History of Estonian Theatre. A Summary
by Lea Tormis

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. 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.

When Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, the theatres became nationalized and the socities that had created and run them were abolished. The repertoire was inundated with Soviet plays and everything was brought under tight administrative and ideological control.

However, the basic theatre network remained and during the 1960-70-s when the ‘thaw’ in the artistic and intellectual life began and the repertoire widened, theatres turned into one of the strongest sources for cultural preservation and struggle against foreign power. The highest annual number of theatre visitors reached 1,7 million, although after regaining the independence in 1991, the number never reached that level again. However, the number of theatres covered by the state subvention has not diminished and smaller, private theatres have emerged into the Estonian theatre scene. At present, Estonian theatres perform successfully at the international theatre festivals.