Abstracts for Akadeemia 11/2006
A short history of Estonian theatre
This prose piece describes fires in the buildings of the Vanemuine Theatre in Tartu: first the destruction of the building belonging to the then amateur singing and theatrical society of Vanemuine in 1903, and later the bombing of what was then the most modern theatre in the Baltics by the Red Army in 1944.
Kivastik’s allegory of the arsonist as a man in a grey jacket hints at the fact that the Estonian theatre has always risen from the ashes and flourished. This gives hope that a limit is set now on oppressive commercialization of the creative spirit.
On theatre and school
This article discusses paradoxes in the training of young actors. How to communicate with one’s stage partner so that even the people in the last row will get hooked; how to direct the energy created on stage into the audience and get feedback from them so that the circuit will close, adding energy from both the stage and the hall to increase tension?
The actor’s job consists in playing someone else to the audience; even if the actor is performing the role of him/herself, s/he presents him/herself in a strange way as someone else. Primarily, the actor has to provide the audience with a mental image – of relations between the actor and the space, the actor and other actors, the actor and the text – that evokes the audience’s imagination. Theatre schools employ a number of different methods towards the same end – how and by which means to liberate the creative energy within the young actor, how to help him/her to control and direct this energy. At school, actors first have to take themselves apart, learn the functioning of their muscles, their psychophysics, automatism of their movements, how to put themselves together again and use their elements for creating different roles.
Thousands of people in the whole world are acting teachers. There are more efficient and less efficient teachers and exercises. The efficiency of teachers consists in the ability to create the right atmosphere in the rehearsal room, an atmosphere where the students are not afraid to open up, where they have the courage to err, to seem stupid. It is very essential for the actor to know how to relax, to understand the energy emerging from the alternation between tension and relaxation. In the best actors, we enjoy their relaxed readiness, the tension hidden in relaxation, and the moment of relaxation even in the tensest scene. In the theatre, energy and tension mark the watchability of the performance, the ability to hold the viewers’ attention. If there are two differently charged poles on stage, two viewpoints, two emotions, two persons, or hesitation within one person, tension is born inside a person and/or between them. It is most essential for the theatre and other arts that the energy field should be in constant motion and change. Energy is created between two or more poles within the actor, between different actors, between the actor and the space, or between the actor and the audience. The entire training of actors can proceed in two main directions: either the teacher plays in front of the students and requires imitation, or the teacher attempts to see the originality of the young actor and develops it. The first case is based on the belief that art that functions according to rules offers greater enjoyment and greater expressiveness than free improvization. In the other case, one believes that permissiveness without rules can bring about surprises in the artistic sense. Historically, these more objective and more subjective trends have alternated in the arts.
The paradox of the actor. I
In this treatise presented in dialogue form, it is not essential for Diderot how the original literary image of the dramatic character changes in the actor’s embodiment into a person of flesh and blood, but how the actor’s personality becomes irreal in the conditional world of the theatre. The author emphasizes the different dimensions of life and art. The leitmotif of the dialogue is that the theatre is a different world.
The greatest worry of Diderot is that art should not dissolve in the formless and fluid empiricism of life. He attempts to lift art above petty-bourgeois prose by abstraction and strict form. Everything in art has to be subjected to the laws of harmony and unity. This also determines his views on acting – the actor is not expected to possess heightened sensitivity but virtuosity based on sobriety of thought.
The actor must not be concerned with himself but with the audience. He must be able to enact all roles except one – which represents his own personality. This is possible if he does not rely on emotions but is guided by reason, by knowledge of human nature, which, in its turn, enables him to strive for the ideal image for the given role.
The contrast between life and theatre conceals the much stronger opposition between civilization and nature. Diderot equals the performance with highly organized society – the actor with his cold reason resembles the ideal citizen who, like the actor, has to forget his sensitivity, listen to the voice of reason in order to perform the role given him by society.
The leitmotif of the dialogue – “the theatre is a different world” – contains another significant overtone. It is as if the actors and the audience of the “great comedy of life” change places. Now, instead of the chaos of the “great comedy of life”, the audience can see the whole and is able to give a meaning to it. The audience, similarly to the actor, has a paradoxical and dual role. The audience capitulates to the power of illusion, is transferred to the world of the performance, identifies with the character – and, simultaneously, is not subjected to the illusion.
