Decadence and Didacticism: Hermanis, Toompere, and New Themes in Post-Soviet Baltic Theatre

By Johnson, Jeff | TheatreForum, Summer/Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Decadence and Didacticism: Hermanis, Toompere, and New Themes in Post-Soviet Baltic Theatre


Johnson, Jeff, TheatreForum


These days it may seem quaint-even irrelevant-to be discussing Baltic theatre in terms of a post-Soviet context, as the events immediately before and after independence now seem to have occurred in a distant past. Young adults-including theatre patrons and professionals-have no direct experience of that life-in-transition experienced by the citizens of the Baltic States during the last decade of the twentieth century. Issues that once stirred passion-deprivations, deportation, censorship, the serious and petty absurdities of totalitarian ideology-are settled and no longer incite citizens to action. Issues regarding the business of theatre-especially regarding funding, the reorganization of the theatre business, and other practical concerns that were of paramount concern immediately after 1991-have been identified and, if not completely remedied, at least critically parsed and thoroughly addressed.

Likewise, given each country's particular national agenda and issues of identity, it is increasingly difficult to discuss Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as a geopolitical entity called "the Baltics," as if the three separate states shared homogenous social, cultural, and economic situations. It is more accurate to consider "the Baltics" a geographical phenomenon, much as we refer to Europe while respecting the distinctions among the various member states. Indeed, it could be argued that the idea of "the Baltics" is an historical anomaly, conveniently designating people occupying a certain chunk of land south of Scandinavia, west of Russia, and north of Germany as Baits, ignoring cross-ethnic merging, conquests by Teutonic and Livonian knights, and various occupations by nations like Sweden, Poland, and Russia.

Even so, during the period between WWII and the early 1990s, the countries were unified as a territory under Soviet occupation, and the theatre in each country played its part in the various resistance movements designed to counter Soviet ideology. The moral impetus of the pre-independence theatre was clear and fairly unified: it was a counter-force to the dictates of a party-line run by ideological commissars. However, the social issues during the early post-Soviet years were more confused and diverse. The excitement and pos- sibilities of independence trumped any negative critiques of the sudden switch to a capitalist, market-based economy or of the sudden access to cultural conduits from the West. Re- garding theatre, this period has been referred to frequently as a period of collapse, during which the theatre experienced a crisis of relevance, when political action and life in the streets seemed far more interesting than staged productions. And with the influx of new media, many of the traditional aspects of theatre seemed stale, irrelevant, and suffused with an aesthetic too closely associated with a repressive past.

Ironically, it was the repressive environment that created the unique quality of Baltic theatre, as writers and directors were forced to rely on clever sub-textual critiques of their socio-political situation under the Soviets. After the occupation, however, the theatre lost its raison d'être. The result was a shift in the purpose of theatre from the idea of theatre as a "weapon" during the years before independence to a theatre suffering a crisis of relevance, marginalized by an influx of competing forms as well as by the inherent difficulties of actually staying in business within a market-based economy. This new prosperity created decadence, not in the moral sense but in the classic sense: while Baltic culture was at peace, its theatre became redundant, transformed after liberation from a politicized "theatre of resistance" during the Soviet era into merely a "theatre of entertainment."

But new challenges are suddenly tempering the enthusiasm and optimism of the post-liberation era. Russia is thriving and threatening; the economies of the Baltic states are overheating; the middle class is a fragile construct prey to hyper-inflation; corruption and cronyism thrive. …

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