Volume 16, No.2 - Summer 1970
Editors of this issue: Antanas Klimas, Ignas K. Skrupskelis
Copyright © 1970 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

A tragedy by Mārtiņs Zīverts

Kimbell Art Foundation

The centennial of the Latvian theater arrived in 1968 on a low note; perhaps the most important event was the publication, in Riga, of the first history of the Latvian theater, rather than the advent of an important new movement, playwright or even play. Thus it seems natural to turn one's attention to what seems the last really important Latvian play, a tragedy entitled "Power" or "Might" (Vara) written by Mārtiņs Zīverts and produced for the first time in 1944 in Riga, dealing with the downfall of the historical Lithuanian King Mindaugas.

Zīverts has been writing plays for almost forty years, is still writing and is being played not only in exile, but also in Latvia which he visited last fall from Sweden. There are close to forty plays, ranging from full-length tragedies, to drawing-room comedies, to experimental one-acters, dealing with historical, psychological, social, political, even scientific subjects, attuned to the present day and current problems. "Power" is, in my opinion, Zīverts' best full-length play, though some prefer the prewar comedy "The Marriage of Munchausen".

"Power" is a tragedy, and I would like to start with the premise that the minimum ingredients of a tragedy are the sufferings of a worthy man. The very choice of the subject, namely the conspiracy against and murder of King Mindaugs and his two small sons, provides the ingredients of suffering. Our first question would therefore be: is he a worthy man?

The question is indeed natural, since we learn at the very beginning that Mindaugs is a ruthless despot; on the one hand, he is at the height of his power, having just rejected Papal authority and cast off Christianity (the time is 1263), while the Tatar Khan has sent an emissary to woo Mindaugs into a partnership with him; on the other hand, Mindaugs has no friends left and can trust only his own guards, veterans of many wars, and, he thinks, their leader Lord Trainaitis. Even the guards, however, must tremble, because without a heavy fist there is no ruling. (The guards accept this as right and necessary and submit to abuse.) Otherwise, there are "a hundred murderers" lying in wait for the King; even Pope Alexander has sent poison by a bishop who has not yet been done away with, along with 29 other priests recently executed, only because no one else knows where the poison is. Mindaugs is no less ruthless with his noble subordinates and neighboring rulers. Early in the play, the saintly old Lord Daujats, too independent and slow to pay tribute, is falsely accused of concealing a weapon in the King's presence and executed. When Marte, the sister of the recently deceased Queen, in order to incite the other lords, recounts how Mindaugs has abducted and murdered his own brothers and friends for the purpose of grabbing their lands and consolidating his kingdom, we are indeed presented with an image of a villain rather than a hero, and the question — is he worthy? — becomes acute.

We now learn that Mindaugs has summoned all his nobles to the castle on this autumn night not only for the purpose of holding council, but also to announce his choice of the new Queen, who, to the consternation of everybody, turns out to be Marte herself, the wife of Daumants who is the strongest and friendliest of the nobles. When this happens, it seems clear that Mindaugs is the powerful villain in conflict with Daumants who is right. The stage is set for the struggle between the might of Mindaugs and the right of Daumants.

Let me inject here a theoretical proposition of Mārtiņs Zīverts, namely, that a tragedy is a conflict not between right and wrong, but between two rights. Despite appearances, then, Mindaugs must also be right and must be worthy. The question is — how, what makes him so? And how will Zīverts, having presented Mindaugs as the villainous despot during the first part of the play, prove this?

Here we need another theoretical concept of Zīverts, this time concerning the structure of a play. "Power" is written in 49 scenes, some of them only two to three minutes in duration, and corresponds to Zīverts' ideal of a full-length play of uninterrupted unity of place, time and action, with a continuous rise of tension until the culmination point at the very end. Such a play of interconnected scenes is a synthetic play and it achieves its form only with the final scene (— in contract with the play structured in acts where the form is implied from the beginning and which Zīverts calls an analytical play, since the direction of the development can be derived from the exposition, at least in traditional dramas, and the interest lies in the manner of it).

Now, another consideration is Zīverts' idea of one central moment or grand scene in the play which need not be extensive but must be such that all the preceding scenes are necessarily leading up to the grand scene and all the following scenes are direct consequences of it.

