LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 28, No.3 - Fall 1982
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1982 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE:
LATVIAN DRAMA TODAY
When the subject is Latvian drama, one is reminded of the very beginnings of theatre on the Latvian soil. Henry of Livonia, celebrating in his chronicle the conquest of the restive pagan Livs and Letts by Germans who brought Christianity with "fire and sword," gives the following description of the first known theatrical spectacle: "The same winter (1205) a very elaborate play of the prophets was performed in the middle of Riga in order that the pagans might learn the rudiments of the Christian faith by an ocular demonstration. The subject of this play was most diligently explained to both converts and pagans through an interpreter. When, however, the army of Gideon fought the Philistines, the pagans began to take flight, fearing lest they be killed, but they were quietly called back . . . This play was like a prelude and prophecy of the future."1 Indeed, this performance turned out to be prophetic. Throughout the history of Latvia, the stage has been one of the instruments of power and authority to cow the populace into submission, to induce a faith, to inculcate an ideology. Of more recent vintage, but not much different in tenor from so many other directives, is the statement by Soviet Latvian critic Bibers: "Soviet Latvian dramaturgy has always considered that its main task is to help the Party and the entire society to fight for a faster development of man, more rounded, harmonious, worthy of the Communist era."2 In Soviet Latvia, the political engineering that exacts that the Soviet artist be an engineer of souls, to quote Stalin, has permitted little deviation from this policy, and the Soviet Latvian playwright seldom tiptoes around the censor. Some years ago, Martins Ziverts, perhaps the dean of the contemporary Latvian playwrights, lamented the fate of the Latvian theater today, observing that the Latvian theater had no air to breathe in Latvia and, in exile, no soil to grow roots in. The choice between the rock of servitude and the hard place of solitude is the predicament of the Latvian playwright today. Nationalism was the initial generative impulse of Latvian literature and has been its raison d'etre. As Andrejs Upitis, a writer of some note and notoriety, in one of his morose moods observed, the Latvian writer is condemned to love his country. The national ethos is the mainspring of the Latvian writer's inspiration, it is also his obsession and so often his limitation.
One of the factors that determined the situation of Soviet Latvian drama was its isolation from the currents that swept the Western world in the 50's and 60's and even contaminated the Czech and the Polish theaters. The most notorious of the currents is perhaps the Theater of the Absurd, representing not only a reformist movement in the theater, but a certain malaise that came in the wake of World War II. It is quite true that the Theater of the Absurd, with its iconoclasm and radicalism, could not sustain its impetus for more than a couple of decades, during which it reached its peak and exhausted its possibilities. The Theater of the Absurd is dead by now, but its passage reaffirmed the necessity for renewal and change in the theater. The well-made play of the Zhdanov era is also gone, but not much came in its wake, though play writing in Soviet Latvia continues. Many authors see their works in print, but few plays are staged and even fewer deserve mention.
From a historical perspective, it is difficult to argue that the ideological and aesthetic prescriptions and proscriptions that the Soviet state imposes upon its writers and artists are to blame for the present dramaturgical stagnancy and sterility. It can be quite cogently pointed out that total freedom in the arts and letters has not always engendered the Golden Age of creativity and perfection. Goethe's statement that only in constraint the true master proves himself is echoed in modern times by Borges' contention that censorship challenges writers to make their points with ever greater care and subtlety. French Classicism flourished in an ambience of conformity which brooked little deviation from what was quite narrowly defined to be true and beautiful by the legislators of the Parnassus. Some critics are of the opinion that Solzhenitsyn, now living in a world with freedom to burn, is no longer capable of attaining the intensity of thought and the beauty of expression that characterize his work written under Soviet censorship. Jean-Paul Sartre alluded to the authenticity of literary effort under the German Occupation of France. The situation of contemporary Soviet Latvian literature poses challenges of equal magnitude, arising form adversity and its sense of mission, sailing — to borrow the myths of Antiquity — between Scylla, the rock of the sea monster and Charybdis, the dangerous whirlpool, or, to use a contemporary expression of some currency, trying to find a spot to exist between the rock of authority and the hard place of banishment. As the structuralists have aptly observed, every writer works in a tradition. The reader of a deserving work has a vivid awareness of two orders: the traditional canon and the artistic novelty as a deviation from the canon. The hack and the journeyman take tradition for granted and crank out works according to formula. What the structuralists say about tradition can be legitimately applied to the norms that the Soviet writer is expected to observe. For the mediocre and the sycophant, the dictates of socialist realism are welcome surrogates for originality, their work tells, and their texts crowd the unsold bookshelves. Outside drama, apart from the literary quack, in poetry and the novel in Soviet Latvia, there are writers who surpass the topical and the orthodox and invest their work with a universality of meaning, polyvalent and open to the world, though imbedded in the matrix of the Latvian ethos. Soviet drama, however, has few names that inspire favorable critical comment.