Thus, the actor is able to enact any character and imitate any tone because he has none of his own. He is simultaneously everything and nothing: his personal countenance never coincides with the character he has to impersonate.
Diderot does not smooth away the paradoxes; his treatise is topical again as an open polyphonic dialogue on art.
On Kotzebue and Lenz in the year of Estonian theatre
The presentation delivered at the Estonian Theatre and Music Museum in Tallinn on 3 June 2006 starts with a brief overview of the modest cultural scene of the Baltic provinces in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, before August von Kotzebue (1761-1819), the best-known playwright of the time, arrived in Tallinn in 1783. To discuss the options for practising theatre in the Baltics in the times of Goethe, Kotzebue is juxtaposed with the other best-known representative of early Baltic German drama, Sturm-und-Drang author Jacob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792). As the (Baltic) German literary historian Gero von Wilpert says, the Baltic drama received the strongest impulses for its development namely from these two playwrights with exceptional and contradictory fates. Lenz’s fame in his lifetime was short-lived and mostly limited to Germany; almost none of his plays were staged during his life, but since then he has won wide international recognition as of one of the figureheads of the anti-Aristotelian drama tradition. In the 1990s, one could even speak about a Lenz boom. Kotzebue enjoyed enormous international fame in his lifetime, and there were innumerable publications of his plays, but he has now been forgotten for about a hundred years.
Next, the author describes Kotzebue’s arrival in Tallinn (he was born and grew up in Weimar) and the history of the amateur theatre founded by him in Tallinn in 1784. He analyzes the reasons why the conservative society of the Baltic provinces considered “their own son”, Lenz, a stranger, but Kotzebue, although foreign born, was quickly accepted. Finally, he discusses the relations of Kotzebue’s theatre in Tallinn with Estonian-language literature. The Tallinn amateur theatre (1784-1795) fed the German-language cultural life of Tallinn; a number of plays that later enjoyed international fame were first staged there. In the same theatre, however, or in its spirit, the first plays known to be written in the Estonian language were staged. The first time that the Estonian language was spoken on stage was in Kotzebue’s musical comedy Die väterliche Erwartung (1788), and one of the first plays in Estonian was the comedy Permi Jago unnenäggo (1824), written by Peter Andreas Johann Steinsberg, who worked as an actor in Kotzebue’s theatre. Steinsberg was most probably the first ethnic Estonian playwright; his play was an adaptation of Kotzebue’s comedy Der Trunkenbold.
Native roots and kaleidoscope: Two models for the theatre
The problem of national heritage vs. foreign borrowings has been one of the few wider topics of discussion that has surfaced now and again in the history of Estonian theatre. During its amateur beginnings, from the year 1870 onwards, the national awakening movement “officially” emphasized its native roots. But in actual practice massive borrowing of forms and institutions from the then dominant Baltic German culture took place. This was especially noticeable in the theatre, which had few antecedents in native folklore.
The formation of the first professional troupes in 1906 coincided with rapid social and cultural changes and heightened arguments. Native roots were most eloquently defended by the leader of the Vanemuine Theatre, Karl Menning. For him, a native orientation was not a political tenet but an aesthetic necessity, as all imitations were bound to be artistically second-rate. In contrast to the romantic ideas of earlier awakening, Menning did not search for national spirit and character in the distant, hypothetical past. Instead, he concentrated on contemporary observable realities, accepting those cultural loans that had already become part and parcel of Estonian life. Consequently, his artistic sympathies tended toward realism. An opposing attitude was represented by the literary and artistic group Noor-Eesti, which advocated wider borrowings from more varied cultural sources and a kaleidoscopic model of free combinations in building a new whole (although they did not use the kaleidoscope image itself).
The initial half of the first independence period (1918-1940) seemed to follow the advice of Noor-Eesti: all kinds of modernist trends invaded Estonian theatre. The 1930s, however, returned to realism and a preference to native playwriting, which now made up nearly a half of the repertoire.
