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Jonas Vaitkus: "Studies in Evil”
Šarūnė Trinkūnaitė
The plays of Jonas Vaitkus are “studies in the evil that pervades history, man and the world around him.” So wrote theatre critic Rūta Vanagaitė in 1984, formulating the director’s main theme and defining the conflictual essence of his relationship with time. Rūta Vanagaitė, „Kaligula“: variantai“, Literatūra ir menas, 1984-03-03, p. 6. The exclusive “politicism” of Vaitkus’ theatre and his reputation as the strongest critic of reality and a troublemaker was established by his loud, courageous and artistically strong pronouncement of a diagnosis of universal – political, social, spiritual, existential – shortcomings.
Vaitkus’ “studies in evil” at the Kaunas Drama Theatre had their own kind of ideological counterweight. Gytis Padegimas, who started his career in Kaunas at the start of the 1980s, created a cozy, sensitive, poetically sorrowful and uniquely romantic illusion of the world with his best productions: August Strindberg’s Creditors (1981), Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1982) and The Long Christmas Dinner (1986) which, with the middle word omitted, was performed first not at the theatre itself, but at the Kaunas Artists’ Hall, and later in the Kaunas City Hall and elsewhere. The play only became part of the repertoire of the Kaunas Drama Theatre in 1991.
This diagnosis, first delivered by Vaitkus in his work in the second half of the 1970s, was developed to its full potential in his plays of the 1980s which – as if in opposition to Nekrošius’ theatrical delving into the ontology of the social outcast – explored the phenomenon of government, drawing various diagrams of the relationships between leaders, leader-monsters, society and the dull masses. Vaitkus spoke out most strongly along these lines in 1982, when he dared to stage a grotesque, even “Ubu-like” but uniquely dramatic production, full of double effect and double meaning, based on Mikhail Shatrov’s Leninist play Blue Horses on Red Grass about the depravity of the Soviet system (with artistic design by Janina Malinauskaitė and composition by Vidmantas Bartulis).
In his production of Blue Horses, Vaitkus seemingly united the satire of Ubu the King with the drama of Šarūnas: chastushka songs about free love rang out, a huge doll of the Proletariat strolled around the stage declaring proletarian cult slogans that it itself could not understand, etc. And sitting on a white armchair downstage from all of this noise was Lenin (played by Juozas Budraitis), free of makeup, speaking in a strange falsetto, and somehow strangely distorted – handicapped by paralysis, he was but a tragicomic remnant of the revolutionary leader, a kind of amalgamation of several associations: “a Leonid Brezhnev still in control of a stagnant country, and a bound Prometheus punished for his theft of fire. Audronė Girdzijauskaitė, „Kauno valstybinis dramos teatras“, in: Lietuvių teatro istorija. Kn. 4: 1980–1990, sudarė Irena Aleksaitė, Vilnius: Kultūros, filosofijos ir meno institutas, 2009, p. 172.
The ruling Soviet institutions remained silent after Blue Horses. In truth, as the Kaunas Drama Theatre prepared for a tour of Moscow in 1983, the Ministry of Culture pressed the theatre not to include the play in its traveling repertoire. Nonetheless, soon after the staging of his own Literatūros pamokos (Literature Lessons) in 1985, Vaitkus was made to pay for the “sins” of Blue Horses. Egged on by teachers, a fierce campaign accusing him of his “anti-child” activities began.
On the one hand, Vaitkus expanded upon the theme of a leader consumed and destroyed by power by strengthening its dramatic effect and, on the other hand, by intensifying its strangeness and theatricality, delving into ever more intense experiments in the fluidity of stage imagery.
This was demonstrated in a 1983 production of Albert Camus’ Caligula (artistic design by Vitalijus Lenickis, stage movement consulting by Grigorijus Gladinas) in which the story of the dramatic self-destruction of one leader (a demonic rebel and capricious, slightly pathological lad) unfolded in an emphatically theatrical space full of strange characters (among them a dwarf) – “crawling, obscene, cowardly little beings convulsively clinging to life”. Egmontas Jansonas, „Kaligula“: variantai“, Literatūra ir menas, 1984-03-03, p. 6.
