Fathers and sons of the new theatre

"The new theatre" was characterised by metaphorical (instead of illusionistic) use of stage properties, and an emphasis on the plasticity, the physical qualities of the actor. Brecht's 'distancing' effect was further elaborated: the most important task for the actor was not to transform into a highly credible and realistic new self, but to express the director's message to the broadest possible social-psychological degree.

According to the new theatre aesthetic, the actor's first imperative was a "total opening" through tapping his/her inner resources to erupt into spontaneous action in front of the audience. This new mode of theatremaking saw actors as independent personalities, "superhuman beings", whose social courage, inner ethic and moral purity would make them eligible to participate in the process. Above requirements for physical fitness, or for fencing or acrobatic skills, it was inner intensity that became the new measure of powerful acting.

The "first wave" of theatre innovation ebbed when leading stage directors Evald Hermaküla and Jaan Tooming (1946), who had instilled belief in many enthusiastic disciples, had to proceed without these "superhuman" actors. Other directors relied upon innovative achievements: Mikk Mikiver (1937) started to cultivate a socially committed metaphorical theatre (Anouilh's Antigone, 1967); in Noorsooteater (now Tallinn Linnateater, an outstanding award-winning troupe) founded by Panso in 1965, Merle Karusoo (1944) experimented with a metaphorical non-verbal "body theatre" (Tuglas's Popi and Huhuu, 1975); Lembit Peterson (1953) gave expression to the wordless protest of socially vulnerable people in the absurdist drama of Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot (1976, the first performance of Beckett in the Soviet Union!).

Compared with the "old theatre", the "new theatre" was much more aggressive, emotional, social and categorical, and openly violated the rules of "bourgeois" theatre. It was also noisier, more hysterical and destructive. It was to be expected that a considerable number of theatregoers were rather daunted by this theatrical idiom, some openly condemned and censored it. The borderline could be drawn roughly between "young" and "old" and theatre got a new impetus from this: it was a fight that involved a whole generation, not just one or two of the younger theatremakers.

However, we should not accept the cliché of another "rebellion of sons against their fathers", but study what might have been behind it. We must not forget that the "older" generation in question had experienced the horrors of war, deportations and such, which had the effect of repressing any free thinking. Fear of another genocide had taught them to consider each public statement very carefully. From experience they knew that in the Soviet system a single word might change their own or their friends' and acquaintances' lives. Thus, some of these "fathers" must have watched with admiration the irresponsible actions of their "sons", and others might have expected these sons to fulfil the not yet forgotten dream of restoring Estonia's independence.

We should emphasise that the theatre of those days was rarely political — opposition was expressed indirectly, on the mental level. Perhaps the only examples of theatre with a political edge were the productions by Kalju Komissarov (1946) in Noorsooteater in the 1970s. Komissarov was joined by Merle Karusoo and Lembit Peterson who made Noorsooteater a forum for discussing socially relevant topics.

As voiced through the "unpopular channels" of the older generation at school and at home (from the younger generation’s point of view), opposition to "their theatre" had the effect of fostering bonds between the "initiated", and at least some theatregoers developed a sense of being members of a congregation and went to the theatre as "to a house of worship". It is certainly true that the political situation impelled theatre to play the role of hidden opposition, but it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that high attendance figures can be attributed solely to this. One of the predetermined roles of this innovative theatre was involvement in political movement.

While the slightest deviation from prescribed rules was interpreted as politically provocative, it is impossible to conceive of any innovative theatre being defined as "pure art", free from shaping or encouraging social thinking. And the biggest paradox of all: theatre where the keywords were "destructive", "demolishing", "aggressive", "hysterical", "raging" was able to carry a message of harmony and calm projected into the future.

During the period of "silent opposition", a new tendency developed in Estonia in the 1980s. Subject matter was taken from Estonian folklore, folk poetry (Jaan Tooming), Estonian literary classics and new original dramas (Mikk Mikiver), with the individual facing an ethical dilemma as one of its pervading themes. There was a movement from Estonian-centred thinking to abstract and Oriental subjects. This journey was undertaken by Juhan Viiding, stage director and actor, one of major Estonian poets of the 20-th century, who, through the absurdist dramas of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, arrived at the work of a Japanese playwright, Minoru Betsuyaku. After physical, non-verbal theatre and metaphorical directing the verbal theatre made its comeback, there was a return to the word, which was polished to crystal clarity.

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