The first dozen years of the Soviet occupation (1940-1991) were simply a time of mass terror and destruction. What followed in the late 1950s was largely a restoration of pre-war cultural patterns, as much as possible. Audiences were brought back to the theatre mostly by native plays and dramatizations, although both the classics and newly written works had to be subjected to Soviet ideological demands. At the same time, the Iron Curtain created a feeling of forced isolation and instigated attempts to overcome it by smuggling in recent modernistic influences from the West. Indeed, the rise of a metaphorical and openly non-realistic trend around 1969 was in full accord with contemporary avant-garde movements in the West and a notable anomaly on the Soviet theatrical scene. The disillusionment of the 1970s, on the other hand, strengthened the interest in national subjects again. In its extreme forms, ironically, the search for roots created an alternative kaleidoscopic spectrum extending to hypothetical connections in Siberia, Native American cultures, and Far Eastern civilizations.
The re-establishment of independence and opening to the West made the 1990s a period of intense borrowings again. In the new century, the proportion of native plays in the repertoire has been growing and may well herald another swing of the pendulum.
“Like real”: How psychological realism came to Estonian theatre
This article discusses the birth of psychological realism, or the art of experiencing, as one of the styles in the Estonian art of acting. The birth of the art of experiencing is associated with the Moscow Art Theatre and the searches and experiments by its founders Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Konstantin Stanislavski, and his friend Leopold Sulerzhitski in the early twentieth century. Ideal acting was to be genuine and “like real”. The art of experiencing arrived in Estonia from the school of the Moscow Art Theatre (or Stanislavski’s school) during the twentieth century in several ways. The article concentrates on its oldest route to Estonia, when the young actress Erna Villmer came to Estonian theatre in 1910 from Adashev’s studio at the Moscow Art Theatre. Her teachers in Moscow were Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko’s pupil Nina Kachalova and Konstantin Stanislavski’s closest colleague Leopold Sulerzhitski.
To give a comprehensive history of development of the Estonian theatre, the article also discusses the influence of the German realist directors Otto Brahm and Max Reinhardt, who influenced the development of twentieth-century Estonian theatre as the teachers of the first Estonian directors Theodor Altermann, Karl Menning, and Karl Jungholz.
The article speaks about the foundation of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898, its creative and ethical principles, and searches for the new acting technique – the art of experiencing. The searches were aimed at genuine feelings, genuine experience, and absolute identification with the role. The historical fact is that the first searches for Stanislavski’s system took place at Adashev’s school from 1910-1911 when the young Estonian actress Erna Villmer was studying there. Villmer became one of the most powerful actors in Estonia theatre in the first half of the twentieth century, the idol of one theatrical generation. The article describes Erna Villmer’s studies and analyzes how that influenced the formation of her individual style of acting.
When Erna Villmer joined Estonian theatre, she brought along the spirit of the Moscow Art Theatre and the principles of the art of experiencing. From 1910-1937, when Erna Villmer worked in Estonian theatre, her acting and attitude to work greatly influenced the acting style and attitude of her stage partners.
The history of Estonian theatrical thought: Introductory notes
This article follows the development of Estonian theatrical thought, concentrating on the pre-World War II period. It also refers to some parallels and contact points with the following decades and discloses the generalizing theoretical background of theatre criticism and theatre studies.
In the Estonian cultural space, current theatre criticism and history of the theatre or theatre studies have been quite closely intertwined, although academic theatre studies emerged as late as the 1960s. Current theatre criticism has been considered an inevitable precondition for theatre history even in more general terms; history of theatre provides the retrospective interpretation for which current criticism gives the inevitable source material. Before the birth of Estonian professional theatre or in its initial years, observation of the literary text prevailed in Estonian theatre criticism; a conceptual turning point in this area was the Theatre Book (Teatriraamat, 1913), which contained writings by intellectuals of the Young Estonia (Noor-Eesti) literary group. In general, Estonian theatrical thought has been greatly shaped by writers.
