contemporary cultural context. It is obvious that the very concept of a political or critical position has changed under postmodern conditions.
Under modernism, the function of critical and politically active theater was to reveal and demonstrate social alternatives, whereas the postmodern society of spectacle requires directors to employ more subtle strategies. As Hal Foster puts it, postmodern political art differs from the historical avant-garde or modern political art because it does not oppose any ideology, but simply investigates processes and apparatuses that control different forms of representation. In this view, postmodernist political art cannot rely simply on a representation of the program, a critique or a desired utopia. It must interrogate the means of representation themselves as structures of authority. Understanding that it cannot place itself outside the object of its own critique, postmodernist political art acts as a collaborator and a critic at the same time and seems to be both employing and deconstructing the artistic canon. Such theater is more ambivalent and contradictory than the modern; it aims at both subverting and establishing ideology at the same time. Most often it is not easy to recognize such an ambiguous strategy as political. It is obvious that we need to revise and reread the performances in order to recognize their strategic political agendas.
The contemporary Lithuanian theater is learning little by little to investigate the representations of theatrical canons and alter the dominant ways of reality perception, rather than reproducing them by means of moderate aesthetic conventions. Several examples of the changing notion of the political that can be conceptualized as canonical counter-representation can be found on the stage of the contemporary Lithuanian theater.
Staging the Canon
In order to define the counter-canonical representations in contemporary Lithuanian theater, I will use the term borrowed from post-colonial studies – canonical counter-discourse. Helen Tiffin has defined this project as a process whereby the post-colonial writer unveils and dismantles the basic assumptions of a specific canonical text by developing a ‘counter’ text that preserves many of the identifying features of the original, while altering, often allegorically, its structures of power.5 This model can be applied to theater performances as well. Without a doubt, not all performances that refer to canonical models are counter-discursive. It is not possible at all times to establish this effect by simply reinterpreting the canonical play.6 In Lithuanian theater, classical texts are most often simply contemporized and usually this kind of performance fails to fit the definition of counter-discourse. The same can be said about some postmodern techniques used in contemporary Lithuanian theater; for example, intertextuality that does not necessarily entail a rewriting project. According to postcolonial theory, while all counter-discourse is intertextual, not all intertextuality is counter-discursive. By definition, counter-discourse actively works to destabilize the power structures of the original (text or performance) rather than simply foregrounding it or acknowledging its influence. Rewriting the characters, the narrative, the context and the genre of the canonical script provides the means of interrogating the cultural legacy of the canon and offers new opportunities for its performative re-vision.7
We can trace at least several attempts to produce canonical counter-representations in contemporary Lithuanian theater. For example, the cooperative work of playwright Sigitas Parulskis and director Vytautas V. Landsbergis From the Life of Souls (1996) offers a rewriting of a canonical Jonas Basanavičius text, using the formal language of the latter, but altering its meaning and ideas. Madagascar by Marius Ivaškevičius and director Rimas Tuminas (2004) also attempts to create the canonical counter-discourse by ironic rewriting of the Romantic notions of Lithuanian cultural mythology by means of the language of the interwar intellectuals. However, in the case of Madagascar this counter-canonical strategy works only within the margins of the dramatic text and does not translate into the performance which, almost in opposition to the drama, tries to reestablish the canonical portrayals of the Lithuanian past.