At the start, Caligula was played by Academic Drama Theatre actor Regimantas Adomaitis, who had been specifically invited to perform the role. He was soon replaced, and Caligula was embodied by Valentinas Masalskis. It was then that the play fundamentally changed: “Adomaitis performed Caligula as an experiment, while Masalkis portrayed Caligula’s fate. Adomaitis played chess, Masalskis played with fire. Rūta Vanagaitė, „Kaligula“: variantai“, Literatūra ir menas, 1984-03-03, p. 6.
This theme took on an even more theatrical form at the end of 1985, in a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II (artistic design by Dalia Mataitienė, composition by Šarūnas Nakas) that rocked the Kaunas Drama Theatre. As a foreign theatre critic described the production after seeing it performed at a Shakespeare festival in Weimar, Germany in 1988, Janet Savin, „Plays in the Second History Cycle in Bohemian and Lithuanian Theatres“, Shakespeare Bulletin, 1988 09/10–11/12, p. 42. Vaitkus spoke – focusing in particular on the “expression itself" – about the eternal “comedy of government” in which “one comedian (Budraitis’ Richard II) was always simply replaced by another (Viktoras Šinkariukas' Bolingbroke)" Egmontas Jansonas, „Spektaklį reikėtų suvokti“, Komjaunimo tiesa, 1986-02-28, p. 3. who inevitably compromised himself. The director sought to express and visually portray the coldness and lifelessness of the inertia of the history of power, stylizing the expression of monumental tragedy and creating severe, rational and symmetrical interludes inhabited by sculpturesque, larger than life, heavy and slow moving characters with face masks of exaggerated features, bathing the stage in red light reminiscent of stagnant blood.
Richard II did not provoke the same fervor that followed two previous productions staged by Vaitkus based on Lithuanian themes: the opera Strazdas – žalias paukštis (Strazdas the Green Bird) by Bronius Kutavičius and Sigitas Geda (1984, artistic design by D. Mataitienė) and Literatūros pamokos (Literature Lessons) (1985, artistic design by Jonas Arčikauskas, composition by Š. Nakas). The latter featured the debut of the first graduating class instructed by Vaitkus, his so-called “group of ten”. Of this group of ten, several became famous performers: Saulius Balandis, Povilas Budrys, Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė, Virginija Kelmelytė and Arūnas Sakalauskas.
In the repertoire of Lithuanian theatre of the 1980s, these two productions by Vaitkus stood out for their experimental passion, first and foremost for their non-canonical concept of the use of stagecraft and literature. They shared a clear idea of authorial direction: an attempt to forego the spoken word and create an event in Strazdas, and in Literatūros pamokos a determination to “discover” his own words and accept total responsibility for the dramaturgy of the stage narrative.
In Literatūros pamokos Vaitkus continued the dramaturgical career he had started in his production of Svajonių piligrimas (Pilgrim of Dreams) (1975), and wrote the script himself, containing authentic or fictionalized stories about the reality of the Soviet school system, combining them with excerpts from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. In this instance he was considerably more courageous than Eimuntas Nekrošius, who had worked throughout the 1980s with the literary assistance of Saulius Šaltenis, Sigitas Geda and Grigorijus Kanovičius.
These productions defined the opposing limits of Vaitkus' artistic program and embodied essentially different possibilities of his relationship with reality. Strazdas seemed to invite audiences to step away from “politics” into the realm of pure art and to delve into the flow of images of refined beauty that linked Lithuanian folk art and the aesthetic principles of traditional Eastern theatre, while Literatūros pamokos did the opposite. It called for a closer examination of the real problems of Soviet schools and the start of a social discussion about evil in the educational system.
Much like with Kingas in 1980, teachers arose passionately to protest Literatūros pamokos and its criticism of the stagnant educational system. After the performance of Literatūros pamokos in Vilnius, the newspaper Tiesa published the judgment of teachers that absolutely disputed the value of the play. By order of the Ministry of Culture, the play was stricken from the repertoire.

But Literatūros pamokos received tremendous support from the public and later returned to the stage. In the program published for the reinstated play at the Kaunas Drama Theatre in 1986, literary director Gediminas Jankus openly recounted how, after the teachers' protest, the editorial office of Tiesa was flooded with letters that took issue with the teachers and expressed opposite opinions. The newspaper did not publish the views of these readers or audience members. In an open meeting with Tiesa staff held at the end of 1985 at the editorial offices of the magazine Nemunas, Tiesa editor Albertas Laurinčiukas, when asked about the letters, arrogantly declared that they "had ended up in the editorial office's garbage bin. “Nevertheless, the teachers supported by Tiesa (or Tiesa, supported by the teachers) failed to defend against the injustice: audiences rushed to see the restored play in great numbers, and it resounded “not even as a play, but as a kind of youth manifesto”. Daiva Šabasevičienė, Teatro piligrimas. Režisieriaus Jono Vaitkaus kūrybos kontūrai, Vilnius: Krantai, 2007, p. 81.
