LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2012 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 58, No.4 - Winter 2012
Editor of this issue: Viktorija Skrupskelytė
Three Productions by Rimas Tuminas: Transformation of Historical Memory in Lithuanian Theater 1990-2010
ŠARŪNĖ TRINKŪNAITĖ is a docent at the Academy of Music and Theater and a research fellow at the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute. Her interests focus on theater history and contemporary Lithuanian dramaturgy. She is the editor of a forthcoming volume of reviews and articles on Rimas Tuminas.
The article analyzes three stage productions by the director Rimas Tuminas. They represent bold examples of how the Lithuanian theater of historical memory was transformed during the two decades from 1990 to 2010. Each of the productions reflects a different phase in Tuminas’s undertaking to give new life to post-Soviet theater in Lithuania. Lituanica expresses the director’s resolve to de-romanticize and de-herocize the imagination, establish a self-deprecatory stance, and then try out a theater of historical memory grounded in everyday experiences. Madagaskaras opened up the possibility of a new methodology; it invoked new historicism and legitimized history as that which results from the harmony of actual facts and the creative imagination that manipulates them in an innovative manner. Mistras reflects efforts to deconceptualize history. It had at hand an abundance of interesting historical material, but refused to bind it into its own version of history, thus bearing witness to history’s power to not yield, but to damage and wreck the logic of a conceptualizing memory.
Theater as historical memory is a tradition that began taking form in the earliest days of the Lithuanian stage. During the Soviet period, it became the most responsive arena of civil resistance in the theater, but after 1990, with independence regained, it seemed to suddenly lose its vital significance. The theater’s traditional commitment to history as the source of moral strength and as a call to challenge the occupier’s regimented reality no longer seemed to serve a purpose. In short, in a free society, theater as historical memory needed to find a new significance for itself.
The process of rethinking began concurrently with open reflections on the negative experiences of the Soviet period. Around the turn of the century, some of the more noteworthy efforts included Jonas Vaitkus’s staging of Antanas Škėma’s Pabudimas (1989), Adam Mickiewicz’s Vėlinės (1990), and Joshua Sobol’s Ghetto (1990). In their own way, these productions reiterated the traditional theme of existence in history as suffering and martyrdom, albeit with the purposeful addition of elements of extreme and “theatricalized fear, force, violence.” At the same time, they visibly revised the theme by showing the irreversible damage that had been done to the human spirit during the Soviet period: they showed “the deformed, crippled, and moribund consciousness of a nation, a consciousness that was just beginning to awaken to freedom in every one of its members, just beginning to shake off its nightmares.”1
In performances staged by Vaitkus, one could hear the suggestion that the reinvention of theater as historical memory should go hand in hand with an end to the hunt for the guilty and the beginning of accepting one’s own guilt and responsibility. However, the attempt to rouse the courage needed for this kind of self-reflection did not gain much traction. In fact, Lithuanian theater chose a safer approach. It was willing to view the Soviet period as a memory encompassing the histories of one’s own and one’s people’s guilt, but only with the mental reservation of an “innocent guilt.” Perhaps this is why there was such readiness to model dramatic situations in terms of analogies with antiquity, which made their way not only into direct reminiscences of the Soviet past (Sigitas Parulskis’s P.S. Byla O.K., staged by Oskaras Koršunovas in 1997; Jonas Jurašas’s Antigonė Sibire, 2010), but also into stage interpretations of the ancient tragedies (Oskaras Koršunovas’s Oedipus Rex, 2001).
On the other hand, this search for analogies, parallels, and comparisons may have reflected a much expanded and liberated concept of memory. This was most clearly evident in the staging of P.S. Byla O.K., hailed at the time as a new theatrical manifesto. The production spoke essentially about memory; but in it memory meant not so much the reinstatement of the nation’s historical past as the resolve to stir up fragments of world cultural history, universally shared archetypes, and repressed personal traumas as well as everyday banalities. That is to say, in P.S. Byla O.K., to remember meant to open oneself up voraciously to a chaotic world no longer censored, which beckoned with promises of creative freedom. In that world’s murky streams of present time and past memories, explicit manifestos of national memory, indeed, even the most sacred national symbols, took shape only as ironically delivered mean-spirited lines about “yellow, green, and red snot”2 dripping from one’s nose.
