Volume 34, No. 3 - Fall 1989
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1989 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Dickinson College

Comparative studies can be fruitful if they meet two conditions:

(1) As many variables relevant to the problem being investigated as possible, with the exception of the crucial one, are kept constant; and

(2) The comparison answers a theoretically significant question and is the most effective way of answering it.

In the present case, the problem — what effects do political settings have on the cognitive structure of literary productions? — is posed by selecting works from the same national literary tradition but produced in the United States and in Soviet Lithuania; and by choosing avant-garde plays sharing a comparable subject, that of a poet in the madhouse.1

The origin of the two plays in the same literary tradition controls for the general cultural heritage. Similarity of topic and of conception of dramatic writing helps us to focus on the crucial differences: that one play has been authored in a liberal democracy, the other in a collectivistic autocracy.


An initial reading of the two Lithuanian plays — the American, by Antanas Škėma, "A Christmas Scene," written in 1961, and the Soviet, by Juozas Glinskis, "The House of Discipline," written in 19702 — reveals many similarities:

Both texts are saturated with religious concerns, images and events. Both employ a psychological mode of analysis, with emphasis on motivation and subconscious processes. The action takes place in what appears to be an institution for the insane. In each play, the central issue is a fatal discrepancy between what the individual is and what he must be in society. The main hero is a restless searcher for authenticity. In both plays, there is no salvation now, but the conclusion suggests a mystical hope.

The similarities interest us only as the background for the differences, and as further evidence that these plays are indeed comparable. We note the following differences:

(1) In the Soviet play, faith is constantly entangled, in matters essential to it, with coercive power. In the American play, power is "technical": the state can commit a sick person to a madhouse, but it does not interest itself in what he believes (nor is it clear to what beliefs, if any, the state itself adheres). Faith exists only in the spiritual quests of individuals isolated from each other by the conventions they observe. Only in the madhouse — a boundary situation in Jaspers' sense — do these individual faiths become translucent to each other.

(2) The American play consists entirely of the private experiences of individuals, each contained within his or her own isolated biography in which encounters with others are accidents subsidiary to the construction of the story of one's own life. History dissolves into the biography of (whatever else they may be in their professional capacities) a few unhappy dreamers. In place of a community of enduring attachments, they possess merely the fragile "life-style enclave" of a tavern.

In the Soviet play, commonalities exist, both of a shared religion (however misused by its representatives) and of shared oppression (almost all male participants contribute to oppressing each other or exploiting women).3 In the West, only a commercialized meeting room and the idea of individuality are shared. In Eastern Europe, concrete commonalities — historical creations all — are real even for an avant-garde playwright.

(3) While the organizational framework within which action in the two plays occurs is similar — a psychiatric institution to which its patients have been committed, it functions with different ends in sight. In the American play, coercion is used better to adapt individuals to private relations. In the Soviet play, coercion is used to break the will of the individual and to subject all kinds of "undesirable elements" — from the corrupt bishop to the innocent poet equally — more effectively to state control.

But the beneficent therapy employed by the Western institution is based on a superficial understanding of the human being, as someone who needs only games through which to act out his or her needs. East European therapy, cruel and insulting as it is, presupposes a more serious conception of human nature, as capable both of the most radical evil and of the most spirited contributions that matter, in both cases, to others with whose lives one is crucially entangled. These are statements not only about "therapies," but also about the political settings within which such therapies flourish.

(4) The American play presents itself in the end as having been staged by the actors themselves (the patients in the asylum, as a production expected to contribute to their own therapy). Moreover, two actors (a man and a woman) choose at the end to deviate even from the play they are themselves producing (one by really killing his fellow-author, the Christ-figure, to make resurrection possible; the other by expressing real grief where a decorative pose was planned for). What is suggested in this dramatic design is that human beings are the authors of their form of life and that at least some of them retain an individual freedom of choice, until the last moment, of changing — in order to attain "more reality" — even the form of life they themselves have decided to create.

