Voldemar Panso's theatre — the time of paradoxes

While trying to understand the reasons underlying the events of the 1950s, local and international contexts should be considered. Foreign rule at the helm of Estonian culture attempted to end all communication with past and present cultural discourses emerging from countries with a different political rule. In the early 1960s, when the "thaw" set in and political pressure was temporarily eased, Estonian intellectuals understood that urgent action was needed to synchronise local culture with the rhythm in which other countries were breathing.

So, the appearance of Voldemar Panso on the chaotic theatrical scene with its merging and splitting of troupes in the 1950s was like a draught of water in the desert of Socialist Realism. Although he had been educated in Moscow, the heart of the country oppressing Estonia, it was due to him that Estonian theatre got rid of the vulgar sociological approach that saw everything in black and white. At the same time, Panso's connection with Moscow served as a kind of indulgence granting him freedom to carry out successful reforms.

If I tried to compress Panso's heritage into a few words I would emphasise two hitherto unknown phenomena that reached the Estonian stage thanks to him: first, human characters in all their psychological richness and complexity (Panso's writing was also vigorously grand in using paradox and great imagery) and secondly, the ambivalent use of images in directing. Panso had enough sense to understand that theatre does not begin or end with us or with today. Keeping up with one's time and its demands was his motto, and he never tired of emphasising it. A little later, it was to be repeated by the great British director Peter Brook: 'In a living theatre, we would each day approach the rehearsal putting yesterday's discoveries to the test, ready to believe that the true play has once again escaped us. /…/ In the theatre, every form once born is mortal; every form must be reconceived, and its new conception will bear the marks of all the influences that surround it.'

With the appearance of Voldemar Panso a subconscious dream of the Estonian theatre people was fulfilled. There was a wish for a father figure, someone with experience, authority and scope, someone who was strict but fair. This was something that Estonian theatre had lacked, Panso's arrival ended 50 years of deprivation for Estonian theatre. The historical task of fathers is to take care of their offspring, and very soon academic theatre programmes were opened and managed under Panso's direction and wary eye.

The first class graduating from the Drama Department of the Conservatory (in 1961) and the second (graduated in 1965) were prepared unconditionally to believe in and surrender to parental wisdom. But from the following class, a conflict between "fathers and sons" began to brew up: the fresh graduates of the Drama Department felt that the work of their esteemed colleagues was clichéd and lifeless. The psychological realist approach, which had opened up so many possibilities and seemed exhaustive, appeared detached from life, like a cardboard doll's house setting limits to their creativity.

The change of paradigm did not take place until 1955. Clearly, the development of theatre does not conform to logic or measured intervals of time: the previous landmark event took place more than half a century ago, therefore the next one will be in a decade's time. But what about periods between "landmarks" when "innovations" are established and developed and their respective forms put into practice? Does nothing happen then? Yes, it does, but the directors and actors of the first Republic of Estonia (1918–1940) did not alter greatly the principles that were laid down at the very beginning. The time it takes for old forms to become repetitive and worn out cannot be calculated in advance.

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