It may be that P.S. Byla O.K. provided the clearest evidence that Lithuanian theater had entered the 1990s, the first decade of Lithuania’s second independence, by upending the logic upon which its self-identity had been founded in the 1920s, during the first decade of Lithuania’s first independence. It had diffused the early interwar period’s commitment to the memory of national history, together with its efforts to guard against any cross-drafts of the modern stage it saw as destructive of national character, despite the fact that discussions about commitment and nationhood continued to flare up for some time to come. Accepting no compromise, Lithuanian theater resolved to choose what was new, which demanded an unequivocal rejection of subject matter based on historical memory now deemed old-fashioned. Or stated differently, if the theater’s “whims” to become modern were met with amazement during the interwar period, then, to the contrary, its attempts to look back toward the land of history as memory appeared amazing at the beginning of the second period of independence. At least that is how it seemed at first in the wake of Rimas Tuminas’s production of Saulius Šaltenis’s Lituanica (1996), which, as critics noted with irony, deserved to be honored simply for its courage “to be so emphatically local in these heady times of touring shows.”3
However, this so-called local Lituanica initiated a reform of the theater of historical memory that proved its ability to enter not only the “local” but also the heady space of the “touring shows” beyond the local. More precisely, through his experiments centering on the relationship between theater and history, begun with Lituanica and successfully continued in Marius Ivaškevičius’s Madagaskaras (2004) and Mistras (2010), Tuminas, who is perhaps more drawn by reflections on historical memory than other Lithuanian directors, opened up broad horizons for this kind of theater by making it relevant and contemporary. He suggested several variations of it, which, though different, are uniformly and emphatically “young,” first of all in terms of the actors’ ages. From the very beginning, starting with Lituanica, in what appears to be a first for Lithuanian theater, Tuminas conceived encounters with historical themes as an encounter with a troupe of young people, as if symbolizing in this way the very necessity for the tradition of historical theater to rejuvenate itself.
Lituanica — a history of everyday experiences Apparently,
Tuminas’s Lituanica was the first attempt by a Lithuanian director to interject issues related to simple, ordinary, everyday people into the realm of historical memory. This resulted from Tuminas’s evident polemics with the historical imagination represented in Lithuanian theater, which for an entire century had been shaped by its fascination with extraordinary individuals: indomitable dukes, kings majestic in their sorrow, queens, and eminent figures of cultural history. However, in Lituanica, in the historical past of a German-occupied Lithuanian province, which, as suggested by Šaltenis, mirrors the experience of all occupations, Tuminas emphatically chose to see the undistinguished and took his own concept of the “little man” to another level. And while a similar approach elicited delight in his first productions, in Lituanica it was viewed with suspicion and criticized as evidence of underdeveloped characters. The concept must have seemed unusual and unexpected, and in its own way a rebellious intrusion into the space of onstage historical reflections.4
On the other hand, this change in traditional ways of handling history, i.e., the rejection of the heroic figure, was immediately recognized as offering a meaningful form of dialogue between contemporary society and history. For the “little man,” the Lithuanian who enters Lituanica’s arena endures occupation, not in the spirit of majestic resistance, but with his small joys and injuries, humor and drama, peevishness and goodness, pettiness and beauty, courage as well as accommodation. In this way, he acquires the peculiar status of the spectator’s alter ego, thus facilitating complicity between actors and audience as well as opening up the prospect of discussions beyond the theater about what Lithuanians have endured in common: their experiences, their feelings, and their sense of being Lithuanian.5 Perhaps one could put it this way: Tuminas changed the nature of the dialogue between society and the theater of historical memory by suggesting that in history’s reminiscences one can seek not only spiritual solace and moral fortitude, so generously meted out on stage during the Soviet period, but also a two-sided dialogue among equals who recognize each other’s value. This kind of dialogue can, under conditions of freedom, grow out of nothing more than an annoying “itch to scratch some nerve of the nation.”6
In Lituanica this “itch” was the theatrical tradition of heroic- romantic historical memory and, in a more general sense, the heroic-romantic way of imagining history. Lituanica seemed to be running its fingers over it – over the entire heroically uplifted view of history, that thirsting for the past represented in the glorious reenactment of the flight of Darius and Girėnas, rehearsed by unknown actors in some godforsaken corner. In other words, Tuminas looked for new directions by beginning at the beginning and by exploring the very phenomenon of the theater of historical memory. If one understands Lituanica from this perspective, one also understands that the theater theme interjected itself into the play, not only in a direct way, but also in a symbolic sense, legitimizing historical narrative as a concept of stage illusion as well as a form of theatrical play, validating the representation of the Lithuanian as one who experiences history as well as a “Lithuanian playing (acting) history.”7
Within the spectrum of Lituanica’s strategies of play, irony no doubt occupies the most prominent place. It was aimed first and foremost at heroically exalted poses and the national mythologies that support them – that whole “fermented mythological dough.”8 Once that dough of the romantic, heroic, and mythological clichés of historical imagination was brought into proximity with the history of everyday experiences, once it was immersed into the nonheroic, nonromantic, nonmythic reality of occupied Lithuania, where stage curtains were ripped apart to make shirts, it stood merely as proof of the comical infantilism of heroic-romantic historical thinking.