Another possibility to use canonical counter-representations is to question and challenge the canonical (traditional) ways of perception in theater. These strategies can be applied not only on a thematic but on a formal level of performance as well. There are quite a number of works in contemporary Lithuanian theater that employ new technologies in order to overturn the traditional system of representation. The idea to investigate the relationship between representation and perception in theater is explicitly at work in one of the most recent performances by Gintaras Varnas8 – Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (2004). Here, the practices of spectatorship and the means that control them are the object of performance. The spectators are seated on the stage, which is separated from the actual sitting area by the film screen. The action of the performance takes place in front of the screen, whereas the virtual performance is translated onto it. The spectators’ gaze is fractured by a complex system of intersecting gazes, including those between the actors and their electronic image, between actors and spectators, between spectators and fictional spectators (nonacting actors). This juxtaposition of live and mediated representations interrogates the interplay between viewer and spectacle, showing that reality is not only what happens but also how it is being projected. The use of digital recording and immediate translation of ongoing performance disperses the center of visual focus to at least two locations (live action and recorded action) so that the viewers’ gaze is both split and multiplied. The film within performance articulates a different interpretation of events; for example, in the murder scene on screen we see Roskolnikov (Gytis Ivanauskas) sleeping, as if everything that is happening is just a dream, whereas on stage the “real” Roskolnikov performs the act of killing. Moreover, the actor filming the actions of performance is able to choose the aspects that he wants to emphasize and leave out the fragments that seem unimportant to him. In this way, the performer is playing with the spectator’s desire for an objective vision. This kind of staging confronts the cinematic gaze with the theatrical and reveals the mechanism by which viewer positions can be mediated or controlled. The political aspect of this performance lies exactly in the interrogation of the means of representation as structures of authority. Such a strategy is not a matter of articulating the political meaning, but of making visible the politics of representation.
More complex and therefore more interesting examples of implied canonical counter-representation can be found in the performances P.S. File O.K. by Lithuanian playwright Sigitas Parulskis (1997) and Sophocles’s King Oedipus (2002), both directed by Oskaras Koršunovas.9 Both performances deal with mythological systems as well as contemporary “trivial” myths, the so-called social dramas (Soviet and post-Soviet) and do so by subverting or rewriting them, exposing the power structures underlying the reality and the myth as well as the representations of both.
P.S. File O.K. is a postmodern drama. The text incorporates the experiences of the creators of the performance, as the writing of the text was an ongoing process, closely linked with the rehearsals. P.S. file O.K. rejects the conventional bases of drama – plot, character, and dialogue – and creates a collage of contrasting styles and fragmentary images to mirror the contemporary mindscape. Parulskis inserts fragments from canonical works by William Shakespeare, the Bible, the myth of Oedipus and fragments from Lithuanian theater history and juxtaposes them with the Soviet experiences of the creators of the performance. The inability to distinguish between truth and fiction that characterizes P.S. File O.K. is stressed by the lack of distinguishing between the words of Parulskis and other writers. The playwright uses not only citations of canonical texts, but imaginative material; i.e., the audience’s awareness of them as well. Koršunovas employs similar strategies while staging P.S. File O.K. Many scenes in the performance are presented as ironic blends of fragments from the European cultural canon. For example, the mise-en-scène at the beginning of the performance, where detectives dressed like bunnies are waiting for the father’s ghost to appear, as if referring to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as well as to the recent performance of Hamlet by Eimuntas Nekrošius, or at the end of the performance, when the structure of the biblical story is changed and Isaac sacrifices his father Abraham, instead of being saved by the grace of God. The performance either presents an action so that it bears a remote relation to the original or decisively alters the perspective to create a dialectical opposition between the themes of the canonical text and performance vision.
The stage design and organization of space chart a geography of the fragmented mind (stage designer – Žilvinas Kempinas). It can be interpreted as a purely psychological landscape, a place of memory inhabited with objects or symbols. This stage represents the level of the subconscious, only partly visible to the spectator. It emphasizes the hallucinatory nature of the performance. Dream quality, doubling of the action and multiplying characters are all present in P.S. File O.K.; every figure or character carries the personalities of others within it. The main character played by Arūnas Žebrauskas is the Son, Pupil, Soldier, Hamlet, Oedipus and Isaac and also has allusions to the characters from the former performances directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius and Koršunovas’s teacher Jonas Vaitkus.