In the Soviet play, none of this is possible. Events march on with a necessity that imposes itself on individual actors with the force of destiny (or, in part, with the logic of established power). Individuals can only make their moves within the roles assigned to them within a script which they have done nothing to write, which they cannot change, and from which there is an escape — and, in the last line of the play, "the joy of eternal rest" — only after death. Even in the final approach to religion with which both plays conclude, an individual decides his own move in the American play, he is carried away without being able to act in the Soviet play.

In these intuitively selected comparisons, the two plays appear to be working out the implications of an individualistic-democratic and a collectivistic-autocratic way of life for organizing particular aspects of experience. But these are all, except for the more profound psychology of the Soviet play, findings that are only to be expected. This type of literary comparison reveals little about democracy and autocracy that we do not already know. It only focuses our knowledge.


This is methodologically unsatisfactory. The intuitive approach to literature fails to provide a logic for the comparative study of dramatic texts. This approach allows one to choose whatever aspects of literary works one wishes to compare and to employ different bases for different comparisons, with any comparison as justified — or as unjustified — as any other, and little likelihood of moving beyond particular comparisons to cumulative research.

Is it not sounder science to seek general criteria for deciding what is essential in the intellectual structure of dramatic texts for purposes of a comparative sociology of literature? Such criteria should make possible a "blind" reading of ail dramatic texts, without knowledge of the social setting in which they were produced, as significant variations of the basic model of the dramatic shape of society.

It is my guiding hypothesis that the cognitive structure of a dramatic text allows the reconstruction of four dynamic systems either actively present in the play or posing problems to it by their absence.4 These are systems of social relations, of human nature, of historical movement, and of transcendental meaning. From this point of view, it is not what actors do or say that matters for comparative purposes, but the qualities of the most general systems which their actions presuppose, express, or advance.

Among the key qualities of any system of social relations to be considered are: (1) their hierarchic or egalitarian structure and (2) the character and strength of the linkages between participants in the system.

In Škėma's play all relations are egalitarian but (with the exception of the final sacrifice of the Christ-like figure, weak, in the sense that they neither engage anything essential in the actors concerned nor endanger their survival.

In Glinskis' play, all relations are hierarchic: one approaches the other from a position of greater power (or a greater ability to injure the other). But, in addition to being hierarchic, they are also stronger: most of them both engage essential qualities of individuals and endanger their survival.

The most important questions that can be asked about the system of human nature contained in a dramatic text concern (1) the energy presumed to be propelling human beings into action, and (2) the capacities, or strengths, which advance human beings toward what they strive for, and the insufficiencies or weaknesses which deter or defeat them. It also needs to be clarified how generalized or individualized these characteristics of human nature appear to be and whether there are systematic differences between particular social groupings in the qualities of human nature attributed to them.

In "A Christmas Scene," all human beings, except the complacent hospital official who comments at the conclusion of the play, are similar in having modest, child-like wishes (of the kind that Rousseau's natural man might have: to dance, to drink, to write poetry) which they lack the strength, or mutual supportiveness, to realize among themselves.

In "The House of Discipline," at least six substantively different, incommensurate kinds of human motivation are active, with all major male figures impelled not by simple wishes, but by exaggerated, Artaud-like desires. These are embodied in: (1) the freedom-seeking poet, who ignores,

while feeling guilty for doing so, the needs of those closest to him; (2) the attachment-seeking (all women, on whose bodies the men project their fantasies; and the son of the poet whom neglect transforms into a murderer); (3) those driven by sexual desire which escalates into obsessiveness or turns over into a life-denying repentance (elderly ex-church officials); (4) sadistic persecutors (agents of the state); (5) puppets of conventionality (social elites which physically crumble into dust in the course of the play); and (6) the perpetually active man solving problems at whoever's command (the psychiatrist, the only representative of secular science). The only active church official — somewhat authoritative, somewhat weak — is shown without a strong motivation of his own.

Škėma recognizes sin only in the sense of weakness in human nature; Glinskis also sees the demonic in it. But while men and women in Škėma's text are equally weak, only some men, but no women, possess the demonic thrust toward active infliction of pain on others in Glinskis' text. This is in line with a generally more egalitarian treatment of the sexes by Škėma than by Glinskis in the plays considered.

