Volume 43, No. 3 - Fall 1997
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1997 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


University of Chicago

A small nation's
"to be or not to be"
is often dependent upon
its larger neighbor nations.

In this article, the nature of Shakespearean appropriation in the Baltic States is examined through three consecutive productions of Hamlet staged under Imperialist Russian and Baltic German rule in Latvia. Taken together, they provide a unique opportunity to study parallel appropriations of the same play by the nation's three contending political factions. Yet, the perennially tense tripartite state of political power in this region has never allowed a comparative discussion of these three Hamlets of:

the 1909 Riga Latvian Theatre;
the 1910 Riga German Theatre;
the 1911 Riga Russian Theatre.


While in the English-speaking world, Shakespeare has sometimes been accused of being an establishment figure, a force for cultural hegemony and repression, the situation is totally different in countries where, as in [the Soviet bloc], many new works by living authors cannot be performed at all. All translations from Latvian texts are by the author. In such a context, the very fact that a play is traditional and thus, apparently, safe, not only allows it to be put on but also allows it to be used for political purposes by performers and spectators who are attuned to its performance codes (Potter, 266).

I emphasize the words "totally different" to underscore my thesis that in Eastern Europe - as in the example of Latvia -the Shakespearean situation was not always, as Western scholarship seems to suggest, "totally different." That - in addition to the well documented postwar subversive uses of the plays - appropriation in Eastern Europe at times also reflected the other side of the new historicist/cultural materialist coin: containment. As Stephen Greenblatt has observed, "Shakespeare's plays are centrally and repeatedly concerned with the production and containment of subversion and disorder" (Dollimore and Sinfield, 29). But Greenblatt applies his "containment" theory only to Shakespeare's own time and place, limiting his scope primarily to the history plays. I am not rejecting the quite significant existence of a subversive Shakespeare in Eastern Europe, as represented by Jan Kott and others. But - while new historicists such as Greenblatt find, in the uses of Shakespeare's plays in Elizabethan England, examples of containment; and while cultural materialists such as Jonathan Dollimore find, in the Shakespearean appropriation of postwar Eastern Europe, examples of subversion - I apply the theory of containment precisely to that part of the world that has been cited as a prime example of subversion.

If performers and spectators could use Shakespeare for political purposes, why could not also the government? Being - as it was in Latvia under Imperialist rule; as it apparently was in Shakespeare's England - in virtual control of the theatres that produced the plays, as well as the newspapers that published the reviews, who could be better poised than the government to use the plays for political purposes? If "Shakespeare is to the Czech translator, adaptor, and director what The Murder of Gonzago was to Hamlet" (Potter, 266) - I suggest that, conversely, "the play's the thing" wherein the government could "catch the conscience" of its people.

In the oft-colonized nations throughout Eastern Europe, Hamlet has always had a special significance. In Poland, where it was first staged in 1798, it has been "used to express current political, philosophical, artistic and intellectual attitudes" (Gibinska, 159). In the Ukraine, "Hamlet was an especially dangerous play to possess, asking too many questions and providing no answers, probing the nature of evil both as political and as a metaphysical problem, examining the relation between action and intention, word and deed, the individual and his society." The first production of the play took place under German occupation and was considered "the cultural equivalent of a Ukrainian proclamation of independence" (Makaryk, 1-2). And today, when a shift in interest from Hamlet to King Lear has been noted by Western Shakespeare scholars, its equivalent cannot be found in the East, due to the "extremely strong position held by Hamlet for a long time in Eastern cultures" (Stribrny, 4).

Shakespeare scholarship has well documented instances of dissident appropriations of the play - beginning with the 1956 Cracow Hamlet, in which Jan Kott "saw... only a drama of political crime" (61). Even earlier, in 1930s Soviet Georgia, "when bloody Communist bacchanalia raged everywhere," the theatre "turned to Hamlet, a man who in a world of the absurd, in the atmosphere of legalized murders tried to perceive the essence of being" (Kereselidze, 4). In the following pages, I chronicle evidence of both dissident and official appropriations of Hamlet prior to the establishment of Latvian independence.

Before focusing on the 1909 production, it would be useful to briefly review the impact of the play in Latvia. Latvian intellectuals - modeling themselves, ironically, on the Russian and German colonizers they were seeking to overthrow - deliberately introduced Shakespeare to the native population as a nationalist tool. Just as in the eighteenth century, Lessing enlisted Shakespeare's aid to oppose foreign French influence on German literature; just as in the mid-nineteenth century, Pushkin enlisted Shakespeare's aid to oppose foreign German influence upon Russian literature; so in the late-nineteenth century, Latvian politico-literary figures such as Janis Rainis enlisted Shakespeare's aid in opposing both German and Russian foreign influence. (Interestingly, in each case, as Shakespeare is used as a model in the formation of an indigenous, national literature, Shakespeare himself is never seen as a "foreign" influence.) Above all, Lessing, Pushkin, Rainis -each sought to co-opt Hamlet as a spokesperson for his side.