The myths, cultural and religious canonical texts are rewritten in order to translate them into a local social context, to tell local stories by borrowing the codes, conventions and cultural associations of the canonical. The director manipulates the audience by the use of clichés from Soviet reality: a diligent detective (Gediminas Girdvainis), who investigates the murder of the Father, resembles a Soviet Party member, participating in a collective condemnation of the disobedient Son. A particularly effective rewriting of the myth is at work when a student at a Soviet school tells the story of Oedipus as an anecdote, a “funny thing,” that has happened to him, demonstrating that his experience can acquire the shapes of the canonical. Linking the canonical discourses with Soviet traumas, P.S. File O.K. demonstrates the notion expressed by German playwright Heiner Müller, that Mythos is an aggregate; a machine, onto which ever new and other machines can be attached.10 As a result of intertextual and counter-canonical strategies, the Soviet history in this performance presents itself as hallucination. In P.S. File O.K. history (as personal narrative of the playwrights) is first told and then translated into pseudomythical situations, demonstrating that reality and fiction area both constructed in the same performative manner. It appears that the performance is suggesting that history is a closed narrative. All the multiple possibilities of the event (which could have happened) are discarded and reduced to one sole interpretation that fixes the official interpretation of the event into a “unique truth.” The performance of P.S. File O.K. expresses not so much the urge for an alternative as the need to acknowledge the arbitrariness and fictionality of the historic as well as any canonical narrative.
Similarly, by fragmenting and subverting the structural elements (narrative, visual, aural) of King Oedipus, the director aims to challenge traditional modes of perception of the canonical. In this performance of a text that represents the cultural canon of the West, Koršunovas uses the actions of social life and contemporary social dramas as the underlying themes, frames, rhythms of his performance. This staging of Sophocles’s play made explicit allusions to the contemporary Lithuanian political scene, in particular the image of the mayor of the capital Vilnius as the shadow figure behind Oedipus, “the mayor” or Thebes. Thus, the idea to project the tragedy of King Oedipus on the contemporary social context, to connect it with the contemporary social dramas of the culture of champions seems to suggest that oedipal nightmares are continually replayed.
The performance demonstrates the fragmentary nature of the individual – in the beginning, Oedipus (Dainius Gavenonis) is presented as an unified subject; we see him as a powerful, unhesitating, quick-tempered, imperious and even a furious modern political leader – King of Thebes. Whereas at the end of the performance, losing his vision as well as his social power, Oedipus becomes a postmodern split subject with a myriad of faces. This fragmentation is visually represented by the masks made of photos picturing Oedipus’s face and worn by members of the chorus. The structure of the performance visibly mimes the Lacanian notion of entering the domain of language as “the death of the real”: when the real identity of Oedipus is named, the real presented as social signs in performance (business costumes, recognizable environments, objects from mass culture –Mickey Mouse etc.) evaporates from the scene, transforming reality into myth.11
The stage design of King Oedipus (stage designer Jūratė Paulėkaitė) connects the public to a recognizable, familiar location, the place of given history and reality, a Soviet playground. As the director suggested in his interview before the premiere, “An adult in the playground is a perfect image of a politician. There is a strange relationship between authority and infantilism.”12 Indeed, on the surface, the situation in the performance is presented as cartoon-like, but it receives a mythical dimension with the help of a specific staging strategy. Scenes with clear social connotations are staged in a distilled space, within visually and acoustically purified mise-en-scènes, where everything is measured by strong unified rhythmic patterns of sound and movement. This is the space of the mythical, but with clearly recognizable objects from childhood – playground, sandlot, swings, Coryphaeus as a big teddy bear, Tiresias as Pinocchio, the chorus with Mickey Mouse masks and degenerate children bearing a striking similarity to Teletubbies. Social symbols in this performance become the codes of the ancient tragedy, demonstrating that contemporary social or political dramas still rely on archaic representations. Moreover, they suggest that authority employs mythical representations to legitimize and strengthen its political power.
We can see from this analysis that although both performances use canonical representations as a target and as a weapon, they differ, first of all, in strategies. In King Oedipus the myth is reinscribed in the social (the contemporary social context), thus rewriting the canon with the codes of contemporary social reality, while in P.S. File O.K. the Soviet past and the post- Soviet present are performed as myth and at the same time deconstructed as an illusion that can be rewritten. Although the strategies are different, the techniques of rewriting the canon, whether textually or performatively, are used here to challenge common assumptions about social reality, the distance between performance and experience, fact and fiction. We can see from these examples that the numerous layers of meaning and coded information which a performance communicates are capable of acting counter-discursively.