The first Estonian theatre critics, Eduard Bornhöhe, Eduard Vilde, and Karl Menning, were fastidious about the contemporary repertoire and required greater artistry and realism in the work of actors. Vilde and Menning became the spokesmen for Estonian national professional theatre. They have also dealt with problems of theatre criticism; particularly for Menning, it was one of his interests. As Menning also worked as a director, his statements (on the two addressees of criticism, etc.) mark the beginning of a certain self-reflectory trend in the history of Estonian theatrical thought. What might be called professional standards for the theatre critic were developed by Bernhard Linde in the Theatre Book, where he, for example, emphasized the role of criticism in recording the uniqueness of a particular performance.
The Theatre Book was the first attempt at setting higher aesthetic standards for Estonian national theatre, which was based on contemporary modernist trends. The collection emphasized the independence of the theatre and its synthetic character; the actor was valued as a creative personality; a surprising amount of attention was paid to dance and the actor’s physique. Several authors in the Theatre Book (Gustav Suits, Bernhard Linde, Johannes Semper, Jaan Kärner) later also made their contribution to contemporary criticism and the academic treatment of drama and the theatre.
In addition to the aforementioned, the present article discusses in detail the writings by Hugo Raudsepp, Artur Adson, and Woldemar Mettus. Jaan Kärner and Hugo Raudsepp can be considered the initiators of Estonian theatre history. Kärner was primarily interested in social issues, Raudsepp, however, among everything else, in the manifestations of the ethnic mentality. Artur Adson, who became a fruitful theatre critic in Estonia, published his collection of theatre season overviews Vilet ja loorbereid [Catcalls and Laurels] in 1938. Later, in emigration, he brought out a historical overview – Theatre Book [Teatriraamat, 1958], which, however, was met with criticism for the author’s subjectivity. Woldemar Mettus developed the Estonian theatrical thought in two areas: his Theatre Glossary [Teatri-sonastik, 1935] was an attempt to systematize theatrical terminology; his series of role portraits in the journal Teater laid the foundation for the tradition of the respective genre. Generally, the journal Teater (1935-1940) marked the broadening and diversification of theatrical thought. Concentration on the problems of theatre criticism in the journal in the second half of the 1930s showed a need for deeper self-reflection.
In conclusion, we might state that, by the 1940s, sound foundations had been laid to theatre criticism in the Estonian press as well as to theatre studies.
Revolution in the aesthetic of the theatre and Evald Hermaküla (1969-1971)
The revolution in Estonian theatre at the beginning of the 1970s introduced the process of theatre innovation in the course of which, beside traditional realist theatre, a more figurative and expressive theatrical style emerged. The breakthrough took place at the Vanemuine theatre in Tartu and was centred around the productions of Evald Hermaküla (1941-2000) in cooperation with Jaan Tooming, Mati Unt, and several young actors. The driving force behind their searches was dissatisfaction with the clichés and triviality of realist theatre that had gained ground in Estonia. The ideas of the Western avant-garde theatre (Artaud, Grotowski, Brook, and others) and psychoanalytical theories (C. G. Jung) studied then also had their influence.
The central concepts of Hermaküla’s aesthetic of the theatre were playing and myth. He treated the theatre as an art independent of literature, and in the literary text he tried to find a mythical underlying structure that could be amplified and diversified by theatrical means. Playing was understood as a creative force, as namely by playing, a different world is built up – the reality of the stage that is as real as natural reality. Playing has its beginnings in the personal experiences of the players, who use them for creating theatrical images, and it also finishes in personal experience, being a means for self-cognizance, a way to the hidden layers of consciousness. It was the actor who became central for the new theatre. In Hermaküla’s opinion, the actor was the main creator in the theatre; the director’s role was to support and help him/her. The breakthrough in the theatre aesthetic was carried by the new vision of the world and an acute need to understand oneself and search for answers to the main existential questions.