Why Hamlet especially? How did this text allow Latvian peasants and intellectuals alike in the nineteenth century to relate so readily to an Elizabethan English portrait of a mythical Danish prince? Latvians themselves have posed this question, following Hamlet's own line of reasoning regarding Hecuba (2.2.558ff):

Truly, what is Hecuba to him? But what is Hamlet himself to me, or to those sitting next to me in the darkened auditorium? What do I care about some prince who lived (if he lived at all) many hundreds of years ago?... Why should a man dressed so foreign, with a title so foreign to our time, living in such foreign conditions seem so close and comprehensible; why is there the feeling that his life, his struggle and experiences can help us in our life, so distinct [from his], so different... . Why? (Klockins, 12)

Part of the answer may be that Hamlet the thinker - as he was consistently interpreted by Latvians in this period -"embodied many of the qualities most [Eastern Europeans] admire: a practicality based on thorough, sober reasoning; an independent intellect not subject to emotional indulgence" (Stribrny, 13). Furthermore, "his intellect was his only weapon which, paradoxically, made him stronger than the oppressive tyranny" (Gibinska, 166).

The first Latvian Hamlet crossed the stage barely one hundred years ago (1894); since then, the play has received more than twenty productions: including three by German theatres (1894, 1910, 1938) and four by Russian theatres in Latvia (1910, 1917, 1954, 1988). Under the pseudonym "J. Liekais," Janis Rempeters prepared his translation of the play - the first of any Shakespearean text to be published in Latvian. For an oppressed minority seeking to take its place alongside other European cultures, this was an important step toward legitimation. The nineteenth-century literary critic T. Zeiferts indicated the nationalistic significance of such an act:

With the translation of Hamlet, Shakespeare is brought into our literature. He had already been heard of; a few of his pieces on the Latvian stage produced; even some reviews of his creations have been written; but the most important task in making any poet known had not been undertaken: his compositions had not been translated and printed, distributed to the people (Austrums Nr. 4,1893).

Possibly referring to the German-generated Shakespearean adaptations - or "retellings" - of Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, hitherto the only access to "Shakespeare's" works allowed the native population, Zeiferts stressed that "a translation, even a bad one, acquaints one with a foreign work ten times better than the best adaptation." While acknowledged as a great achievement in Latvian cultural - and political -development, the translation was, however, found linguistically unsatisfying and by 1913 it was considered out-dated: "There are, perhaps, a few blots in the sun, but they can't block out the light. Shakespeare's spirit shines through and greets the Latvian people. This, too, calls to her: 'Rise, and be enlightened!'" In the simple phrase "This, too" the critic links "this" (the Hamlet translation) to other "calls" (suggesting the early nationalist movement of this time) for the Latvian people to rise and be - in express opposition to the wishes of their Russian and German rulers - enlightened.

1909: The Latvian Hamlet.

That the Sunday evening premiere of Hamlet at the Riga Latvian Theatre on November 15, 1909 was "very well attended" was emphasized in the reviews. At a time when German and Russian colonizers still maintained the politically strategic myth of an uneducable native peasantry, the nationalist paper Latvija declared this attendance was "a sign that our people have a fully lively interest in classical literature." Nor was the RLT a small theatre, housed during this "Interim" period in an old circus hall. (The original, founded in 1870, had just burned down in 1908.)

Yet, despite the 1909 audience's demonstrably "lively interest" in classical literature, Hamlet "had not appeared for the longest time on the Latvian stage" (Latvija, November 17, 1909). Indeed, seven years had passed since the last Riga Latvian Theatre production (1902), and eight years had elapsed between that production and its predecessor (1894) -the first Latvian production of the play. These long gaps between productions, and the nearly two years that the first production was delayed after its initial announcement, suggest a tension between Latvian theatre producers and German censors over this highly appropriable textual property. "The very fact that the preparation of this production was so delayed in itself shows that our theatre needs to fight many obstacles attached to the production of this play," declared Dienas Lapa (October 13,1894).

