ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 54, No 4 - Winter 2008
Editor of this issue: M. G. Salvėnas

Book Review

Jeff Johnson, The New Theatre of the Baltics: From Soviet to Western Influence in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, McFarland and Co.., Inc., 2007, 222 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Patrick Chura

After completing a Fulbright teaching assignment in Denmark, Jeff Johnson traveled to Lithuania out of pure curiosity, with no knowledge of the local language and little familiarity with the country and its culture. Encountering in Kaunas a thriving theater scene with dynamic productions and a sophisticated audience, Johnson felt a strong desire to explore Baltic drama in its totality. He spent the next year or so immersed in the theater of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, undertaking a project that required, in his own words, “a lot of audacity and a lot of humility.” In the role of an inquisitive cultural outsider, Johnson researched Baltic theater history, attended plays, and conducted interviews with writers, directors, critics, actors and cultural officials in Kaunas, Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. The product of this experience is The New Theater of the Baltics, an engaging first-hand account of what’s currently happening on the Baltic stage. 

The theaters of all three Baltic countries, as Johnson shows, are staging fascinating plays. But they are still in the throes of a “crisis of relevance” that began the moment their dramatic productions were freed from Soviet ideological controls almost two decades ago. Under occupation, defeating Soviet censors had been an appealing sport, and the theater became a romanticized venue of collective resistance, providing a “hidden message of hope” that mocked the occupiers and expressed cathartic political dissent. Since there are now essentially no more taboo topics or forbidden subjects, the theater of resistance has given way to a theater of popular entertainment that many feel has been detrimental to individual and collective artistic values. 

But the shock of having to reinvent itself – to adjust to a new context and interest a new audience – has in some ways been healthy for Baltic drama. The sudden displacement from 77 a theater that had automatic social relevance to one driven by consumerism has forced writers and directors to confront important questions about the nature and purpose of art. How to maintain high aesthetic standards and a sophisticated product while having to rely on mass-market entertainment designed to satisfy the financial bottom-line? How to compete with more hi-tech, trendy, and easily available forms of entertainment? Johnson’s focused attention on the struggles of the Baltic theaters offers paradigms for understanding dilemmas that confront cultural institutions worldwide. 

Though they share a common theater history, each of the Baltic countries has responded to the challenges of post-Soviet existence in its own way. Lithuania is a “directors’ theater,” allowing the director “auteur status” and freeing him or her to consider the written dramatic text as little more than a suggestion. The leading Lithuanian directors oppose purely textual “literary theater” in favor of a more visual drama that travels well as a cultural export. The best examples of such an approach are Eimuntas Nekrošius, Rimas Tuminas, and Jonas Vaitkus, a trio referred to by one local critic as “the ‘Olympus’ of contemporary Lithuanian theater.” 

Lithuania’s visually based theater, a vestige of the country’s Catholic heritage, sets it apart from the text-based approaches of Latvia and Estonia. Johnson’s chapter on Estonia is subtitled “The Lutheran Narrative – Writers’ Theater.” It comments on the “social, realistic, psychological approach,” rooted in the Lutheran sermon, rather than Catholic liturgical ritual, that characterizes Estonian drama. Latvia’s protestant origins give its theater a similar general aesthetic, closer to that of Estonia than Lithuania. Because young Latvian directors are generally less innovative than their Lithuanian counterparts, Latvia is an “actors’ theater” guided by “a focus on process.” 