On the other hand, the driving force behind the irony that Tuminas aimed at this kind of thinking was more than the impulse to de-romanticize. One might say, perhaps, that the euphoric memory of national heroism existed in Lituanica not so much the object of ironical negation as the object of a peculiar “negotiation” and of efforts to explain, to understand. More precisely, Tuminas suggested a new version of the origin of national heroic myths – a theory of the childlike naïveté of the Lithuanian spirit, which in Lituanica was articulated most clearly by the almost mute, but ever-present, infantile Birutė Lietuvaitė (Rasa Rapalytė, Birutė Marcinkevičiūtė),9 the narrator’s alter ego; visually expressed on stage by the naïvistic interpretation of Darius and Girėnas as crude sculptures with charcoal drawn eyebrows and rouged faces and lips.
Furthermore, it is perhaps due to Lituanica that the idea of a theater of historical memory as childhood memory began to take shape around the turn of the century. While it was most consistently developed in Tuminas’s later productions, it forcefully pushed its way into the creative work of other directors as well, for instance Eimuntas Nekrošius’s staging of Pradžia, K. Donelaitis. Metai (2003), where turning back to the time of the Lithuanian writer also meant returning to one’s childhood and the childhood of the universally human, of shared culture, and of theater itself. Tuminas, of course, returned to it differently than did Nekrošius, differently than in Metai, where the space of childhood’s encounters and sensations seemed to fashion itself from some kind of primeval theatrical matter untouched by historical time that, on stage, unexpectedly gave rise to individualized speech. In Tuminas’s Lituanica, history as childhood’s memory seems to organize itself around a culturally coded intuitive center. Or put differently, Metai probed theater itself, while Lituanica made use of theater as an instrument to study national culture. One could say that the former was more theatrical, the latter more culturological. As such, it not only could diagnose, in an ironic fashion, the childishness of historical consciousness reflected in the theater of pompously heroic feats, but also give meaning to that very theater as one of the guarantors of the survival of a tortured, censored, and humiliated nation. Tuminas’s quarrel with the tradition of heroic- romantic theater took place concurrently with his efforts to grasp and generalize the huge cultural mission that this kind of theater had achieved during the most dramatic moments of the nation’s history, consciously offering the public the possibility of emigrating from a reality of deprivation, just as it did for those artists of Lituanica who seemed to survive only by rehearsing the play.