One of the mentionable, perhaps head and shoulders above the rest, is Gunars Priede, one of the most popular and prolific Soviet Latvian playwrights. Presently Secretary of the Writers' Union and office holder in many other organizations, Priede did not become recognized and honored without learning the tricks of the balancing act between creative impulse and political prudence. His first plays of the fifties evince, along with certain gaucheries of craftsmanship not yet mastered, topical blandness and a penchant for simplicities. But these angularities soon disappeared with experience that also included last-minute cancellation of a production that the censor found wanting in ideological propriety. By and large, Priede is a playwright of youth, focusing on the problems of transition from adolescence to adulthood. The integration of youth into the world of adult routine and work is never viewed by Priede from the heights of authority and wisdom that seniority usually imparts. In retrospect, Priede's plays, written well before the contemporary concerns about the deplorable mentality of Soviet youth surfaced, appear to be prophetic. A certain malaise pervades Priede's youthful characters in whom one already senses an inchoate rebel rejecting the values of their elders.
Harijs Gulbis and Paulis Putnins, earnest workers in the crowded field of dramatic text production, would merit mention, and other names may be added. But one is to conclude that Soviet Latvian drama is not on the threshold of its Golden Age.
Year after year, the annual publication Theatris un Dzive (Theater and Life), intones the same litany in its surveys of the theatrical seasons. To sample a few of the assessments: 1976, the year which was to honor the 25th Communist Party Congress had "nothing much to show"; 1977 brought forth "no complaint about quantity," but the level of quality left much to be desired; 1978 was dedicated to youth in conjunction with the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Komsomol, but "the yield was poor." Time and again, instead of producing original plays, the directors turned to mime, poetry reading, or simply to honorable war horses whose popularity is never flagging.
If the Soviet Latvian playwright, by and large, deserves the blame for the low tide in drama, the theater professionals should not incur the same criticism. If there is not much more than stagnation in playwriting, generally restricted to the realist mode, staging shows a great deal of experimentation with various styles. Of course, the directors too must tread very cautiously along the line of artistic innovation, lest they incur the wrath of the strait-laced critics and the unpopularity of the general public for whom the theater is still just a form of entertainment to provide relaxation and eupepsia. Perhaps with a touch of irony and condescension, some stage productions have featured live bands and spectator dancing as part of the production. The bold and sometimes ostentatious experimentation in the Polish theater where, on occasion, Hondas roar over the spectators' heads are viewed with envy and a bit of suspicion. In spite of the efforts of the producers and the directors, the Soviet Latvian theater does not provide the kind of social education the Polish theater seems to be engaged in. To quote from a recent article in The New York Times, "Our theater speaks against terror, against threats to man's inhumanity, against the loss of individualism and independence." Furthermore, "the theater has become sort of the church of the Polish language. People use profanity on their way to and from the theater, but they don't want to hear it on the stage." The Soviet Latvian theater, all in all, is not a temple of re-dedication to human values where the spectator can find respite from the hopelessness of everyday drabness, as the Polish theater has become. Furthermore, neither is it the cultural center for the cultivation and consecration of the Latvian language in face of the menaces to the Latvian cultural identity. It is the Latvian poet and prose writer who have dedicated themselves to the preservation and the cultivation of the Latvian language. It appears that the Soviet Latvian playwright has found for himself a quiet modus vivendi in the soft spot between the rock of the Latvian national destiny and the hard place of the politicoideological demands of the regime. In Soviet Latvian drama, one will not encounter the outrage of "lese-humanité" nor the lament of the national plight that make the Polish theater both a sacred place and a refuge of human values and national aspirations.