Vaitkus steadfastly weathered the constant pressure of “higher institutions” that dogged his creative career in the 1970s and 1980s (he even had a special file opened on him at the KGB). The appearance on stage in 1987 of Golgota (Golgotha) (scripted for the stage by J. Vaitkus, artistic design by J. Arčikauskas, composition by Regimantas Petronis, directorial assistance by Gintaras Varnas), a dramatization of Chingiz Aitmatov's The Scaffold, which crowned Vaitkus' directorial Kaunas period, was a powerful testimony that he had indeed held up under this pressure. Golgota was almost a continuation of Nekrošius' The Day Lasts More Than a Thousand Years – it spoke in an equally open and unforgiving way about the ferocity of the totalitarian system. It was, however, much angrier.
Vaitkus portrayed the “evil that had reached the greatest scale” and “desperately attacked, pounded, thrashed and ridiculed … that barbaric government and its brutal people”. Audronė Girdzijauskaitė, „Kauno valstybinis dramos teatras“, in: Lietuvių teatro istorija. Kn. 4: 1980–1990, sudarė Irena Aleksaitė, Vilnius: Kultūros, filosofijos ir meno institutas, 2009, p. 183. Golgota saw the appearance of the descendents of a cold, narcissistic and shameless Pontius Pilot (V. Šinkariukas) – embodied by Jedigėjus (Algirdas Latėnas) in The Day Lasts More Than a Thousand Years – who had long forgotten fundamental human values: smug party secretaries, cruel antelope hunters, putrid drunkards, etc., who gleefully crushed any manifestations of virtue and goodness. Vaitkus seemed to say: the world has gone mad. “Woe to the society that decapitates its brightest heroes, that turns life into a Golgotha. It was this understanding that gave the play its name”. Elona Bundzaitė, „Klausimas išaiškintas – kyla klausimas“, Kultūros barai, 1988, Nr. 8, p. 11.
“The actors in Golgota had to be like old pickled cucumbers and let words fall out of their mouths like manure,” actor Viktoras Šinkariukas recounted, opening a window into Vaitkus' creative laboratory and into the search for the dramatic expression on stage of a foul, stinking world”. Audronė Girdzijauskaitė, „Kauno valstybinis dramos teatras“, in: Lietuvių teatro istorija. Kn. 4: 1980–1990, sudarė Irena Aleksaitė, Vilnius: Kultūros, filosofijos ir meno institutas, 2009, p. 185.
Golgota was a huge success at the Kaunas Drama Theatre. Despite this, Vaitkus left Kaunas immediately after the play and moved to the Academic Drama Theatre in 1988. He arrived there just as Rimas Tuminas was leaving after supporting the vital pulse of the official Lithuanian stage with his productions throughout the 1980s.


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Sources and links

Elona Bundzaitė
„Klausimas išaiškintas – kyla klausimas“
Kultūros barai, 1988, Nr. 8
Audronė Girdzijauskaitė
„Kauno valstybinis dramos teatras“
Lietuvių teatro istorija. Kn. 4: 1980–1990, sudarė Irena Aleksaitė, Vilnius: Kultūros, filosofijos ir meno institutas, 2009
Egmontas Jansonas, Audronė Girdzijauskaitė, Rūta Vanagaitė, Valdas Vasiliauskas
„Kaligula“: variantai“
Literatūra ir menas, 1984 03 03, p. 6
Egmontas Jansonas
„Spektaklį reikėtų suvokti“
Komjaunimo tiesa, 1986 02 28
Janet Savin
„Plays in the Second History Cycle in Bohemian and Lithuanian Theatres“
Shakespeare Bulletin, 1988 09/10–11/12, p. 42
Daiva Šabasevičienė
Teatro piligrimas. Režisieriaus Jono Vaitkaus kūrybos kontūrai
Vilnius: Krantai, 2007
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