Dienas Lapa [The Daily Page] represented the most revolutionary ideology publishable in nineteenth-century Latvia - it was, in other words, the "official" organ of the dissident movement. Veiled allusions to the villainy and injustice of the Imperialist regime was familiar matter to its readers, and was echoed in the critic's eliding of Hamlet's duty to avenge his father to Hamlet's / the Latvian nationalist's "overall struggle against the world's villainy, inhumanity, injustice, deceit." Furthermore, early unsophisticated Latvian theatre audiences were especially receptive to such interpretive suggestions - having both a keen interest, and a complete lack of education, in Shakespeare's works. (Indeed, the audience of the first 'Hamlet production "followed the events on the stage with the greatest interest, while the spoken words and profound expressions remained, however, for the most part incomprehensible" [Mãjas Viesis, October 19,1894].)

Riga Latvian Theatre director Peteris Ozolinš, who fought those "obstacles" to first produce the play in 1894, returned to the theatre - and to the controversial play - in 1909. The 1909 Hamlet was also postponed - twice. An anonymous article published in advance of the production explained that "the delayed Hamlet production will be presented according to a new interpretation and in a completely new way, in which no production of this immortal drama has ever until now been seen, neither on our, nor on any other public stages. Even on the German stages Hamlet was seen this way for the first time [emphasis sic] this fall at the Dresden court theatre." For the first time, the text would be presented "not disrupted, not abbreviated, and not reconstructed, but in such a way and in such an order as determined by the author himself" (Latvija, November 9, 1909). Until the 1909 Hamlet, all Shakespeare productions in Latvia had been so-called "stage adaptations": severely edited, often re-ordered, even rewritten.

Because the Riga Latvian Theatre did not have a rotating stage platform, Hamlet - presented in 13 scenes (bildes: literally, "pictures") - had required twelve scene changes of approximately five minutes each; more than sixty minutes of performance time was sacrificed for scenic effect. The 1909 production rejected the traditional cumbersome set designs that had required lengthy intermissions and shortened texts, in favor of a single neutral set with minor properties distinguishing each scene. This aesthetic advancement too would have political implications: First, although it was inspired by the Dresden court theatre, the rejection of the cumbersome set designs - and with them, the lengthy intermissions - also effected a break with German cultural influence in the tradition of the intermission "promenade," during which Latvian peasants had imitated their German lords in circling the theatre, in an orderly Germanic procession, and displaying their fashions - such as they were. Second, and more importantly, the new "neutral" set design meant that Shakespeare's Elizabethan period and Hamlet's Denmark could more easily merge with the present time and place; with the strategic use of a suggestive prop or decorative element, czarist Latvia could become Hamlet's prison. This effect was furthered by the fact that the 1909 Hamlet also presented the first modern dress Shakespearean staging in Latvia. Gone were the Elizabethan doublet and hose and the "traditionally accepted Hamlet in long hair ... hanging down his body" evident in previous productions (Vards, March 11, 1902). For the first time, Hamlet - in a "frock-coat" (Rigas Avize, November 16, 1909) - physically resembled the twentieth-century Latvian who was portraying him. In this ground-breaking production, 

we must not look for an historical impression, but for the first and foremost emphasis to be on the character of Hamlet... before whose immortal thoughts, time and the ages disappear and lose their meaning .... [end ellipsis sic] (Latvija, November 9, 1909).

The post-production review also reinforced upon Latvian readers the suggestive concept that Shakespeare's texts should be placed into other historical periods - including their own. "[Classical plays ... can no longer remain in their historical frame. We ... fashion them according to our own need, and in them we observe that which was not observed by the age in which the artwork was created" (Latvija, November 17, 1909). Thus, the return to the author's "original" text rendered the text itself even more readily appropriable.

Portrayed as "the original struggle between good and evil ... the emancipation of man's thoughts," the Latvian nationalist interpretation of Hamlet was not without reactionary Latvian opposition. Just as Russian sympathies were split between the czar and Lenin, after the attempted anti-czarist revolt of 1905 Latvians were split among those who still saw the socialist movement as a legitimate route toward autonomy from Russia and those who feared just the sort of Soviet annexation that would take place thirty years later. "Through their fear of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie during the posrevolutionary period sought an understanding with the aristocracy, and was actively involved on the ideological front in the struggle against marxism. Followers of the revolution now went back to the reactionary camp" (Kundzinš, 124).

During the time of this Hamlet production, one of the most powerful reactionary voices was that of the German director of the Riga Latvian Theatre's administrative committee, Friedrich Veinbergs, who "endeavored to extinguish every spark of progressive efforts in the theatre" (Kurtdzinš, 145). However, Veinbergs' insistence on a classical repertoire - to "carry the spectator away from important contemporary problems" - essentially forced his nationalist actors to speak to their audiences through the words of Shakespeare. Just as subversiveness may be "apparent only, the dominant order ... containing it" (Dollimore and Sinfield, 11) - in the case of the Latvian Hamlet, containment was apparent only, the oppressed minority subverting if.

