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.
by Jaak Rähesoo
In 1890, a resident professional theatre in Tallinn was established and performed mostly in German. 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. 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.
In 1906, the first professional Estonian repertory company, the Vanemuine, began operation in the university town of Tartu. Later that year, the Estonia company followed in Tallinn while in 1911, the Endla company opened in Pärnu. In each case, the buildings were financed by nation-wide, public campaigns reflecting the close connections between the country's arts and its people. In their artistic aims, these theatres, especially the Vanemuine under the leadership of Karl Menning (1874-1941), followed the major artistic trends of their time, early on focusing on realism, psychological insight, and ensemble acting. Ibsen, Hauptmann, Sudermann and Gorki quickly became staples of the repertoire. The first decade of these companies also saw the emergence of the greatest Estonian playwright, August Kitzberg (1855-1927) and the novelist Eduard Vilde (1865-1933), who also wrote for theatre.
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. The role of the stage director was also being steadily enhanced; artistic directors like Ants Lauter (1894-1973) of the Estonia and Priit Põldroos (1902-1968) of the Tallinn Töölisteater (Workers' Theatre) were decisive in forming the overall image of their companies. But most Estonian directors were also actors and all these troupes were in a sense actors' companies. Stage personalities like the versatile Paul Pinna (1884-1949) and the tragedienne Liina Reiman (1891-1961) were veritable cult figures during their long careers.
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.
In the history of the Estonian people, the crucial year was 1940, when Estonia, along with the other Baltic states (Lithuania and Latvia), was annexed by the Soviet Union. Hitherto, cultural development had been largely self-regulating and organic; suddenly everything was subjected to both a rigid censorship and bureaucratic administration. All theatres were quickly nationalized; the societies that had created and run them were dissolved. In the years following, the repertoire was filled with Soviet plays.
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.
The general production style at this time (called ironically Stanislavskian) wad a mixture of drab realism and clichés. [---] So it was the actors - people like Kaarel Karm (1906-1979), Ants Eskola (1908-1989) and Aino Talvi (1909-1992) - whom audiences came to see, if they came at all.
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.
The most prominent Estonian figures of the 1955-1970 period were Voldemar Panso (1920-1977), founder of the Noorsooteater (Youth Theatre, 1965) in Tallinn, and Kaarel Ird (1909-1986), who led the Vanemuine. Theatre attendances soon reached pre-war levels and continued to rise.
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. Proponents of the trend were the directors Jaan Tooming (b. 1946), Evald Hermaküla (1941-2000) and partly also Kaarin Raid (b. 1942). Its effect was felt in absurdist-influenced plays by Paul-Eerik Rummo (b. 1942), whose Tuhkatriinumäng (The Cinderella Game, 1969) is the best example of a play built on an imaginary situation, Mati Unt (1944-2005), Enn Vetemaa (b. 1936) and Vaino Vahing (1940-2008).
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, for example in the plays of Jaan Kruusvall (b. 1940) and Rein Saluri (b. 1939), staged by Mikk Mikiver (b. 1937).
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.
Jaak Rähesoo. Estonia. - The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. Volume 1. Europe. London and New York: Routledge 1994, pp 236-239.