Volume 36, No.1 - Spring 1990
Editor of this issue: Antanas V. Dundzila
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1990 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.




Martinš Ziverts's tragedy Vara (Power) (1944) and Justinas Marcinkevičius's dramatic poem Mindaugas (1969) question the first Lithuanian king's use of violence in establishing a secure Lithuanian state.

In both plays Mindaugas refuses to mix his personal affairs with his royal duties, while at the same time making personal goals state goals. As a result, his plans for a unified Lithuania become a secret, hidden item on his personal political agenda. Although he successfully animates his plans, he forces his vision on his lords without their consent. He is a tyrant. His secrecy and tyranny ultimately destroy him. The court and the country disintegrate without Mindaugas.

Both plays present Mindaugas's striving for national control and political power. Historians speak of the thirteenth century Lithuanian king Mindaugas as the founder of the Lithuanian state. Between 1219 and 1236 Mindaugas rose from being a duke to ruling a unified confederacy of dukes. Although he unified the Lithuanian territories with cooperation from some of the dukes, he did not shy away from political manipulation of his family and supporters. When he met resistance, he solved problems by force. Once crowned king in 1253, resistance grew. He was assassinated in 1263.

In Vara, Mindaugs is an absolute ruler. That is to say, he rules absolutely alone, without consulting his vassals. His method of political rule is a system of exerting power over those he rules. It is a system of estrangement, wherein the ruled and those who rule are kept completely separate. The ruler alone is privy to a master plan that the ruled fulfilled as separate, isolated parts. The parts have little inherent value outside of this plan. Specifically, Mindaugs does not share his plans or ideals for Lithuania with his vassals, nor does he share his power with them. His vassals, thus, are disposable pawns in Mindaugs's chess game.

Mindaugs essentially rules the country by manipulating his vassals with their rivalries against each other. For example, in order to enlarge his armies, Mindaugs pits Daumants against Tautvils, replacing a former ally with a new one. Since Daumants opposes Mindaugs, Mindaugs wants to get rid of him, but keep his armies. By resurrecting the rivalry between Daumants and Tautvils, Mindaugs essentially has Tautvils, the stronger, remove Daumants. Mindaugs uses the opportunity to present himself to Tautvils as his ally. Mindaugs thus acquires not only Daumants's, but also Tautvils's armies. At the same time, his vassals eliminate his personal enemy for him. Mindaugs causes a confrontation, although he does not stain his hands with blood. The monarch Mindaugs is like a pupeteer controlling Punch and Judy figurines.

Nevertheless, Mindaugs's attempts are very limited, for he cannot control foreign forces. In other words, Mindaugs presides only over his inner realm. For example, the Tartar emissary manipulates the lords and pits them against each other, just like Mindaugs does. Foreign forces threaten Mindaugs's rule in as much as they are a threat to Lithuanian territories. Mindaugs egotistically reinterprets this threat as an ad hominem attack on himself.

Mindaugs creates what seems to be a mythology about threats to his power. He equates foreign opposition with opposition to himself. Likewise, Mindaugs views internal opposition as opposition to his rule. Mindaugs wants to exert total control even within his realm to keep it free of threats to him. Mindaugs attempts to expunge threats from the castle by exiling those who oppose him. This, again, is part of his myth, since the exiled only appear to be outside of Mindaugs's realm. This is not true. Daumants, whom Mindaugs exiled, remains hidden in the castle. Mindaugs assumes he is rid of Daumants. Actually, Mindaugs has no power over those he has exiled, just as he has no power over foreign forces. Daumants, thus, can assassinate Mindaugs.

Mindaugs's power within his realm quickly dissipates when his vassals form secret alliances against Mindaugs. At the same time, as can be expected, Mindaugs loses control of the kingdom. The core problem is that Mindaugs's violent methods of control irritate his vassals greatly. Mindaugs's hold on political power is a deceptive myth that offers Mindaugs false security. However, in that Mindaugs does not share his power and plans, the vassals rebel against him, creating power for themselves.

Mindaugs's use and abuse of power is not arbitrary: he has a plan to strengthen and defend Lithuania. His vassals, however, do not know his plan, since Mindaugs does not share it with anyone. The vassals, in fact, may not even believe that Mindaugs has such a plan, once they learn of it. In their eyes, Mindaugs usurps power for himself, without regard to the country. Algirds, for one, exclaims "is it really so?" (105) when Marte reveals Mindaugs's modus operandi to him.

