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The Theatre of the “New Reality”
Šarūnė Trinkūnaitė
Lithuanian theatre entered the second half of the twentieth century stronger in size but, more importantly, extremely morally and artistically impoverished. It began this new period enriched with new names: alongside the "old" stages in Kaunas, Šiauliai, Klaipėda and Vilnius, there was now a drama theatre in Panevėžys (est. 1940), a theatre for young audiences in Kaunas (1940-1959), theatres in Marijampolė (1941–1949, 1956–1962) and the Žemaičių Drama Theatre in Telšiai (1942–1949). It was clear, however, that professionalism in the theatre had suffered considerably.
This professional void at the start of the post-war period was felt universally. First of all, because there was only one legal, permissible stock of material to perform, the available repertoire was impossibly narrowed and dulled by second-rate Soviet dramaturgy. This was clearly also reflected in direction, with only a few master directors remaining: Borisas Dauguvietis (1885–1949), Romualdas Juknevičius (1906–1963), and Kazimiera Kymantaitė (1909–1999). Actors inevitably had to take up their own direction. But a void was also felt in acting, particularly in the new theatres, where amateurs and semi-professionals occupied the same stage.
At the same time, the Soviet government fairly openly displayed its cynical view of artistic quality in the theatre, tirelessly espousing the importance of its own, ideological, "quality", a campaign that was clearly (and, for the theatre, most painfully) demonstrated by two "disciplinary" actions. The first was a harsh crackdown on Juknevičius, one of the most brilliant theatrical artists of the first postwar decade. After an evening of Chekhov's vaudevilles (The Proposal, The Bear, and A Jubilee) performed in 1945 – an event hailed by a later critic for its flash of "creativity, energetic comedy and keen grotesque" Irena Aleksaitė, Režisierius Romualdas Juknevičius, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1998, p. 214–215—Juknevičius was simply fired from the Vilnius Academic Drama Theatre and later wandered his way through the semi-professionals occupied the same stage.
The second crackdown involved an attempt to restrain the Senior Director of the Panevėžys Drama Theatre, Juozas Miltinis (1907-1994). During tours by the theatre ensemble in Vilnius, he was judged to be "dangerously" leaning toward the use of "unnecessary" artistic tools: "lighting effects", "supportive performance elements (music, decorative details)", "externally attractive items" and other "relics of formalism", for which Miltinis was released from his position in early 1954 (but reinstated in 1959). Irena Aleksaitė, „Juozo Miltinio tremties istorija (1954–1959)“, Kultūrologija, 2007, Nr. 15: „Asmenybė: menas, istorija, dabartis“, p. 370.
After the war, the theatre world was forced to forget about artistic recovery and instead had to learn to become a platform for Soviet propaganda. It was forced to commit itself to an unquestioning adoration of the "new reality", i.e. illusory Soviet facts and ideas approved by the Central Committee or conferences of the All-Union Communist Party. The Soviet government diligently "supervised" the execution of this obligation. The duties of internal "supervision" were delegated to party organizations at each theatre, and to professional unions and artistic councils. External monitoring institutions were established in 1949 as a kind of "representative" of the LSSR Council of Ministers to the theatre world: play and production approval committees, charged with the ideological review of each premiering play.
Theatre had to adapt, and it tried very hard to do so. It opened its doors to "correct" dramaturgy of the "new reality", producing an enormous amount of stunningly vapid stories about revolutionary and class struggle, the establishment of collective farms, or the condemnation of the capitalist world and its dark, exploitative past. Theatres zealously adhered to the one "correct" aesthetic of socialist realism, spreading socialist optimism in the monotonous language of everyday realism.
Theatres carefully created a "correct" portrait of a new hero, reducing human imagery to a primitive sketch of the positive proletarian and his negative enemy. The "new reality" vector imposed upon the theatre seemed to paralyze its creative energy, putting it in a deep freeze. Moreover, by 1952, theatres adhered to a so-called "non-conflictual theory" that forbade the appearance onstage of "enemies". Dramatic conflit was only to take place between "the good" and "the better".
Nevertheless, by the start of the 1950s, signs of recovery gradually began to emerge in Lithuanian theatre, and attempts at more original dramatic interpretation were made. The best demonstration of this came with two Chekhov productions in 1954: The Seagull, directed by Miltinis at the Panevėžys Drama Theatre, presenting a sensitive reflection of "human fates constantly colliding into walls", Markas Petuchauskas, „Panevėžio teatras“, in: Lietuvių tarybinis teatras: 1940–1956, redaktoriai Antanas Vengris, Juozas Gaudrimas, Vilnius: Mintis, 1979, p. 180. and Romualdas Juknevičius' direction of Uncle Vanya at the Academic Drama Theatre, presenting the sad story of people crushed by "spiritual catastrophe", "spiritual lethargy", and spiritual "paralysis". Irena Aleksaitė, Režisierius Romualdas Juknevičius, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1998, p. 273–274. With the staging of these productions, Lithuanian theatre seemed to challenge the prevailing optimistic, "revolutionary" canonical interpretations of Chekhov's dramas, attempting to reclaim the right to an individual, independent point of view of the literary texts, an understanding of man and his understanding of destiny, and a greater choice of forms of expression on stage.
Symptoms of artistic liberation continued to appear in Lithuanian theatres. Springs of true creativity began to form, generating ever fresher winds.
Irena Aleksaitė, Režisieri


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Sources and links

Irena Aleksaitė
„Juozo Miltinio tremties istorija (1954–1959)“
Kultūrologija, 2007, Nr. 15: „Asmenybė: menas, istorija, dabartis“
Irena Aleksaitė
Režisierius Romualdas Juknevičius
Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1998
Markas Petuchauskas
„Panevėžio teatras“
Lietuvių tarybinis teatras: 1940–1956, redaktoriai Antanas Vengris, Juozas Gaudrimas, Vilnius: Mintis, 1979
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