In our play, then, we are at mid-point in this continuum of action; the preceding scenes have proven, to the characters in the play and to the audience, the villainy of Mindaugs, and now preparations are made for his murder. At this point Zīverts introduces the grand scene, in which Mindaugs' right is revealed. This has to be a tremendously powerful scene in order to accomplish credibly the reversal of our image of the King, and Zīverts performs this feat in the only long speech in the whole play.

This is not, I would like to stress, a reversal of Mindaugs' character, nor are exonerating circumstances introduced, nor does Zīverts summon forth gods to be blamed or past oaths to be kept. It is merely the reversal of our ignorance to knowledge of Mindaugs' motives. Mindaugs' right is based solely in his concept of the role of the king, and in Zīverts' concept of the nature of power. The monumental character of Mindaugs is rooted in the strength of his own convictions. He does not doubt, waver or regret, and does not need bolstering by divine myth or popular opinion.

For all the legion of traditional devices that Zīverts employs in this tragedy — intrigue, treason, jealousy; apparitions of the dead, prophecy, oaths and curses, poisons and daggers, even the trap of tradition which had forced the youthful Mindaugs to marry the older sister of the family instead of Marte whom he still loves — for all these Zīverts does not make Mindaugs seek justification outside his own concept of power and of his own role. The devices serve admirably to forward the action of the drama which appear inevitable and inescapable — it is in fact a tour de force to get them all in and still make them completely credible, but Zīverts uses none of them to explain or justify the right of Mindaugs.

What, then, is his right?

In Scene 24 we have the long speech of Mindaugs, after Marte prevents him from ordering the killing of his grown son who has become a Byzantine monk and curses Mindaugs in the name of his God. We now hear that Mindaugs knows full well that the son was speaking the truth when he called the King murderer and thief; he knows that he has lapped blood, though no one knows how repulsive it has been to him. However, "He who has power, cannot do otherwise." Mindaugs knows good from evil, but has no choice: the individual lords, including his own brothers, had each wanted to rule according to his own fancy and could not offer any resistance to the enemy — the Russians and the Jadvigs (Yotvingians) and the Tatars — all of whom would have eradicated not only the lords and leaders, but the population as well. Mindaugs knows that taking another's land is bad, that killing one's own brother is worse, but — if one has to be strong to achieve a noble end (here the unity of the tribes and the life of the people) and if, in order to be strong and powerful, one has to be a villain, and if there must be one villain greater than all others, then Mindaugs wants to be he.

And thus Mindaugs has revealed his right: it is better to save the people dishonorably than let them perish with honor. Power makes the murder of the few for the good of the many necessary, and holding power obliges one to do it.

I will abstain from arguing this proposition philosophically; for such a purpose the problem may be seen as oversimplified while still in keeping with Zīverts tenet that in drama action is the supreme consideration; sweeping generalizations serve better than close argument just as types take precedence over individuals as far as the dramatis personae are concerned. Suffice it to say that Mindaugs in his speech is sufficiently convincing to sway Marte, who has in fact sworn to kill him, and also to sway the audience to accept him as worthy. This is indeed the grand scene in which the spectator is brought up short in rightful admiration of the man who says: "If there must by a villain greater than all others, then I want to be he!".

Never before had Mindaugs used his power to benefit himself, until now, when he is taking Marte because he has always loved her and because he needs one human being in whom he can trust.

This, of course, is the final stumbling block. In embracing her, he finds the dagger she has concealed in her robes and is thus disappointed in his one hope for personal happiness and trust, even though Marte has now recognized his worth. Her husband, as well as Trainaitis, the leader of the guards, who had hoped that the King would marry his daughter, have turned against him, he is murdered, the nobles turn on each other, killing and poisoning, the people riot, the guards obey no one, and a messenger arrives with the first light of the morning to announce that the Tatar army is approaching. No one is left to lead in battle, and the fire built to signal the approaching enemy becomes the funeral pyre of Mindaugs and of Marte who follows him into the flames (off stage). They play ends with Daumants crying out: "There burns my wife and my enemy!", to which the messenger retorts:

Woe, Lithuanian men! There burns your state!

Let me revert to the question of structure. As we saw, Zīverts holds that all the events following the grand scene must be in consequence of it; this is carried out through some more complications arising from the reversal of Marte's hate to love, but Zīverts is consistent on another level than just action: all the events following the grand scene are arguments in favor of Mindaugs' concept of power, and the real impact of the play I think is to be found here. Whatever second thoughts one might have had about Mindaugs' speech, one sees the events bear him out. Even the murder of the saintly Lord Daujats turns out to be strategically justified — it was introduced to illustrate Mindaugs' wantonness, but serves later as proof of his farsightedness: the Tatars had planned to join forces with Daujats against Mindaugs in case the latter would not agree to their proposals.