It may be that, within the imagined world of a play (as in "real" society), the system of social relations conditions the manner in which human nature manifests itself in it, and the kinds of motivation it exhibits. Exaggeration of desire and the development of the demonic, as also in the Satanic mythology, could be the products of hierarchy.

History consists of the overall shape of changes one perceives to have occurred in a collectivity over a period of time. Regardless of its contents, the plot of a play can be viewed as its historical system (or, in other words, the theory of history embedded in its structure). The key issues would seem to be (1) what forces decide the form of the passage of time, and (2) what the passage of time brings to participants in the system.

In "A Christmas Scene," what transforms only weakly connected individual biographies into a historical form is a mysterious call to take part in a religious ceremony of self-revelation and sacrifice of the redeemer. It is not the action of human beings but their experience of the transcendental which shapes their form of history for them. This history is "fulfilling" to its participants: it brings them joyful illumination and the discovery of the meaning of their sufferings.

But such is not the historical system of "The House of Discipline." The form of the passage of time is determined by human beings exploiting each other's weaknesses. The passage of time illuminates only human weakness and brings about only the development from the sinful pleasures and wrongful assertions of power of the younger years to the political tortures and self-torment of later years and to the crumbling to dust in death. History is the story of sinful nature and of the evil of organized politics. The longer one lives, the less one sees the possibility of any kind of liberation. History has a "depleting" effect on its participants.

The transcendental system of a play can be approached by looking for the signs by which transcendence, or its absence, manifests itself in, or beyond, the immanent. The specific questions to be asked are: (1) How is the transcendental — anything beyond social relations, history, and nature — related to life in the world?, and (2) What is the basic message transmitted by the transcendental (or by its absence) to human beings?

Transcendence, for Škėma, represented by the Christ-like figure (who shares with the others the characteristic of being committed to a mental hospital), is capable of entering the immanent world of human relations and of transfusing them for a short moment through unconstrained self-revelation.5 (This almost seems a comment on Habermas.) Such irruptions of the transcendental into the quotidian apparently neither cure nor liberate from imprisonment in the world of a total institution. They have neither enduring nor world-transforming effects. But they can be expected to recur and, each time, to transfix.

In Glinskis' play, the transcendental is located entirely outside of life in the world. The church is part of the world, embroiled with its passions and fears, and provides only the rhetoric of "the beginning of the true life," "new fatherland," and "the joy of eternal peace" after death. Even true self-understanding is promised, in a visionary appearance of a dead human being, only to the dead. Transcendence might be said to reveal itself in the world, outside of the dreams of the living, only by the consequences of its total absence.

It is perhaps a defining characteristic in plays of a religious character that the shape of history is decided by the relationship of the immanent to the transcendental or the absence of the latter.

We have discovered suggestions of two axes of determination in our set of two plays. Social relations decide human motivation, and the transcendental decides the historical.


After having reconstructed the cognitive systems of the two plays, one can begin to ask in a more disciplined way what in each play can legitimately be regarded as an interpretation of the political setting in which it was written.

Our task is made more difficult by the fact that "The House of Discipline" is a more complex text that "A Christmas Scene," not only in its general structure, but also in its conception of human nature.

While both texts can be described as religious-psychological plays,6 "The House of Discipline" is also, and in its very essence, a political play. It seems plausible to argue that the character of Soviet society transforms everything more intensely into a political problem, whereas the political dimensions of experience tend to appear secondary — or are presented in a "restricted code" — in a liberal democracy.

But would the more complex conception of human nature in the Soviet play be explained in this manner? Are we allowed to theorize that liberal privatism may inflict a complexity-reducing constraint on the psychological imagination? This contradicts the intuitive expectation that freedom correlates with complexity, but the issue invites further comparative inquiry before it can be resolved. (The greater complexity of the Soviet play could be due to its subject matter: the mental hospital-prison is a more evocative institution in Eastern Europe than in the United States.)