The newspaper Latvija, affiliated with the Latvian Constitutional Democratic Party which vehemently opposed czarist rule, in its Hamlet review suggested references to the failed revolution. A chastisement of the subsequent inactivity of the Latvian nationalist movement was discernible in the following interpretation of the nature of Hamlet's tragedy:

After such a flood [of activity] he comes to a feeling of regret and to new doubts that destroy him utterly. He is unable to carry out his mission and his duty, and therein lies his weakness and his tragedy. But Hamlet is great even in his weakness. His tragedy is all mankind's tragedy. And this tragedy will remain as long as there is conflict between man's intellect and emotion, as long as there is injustice, oppression, and duty.

The word "oppression" - vārmāciba (literally: "the physical domination of the less powerful") - suggests the Russian /German hegemony over the less powerful Latvian population. Throughout, Hamlet's hesitation was shown to reflect that of the hesitant Latvian nationalist during the post-revolutionary period,

when one does not know which is really the correct path that leads to justice. This occurs in every age when new values are emerging, the old having been revalued. In order to create the new, one must reject everything relating to the old, as Hamlet does... -

Repeated use of the indefinite pronoun "he" readily allowed the reading of "the Latvian nationalist" for "Hamlet":

He senses the new, but does not yet dare to part from the old. He still hesitates to realize his duty, he ponders, not daring to do that which his intellect has determined to be just (Latvija, November 17, 1909).

The notion of a revolutionary Hamlet, fighting on the side of the new political order in a nation suffering a contentious transitional period, was just gaining currency in Russian Shakespeare criticism around this time; it is an interpretation that has remained especially relevant in Latvia throughout the nation's multiple periods of political transition. (The nationalist invocation of Hamlet's struggle as a parallel for the struggle from Imperialist colonization to self-rule, for example, would be echoed in postwar Latvia by the Soviet invocation of Hamlet's struggle as a parallel for the struggle from Nazi occupation to socialist "progress.")

If the suppression of the 1905 uprising signaled a political triumph for reactionaries, the nationalist movement still benefited from cultural advancements during this period. Most notable were developments in the theatre: In 1909, Latvia's first professional theatre school was founded. Previously, Latvian actors had gone to study in Berlin or Moscow. Now Latvian artists were saying: "We can teach ourselves." For the nascent Latvian theatre, accessing Shakespeare meant joining the other cultured nations of the western world; Hamlet, in particular, provided "a measure for the strength of an actors' art" (Liepajas Atbalss, October 15, 1909). In the 1909 production, director Peteris Ozolinš took on the lead role; his Ophelia was the popular actress Dace Akmentina - although she was nearly fifty years old! Thirty-four-year-old Aleksandrs Mihelsons (who had already played King Lear at the tender age of twenty-eight) played Claudius. Such facts attest to the paucity of classically trained actors.

If the intent of the nationalist press was to emphasize the development of Latvian culture, as evidenced in the Riga Latvian Theatre production's adoption of the most current theatre aesthetics (that they came via Germany actually made them seem all the more respectable - while, at the same time, served the nationalist argument in proving the indigenous culture equal to that of its colonizers), perhaps it is for this reason that the Riga papers overlooked a contemporary, albeit less-accomplished provincial production of the play. The Riga Latvian Theatre production may indeed have been the first Hamlet in "the longest time" in Riga - but the critic could not justify his claim that Hamlet "has not appeared for the longest time on the Latvian stage" [emphasis mine]. Just one month earlier (October 11, 1909), the Liepaja Latvian Theatre presented the play, directed by R. Tautmilis-Bėrzinš. Located on the western shores of the Baltic Sea, the Liepaja production not surprisingly was reviewed only in the local press - where it, too, received an advance notice: The critic "L.V." also suggested contemporary associations, noting that Shakespeare's dramas, though centuries old, "become new for us... Hamlet's great and broad tragedy offers broad scenes of a ruler's struggles, a people's suffering and triumph. There is no need to doubt that our audiences will know how to regard this production..." (Liepajas Atbalss, October 9,1909).

The provincial critic "M-rs." in reviewing the production, followed the Latvian nationalist interpretation of the essential nature of Hamlet's character: the "thinker" (Liepajas Atbalss, October 15, 1909). Although indebted to the Romantic interpretation prevalent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany, this characterization is crucial to defining the differences between the 1909 Latvian and the 1910 German and 1911 Russian productions in Riga, which contrarily presented Hamlet as a man of action. This fundamental difference in approaches to Hamlet's character - the passive versus the active - reflects a dominant difference in national character between the colonized Latvian people and the colonizing Russian and German.