The behavior of the nobles proves Mindaugs' contention that each is only after his own good; they could get together long enough to murder Mindaugs, but a murderous squabble develops immediately afterwards, deceit rules supreme, complete anarchy sets in, with the several nobles' voices croaking in parody of Mindaugs as they appeal for the support of the people, screaming that they did everything for the good of the people. No one believes it, least of all they themselves, in contrast to Mindaugs who kept the people trembling and did not tell them anything.

Thus Zīverts actually fulfils his own concept of the scene-play: it achieves its final form, the inner and outer form, with the last scene. The action of the play culminates in the downfall of the Lithuanian state which is the proof of Mindaugs' right. The worthy man himself is burning on the pyre. The necessary elements for the catharsis, fear and pity, are very much present.

We have seen something of the structure and the ideology of the play and the way one re-enforces the other. I would like now to take a look at the ways and means Zīverts employs to accomplish everything he does in this play.

Zīverts' mastery as a dramatist is borne out by the effects that he achieves with the most economical means. I have given the impression of a highly complicated plot involving a great variety of events and stock devices. We should now consider that Zīverts imparts all of the background information and events by means of the play itself, and the only long speech is devoted to Mindaugs' inner world (whereby the importance of the message is stressed also by formal means). One could not expect the general Latvian audience to have more than a vague idea of the historical circumstances of King Mindaugs — the established facts are scant anyway and not of prime interest to Zīverts — but Zīverts' program note simply identifies the time and place of the play, in one sentence. He does not have the benefit, for instance, of a Greek audience which was well familiar with the family histories of the heroes and the functions of the gods before it came to see a play. Zīverts had to do it all in the play itself, restricted by the self-imposed unity of time, place and action, and he is almost incredibly successful in doing it. He has made every action and event seem inevitable; moreover, almost everything has a double or triple role in the play, everything reverberates later, as we saw with the murder of Lord Daujats, and the plot becomes tighter and the feeling of inevitability stronger with each scene.

All the speeches are short, trimmed to the bone, even pronouns are consistently omitted, nothing is said that can be implied from the action or previous text. Still, and in spite of the complicated plot, the spectator is never confused. Similarly, the characters come out exceedingly strong, though Zīverts wastes no time in depicting them. Thus the only descriptive characteric he affords the Tatar emissary is an occasional irregular word order, yet his foreignness comes through very clearly. In one short scene Zīverts accomplishes amazingly much, as for instance in the scene where the drunken guards decide who will get the captured servant girl by competing in marksmanship—and using for their target a yellow-robed noble down in the courtyard. The scene takes perhaps a minute or two, but it reveals fully the nature of the guards and the prevailing chaos in the castle. There is another scene to be mentioned, partly to forestall the argument that the discovery of Mindaugs' motives comes too abruptly, without proper preparation. In fact there is an early indication of Mindaugs' true character, but coming as it does from the mouth of the young son it strikes one at the moment as a charming diversion perhaps, a half-childish, half-horrible concept of a king; Rupikis, the future king, will kill his brother if he disobeys, because: Kings have no brothers; kings have no pity; kings are permitted to love, but not to show it. Kings are not loved. It must be so. But kings are feared and that is much more. Everybody trembles before the king, but he is obeyed in time of peril, and he is the only one who can save the people.

In conclusion, here we have a traditional tragedy which in fact sharpens the classical precepts rather than diffusing or adapting them (the unities, for instance, were not always observed by the Greeks, and they had the use of the chorus to provide commentary or engage in a dialogue with the protagonist; Zīverts doesn't even use a monologue) — and at the same time is conceptually modern, in that the real conflict is not between man and, say, willful gods, but between two rights and, in a deeper sense, between the worthiness of man and the nature of power — a timeless problem indeed.

Zīverts, Mārtiņs. Vara. (3. iespiedums.) (Sydney) Salas Apgāds, 1965.
— "Autora piezīmes", originally published in Daugava, 1945, reprinted above.
— "Latviešu trimdas teatris un autors" in Archīvs, v.7, 1967.