How to approach Lithuanian theatre? How to describe its past and its present history, the pages of which we are still consistently flipping through. What should fill the gaps that we’ve missed, skipped through or pushed aside? Perhaps we should let go of the time that’s passed as of the history itself? Or perhaps not only theatre itself is becoming history here, but history turns into theatre? Which one should be trusted?
When looking at Lithuanian theatre history from the farthest perspective, theatre can be seen in forms of various performances on city’s main squares, during the events for Lithuanian dukes, elite gatherings, festivities and religious ceremonies. Starting from XVIth century, theatre in Lithuania is starting to get mentioned in a different context – it’s becoming less and less mundane, turning into an individual form of art. Although, to be fair, even back when theatre was considered something ordinary, it still had an element of something greater, something spiritual or even divine. Some time later, when political and historical atmosphere in Lithuania was becoming more and more favourable, first theatres with their own troupes and houses started to emerge, it was the time of the first performances, first attempts to discover a unique style and genre. Jesuit school theatre, Grand Duchy of Lithuania noblemen’s theatre, and later on – underground readings in Lithuanian. Theatre has naturally become a mean of expression, a sort of statement, the meaning of which was growing stronger over time.
If we replace our take on Lithuanian theatre with facts, we have to start from 20th of August 1899, when the first public amateur theatre performance based on Keturakis comedy America in the Bathhouse took place in Palanga. In 1920 in Kaunas a society of Lithuanian artists was gathered. The society has gathered a special Theatre council, which itself has founded the first professional Lithuanian theatre – Drama Playhouse. On December 19th, 1920 it presented the public a premiere – Fires of St. John by Hermann Sudermann (directed by Jonas Vaičkus). In 1930 the theatre, which was now called State Theatre, welcomed its new director – Andrius Oleka-Žilinskas, whose proteges, Romualdas Juknevičius and Algirdas Jakševičius, have started writing the history of Lithuanian theatre. At the initiative of Romualdas Juknevičius on January 25th, 1940 Vilnius State Theatre troupe was transformed into Vilnius State Theatre (up until 1998 it has been operating under different names before finally becoming Lithuanian State Drama Theatre). In 1940 Panevėžys Drama Theatre was established, changing it’s name to Juozas Miltinis Drama Theatre in 1995. In 1945 Vilnius Russian Drama Theatre was established, that in 1960 changed its name to Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania. Its first troupe consisted of Moscow and Leningrad theatre actors as well as theatre school graduates. So just like that first professional theatres creating and cherishing the tradition were established.
In case of considering theatre a historical and political truth, first of all it is worth mentioning the immense effect that the grip of the USSR had on Lithuanian theatre – censored repertoire, the approval committee, formalities, socialist realism, suppressing each and every directorial idea that seemed even a little too bold or original, weakening of both directorial and acting traditions, prosecution of artists. Although, even in such environment strong artists have managed to sneak through the keyhole, opposing the regime, creative silence and public opinion. Juozas Miltinis, Jonas Jurašas, Juozas Rudzinskas, Aurelija Ragauskaitė, Povilas Gaidys – they all have managed to create performances, speaking to the audience beyond the topics of socialist realism.
In order to add certain personalities to the pages of Lithuanian theatre history we’d have to take the brightest possible ink and start with such directors of the end of the 20th century as Dalia Tamulevičiūtė, Jonas Vaitkus, Eimuntas Nekrošius, Rimas Tuminas, Gytis Padegimas, Saulius Varnas, who have created a distinctive directorial language of Lithuanian theatre. The theatre has freed itself from both social and political snares, although, along with these changes it got rid of literature as well, becoming more poetical, metaphorical and symbolical. Independent directing has taken Lithuanian stage by storm, which has led theatre to a modern artistic self-observation, artists turning their eyes to themselves.
If we are going to take a look at Lithuanian theatre through the prism of performances, we ought to start from 2011 Banishment by Oskaras Koršunovas which has formed a particular personality of a modern Lithuanian – a lonely misunderstood soul that feels out of place in this world. Homeless, powerless body of an immigrant without an identity, a body that even its owner cannot understand. This is the main character floating through space of the major theatre performances: it’s just him alone, dancing on the stage during Lokis (directed by Łukasz Twarkowski, 2017, Lithuanian National Drama Theatre), a lonely her, walking on zinc plates in Zinc (Zn) (directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius, 2017, Lithuanian State Youth Theatre). Another Lithuanian, loner Antanas Garšva (directed by Jonas Jurašas, 2012, Kaunas State Drama Theatre) stuck in a New York elevator, is struggling with the same loneliness as every author of the Tales from the Vienna Woods (directed by Yana Ross, 2019, Lithuanian State Youth Theatre). He is left all alone, just like a professional hunger artist in Hunger Artist (directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius, 2015, Meno Fortas theatre) or an actor from the El Publico, lost in the theatre (directed by Gintaras Varnas, 2010, Utopia Theatre). How mournfully Treplev (Martynas Nedzinskas) gazes at Nina in The Seagull (directed by Oskaras Koršunovas, 2013, OKT Theatre) or what indifference Joseph Schuster (Valentinas Masalskis) reeks of in Heroes’ Square (directed by Krystian Lupa, 2015, Lithuanian National Drama Theatre). Perhaps the same look can be noticed in the eyes of a Girl whom God was Afraid of (directed by Jonas Vaitkus, 2010, Klaipėda Drama Theatre) and those fighting for Lithuania’s freedom in the Barricades (directed by Valters Sīlis, 2014, Lithuanian National Drama Theatre). A tiny bit happier is the grotesquely smiling nanny in Christmas at Ivanovs’ (directed by Jonas Vaitkus, 2012, Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania)… What about The Cherry Orchard (directed by Krystian Smeds, 2009, New Drama Action), letting people into its home? Or those touching stories told in the dark in the I Dreamt I Dreamt (directed by Kamilė Gudmonaitė, 2019, Lithuanian State Youth Theatre)? In what shadows these narratives with our DNA encrypted in them are born? Have we developed such national identity – sensitive, sore, real, viable, cut into our skin like a scar – in the past few decades?
But how should we view future Lithuanian theatre? How should we understand something that is only about to happen and see the light of day, a future explosion of a new theatrical thought. Who will start writing theatre history? What will it be like? It’s definitely worth waiting and finding out.