Audience attendance, as emphasized in the Latvija review, is indeed an important gauge of a people's cultural (and, in Latvia, political) tastes. In 1909 Riga, on an average weekday, the Russian theatre was attended by 427, and the German theatre by 820. By contrast, the Latvian opera was attended by 1,217, and the Latvian theatre by 1,491 (for the Latvian play Spriditis). During its 1909/1910 season, the Riga Latvian Theatre presented 163 performances, reaching more than 102,000 spectators. The rapid development of an indigenous theatre is chronicled in the consistent rise (except during the revolutionary year) in the number of Latvian productions offered nationwide:

1899 - 543   
1902 - 638   
1905 - 454   
1907 - 654   
1909 - 1,123

In post-revolutionary Latvia under Imperialist rule, where the native population's freedom of assembly was regularly inhibited, such data underscores theatre's political potential. This potential is realized when a focal production - such as Hamlet - is suggestively presented by the director and interpreted by critical commentary.

The 1909 Latvian Hamlet ranked among the theatre's most popular productions of the year - ahead of Goethe's Faust, but after an adaptation of Glinka's opera A Life for the Czar (the story of a patriotic peasant who sacrifices his life to protect the czar during a revolt). Even triumphant indigenous productions were sandwiched between solidly established German and Russian classics.

1910: The German Hamlet

If the Riga Latvian Theatre's Hamlet, and its interpretation by nationalist critics, may be viewed as an example of the subversive appropriation of Shakespeare, the Riga German Theatre production provides an illustration of containment. Evidence of such intention lies in the very fact of its date - just months after the successful and innovative

Latvian production. If this suggestion seems too hypothetical, it is reinforced by the fact that the previous German Hamlet produced in Riga (November 1894) appeared just one month after the first Latvian production of the play.

No doubt in part due to the indigenous population's increasing acquisition of cultural properties, such as Shakespeare, previously in the domain of the colonizers, "both Russians and Germans began to fear the Latvians, and to reckon with them" (Ozols, 147). Not only was the native peasantry attempting to co-opt Germany's "own" cultural heritage - unser Shakespeare*. - but, in so doing, Latvian nationalists were developing their own people's sense of identity, self-worth, and political demands as they developed their culture. This may well account for the German production coming on the heels of the Latvian; politically, Riga's Baltic Germans could not allow Latvians to win the battle over the correct interpretation of the play, to show themselves not only as capable of comprehending the classics as their German lords, but perhaps even more so.

Hamlet has always been a significant play for Germans, even in political terms. "There has hardly been one important phase in German ... history which was not discussed in terms of the Hamlet myth or reflected in interpretations and productions" of the play. From the late eighteenth century onwards, Hamlet in Germany has not been a "play like any other, but a screen on which to project the changing constructions of German national identity... . Nor has Shakespeare been a foreign dramatist like any other. His 'nostrification1 involved much more than mere translation, interpretation, or idolization; in its fully-fledged form it meant the claim that Shakespeare is essentially ours, essentially German" (Pfister, 76).

A German-language production of Hamlet in Riga, in fact, provided Latvia's earliest introduction to Shakespeare. Nine years ahead of the first Latvian-language Shakespearean production (the 1884 Merchant of Venice), the 1875 German Hamlet can be more accurately described as an introduction or, very likely, re-introduction to Shakespeare for Germans living in Riga at the time. Even the reviews reached only that elite portion of Latvia's indigenous population that could read German.

The Hamlet presented by the Riga German Theatre in April 1910 was not its own production, but a performance by a visiting company from Germany. This may be additional evidence of the need to immediately present a production in "response" to the Latvian production that was enjoying a successful run in the RLT's repertory throughout its 1909/1910 season. Or it may be evidence of the RGT's poor artistic quality, that even reactionary publications noted about this time: "For the past several years, we have not seen any good productions of classical works from the city's German theatre," admitted Rigas Avize (December 31, 1913). Representing the farthest right wing of the political spectrum, Rigas Avize was associated with the Latvian Peoples' Party, which defended both the Russian monarchy and the German Landtag privileges against the demands of nationalist Latvian and socialist Russian groups alike. Most vociferously opposed to socialist ideology, the LPP was led by Friedrich Veinbergs, the German director of the Riga Latvian Theatre.