If the Soviet Latvian playwright is circumscribed by the external forces exerting pressures he does not have the fortitude or the ingenuity to overcome, his counterpart in exile could truly be, as Hemingway once characterized the writer, the gypsy without overlords, without spiritual taxation, free to proclaim his independence and openness to the stimuli of his time. But for a few exceptions, those who write plays outside Latvia seem to be equally hemmed in, almost equally impervious to the Zeitgeist around them, as if time had stopped with the diaspora and the world had been reduced to a small circle of memories and familiarities. Many witnessed the emergence of the Brechtian epic forms, the documentary play, the Living Theater and its various offshoots, the Theater of the Absurd, which now in retrospect are to be viewed not as gestures of sheer orgiastic joy to destroy what previous generations have painstakingly put together, but rather as a messianic effort as well as a poignant vision of our times. Only a handful of plays seem to be true witnesses of the times. A recently published play, though finished a long time ago, by Aivars Rungis is a case in point.
Rungis belongs to the threshold generation which, still rooted in the cultural ambiance of the lost homeland, came of age in exile. Somewhat similar to the political documentary plays by Hochhut and Weiss, Rungis' Salaspils, taking its name from the infamous concentration camp near Riga, is meant to be a testimony to the suffering, hopelessness, and loss of dignity of those of our contemporaries who fell victims to oppression by inhuman political regimes. Although the locale is specifically Latvian, this play/historical document is intended to be a universal indictment of all past and potential concentration, detention, internment, and labor camps. The action of the play extends from the time of the camp's establishment in 1942 to its evacuation in 1944. The author gives specific directions for the purpose of accentuating the didactic documentary import of this dramatic testimony. For example, applause is discouraged and actors are told not to take bows. The program notes contain factual information about the concentration camp and are intended to be part of the production. The voice of the loudspeaker, a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, reminds the audience that the purport of the production is not to entertain, nor is it meant to be a demonstration of an innovative experiment in dramatic art. This testimony, in a play form, reconfirms man's capacity for nobleness in the most adverse circumstances as well as his inhumanity to man. The universal character is further emphasized by the presence of anonymous types, excrescences of contemporary political systems and social orders, such as the SS officer, the Soviet patriot, the Latvian nationalist, etc. A kind of meneur de jeu is a midget clown who, in the prolog, wonders about his reality as a character. A symbolic configuration of the conscience of humanity and existential consciousness, he encompasses and surpasses the dramatic realm of the presentation, figuring both as an inmate of the camp and as a mystic witness with powers to overrule the authority of the guards. The spectator too is forced to partake of the testimony. As in Weiss's The Song of the Lusitanian Bogey where armed soldiers are supposed to be posted among spectators, in Salaspils the audience is under the surveillance of searchlights that inquisitively roam around in the dark, stopping searchingly on some spectators, passing rapidly over others, mysteriously, arbitrarily as if judging and sentencing the guilty and the innocent with the fickleness of fate. The final evaluation of the play must be postponed until its production, since with Salaspils more than with any other type of play, the work's completion is predicated on its being staged and acted out, but most importantly on its engaging the spectator.
There have been other efforts to rescue the Latvian theater from its self-absorbing stagnancy. Valters Nollendorfs, an academician of many merits, including considerable critical work on Goethe, is the author of a couple of dramatic texts. His first play, Variations on the Antins Theme, is a complex parody of conventional theater and of experimental theater, of stage realism and symbolism, a parody on various styles of playwriting and staging, a parody on parody, twisting and turning around its own reality, on stage, off stage, until exhausted, it stops. From the very outset, the play demolishes the fourth-wall principle, starting, stalling, and restarting, commenting on itself and trying to engage, in an outrageously faked fashion, the audience in the performance. An actor planted in the audience plays a spectator who, invited by the director, balks at playing the main character for fear of being accused by his wife of being unfaithful. But reminded that the father of the character he is supposed to play is dying, the fake spectator finally agrees that in this emergency situation he should cast aside his scruples. Another actor plays the director who occasionally plays other parts, and all together they play at being poor amateur actors. Film strips and play-within-the-play-within-the-play structures ape the multi-dimensional production. But this self-conscious stage mocks its own tricks, and thus, through this continuous autocomment and criticism, the play strives to destroy its own reality. This kind of masochistic self-awareness disintegrates the plot which, in a way, attempts to retrace the old legend as a political allegory, symbolizing the struggle for independence. But intrusions of contemporary comment, allusions to prewar and postwar events, to independence and exile, constantly interrupt the story which is further scrambled up by the presence of great many mythical characters from other legends. Women's lib, permissiveness, ecology are concerns of the ancient heroes who all have lost some of their pristine innocence and naivete. Princess Saulcerite has descended from the mountain top where she used to lie in the coffin guarded by seven black crows. In the meantime, she has become a loose woman who now, with her illegitimate son, is prospecting places in search of amorous adventures. The brave and the pure, like the legendary heroes of Antins and Spriditis, have lost their magic attributes the golden horse and the swan, that used to be at their disposal being given them as a reward for their compassion and generosity. They all seem to have lived and become tainted with life's ignominiousness. The play also travesties conventional symbolism. The dragon spews venomous fires of conventionalism and bureaucracy. A border gate whose boom goes up and down, signifies the necessity to do away with formalism, restrictions, and arbitrary categorizations. Of course, it is also a good old phallic symbol. At the end everybody gets out of the play: the spectators and the actors; those who did not like it in the first place; those who got emotionally tangled up with their false identities. And nobody should complain.