The performances discussed here offer the possibility of a simultaneous reading of all the visual and aural aspects of power (the canon) and demonstrate the oppositional versions of constructing the canonical. These examples show that the political in contemporary Lithuanian theater is rooted both in visual/textual effects and in reading strategy; it can be defined as the continued interrogation of cultural or political authority of any kind. The question is, however, whether it is possible to define these kinds of rewriting or deconstructing strategies as effective in a social sense, since they are not straightforward in the way traditional political theater has been. The answer, I would say, lies in the postmodern concept of the relations between performance and power. To cite Néstor García Canclini, political power exists insofar as it is dramatized – in ceremonies, performances, myths, arts.13 It needs ritualization of the status quo in order to neutralize the instability of the social. According to Judith Butler, there is no power that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and instability. 14 We can conclude that the political in theater today means to embrace this instability of the social and to deconstruct the staging of power (or canon), to show and tell that there is always the theatrical and the simulated in any social or political interaction. That is the space where theatrical and political can meet today.
1. There are are many performances based on the theater of the new brutality in the contemporary Lithuanian theater scene. During the last decades, these plays were staged by various Lithuanian theater directors. For example, Shopping and Fucking by Mark Ravenhill (1999), The Fire Face (2000), The Parasites (2001) and The Cold Child (2003) by Marius von Mayenburg, and Crave (2001) by Sarah Kane were directed by Oskaras Koršunovas. 4.48 Psychosis (2004) by Sarah Kane was directed by Valius Tertelis.
2. Daunytė, 2002, 38.
3. Koršunovas, 1999–2000, 6.
4. Foster, 1985, 153
5. Tiffin, 1987, 17–34.
6. Gilbert and Tompkins, 1996, 16–17.
7. Ibid., 16–17.
8. Gintaras Varnas (1961) – Lithuanian stage director. Studied theater directing at the Lithuanian Music Academy. Varnas became famous in 1988 after founding the Šėpos Theater, which he headed until 1992. From 1989 to 2004, he was a free-lance director and staged productions in different theaters. Since 2004, he has been the artistic director of the Kaunas State Drama Theater. He started to investigate the nature of theatricality and the role of the spectators in the performance of El Publico by F. García Lorca (1997).
9. Oskaras Koršunovas (1969) – Lithuanian stage director. 1989–1993 he studied at the Lithuanian Music Academy under the guidance of Jonas Vaitkus. He made his debut in 1990 with the performance There to Be Here by Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky. In 1998, he stablished an independent theater company “Oskaras Koršunovas Theatre (OKT)“. A winner of numerous local and international prizes, among them the National Prize for Art and Culture, the European New Reality Award, Oskaras Koršunovas belongs to the generation of directors who are eager to search for a new identity as well as to reflect the situation of the transitional generation in the post-Soviet theater scene.
10. Müller, 1988, 26–27.
11. Lacan, 1977.
12. Vasinauskaitė, 2002, 39.
13. Canclini, 1995, 261–262. 14 Butler, 1990. 81
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Canclini, Néstor García. Hybrid Cultures: Strategies of Entering and Leaving Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Daunytė, I. “Politinio teatro apraiškos Europoje ir Lietuvoje XX amžiuje,” Menotyra, No 4(29) 2002.
Foster, Hal. Recordings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics. Washington: Bay Press, 1985.
Gilbert, Helen and Tompkins, Joanne, eds. Post-Colonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics. London/New York: Routledge, 1996.
Koršunovas, Oskaras. “Teatras laiko verpete,” Teatras, No. 4/5, 1999– 2000.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. New York: Norton, 1977.
Müller, Heiner. Theater Heute, Jahrbuch, 1988.
Tiffin, Helen. “Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter–Discourse,” Kunapipi, Vol. 9:3, 1987.
Vasinauskaitė, Rasa, ed. The Theatre of Oskaras Koršunovas: Interviews and Articles. Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 2002.