In fact, the 1910 guest performance at the Riga German Theatre received no notices during its run. The only one "review," which appeared four days after the production had closed, was published - not surprisingly - in Rigas Avize. Consistent with the newspaper's support of the Baltic German nobility, the German production was lavishly praised. The German interpretation of Hamlet's character - fully contrary to that of the Latvian production - was emphasized: "throughout so energetic and passionate." Herr Vike, who played the lead, had been seen in "his best role... . His performance could be followed with the greatest interest." His performance, in fact, was summed up as "exemplary."

Despite the guest artist's "exemplary" performance, it was not the role of Hamlet that was the main focus of the review at all. Instead, the larger share of this anonymous review was devoted to the interpretation of Claudius. Not only does the writer devote more lines to this secondary character but, while his discussion of Hamlet is general ("energetic" versus "pensive"), he discusses in some detail one particular scene featuring Claudius: 3.3, the brief "prayer" scene. Sandwiched between two of the most crucial scenes of the play - the play-within-the-play "Mousetrap" scene, which "catch[es] the conscience of the King"; and the encounter between Hamlet and his mother, which causes her alliance to shift from her husband to her son - Claudius' thirty-six-line monologue is rarely the primary focus of a review of the play!

The actor, Herr Konnard, in presenting to a 1910 Latvian audience "a King sincerely moved through the repentance of his sins, which was entirely in keeping with his interpretation of the King's role," may have wanted to suggest a Baltic German lord in a benevolent, even rehabilitated, guise - insisting that "my fault is past" (3.3.51). If so, even the reactionary critic had to admit that such an interpretation was "not, in truth, following Shakespeare" (Rigas Avize, April 28, 1910). A similarly unorthodox interpretation of Claudius had appeared in the conservative Liepaja newspaper:

King Claudius, Lady Macbeth, and others - all of them have wished the best for themselves, all have started with little sins, but then comes evil after evil, crime breeds crime and carries away even pure, white souls (Liepajas Atbalss, October 9,1909).

"Pure, white souls" in the Latvian text is left disconcertingly ambiguous, referring equally to the victims of Claudius - and to Claudius himself. And, if we consider that Claudius "started" his career with the murder of his brother and the seduction of his sister-in-law, we might well object to the label "little sins." Yet here the Latvian text reinforces the sense of innocence by coupling the adjective "little" (maziem) with the diminutive form for "sins" (grėziniem instead of grėkiem) - literally, "little sinnies."

The April 1910 Hamlet produced at the Riga German Theatre on the heels of the Riga Latvian Theatre production of the 1909/1910 theatre season was itself followed by a June 1910 reprisal of the Latvian production, as part of the Fifth Annual All-Latvian Song Festival. (The political significance of the Latvian Song Festivals cannot be overstated. In June 1940, as the occupying Red Army advanced over Latvian territory, interrupting the festivities, the radio continuously played the national anthem. Fifty years later, the "1940 Song Festival" was concluded, as a newly independent Latvia was declared.) At the 1910 Song Festival, other offerings included an original Latvian drama (Blaumanis' Pazudušais Dėls) - but also a German (Schiller's Maria Stuart).

In September 1910 the Riga Latvian Theatre once again reprised its popular Hamlet, including the graveyard scene in a benefit gala marking the theatre's 2000th performance. This time, the program included not only a German piece (Faust), but also a Russian (the patriotic A Life for the Czar). And three months later, the Riga Russian Drama Theatre premiered its Hamlet.

1911: The Russian Hamlet

With the first production in Russia dating back to 1748, Hamlet's Russian presence is no less significant than is his German. The play's influence upon Russian literature and Russian readers alike is undeniable, with two infamous exceptions: Tolstoy dismissed the play as a "coarse, immoral, mean, and senseless work" (What is Art, 1898), and - much later - Stalin disapproved of its hesitant hero, although, contrary to many accounts, he never actually banned the play. Still, as Russian filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev has observed: "Hamlet thinks... . There is nothing more dangerous" (250).

At the turn of the century, a major trend was developing in Russia toward socially motivated Hamlet criticism. In 1903, the early Marxist critic P.S. Kogan presented an interpretation of the play as representing a conflict between new and old ideas; between new and old social systems. That same year, in his essay On Shakespeare and Drama, Tolstoy identified a major flaw in Hamlet: "There is no possibility of ascribing any character to him." On the contrary, each of the three subsequent Riga productions would discover the seemingly limitless possibility of ascribing its own character to the Prince - filling in what, according to Tolstoy, Shakespeare had conveniently left blank.