The titles of Johnson’s chapters pay deference to the origins of Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian theater, but history as such does not carry much weight in this text. Ultimately, Johnson is more interested in recording current stage culture than exploring its distant roots. The bulk of the study combines first-person narrative, local color description, interviews, and analysis of new productions. One of the author’s strengths is that he is able to merge recently obtained, sensitively rendered cultural knowledge with socially aware dramatic criticism. Here is Johnson’s interpretation of Lithuanian director Cezaris Graužinis’s staging of British playwright Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life

The play can be viewed as a morality play denouncing hedonism, materialism, and a loss of spiritual values, delivered, however, in a surreal style of Grotowskian minimalism overlaid by a Western-theater-inspired mixed-media techno-expressionism. Most conservative critics in Lithuania look East, the progressives West. But this dichotomy simplifies and distorts the rich hybrid emerging in a performance like Graužinis’s that explodes the “new situation” – that sudden virulent outbreak of liberal capitalism that erases and supplants ethnic cultures. (74-75)

Another example of Johnson’s colorful writing is a passage describing Latvian director Dž. Dž. Džilindžers’ production of Maugham’s Penelope and Dick

Whereas Maugham shellacs the veneer of social manners by which the Edwardians masked their perversities and maintained their peculiar façade of normalcy, Džilindžers works from a prime-time soap opera ethos in which vixens vie for incompetent males, sex is never an end in itself but always merely another option in an arsenal of manipulative tools, and personal obsessions – fitness, pornography, alcohol, religion – become interchangeable cultural commodities, nothing more than convenient lifestyles, as ephemeral as the guts of a lava lamp. (202) 

Johnson’s book is also visually appealing. Thirty-five photographs, nearly all of them from dramatic productions or rehearsals, enhance the text considerably. In the chapter on Lithuania, the work of the ubiquitous Dmitrij Matvejev is exceptional as usual. The cover photo by Gintautas Kazemekas is well chosen. There are also good shots of Latvian and Estonian plays. Especially interesting are two photos taken on the beach near the Latvian coast city of Liepāja, where Banuta Rubesa staged Escape from Troy, a production that was ignored by critics, but which exemplifies a Baltic trend toward environmental theater, “the staging of works in site-specific locations outside traditional theater spaces.” 

Rubesa’s play asserts a powerful historical analogy between ancient Troy and World War Two-era Latvia by locating its action near the spot where Latvians hid in the woods in 1944, fleeing Soviet troops and awaiting boats that would take them to Sweden. A major component of Johnson’s study is the use of interviews – not only with theater critics and professors, but also with current actors who discuss their roles in the plays analyzed. Johnson takes the pulse of the new theater by speaking to anyone with an opinion to share, then faithfully quoting or paraphrasing his or her views. In this sense, Johnson’s perspective as a detached, non-local observer may be seen as an advantage. 

As the work progresses, however, the interview method becomes a bit of a liability. Within each chapter, a large number of competing and contradictory views about the “state of the theater” are aired without much filtering or structuring by the author. The journalistic approach makes for interesting reading but ensures that no real consensus emerges. One person says this, another person says that; in the end we know what the issues are, but not whom to listen to. And for all his ingenuity in gaining special access to his subject, Johnson does not manage to get personal interviews with some key figures. In the Lithuanian chapter, for example, we hear from respected critics, but not from the “big three” directors – Nekrošius, Koršūnovas, and Tuminas. 

The book has only four chapters – an introduction and long chapters about each of the three countries. The absence of a concluding chapter is a disappointing omission. As it stands, the analysis ends rather abruptly, without a synthesis, as if the author simply ran out of steam. The significance of Johnson’s work, though perhaps implicit, could have been more fully stated. Finally, Johnson doesn’t say how much time he spent in the Baltic States or exactly when he was there. We can surmise that his research took place in approximately 2004 and 2005, but it would have been helpful, especially within a project that attempts to capture the “current” scene, to indicate more performance dates. 

The fact that Johnson’s study lacks a compelling conclusion does not prevent it from making a worthwhile contribution to Baltic studies. Its subject matter and concept are innovative. It is aimed at readers who are already interested in the Baltic States, but its implications as a culture-studies document are rather broad. Though it is written in an accessible style, it is potentially useful to serious literature and theater scholars, even those with no previous knowledge of Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania. Johnson should be commended for his foray into new cultural territory, the impressive result of which is a fresh perspective on a fascinating topic. 

Patrick Chura