This ambivalence in Lituanica, its organic fusion of irony and exoneration, was most likely what constituted the energy field that generated the play’s warmth, sensitivity, and comfort. Lithuanian theater tried to question this energy in its later attempts to survey the territory of the historical past, most radically perhaps in Algirdas Latėnas’s production of Parulskis’s Barboros Radvilaitės testamentas (2002). The latter, like Lituanica, came out of attempts to ironically rethink the heroic-romantic tradition, but it utilized a strategy based not on understanding, but on cynical parody and rejection. The most effective of these attempts were somehow or other related to the ability to synthesize irony and sensitivity. From this standpoint, Tuminas’s Madagaskaras is a unique example. It was unanimously acclaimed, first and foremost for the subtlety of its humor and for its “not having any designs to unmask or uncrown anyone.”10
On the other hand, in the context of Lithuanian theater of historical memory, Madagaskaras appeared as something radically different. It was not just by choosing the humorous rather than the dramatic moments of Lithuanian history for his “historical research” that Tuminas lent support to the very new and very unusual genre of historical actualization.11 Madagaskaras appeared especially different because of what might be called its original “methodology,” in other words, because of the innovative form of its relationship to history, which in a peculiar way brought Lithuanian theater closer to the contexts of new historicism.
Madagaskaras – the discovery of new historicism
Notions of new historicism began to enter the lexicon of Lithuanian theater in the 1970s and 1980s as a means of naming modern interpretations of historical drama seen in the theater of such directors as Jurašas and Vaitkus. However, with Madagaskaras these notions acquired a more precise, concrete, one could say Greenblattian meaning, and found a methodology of reading history that proposes encounters “with the singular, the specific, and the individual,” which commits one “to pick up a tangential fact and watch its circulation,” and which relies on the “sense of history‘s unpredictable galvanic appearances and disappearances,” taking pleasure in “contingency, spontaneity, and improvisation.”12
Stated differently, with Madagaskaras, history presented itself as that which results from the harmony of true (and truthfully held) facts and a creative imagination that innovatively manipulates them. To be sure, the possibility of viewing history this way was first perceived within the space of literature. Ivaškevičius used materials found in canonical literature as well as forgotten archives of Lithuanian cultural history, mostly references to the poetess Salomėja Neris (Salė) and her fate and quotations from Kazimieras Pakštas’s (Pokštas) geopolitical projects. He wove these documentary materials into a verbal canvas that purposely disregarded the difference between historical fact and fiction. But Tuminas did not only stage a play to illustrate this possibility of manipulating history; he set out to reinforce it. He made use of a particular acting technique in which a character creates himself or herself in some sort of fragile and difficult to grasp borderland of absolute empathy and playful improvisation. Thanks to this technique, stage heroes seemed to somehow absorb the harmoniously blended features of historical authenticity and its contemporary symbolization.
In this way, Madagaskaras achieved a nearly painful “recognizable, and yet just beyond one’s reach, unexpectedly discoverable”13 impression of Lithuanian cultural life of the interwar period, a past that now seemed illuminated. But the main brunt of the play’s force lay not so much in the spurts of energy refreshing one’s memory of a concrete historical period, but rather in its ability to make memory meaningful as a peculiar reflection of Lithuanian mentality outside of history. Madagaskaras wove fragments of actual Lithuanian histories into a history about the Lithuanian in general. No less importantly, this weaving together was achieved as an attempt to grasp and reveal aspects of Lithuanian character that had been overlooked or outright ignored previously.14
And indeed, in Madagaskaras, onto the stage stepped a Lithuanian absolutely free from and beyond the reach of the canonical epithets that define what it means to be Lithuanian. The memory of these epithets existed only as humorous references to the Lithuanian “character’s phlegmatic nature” or the destructive “individual lack of action and initiative.”15 There is an occasional flash of the old epithets in Pokštas’s (Ramūnas Cicėnas) invectives aimed at the nation, but they are readily erased whenever diametrically opposed “evidence” is presented in the form of undiminished bursts of resolute fantasy that serve to unite all the Lithuanians of Madagaskaras; they seem to take on significance as a peculiar Lithuanian constant. In Lithuanian cultural history Tuminas and his troupe discovered imagination in limitless abundance; they set it free as a means to (re)imagine and (re)experience Lithuanian identity, taking imagination’s potential as the very basis of what it means to be Lithuanian. The troupe’s method was simple and effective, a synthesis of irony and admiration, sympathy and gentle mockery, love and laughter. It may seem paradoxical, and yet the exotic, almost unbelievable flights of fancy of on-stage Lithuanians in Madagaskaras were given more reality, more credibility, and a stronger feel of national identity by this sort of synthesis than any factual accuracy could have done as regards all the “prophetic visions” of Pokštas about the necessity of “a Lithuania in reserve,” the dreams dreamed by the poetess Salė about the only “Him, the defender from the Pole,” or ambassador Oskaras’s “tele-visions” about Lithuanian origins “in sunny Atlantis” and their strife-free future “in the broad borderlands with the neutral Moon,” “hurtling itself at night onto Roosia.”16