The Riga Russian Theatre's Hamlet came not only in response to the previous Latvian and German productions, but also served to mark the director Harlamova's anniversary, with Harlamova himself playing the lead role. Despite the auspicious occasion, the production was as overlooked in the Latvian press as was the previous German production. This Hamlet received only one Latvian review following its premiere (December 18, 1910), by the critic A. BerzinS in the nationalist Latvija; another appeared three weeks later in Dzimtenes Vėstnesis. Other Latvian papers took note of the production only toward the end of January, 1911 - when Latvian actor Reinholds Veic joined the cast, to reprise his 1909 RLT role as Laertes.

Latvian critics were willing to acknowledge the technical accomplishments of the production: "The stage was very well designed, decorations and costumes stylistically created, a professional theatricality was evident all throughout, but" -much virtue in "but"! - "the only thing missing was Shakespeare's spirit." Evidence of the "correctness" of one nation's interpretation of Hamlet's character, and the play in general, always rested upon the unprovable - and therefore undisprovable - concept of "Shakespeare's spirit."

What good is a paper flower, if it has no life ... then Shakespeare's tragedy is no longer Shakespeare's tragedy, but something else... (Latvija, December 18,1910).

The Russian interpretation, if we may accept BėrzirjŠ1 account as faithful, presented a Hamlet that was neither the Latvian intellectual, nor the passionate German, but something tepidly in between. Berzinš concluded that although "the celebrant was presented with gifts and flowers, still the production failed to warm the spectators." The second critic, J. Duburs - co-founder of the new Latvian theatre school -claimed further that audience reaction was quite cold. Turning the colonialist attitude upside down, Duburs asserted that it was the Russians who could not comprehend classical literature. This went well beyond the anonymous Rigas Avize critic, who - in a phrase buried within an apparently pro-government article - dared to suggest that the German interpretation of Claudius was "not, in truth, following Shakespeare." Duburs, in the staunchly nationalistic Dzimtenes Vėstnesis [The Fatherland's Messenger] boldly asserted that neither Russian directors, actors nor audiences were capable of appreciating classic works, such as Shakespeare:

Our Russian stage only very rarely turns its attention to the classics. The theatre director himself, it would seem, does not even take any interest in the greatest genius of theatre arts, Shakespeare.... The reason is, no doubt, his audience's coolness toward classical literature ... [and his actors], whose artistic individualities are more weighted toward the typical ethnographic character side. The monumental dramatic roles of world literature are not minable with actors educated and exercised in specific national drama; they require talent and individualities that reach beyond a peoples' particular boundary (Dzimtenes Vėstnesis, January 13, 1911).

That a Latvian critic would judge a Russian Shakespearean production - and find it inferior to a Latvian production -would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. Even at this time, it represented a remarkable, politically significant development. Duburs went on to attack Russian drama itself, which "even in its best works does not contain the depth of characters necessary to cultivate actors of classical calibre." Again, he returned to his theme: that unfortunate "typical Russianisms" kept the production from reaching truly Shakespearean heights.

Typical Russianisms get the upper hand in the production, apparently, even against the actor's own will.... Overall, the production remains a good distance from Shakespeare's conception of the characters.

Again, the colonizer's production was only technically praiseworthy: "The set could be honestly praised... and the costumes were even elegant... ." But. "But, regrettably, the audience was quite small - therefore, no further performances can be expected."

But - Duburs was wrong. Hamlet was repeated at the Riga Russian Theatre on January 30 and reviewed the next day both in Duburs' own Dzimtenes Vėstnesis and in Latvija. The newsworthy event was the guest performance of Riga Latvian Theatre actor Reinholds Veic in the role of Laertes. The critic "-fs." [E. Vulfs] gushed over the performance of "our well-known actor": His performance was "especially well developed"; he excelled in both "declamation and stage presence" - even his "enunciation of the Russian language was very clear ... he fitted fully into the Russian ensemble, so that it seemed as if there was not a debutante onstage, but indeed a formidable force of the troupe." Naturally, there was, in stark contrast to the performance earlier this month, "a large audience; for the most part - Latvians" (Latvija, January 31, 1911). To applaud the Latvian Laertes' mortal wounding of the Russian Hamlet, no doubt.

In Riga's Russian Hamlet, then, Laertes became the starring role. Similarly, the Russian Claudius (like the German) was another focus of Latvian critics. The actor, they insisted, "should have put more emphasis" on the true character of Claudius: "the deceitful thief of the crown" (Dzimtenes Vestnesis, January 13, 1911). He is, after all, in Hamlet's own words:

A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,        
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole 
And put it in his pocket! (3.4.102-104)          

Latvians could recognize such a theft of power, either by a German or Russian ruler.