The vassals comprehend Mindaugs's actions as arbitrary and egotistical attempts at usurpring total control over all of Lithuania. This includes exterminating opposition. More and more vassals come to oppose Mindaugs, since the vassals do not realize Mindaugs is protecting the country. Marte expresses the vassals' understanding of Mindaugs's actions, when she tells Mindaugs, "You're the one who acts without thinking" (114). The vassals believe Mindaugs's actions are thoughtless. Mindaugs's brutality gets in his way. Mindaugs actions do not form any pattern indicating he is trying to unify Lithuania.

The dukes have no way of recognizing Mindaugs's ultimate political goal for Lithuania. Mindaugs conceivably could rule the country by sharing his knowledge with his vassals, as he did with Marte. Mindaugs initiates Marte into the secret knowledge that explains his actions, because she is his most vocal critic. He wants to gain her moral support. He also needs her as a personal ally. She, in fact, does become one of his allies, even though she had been plotting to assassinate Mindaugs. She reverses herself, learning of Mindaugs's master plan.

Mindaugs wins Marte's confidence and support by explaining what he is attempting to do. Lithuania's unity is his goal. "Everything l did, l did in order to unify us all. But my brothers did not want to be unified. They wanted to rule in their domains as they pleased" (125). Mindaugs sees himself as the only alternative to vicious alien forces. Mindaugs believes that a Lithuania in chaos would have invited foreign domination. Foreign rule would have not only killed a few independent dukes, but would have also annihilated the entire country with all the people.

Mindaugs justifies exile and fratricide for the unification of Lithuania: "If l had not done what l did the Jadvings or Russians would have done it... Together with the lords whole domains and tribes would have died" (125). Mindaugs usurps total control of the inner realm in order to prevent the external from destroying the internal. Historically, his fears are substantiated.

Why does Mindaugs keep his plans a secret? If Marte believed him, the other dukes would have also believed and trusted him. Mindaugs, however, refused to employ a power with model of political rule in the country. In such a model, the monarch rules in union with his dukes. It is a process of cooperation and integration. Mindaugs would still have been king, but would have shared his power, as was done in England since the Magna Carta.

Mindaugs's son Vaisvils alone recognizes the premise of Mindaugs's authority. He says, "By letting them tremble in your presence, you make people follow your orders" (121). This is the underlying secret that Mindaugs keeps hidden out of fear: "If l told it to my lords, they would perceive a weakness in me and would stop trembling" (123). Mindaugs bases his power on an endless circle of fear that includes him. Mindaugs has molded himself to this devil's circle so much so that he finds it hard to step out of his cold, impersonal, distant role of king, revealing his vulnerable personality. He needs to be the cruel ruler in order to give the appearance of strength. Only this way can he protect Lithuania from his vassals and the Germans and the Russians.

The second reason why Mindaugs does not share his rule with his vassals is that he cannot face his weakness. As l mentioned, Mindaugs cannot remove himself from the tyrannical persona of king he has created for himself. Revealing his noble scheme to Marte emotionally disarms Mindaugs, as the stage directions explain, "it seems for the first time in his life the old tyrant feels weary, he has lost his strength" (126). For Mindaugs, personal life is incompatible with his role of king. This is also why, for example, Mindaugs perceived foreign threats as personal ones.

The historical circumstances of Vara's creation are the third reason for Mindaugs's authoritarian rule. Ziverts wrote this play during World War II. Latvia's various occupatory governments excluded the semblance of democratic rule. Specifically, Nazi Germany had established a puppet government which was supposed to simply fulfill Berlin's edicts in Latvia. Instead, the government decided to become more independent. It started breaking its precarious alliance with the Nazis. Mindaugs similarly breaks relations with the emissary of the Khan once he realizes the Khan will ultimately destroy him and Lithuania in his campaign. Yet, the Khan is protection from other, more threatening forces, as the Nazis were protection from the Communists. Mindaugs offers brutality with protection from a far greater tyranny than his own. The Nazis were in the same position.

