Ljubov Vassiljeva, The Origins of Theatre in Estonia
The historical roots of the Estonian theatre date back to the games and rituals in the Estonian folklore. Those elements could not directly envolve into a solid foundation of a national theatre due to numerous foreign conquests since the 13th century. During the centuries to come, a large majority of the Estonians remained peasants. Only the handicraftsmen of the cities got a glimpse of the general development of the theatre mainly through the performances of the European travelling theatres. The birth of the vernacular theatre took place in the 1870-s at the time of the national awakening. Theatres were closely connected to the Estonian societies which, in their turn, built the proper buildings. Thus we cannot ignore the performance element of Estonian folklore and ritual, which existed long before the beginning of official theatre history, and which nourished and encouraged later theatre practitioners.
The history of Estonian theatre does not differ much from that of the neighbouring countries. The first play was performed in the 16th century at the Tallinn Town Hall. Historical documents record performances on Biblical subjects, fast day plays and carnivals on Estonian soil in the 16th century. The town school children, who were Germans, staged Terence’s The Andria in Latin. Later, in the 17th century, the paths of theatre and the church diverged, and Latin text was replaced by German. The first theatre house in Tallinn was mentioned in written materials which date from the late 17th century; the house was used by travelling theatre groups. Tallinn was already known then as a theatre-loving city. The first prominent name in Estonian history of theatre, August von Kotzebue, dates from the same period. The Russian authorities sent him from St.Petersburg to Tallinn to work as an official. Kotzebue’s entertaining productions became famous all over Europe.He founded the first theatre with its own permanent cast, and brought the Estonian language to the stage. Native Estonian theatre was created as part of a national awakening in 1870 when the nationalist poet Lydia Koidula (1843-1986) wrote and staged her plays. Theatre became especially popular amongst Estonians in the second half of the 19th century, as part of the national awakening process. Initially alien to many people, theatre activity spread with amazing rapidity and innumerable villages quickly formed amateur groups to produce translations, adaptations and original plays, mostly comedies, including some by Shakespeare and Molière. Before that time, theatre had mostly been staged in German for the benefit of the local nobility and merchants. Theatre in Estonian emerged in various song and drama societies, the strongholds of national thought. In the early 20th century, these societies turned into professional theatres, some of which, the national opera Estonia for example, function even today. The scheme from society to theatre is a general phenomenon, because all the present state theatres oncebelonged to societies.
In 1865, the song and drama society “Estonia” was founded in Tallinn. Play-acting was taken up in 1871. The following theatre activites were relatively haphazard, theatre as a tradition really came into being since 1895, when the society began to direct song plays, folk plays and comedies, usually with singing and dancing; however, the start of the XX century already saw more serious drama on the stage.
In August 1906 the Vanemuine Music and Theatre Society in Tartu was transformed into a professional theatre under the direction of Karl Menning (1874–1941) and (only a couple of weeks later) the Estonia Music and Theatre Society in Tallinn, the predecessor of Estonian national opera, went professional on the initiative of Theodor Altermann (1885–1915) and Paul Pinna (1884–1949). This was the point at which the principles of professional theatre were laid down. And some of these are still applicable today: such as the primacy of the director, the emphasis on original, non-imitative stage directing, and the actor’s special status — resulting not in poor emulation but the creation of a totally new being. Menning also stressed the principle of ensemble art, which was adopted gradually in Tallinn as well. In 1940 they were disbanded with the Soviet rule in Estonia as “the bourgeois remnant” and the theatre was nationalized.
In 1906, the first music director, Otto Hermann, was hired, 1907 saw the first operetta, Hervé’s “Mam’zelle Nitouche”, on stage, 1908 the opera, Kreutzer’s “Das Nachtlager in Granada”; a steady production of operas started in the 1918/19 season.
In 1911, the first Estonian operetta, Adalbert Wirkhaus’ “St. John’s Night” was staged.
1912 saw the founding of the “Estonia” Music Department (EMO), which started organizing concerts, and the EMO mixed choir that was turned by the conductor August Topman into a good oratory choir.
It is considered that Estonian Drama Theatre was founded in the year of 1920, which is the year, when Dramastudio was born. The relationship between this studio and the present Drama Theater began at the moment when they started to rent the contemporary building of it, which in these days was owned by German Theatre Society. In 1939 Dramastudio Theatre finally bought it. In 1937 the Dramastudio Theatre was renamed – the new title was Estonian Drama Theatre. In 1949 the drama collective of the theatre “Estonia” was linked with the Theatre mentioned above. Dramastudio Theatre began to function under the guidance of well-known Estonian producer Paul Sepp. The young people who gathered under this name were the first ones who got systematically education of knowledge and skills necessary for theatre. The repertoire of this Theatre consisted of plays from selection of classical, symbolist and expressionistic ones.
In 1922, the theatre hosted the first full evening ballet performance, Léo Delibes’ “Coppélia”; in 1926, choreographer Rahel Olbrei founded the permanent ballet troupe in the theatre, the ballet became more regular in the 1930s.