Theatre innovation is considered to have begun with an evening of Gustav Suits’ poetry, staged as teamwork and performed in the hall of the Writers’ Union, and the production of P.-E. Rummo’s Cinderella Game (both 1969). The staging of Midsummer 1941 (after P. Kuusberg’s novel, 1970) acted out the political confrontations of the past with an attempt to understand them. Theatrical metaphors as well as film stills creating the effect of documentality were used. An attempt to merge documentality and imagery was also made in A. Salynski’s Maria (1971). In 1971 the searches for new theatrical language also took the shape of so-called night theatre and fair theatre. The night theatre was a small group of actors who freely enacted associations with their personal lives; sometimes they also performed for audiences at the club of the University of Tartu. The fair theatre, i.e. performances at trade fairs in summer, was the opposite of the night theatre in its style (with buffoonery predominating), but similar freedom of acting and immediate contact with the audience were sought. The aesthetic endeavours of the breakthrough period were summarized in the production based on L. Andreyev’s play He Who Gets Slapped (1971), which dealt with existential topics, merging rough buffoonery with tragic and solemnity. The production was greatly improvisational. Here playing was a philosophy of life as well as an aesthetic and a method.
What is actually happening
In this essay, the author discusses the changed functions of the theatre. Toompere finds that one of the most powerful trends in the theatre is related to documentality. Another viable trend is the theatre where something senseless is born. The essence of such theatre is experimental. The third route is the theatre of forgetfulness. This is pure therapy. This is metaphysical theatre and in its meditative attitude the most traditional.
Actually, all these trends are present in the large repertoire theatres of Estonia. All of them, however, are too pure. And even if different trends are merged, then in equal amounts. The outcome is neither this nor that. This is the main problem of repertoire theatres that grows from the need to preserve their present audience. The theatres’ obligation to consider the profitability of their repertoire cuts off one of the significant duties of the theatre – to continue the schooling of actors within the theatre. If theatres do not have enough freedom to train young actors – and this always brings along failures – we are going to have only amateur theatres in the future.
People love theatre. If we want this to continue in the future as well, one should forget all one has learnt until now. In order to do so, however, there has to be something that one can forget.
How to make an ideal production?
Tiit Ojasoo briefly describes his principles in founding the troupe of Theatre NO99.
For the aesthetic of performativeness
The shift towards performativeness that the arts, including theatre, have experienced since the 1960s has brought them closer to one another, has made the borders between them more easily passable and brought along a change in the centre of gravity, which text-oriented art theory has not been able to grasp adequately. These changes concern the (1) materiality, (2) mediality, (3) semioticity, and (4) aestheticity of the arts.
1. Instead of being texts and artefacts, the products of today’s arts are often performances. 2. The circumstances of perception of and communication in these performances differ from “traditional” literature or painting. In order for a performance to take place, the performers and viewers have to gather at a certain place for a certain timespan. In this respect, creation and reception are synchronous and depend on each other. 3. In the performance, the relation between the semiotic and the performative function is changing. Reference is reached through performance only. 4. If earlier non-theatrical arts created works of art, then now, their outcome is instead events. Thus, the emergence of what is happening more important than what really happens and the meanings are attached to it later, i.e. after the event.
To formulate a performative aesthetic, the author poses three hypotheses: 1. The traditional distinction between the subject and the object, between the viewer and the viewed obviously cannot be preserved in the aesthetic of performativeness. 2. The traditional differentiation between the sign and the signified is left aside. 3. The traditional heuristic differentiation between the aesthetics of creation, material, product, and reception becomes questionable from the viewpoint of the performance as an event.
To confirm these hypotheses, a joint effort between the theories of all arts is needed. Only cooperation between the studies of theatre, music and literature, art history and philosophical aesthetics makes it possible to develop an aesthetic of performativeness, which would possess great explanatory value namely for present-day arts.
Bert O. States
Performance as metaphor
Complex things, like performance, do not obey our words for them; they are subject to continual mutation and intermixture – which is another way of saying that they are continually open to metaphorical extension. To explain the problem, States first looks at some instances of performance theory to substantiate our usage in current practice.
The first pairing (Erving Goffman and Victor Turner) can be called “outsider theorists” in the sense that they are professionally uninvolved in the arts and concerned with social performance at the largely unintentional level.
For Goffman, the term performance was strictly a metaphor for social behaviour and his modest question was, simply, “What are the ways in which we repeat ourselves?” Turner’s idea was that social conflicts are structured like dramas. The value of Turner’s model, like Goffman’s, is that it allows us to escape a certain solipsism, or one-eyedness, by enlarging our field of reference.