With Mindaugs gone, chaos ensues. The various dukes scheme against each other, killing each other off. No one is left to defend and protect Lithuania. The absolute lack of law and order at the conclusion of the play shows that Mindaugs's control kept order within the state, in spite of the tyranny. Without Mindaugs, the lords do not act responsibly. The dukes, in fact, are worse that Mindaugs because personal rivalries motivate their terror, while Mindaugs had a noble ideal.

Mindaugs does not become very different after revealing his plans: he simply continues with his previous plans. This includes continued entrapment of the dukes. Mindaugs may be a cruel king only out of necessity, yet he has melded himself with that role so much so, that he has denied his own unique identity. At the same time, as long as he is in power, Lithuania is safe. In spite of tyranny, Mindaugs protects Lithuania from foreign invasion. He could subdue the internal opposition by explaining his patriotism, but he chooses to adhere to hierarchical control.

In Marcinkevičius's Mindaugas, Mindaugas manipulates the dramatic framework and history, in addition to his vassals. Again, Mindaugas's situation forces him to separate his public role from his private life. It is as if Marcinkevičius has taken Ziverts's Mindaugs and taught him more sophisticated methods of hierarchical control.

Mindaugas's dramatic presence is overwhelming in the play. He is on stage all of the time, except for the bordering framework of the play. At that time, the white and black chroniclers discuss their conflicting histories. Mindaugas's influence is present even then: one of the chroniclers records a version of history that is favorable to the government. This emphasizes his social omnipresence and suggests omnipotence. Ziverts does not highlight Mindaugs in a similar manner.

Mindaugas interrupts the historical chroniclers twice, both times giving them directives. These two chroniclers form the framework of the play. At the start of the play, the white chronicler writes the tale of Mindaugas the human, while the black chronicler records the history of Mindaugas the ruler. Mindaugas influences the party line black chronicler, who asks the independent white chronicler, "Have you forgotten/ Whose bread you eat and whom you serve?" (157). The black chronicler clearly tries to serve Mindaugas by presenting what would be Mindaugas's version of history, i.e. the official government version. Mindaugas emphasizes this need by arresting the white chronicler when the white chronicler explains he "wrote that (Mindaugas was) trying to build a state/ On deception and distrust" (179). In essence, Mindaugas tries to become the author who is writing the fabula with a particular point of view. Mindaugas, a historical-literary character, steps outside the framework in order to influence its progress. He forces the revision of history, as was done in Soviet Lithuania previous to perestroika and glasnost.

In addition to assuming partial historical authorship, Mindaugas also becomes the director of a political spectacle. After learning that the Prussians have destroyed Kintibutas's castle, Mindaugas leads the other dukes into acclaiming him as their chief with the slogan, "Divided as we are, we're — nothing" (161). Although many dukes accept his leadership, two dissent. They do not accept Mindaugas since he is assuming seniority over his elder brother, Dausprungas. Mindaugas, therefore, holding the sword he has been given as a sign of his rule, shouts an order to his elder brother:

Speak, Dausprungas! Let them hear.
Don't hold back! You know what words
Are right on occasions such as this ...
Speak, before these two desert us! ...
Speak of the one who holds the sword. (163)

Dausprungas, the holy man practicing the ancient Baltic faith, invokes a prayer of protection over Mindaugas. He also pledges obedience to his younger brother. Mindaugas concludes Dausprungas's prayer for him, because the pacifist Dausprungas is not eager to end quickly. Mindaugas "impatiently" urges Dausprungas on, who finally relinquishes his birthright to Mindaugas. Mindaugas effectively uses court spectacle and royal regalia to substantiate his ascension to the throne. He also feigns a divine blessing as a symbol of divine intervention.

Mindaugas's brutal acts create unrest among his vassals. Mindaugas will risk all to achieve his secret goal. His vassals are not prepared to act in the same manner since they do not know Mindaugas's plans. They also have their own goals and problems which conflict with Mindaugas's plans. Mindaugas, therefore, forces his lords into obedience, even though he could convert them to his side. In this case, both Marcinkevičius's Mindaugas and Ziverts's Mindaugs effectively manipulate society with tyrannical force.