In 1928, the first Estonian opera, Evald Aava’s “Vikerlased”, was staged, in 1944 the first Estonian ballet, Eduard Tubin’s “Kratt”.
On March 9, 1944 the theatre and concert house was razed to the ground by the air raids. Until the theatre house was reopened in 1947, productions were staged in the cinema “Gloria Palace” (today the home of the Russian Drama Theater in Tallinn).
Theatrehouse has seen the changing of different powers, has had a variety of names but has still stood the test of time without losing it’s position in the context of Estonian architectural and cultural history. Estonian Drama Theatre is connected with the name of an internationally known producer Voldemar Panso. His productions shaped and formed the image of this theatre in the 60-s and 70-s. Today his followers and adherents work in the same theatrehouse.
During the independent Republic of Estonia (1918-1940), the Estonian theatre reached the professional level of the European theatre. The theatres continued to be run by the societies that had created them. Estonian theatres were (and still mostly are) repertoire theatres and in the country with a population of 1 million, the 11 theatres (in 1940) were at least partially state subsidized.
The period between 1918 and 1940 saw Estonia, a society without sharp class differences, once again politically independent and this brought about an upsurge in cultural interest. By 1940, Estonia had seven fully professional theatres – three of them in the capital Tallinn – and four semi-professional theates in less urban professional centres. The country’s first opera and ballet troupes were also opened in that period.
Country-wide, the overall number of productions rose from seventy-seven in 1920-1921 to 114 in 1937-1938; the number of theatregoers also grew from 300 000 to 700 000. Artistic standards as well were rising and plays were receiving both longer rehearsal periods and extended runs. Stage designs were no longer simple illustrations but an active part of the production.
In its artistic directions, the Estonian theatre of the 1920s was catching up with symbolism and was also venturing into expressionism with translations of Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Kaiser and Toller among others. Experimentalism also tinged the discovery of older European classics, especially Shakespeare. The 1930s were marked by a return to realism, and native drama again became important. By the ebd of the decade, in fact, it made up roughly one-half of the repertoire though only one or three comedies by Hugo Raudsepp (1883-1952) and the two plays of the great Estonian novelist A. H. Tammsaare (1878-1940) can be called masterpieces. The main achievement of this period were the spreading of theatre to all areas of the country and to all levels of the populatsion as well as the establishment of solid professional criteria.
The Soviet occupation completely upset the stable development of Estonian theatre. In totalitarian conditions, theatre acquired new meaning; it was not strictly connected with art, but still continued to carry the national feelings. An important role was played by theatre, one of the most difficult areas to censure, in political undercurrents that were flowing in the shadow of the official building process of communism. The audiences were so eager to hear something forbidden, something that would outwit the alien authorities. Allusions, gestures, and leaving things unsaid all conveyed these messages. On the other hand, going to the theatre was a sensible way of spending one’s wage money, which could be a problem in the chronic state ofdeficiency during the Soviet period. At that time, the number of theatre-goers increased considerably.
From 1941 there followed three years of devastating war and Nazi occupation with its own harsh rules. When the Soviet army returned in 1944, about 70 000 Estonians, remembering the atrocities of the first Soviet occupation, fled the country with a high percentage of artists and intellectuals among them. From this point, Estonian culture developed in two distinct branches – the culture at home and the culture in exile.
In Estonia in the 1940s, most theatre houses lay in ruins. Only Estonia Theatre was rebuilt after the war (1947). The Vanemuine and the Endla companies received new houses only in 1967. Early in the post-war period, there was real enthusiasm for building the country up again as a national entity but this desire soon faded as Stalin’s terror-based policies prevailed. In 1949-1950 there were, in fact, mass deportations, forced collectivizations of the countryside, and ideological witch-hunts. The goal was to exclude western influences. Leading stage directors of the previous period were removed from their posts. Several provinsial theatres were closed in 1950-1951.
In 1949, the Estonia, which had been a music-and-drama theatre since its inception, was turned into exclusively a music theatre. From that point, there remained only one Estonian-language drama troupe in Tallinn. [—] The repertoire of the theatres consisted of mostly lifeless Soviet plays while the box office depended on a handful of acceptable classics.
In 1985, the number of visits to the theatre equalled that of the whole population – 1.5 million.The state subsidies to professional theatres grew steadily. By the end of the Soviet period, theatres received more than two thirds of their income from the state. Estonian theatre arts is a mixture of German (Max Reinhardt) and Russian (Konstantin Stanislavski) schools of theatre. The first is director-centred, focusing on the complex impression of acting, lighting, stage scenery and music. The key notions of the second are that the actors exhibit their creativity with every performance and get into the spirit of their characters. The end of the 1960s witnessed an emergence of young directors who were influenced by newer trends and people in theatre, including Jerzy Grotowski, Bertold Brecht, Peter Brook and Antonin Artaud. The best achievement in Estonian drama at that time was Paul-Eerik Rummo’s The Cinderella Game which was also staged at the legendary La Mama theatre in New York’s Off-Off-Broadway.