* * *

The unique situation of these three Hamlets produced consecutively by three contending political factions had been all but lost even to Latvian scholars. Published under the Soviet regime, Latvian theatre histories relegated each of these Hamlets to obscurity: The Riga Latvian Theatre was recognized not for its work, but only for the inhibiting influence of the theatre's reactionary "bourgeois" leadership. The Riga German Theatre was known only for its light, comic -"decadent" - productions. Even the pre-revolutionary Riga Russian Theatre was disdained as a pro-czarist institution.

The only extant documentation of these three productions lies buried in yellowed newspapers only now being unlocked from the Soviet era's so-called "Specfonds," in which they have languished for half a century. (Under Soviet rule, all censored material was classified according to the degree of its perceived threat to the state. Translations of Shakespeare in any language other than Russian, and reviews of productions under any regime other than the Soviet, were considered highly dangerous, with access allowed only high-ranking Party members.) Indeed, evidence of the tri-lateral nature of the Hamlet debate is dependant upon the one newspaper edition that carried a notice of the German production: the April 28, 1910 Rigas Avize - the reactionary publication that every political regime in Latvia since then has had cause to suppress.

Nor have historical documents survived in any of these theatres' archives: At the start of World War One, the Riga German Theatre ended its 132-year tenure. The following year, the Riga Russian Theatre permanently closed its doors. During the war, even when the front lines were located near Riga and the city experienced a massive evacuation and near-starvation, a core of actors did keep the Riga Latvian Theatre functioning. For the first time, they were able to produce the most patriotic dramatic works of Janis Rainis -Friedrich Veinbergs, and the rest of his theatre committee, had joined the evacuation. However, with the establishment of Latvian independence in 1918, the Riga Latvian Theatre .also closed its doors. It would be replaced by the Latvian National Theatre - housed in the grand auditorium formerly occupied by the Riga Russian Theatre.

Yet, these three obscure Hamlets, overlooked even by Latvian theatre histories, are significant in three respects: First, they represent perhaps the only example in the history of Shakespeare production worldwide in which each of the three contending ethnic groups struggling for political control of a nation presented three simultaneous productions of Hamlet - with three contending interpretations of the text.

Second, these productions took place during an especially volatile period in Baltic history. On the one hand reflecting current conditions in the aftermath of the anti-czarist revolution of 1905 and Latvia's subsequent state of war with Russia which had lasted until 1908 - the Hamlets of 1909/1910/1911 also foreshadowed the deteriorating state of German-Russian relations which would culminate in World War One. Conversely, a feeling of Latvian cultural superiority (fostered in part by nationalist assessments of the three Hamlet productions) contributed to a national self-confidence which would in turn encourage its declaration of independence.

Third, these Hamlets signaled a break from the antiquated theatrical tradition of elaborate Shakespearean sets and Elizabethan costumes. Aesthetic developments (via the Dresden court theatre) such as the neutral set and the first modern dress Shakespeare productions in Latvia paved the way for potentially political "contemporary" associations.

Finally, they provide evidence that in Eastern Europe, Shakespearean texts were indeed appropriated by both dissidents and governments, and were employed for both subversion and containment purposes (even if, in the present sampling, the subversive uses were more successful). Beginning with the Riga Latvian Theatre production, as an example of the subversive application of Shakespeare's text by dissident nationalists, and continuing with both the German and Russian productions, as examples of official governmental attempts at containment, a sense of the battle over this textual territory begins to emerge. Battle lines were drawn according to national boundaries: Invested in the Latvian insistence on its portrayal of Hamlet - opposed to that of the German and Russian traditions - was the political necessity of proving the cultural achievements of the native population of equal value to those of its colonizers. Conversely, the German and Russian productions needed to prove the Latvians incorrect in order to verify their claim regarding the native peasantry's inferiority. "An educated Latvian is an impossibility," the colonizers claimed. But to Latvians, Hamlet represented an idealized vision of themselves, as they - since peasant times - wished to be. He was "most importantly - educated" (Zälite, 86).

If life had not brought complications, [he] would have peacefully continued ... his studies and as a thinker, as a philosopher, fallen into quiet contemplation and not come to total devastation through such a bloody tragedy... . But external circumstances became complicated and Hamlet had to make the transition from a passive character to an active, from thoughts to actions (Latvija, November 17,1909).

With the advent of World War One, "total devastation and bloody tragedy" shattered any illusions of "quiet contemplation." And in its aftermath, with the declaration of Latvian independence, the native population had to make the transition from "thoughts to actions."


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