Mindaugas pays a price for his deeds. Mindaugas's personal sacrifice for the unity of Lithuania requires that Morta marry Vismantas, while she and Mindaugas are in love with each other. They "live a lie," as Morta says, because they pretend to be two different individuals (165). They place the country before themselves, revoking personal pleasure. Mindaugas privately recognizes his schizophrenia. He reflects with his lover Morta, with his brother Dausprungas and with the old potter on his personal life. He does reveal his secret ambition to the public, but not in time. He, thus, remains an essentially private, hidden individual. By way of contrast, Ziverts's Mindaugs does not recognize the split self. He falters when he faces his personal drives.

Mindaugas emphasizes the need to deny his personal self and to continue his public role, in this soliloquy lines:

Oh, people!
You wish to see in me a kind of man
l don't desire to be.
But I'm obliged to play that role ...
Well, l will learn this part as well. (166)

He does not tell us what "kind of man" he want to be. Instead, he simply accepts the mask of ruler and fulfills public requirements and expectations. He completely accepts his pre-defined role. Mindaugas is like a failed expressionist character with great ideals who succumbs to social pressure. He must deny part of his individuality in order to sustain his kingship.

Later Mindaugas begs Dausprungas not to pry into his personal affairs: "It is my own/ Pain and torment. You stay out of it" (172). Mindaugas avoids dealing with personal integrity which is an issue that chroniclers and Dausprungas constantly raise. Mindaugas, thus, tries to alienate his kingship from his private self. Mindaugas asserts, "I must be powerful," so he avoids questions that cast doubts on his task. He tries to be a public individual with no personal side. Ziverts's Mindaugs is a one-sided individual, as compared to Marcinkevičius's Mindaugas.

But Mindaugas eventually reveals his personal anguish to the entire public: "If you had felt the pain that tore my heart!" (199). Mindaugas explains that his pain stems from the Žemaitijans helping the Germans in attacking Mindaugas. Mindaugas feels personally betrayed by his own people, even though they were not in alliance with him. Mindaugas suffered because "brother against brother rais(ed) sword" (199). Paradoxically Mindaugas is now needed to help the Žemaitijans, his opponents, ward off their common German foe. The conflict appears to be resolved once the Žemaitijan messengers agree to join Mindaugas's forces. Mindaugas then can exclaim:

l thank you, gods, that the purpose
Of my life, struggle and ideals
Has not turned to naught! (200)

Mindaugas's personal goals and ideals seem to be fulfilled. The unity and strength of Lithuania is apparently achieved. But it is not clear whether Mindaugas celebrates his gained power or a unified Lithuania. At his point, Mindaugas's wishes and public role effectively become one.

The context of Marcinkevičius's Mindaugas clarifies the point of view. Mindaugas clearly is a mixture of good and evil for the Lithuanian state, unlike in Ziverts's play. Ziverts's Mindaugs is an unquestionable tyrant. Marcinkevičius's Mindaugas is a veiled version of the Communist Party in Lithuania. It is popularly viewed as an autocrat which both participated in Stalinist terror and later protected Lithuania from massive russification. Mindaugas is a Soviet Lithuanian cadre who benefits himself while serving the state.

Then Daumantas, one of Mindaugas's exiled enemies, mortally wounds Mindaugas, shattering his symbol for a unified Lithuania. All is literally lost for Mindaugas and for Lithuania. Mindaugs now recants his version of history, exposing his crimes while espousing his goal. It is a dying man's attempt at vindication.

Is Marcinkevičius's Mindaugas the tyrant or the unifier? He is both. He confuses his official duties with his personal conflicts. This, of course, brings about his eventual downfall. Mindaugas is a complicated individual because of this near confusing overlap. Like Lear, Mindaugs attempts to make amends with his dying breath. But history teaches that Mindaugas's attempts were too late. The play ends questioning the revision and rewriting of history. In contrast, Ziverts's Mindaugs clearly is the tyrant: he dies defending himself and his reign. The play ends in chaos.


Marcinkevičius, Justinas. Mindaugas. Trans. Ona Čerškūtė-Spidell. Fire and Night: Five Baltic Plays. Ed. Alfreds Straumanis. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1986.

Ziverts, Martinš. Power. Trans. Alfreds Straumanis. Fire and Night: Five Baltic Plays. Ed. Alfreds Straumanis. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1986


* The author is pursuing his doctorate studies in literature at the University of Wisconsin. He is a former guest editor of Lituanus.