After the death of Stalin in 1953 conditions began to change slowly for the better. Gradually the repertoire widened, admitting more classics and contemporary western writers. In native drama, plays by Juhan Smuul (1922-1971), Egon Rannet (1911-1983) and Ardi Liives (1929-1992) brought fresh realism and poetic insights. In staging, individual stylistic differences reappeared as directors reasserted themselves.
In the 1960s, a new, freer and more sophisticated generation made its way in virtually every artistic field. Young directors and actors were more conscious of developments elsewhere reading avidly about Artaud, Grotowski, Peter Brook, and the American avant-garde, though opportunities to see such work were practically nil. They relied less on the text of a play than on visual symbols, metaphors and physical action. In general, their productions were agressive, defiant, even hysterical – as a reaction to tightening ideological pressure after 1968.
By the end of the 1970s, the metaphoric-physical trend had largely spent its force. Also, a general resignation of the Soviet system became more and more pervasive. A time of weariness, loss of direction and stylistic eclecticism set in. In certain ways realistic and psychological modes returned, but avant-garde attempts did not disappear entirely. A turning towards history, ‘the roots’, was noticeable.
The coming of the Gorbachev perestroika (restructuring) in 1985 and an open resurgence of national aspirations in 1987 brought about great changes. Censorship was suddenly abolished; subjects, authors and plays previously banned were now able to reach the stage; guest performances by foreign troupes in Estonia and visits by Estonian theatre people abroad became more common; there was a flurry of small experimental groups. Theatre actively participated in the national struggle, which finally led to the re-establishment of Estonia’s political independence in 1991.
After the restoration of Estonia’s independence (1991), the theatres were astonished by the disappearance of audiences. To fight this phenomenon, more new plays were staged, especially of the entertaining variety. This measure, and the gradual increase in state subsidies brought part of the audiences back to the theatre. Compared with film or publishing industries, theatres on the whole survived the radical changes in society rather painlessly; there were not any theatre closings and large-scale redundancies were avoided. There are three schools in Estonia which provide higher education in drama. The oldest and most academic of them is the Higher School of Drama at the Estonian Academy of Music. The Viljandi Cultural College, which has close contacts with the Viljandi theatre ‘Ugala’, and the private school ‘Theatrum’ at the Estonian Institute of Humanities are the other institutions. Theatres in Estonia, like elsewhere in the world, may be divided into three categories according to their form of ownership: state, municipal and private theatres. In Estonia, the first prevail; there are 9 state and 1 municipal theatre, the Tallinn City Theatre (Tallinna Linnateater). None of the 4 theatres in county centres are subordinate to local authorities,lthough such a decentralising policy is fairly common in most neighbouring countries. This derives from the decisions stated in Estonian cultural policy. The Official Estonian theatre policy has been regarded as an extension of the employment policy; theatres provide work for about 2000 persons all over Estonia. Theatres in small cities cannot be merely regarded as employers located far from centres and therefore the more valuable. The whole local cultural life is centred around them. County centres have greatly benefited from the touring system initiated by the Ministry of Culture. This system compensates the additional expenses that the theatres encounter while on tour. This kind of subsidy system has been set as an example to other post-communist countries. One of the six state theatres in Tallinn is the Russian Drama Theatre. Although its repertoire is Russian, quite a number of Estonian classical plays are staged there. The audiences are mostly people of Russian nationality. There are two music and dance theatres in Estonia: ‘Vanemuine’ in Tartu and the national opera ‘Estonia’. The Vanemuine has its own drama company and is therefore the largest of Estonian theatres.State subsidised theatres usually have several theatre halls. The large halls are mostly used for more entertaining performances which attract huge audiences. The smaller halls are often left for experimental theatre because the relatively substantial subsidy is still not enough to warrant their presentation in the larger halls. In recent years, the state theatres have come to realise that it is highly profitable to operate during the summer, preferably in the open air. The audiences have readily accepted open air performances as pleasant entertainment. Private and project theatres are relatively marginal in Estonia, regarding both the financial support they receive from the Ministry of Culture and the size of the audiences. In 1999, the state subsidised 7 non-state theatres. Each of these received 1 per cent of the whole sum of money designated for theatres while the the von Krahl theatre, one of the oldest theatres founded on private initiative and capital, received about half. At the von Krahl, the art of drama is supported by theincome received from running a bar and a restaurant. It is a private theatre which owns one of Estonia’s two black-box theatre halls, however, it has not chosen the path of producing box office hits. Instead, it is known as an experimental theatre. Theatre played an important role in advancing and safeguarding the spirit of Estonians during both the period of last century’s national awakening and the oppression of the Soviet regime. After the restoration of Estonia’s independence, theatre lost its political significance and became one area of culture amongst many others. Nowadays, theatre has to prove its worth by means of art only. The future of Estonian theatre, which is fully dependent on the state purse, lies in the hands of politicians; they decide whether to continue subsidising the theatres. At the same time, a considerable part of the audiences are made up of young people. The fact that last year about 500 young people applied to the twenty places available at the Drama School, speaks volumes about the popularity of theatre in Estonia.
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