Another attempt to rescue the Latvian theater from its doldrums came with the efforts of the late Spodris Klauerts. As producer, director, actor, playwright-in-residence of the Latvian Theater in Sidney, Australia, Klauverts for many years staged a revue, Kaleidoscops. These shows, consisting of short, witty, stylized skits abandon all semblance of stage realism. Time and space become amorphous, inconsequential and discontinuous, susceptible of compression and extension to suit the artistic necessities. The principle of causality is replaced by free association whereby contrasting and complementing images borrowed from the distant past mix with vignettes from the most recent times and futuristic mirages. Disjunction of time coordinates puts modern permissiveness in an ancient setting. Contemporary political parody has characters from old legends and myths. The focus changes from the topical to the timeless. A kind of dramatization of the Superman's comic strip becomes a catalog of man's folly and rottenness. Local jokes from the most immediate social context alternate with a pathetic lament about the destiny of the Latvian people. Surrealistic fantasies where dismembered parts of the human body have their own independent existence fade into social satire on the nouveaux riches who bewail their tragic fate: "Exile is not easy, everything is so expensive."
Klauverts has also written several full-length plays which treat such traditional dramatic subjects as the predicament of the poet in a philistine society, the conflict between emotional inclination and military honor. In these plays, one feels Klauverts exaggerates the melodramatic potential. It is perhaps in his sharp-edged skits, with his imagination running wild, that the true tragic nightmare of the tortured Latvian soul is most significantly evoked. But in these cabaret style productions, the Latvian audience saw only amusement befitting an evening spent in joyful company with plenty of food and drink. The playwright outside Latvia is faced with the same unacceptable choice between the rock and the hard place: to write what his artistic vision dictates and thus be without an audience, or in order to see his work on stage, cater to the jaded tastes of his only audience — the conservative emigre.
A comfortable spot between the two positions is hard to find. Perhaps Anslavs Eglitis is one of the fortunate writers who has succeeded in finding a "region ou vivre," to quote Mallarmé, between the rock of popular and critical insularity and the hard place of abdication of one's convictions. His literary career charts a trajectory that moves between avant-guardism and compliance with popular tastes. In free Latvia, Eglitis' entrance in prose fiction was greeted with cries of outrage on the part of conservative critics, while his first dramatic works lacked the challenge to tradition that was found in his novels. His comedies like The Cloak of Casanova and The Court Painter, wittily dialogued, cleverly plotted, provided much appreciated entertainment. Since he left Latvia, however, his prose works have become potboilers — after all "man wants to live," to borrow a Ziverts title — while his plays become much more probing, acquiring a sharp edge that cuts across cliches and false felicities, breaking loose from the strangle-hold of stage realism.