Most interestingly, Madagaskaras discovered these lodes of utopianism not just as material for constructing a new version of national character, but also as a universal dimension within that body of traits that one calls Lithuanian. Tuminas emphatically “Lithuanianized” his heroes by painting them with the hues of authentic Lithuanian language, clothing, mannerisms, and similar subtleties, but at the same time he understood them as participants in the universal drama of utopian projects whose logic is reflected in the flow of the play’s meaning as it progressively brings evidence of the naïve Lithuanian thinking into a broader context, working up to an existential finale that generalizes experiences of defeat, unrealized hopes, pain, and despair. In this respect, Madagaskaras was radically different from, and yet a peculiar fit with, the European theater of historical memory, which received its most powerful surge from director Gintaras Varnas’s production of Tankred Dorst’s and Ursula Ehler’s Nusiaubta šalis (Waste Land, 2004). Here, in the images of medieval Europe’s utopian quests, one can decipher signs of the inescapable eternal drama of man’s existence in history.
Nonetheless, Tuminas was more interested in history as an arena of play rather than as an arena of trauma. More importantly, to remember meant for him above all to find in history instances of peculiar tricks – curiosities, extravagances, unexpected twists – and to extract from them, from the play and the place of history, energy for theatrical intrigue. He admitted to this even more openly in Mistras than he had in Madagaskaras, when he undertook to make sense of the legacy of romanticism and the nineteenth century through the prism of the strange friendship of Adam Mickiewicz and his avatar Andrzej Towiański as it developed before the eyes of the artistic Parisian elite.
Mistras – the deconceptualization of History
In his production of Ivaškevičius’s Mistras, Tuminas continued to explore the theatrical potential of new historicism and its methodology by playfully improvising with historical facts, pursuing their unexpected connections, and inventing unforeseen combinations. But unlike in Madagaskaras, the method used here was not to revise textbook moments in Lithuanian cultural history, but to master history’s problematic, complex or uncomfortable episodes, such as the tense relationship between Lithuanian culture and Adam Mickiewicz, the connections between Lithuanian and European culture, or the differences between the Lithuanian and the European mentality.
But Mistras differed from Madagaskaras mostly in its refusal to bind separate historical fragments into its own version of history and in the choice to assimilate its every single seed into the uncontrollable noise of history’s voices, into that “boundless variegation of its meanings” that provokes only “humor heaped with irony,” legitimizing only “the postmodern play of fullness and emptiness, unserious seriousness, meaningful meaninglessness.”17 Somewhat paradoxically, Mistras was clearly much richer than Madagaskaras from the standpoint of historical facts. Its material was much more abundant, accurate, and exotic. However, it was used not for the purpose of what new historicists call “a history of possibilities,”18 but rather for what might be termed a history without possibilities. Even more paradoxical, but in a sense perhaps logical, the play’s possibilities were not given any impetus either by the broad branching of its themes through politics, culture, creativity, social reality, and individual and private lives, or through the noticeable shifts in genre from romantic drama to adventure comedy to crude parody to the tragedy of an artist’s fate.
It may be that Mistras played out its scenes in that dangerous borderland between theater that hesitates and capitulates before history and some kind of strange anxiety about history being slippery and ungraspable. Telling Mickiewicz (Jokūbas Bareikis) of the power of the false prophet, Towiański (Ramūnas Cicėnas), Mistras spoke also about history’s power over theater, its power not to yield, to wound and to wreck the logic of a conceptualizing memory.
Such a Mistras was in its way a logical finale to Tuminas’s theater of historical memory. It bore witness to the natural exhaustion of the playful energy that was discovered in Lituanica and was engaged in full force in Madagaskaras. From this standpoint, Mistras signaled the need to look for new approaches to the theater of historical memory in Lithuania.
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