On the other extremes, there are the insider-theorists, or people who are either theatre practitioners or theatre scholars. Here the limit-problem manifests itself – the situation where the researcher becomes part of the problem. States first discusses the theory of Peggy Pelan and her understanding of presence as the ontological basis for performance. For States, however, Pelan’s notion of performance seems to come down to a specific kind of political commentary the work is making on its own medium.
Another insider is Richard Scherer who is guided by the aesthetic of repetition, saying that the main characteristic of performance is restored or twice-behaved behaviour. What Scherer does not consider, however, is that the twice-behaved behaviours of theatre and “other performative genres” are normatively based on behaviour in ordinary life and that is itself already twice-behaved.
Finally, States examines the relation between artistic and scientific practice of performance with the example of Robert P. Crease, establishing certain variables around which performance and performativity seem to circle regardless of a person’s orientation.
Thus, States suggests that a theory of performance has to begin at the ontological level where the human desire to participate in performative transformations begins. This is the point where there is not yet a differentiation between performer and audience; there is only an abiding interest in the spectacular possibilities of the world (the voice, sound, physical material, behaviour) which one uncovers in perception and at once feels the pleasure of the discovery. Surely all artists respond to their work as an audience in the very act of creating it. Surely the act of painting a landscape is not exhausted in the transformation of what the painter sees “out there”, but includes a reciprocal degree of spectation. So we may say that art (in which the author includes science) is its own reward, whatever other things it may achieve. Here is what we might call the kernel or gene of performativity from which all divided forms of artistic performance spring: the collapse of means and ends into each other, the simultaneity of producing something and responding to it in the same behavioural act. All artistic performance is grounded in this pleasure and performance thereafter goes its cultural way towards endless forms of differentiation and intentionality, whereby others (now called performers) stand apart and perform for us (called audiences) the “heard melodies” of themselves and others.
The author’s interpretation and interpretation of the performance
We publish some excerpts from the interview Wilson gave in Houston, Texas, on 8 February 1992 when he was interviewed by the American art critic and writer Elizabeth McBride. Wilson explains briefly his theatrical principles. The examples are based on Wilson’s production of Wagner’s opera Parsifal that he staged in Hamburg (1991), Houston (1992), and Los Angeles (2005), and in which the critics have particularly emphasized his experiments with the formal (theatrical) language.
Looking for the author of the theatrical text: Subtexts and subworks in the metatext of the production
This essay has been prompted by Wolfgang Iser’s essay “The reading process. A phenomenological approach”. Analyzing the independent existence of the text as such and the relationship between the text as an aesthetic object and the reader, Iser reaches the conclusion that at each meeting between the text and the reader a new literary work is born in the communication process between the text and the reader. The statement that the text itself is not a work yet, but the work is born in the process of communication between the reader and the text through concretization of the text belongs to Iser’s predecessor Ingarden. However, the observation that the gaps and blanks (the empty space of thought not explained to the reader by the author or, in other words, the “empty principle” contained in an artistic text as an aesthetic object) that the reader fills during the concretization of the text create new gaps and blanks lead Iser to the understanding that, in principle, in the reader’s encounter with the same text n+1 works can be born.
The essay concentrates on reading the production’s metatext in the process of theatrical production. Its emphasis is on finding an answer to the question about different creative people’s share in the director’s theatre of the present. Who is the actual author of the production – the director, the set designer, the actor, the sound designer – and how do their mutual creative relations function in present-day theatre?
The underlying argument of the essay views the production as a reading process from the viewpoint of different creators. From the original text of the author, through different subtexts, a metatext is formed, which, as a final result, is presented to the viewer. In different periods and due to spatial and temporal peculiarities, the productions performed by theatres can be classified as centred on the author, the actor, or the director; nowadays, however – why not on the set designer or the composer.
In conclusion, one should unequivocally admit that in present-day theatre it is impossible to define a single author of the performance seen on stage; resulting from different texts born as a result of reading, the contribution of a number of people participating in the creative process can have equal qualitative or quantitative significance. Thus – when the theatre-goer is enjoying the performance, s/he can never know whose performance s/he is actually watching – the director’s, the set designer’s, the composer’s, the actor’s, etc., because, if the author him/herself is not the director, the authorship depends on different visions by different readers.
Published 15 November 2006
Original in English
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