Of considerable originality is his Ferdinand and Sibyl, a fantasy play, with no plot to speak of. The action consists of a quarrel between two teenage lovers in front of a yard goods shop. Ferdinand has become disenchanted with his girl friend Sibyl and has seemingly fallen in love with the shop window's mannequin, Julia, with whom he converses when nobody watches them. The play flouts every rule of logic and stage realism. The dialogue is nervous, somewhat primitive and quite frequently contradicts the action on stage or pokes fun at itself through puns, word games, funny Americanisms that have crept into Latvian, and blatant nonsense. Referring to the mannequin, one character says: "If she were alive, she'd be all wrinkled up." The mannequin's neck was broken when it was transported to America, and as a logical consequence, which of course does not make sense, now the mannequin can turn its head and see much more. Ferdinand imagines Julia, the mannequin, as Marie Antoinette (because the latter too sustained a "serious neck injury" on the scaffold) sitting on the steps of the palace of Versailles and drinking coke. In the tug of war between Sibyl and Julia, the former wins. Sibyl, who in antiquity was a woman reputed to possess powers of prophecy and divination, has now become a frivolous, garrulous, quite dull, typical teenager. Likewise, Julia's former lover, who used to be a passionate young man, became a flashy black market speculator in a DP camp in Germany to turn into the most inglorious super who now arduously collects cigarette butts. Fantasy, a bit wild and sometimes strained, intermingles with stark realism, maintaining a certain ambiguity of meaning, oscillating from the grotesque to the pathetic, sad and sarcastic, pleasant and abrasive. In a way, the play is a kind of parody of the eternal legend of lovers, an ironic statement on human emotions, and a topical comment of considerable causticity on the Latvian Americans.
One of Eglitis' early exile comedies is Man Wants to Play, a takeoff on a very popular play by Ziverts, Man Wants to Live. An aging emigre theater director Rolands Murs is struggling to stage a play. Unfortunately, his actors are deserting him in preference for other distractions. A young actress, who has joined the company out of sheer pity, acts silly, hoping that Murs will dismiss her. Murs, however, doggedly continues until she too leaves. A lady friend of Murs offers him money and marriage. But Murs refuses to abandon his theater, vowing to go on, be it a one-man show. As the curtain falls, Murs, in a quixotic posture, swings wildly his sword against the invisible enemies and traitors of the theater, shouting madly encouragements to his own one-man theater. Among other things, the play makes a final comment on the impasse of the Latvian theater in emigration.
Of course, Eglitis' prophetic vision of the fate of the Latvian theater has not come true yet. And perhaps never will, as long as there are Latvians: the Latvian wants to play as much as he wants to live. Straumanis' authoritative bibliography of the Baltic theater lists 2391 Latvian plays written more or less during the first century of Latvian letters. On the average, the rate of Latvian play production would come to a play every fifteen days. Statistics of course does not help much. The basic question remains: is it any good?
Reminded of Upitis' statement about the obsession of the Latvian writer to love his people and his country, one is inclined to observe that contemporary Latvian drama, but with a few exceptions does not reach beyond the topical, the local, the ephemeral. The-inertia of tradition seems to maintain a stranglehold on the Latvian playwright's imagination, as if the search for forms more appropriate to articulate contemporary concerns and the extension of one's vision to encompass the timeless and the universally human were to exclude the national and the particular. The history of drama abounds with examples of writers with a world vision. Rainis comes to mind immediately. Other genres like poetry and prose fiction, both in Soviet Latvia and outside, are far more open to the world and more innovative in their forms of expression than Latvian drama. There, a linguistic upheaval of sorts swept away the platitudes and the worn-out rhythms and the jingling rhymes. By and large, Latvian drama has evinced little concern about the necessity to recycle the sign, to give it a new meaning and relevance. Only Nollendors has attempted some experiments with hidden sonorities of the Latvian language in his poem/play The Turn of the Year in Australia. But his text is likely to be dismissed as inconsequential exercises of a blasphemous prankster.
While the Soviet Latvian playwright prefers a kind of purgatory of lesser infliction between the rock of ideological orthodoxy within the confines of the socialist realist tradition and the hard place of artistic freedom, the playwright outside Latvia has seldom felt inclined to tread new paths, being equally uncertain of his hard choice between the tight embrace of popular acceptance and the curse of loneliness of the iconoclast.
On the other hand, one may argue, it would not be fair to deplore the present immobility of Latvian drama, when the world theater, in the aftermath of the effervescence of the 50's and 60's, is pausing and hesitating. The Theater of the Absurd is dead — long live the Theater of the Absurd, by now well classified and analyzed and accepted in the repertories of the most staid theaters. We can only hope and pray that, when the next wave of excitement comes along, Latvian drama, wherever it may be, do not miss the boat and get off the rock, be it also off the rocker.
1 The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, transl., intro, and notes by
Brundage. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961, p. 53.
2 Bibers, Laviesu Padomju Dramaturgija, Riga, Zvaigzne, 1976, p. 112.