Important questions arise from the discover that social relations are both more hierarchic and stronger in the Soviet than in the American play. Is hierarchy intrinsically related to the strength of social relations; does autocracy, for this reason, strength social relations, democracy weaken them?7 Further efforts are needed to distinguish between the effects of a legitimate from an illegitimate hierarchy — that is cultural hierarchy, as in traditional India, from a political command structure, as in the Soviet Union. In any case, the strength of social relations is not identical with their goodness.

Cap we infer from a reading of our two plays that democracy promotes a "fulfilling," and autocracy a "depleting" sense of history, at least in the twentieth century? Or are the differences in the historical systems of the two plays due not to their political setting, but to the circumstance that the transcendental and the immanent come into contact in Škėma's play, and are radically separated from one another in Glinskis' play? But are these different qualities of the religious imagination themselves perhaps related to the political setting? Does democracy, by equalizing everything, also encourage the sense that the transcendental can merge with the immanent — a kind of "democratization of the sacred"?

These are questions that our mode of analysis cannot, as yet, answer, but which it presents as an intrinsically important, yet generally neglected, aspect of literary studies. One final question: is it the primary structural elements of a dramatic text that constitute interpretations of the political setting, or is it only in the secondary, explicitly descriptive contents of the text that residues of political conditions accumulate?8

I am limited, in a short essay, to posing some of the questions which the system-analytic approach to comparative study suggests. It would be premature to try to answer them without having presented a detailed analysis of a wider range of dramatic works from both political settings or at least the total corpus of Škėma and Glinskis.

The political analysis of individual works of art is but the indispensable first step to the crucial question: How do political settings influence the collective structures of consciousness within which particular authors construct their individual positions, their own distinctive interpretations of and attitudes toward the political settings within which they work?

I conclude for the time being that interesting plays can be instructively compared both in the intuitive way in which I started, and in the system-analytic mode with which I concluded. The second approach should, however, reveal more that we do not already know, raise more precise questions in a more consistent language, and produce more cumulative results.


1 Comparisons between American and Russian writers are less effective in posing the issue of the effects of the political setting on literature, since many more uncontrolled variables are involved, such as differences in language and in religious tradition, in addition to political settings.
2 Antanas Škėma, "Kalėdų vaizdelis," Rasta/, II (Chicago: Mackus, 1970), pp. 339-367; Juozas Glinskis, "Grasos namai," Balsas (Vilnius: Vaga, 1983), pp. 5-65.
That the two plays were written in the same decade eliminates another explanation of variability. Since the authors were not writing in the same country, the possibility that their works express generational differences cannot be inquired into (Škėma was born in 1911, Glinskis in 1933). If Glinskis had been influenced by prior knowledge of Škėma's play ("Kalėdų vaizdelis" was first published in Metmenys in 1961; exile writings became more widely available in Soviet Lithuania since 1966 or 1967), the differences are all the more remarkable.
3 In the American play, both sexes act (or equally have their own experiences). In the Soviet play, women are only acted upon (or have their experiences shaped for them by men) — a fairly common tendency, even in avant-garde writings, in Soviet Lithuania (e.g., S. T. Kondrotas).
4 For an earlier version of the system-analytic approach to comparative literature, see my "Literature and the Dialectics of Modernization,' in Joseph P. Streiką, ed, Literary Criticism and Sociology (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973), pp. 89-106.
5 The transcendental moment comes for all who are cooperating in the performance, but not for the director of the theatre — a hospital official — who merely watches.
6 Neither, however, has been written by a person known to be partial to an organized religion. Škėma in particular was treated in emigre Catholic circles as an "infidel." In Soviet Lithuania by 1988 he is being presented as the paradigmatic twentieth-century "Searcher for Christ."
7 On the general significance of hierarchy and individuality as structural principles, see Louis Dumont, Essays on Individualism': Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986). Alexis de Tocqueville remains relevant on the psychological effects of hierarchy and egalitarian individualism.
8 It is theoretically uninteresting that Glinskis presents numerous passages explicitly criticizing "the leader," cruel interrogators, political misuses of psychiatry and the like (and that there are no such passages in Škėma, only a short reference to cruelty toward inmates in the psychiatric institution). A play can interpret political conditions entirely by the structure of its cognitive systems.