Grandfather. Text: Vilis Daudzins. Director: Alvis Hermanis. Set design: Ugis Berzins Actor: Vilis Daudzins.Theatre Venue: The New Riga Theatre, 16 January 2009.
In the late 1980s, just before the fall of the iron curtain, the history of Latvia became an almost inexhaustible source of new ideas and inspiration for theatre makers. The recent socialist past was universally being treated as a violently imposed mistake, while the pre-socialist political order obtained idealized contours. During this time attempts were initiated to reconstruct the conditions of the pre-socialist era in various ways, such as by renovating architectural gems, renaming of streets, and restoring different local cultural indicators, as well as national and state symbols (e.g. the national flag, the national anthem, bank notes, army uniforms, etc.). Theatres too felt obliged not only to participate in this confirmation of a regained sense of ethnic identity, but also to celebrate the glorious past of the nation. However there was something one-sided to this trend, for the theatrical works seemed to display a romantic vision of national self-confidence and tended to focus on a clear and insurmountable antagonism between the oppressed and the oppressors. However, this approach often ignored the internal conflicts that existed on both sides and the diversity of opinions in the country.
Now, at the beginning of the third millennium, the socio-political world and thus the attitude to history has substantially changed. When turning to the past, theatre practitioners are no longer guided by a desire to condone situations in order to stabilize or preserve relations of power, nor to reject situations in order to protest against unacceptable conditions. The driving force for theatre practitioners has become the desire to understand, even though the questions to which they try to find answers are the same. Artists may thus seek to know how an individual may use past events in order to contribute to a stable present. How is history to be reinterpreted, how manipulated and how reinvented? More importantly perhaps: what are the underlying causes of these processes, and how can they be communicated in a theatrical language?
One example of this kind of theatre is Grandfather, a one-man performance written and performed by Vilis Daudzins. Performed in the large and fully packed hall of The New Riga Theatre from 16 January 2009 onwards, the play, directed by Alvis Hermanis, appears very simple at first glance. Dealing with World War II, it presents the audience with three reminiscences, showing three destinies being acted out – the stories structured as a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. This is of course a familiar technique in literature and art, but in this case the memories do not appear to bring any startling revelations about the historical past either, for they tend to be nothing more than genre scenes, rich in colourful detail, social symbols and contrasting ideological clichés (Adolf Hitler was/ was not a great man; the partisan fighters were/ were not deported to Siberia; Vasily Kononov is a criminal/a hero; the Jews are victims/ the architects of a global conspiracy, etc.)
This simplicity is misleading, though, for the production is exquisite despite its modest scale. At present, it is hard to imagine any other performance devoted to the historical events of the 20th century in the Latvian theatre which could be equivalent to Grandfather in the quality of its artistic achievement, or its impact as a piece of original contemporary drama. A key advantage seems to lay in the interplay and cross-fertilization between Vilis Daudzins the actor and Vilis Daudzins the writer. The actor provides the performance with an impressive rhythm, solving problems such as how to find a balance between comic and tragic scenes; how to use repetition in the performance; how to generate both specific information and general insight in one performance. In particular the performance and the text demonstrate an acute skill at utilising the specific abilities of the theatrical artist to express abstract ideas and achieve a sense of concreteness through the use of symbolic action. The text created by the writer Vilis Daudzins is skilfully constructed, for it enables us to get an insight in several histories instead of one, with the three different versions highlighting and commenting on one another, demonstrating both the complexity and contradictoriness of the collective past and the situational character of the truth.
Personally, I do not consider a one-man performance as the most attractive genre of theatre, for it always arouses suspicions in me that ulterior, pragmatic motives are at stake (for example, there is a shortage in the budget, a gap in the repertoire, or the actor is trying to make work for himself/herself in the face of unemployment). However, this gripping three-hour-long performance dispels any such suspicions from the very first moment. The actor’s personal desire to find his grandfather Augusts Savickis, unaccounted for since World War II, and his attempts to do so are transformed beyond the personal by offering the viewer a broad panorama of the epoch and an artistic analysis of social issues.
The set designed by Ugis Berzins presents us with a first-floor apartment in a block of flats, and at first sight reminds one of an improvised greenhouse belonging to an amateur gardener. There are bags of compost piled up in the middle of the room and boxes with vegetable and flower seedlings on the left and on the right. There is so much of it that it is hard to notice the furniture and other household objects, such as the desk and chair on the left, looming behind the lush leaves of an aspidistra, the old pendulum clock hanging on the wall next to the window, and the wall-unit – the pride of a Soviet flat. Outside, one is aware of a grey day and the figures of passers-by behind the window partly covered by tomato plants. This is a single, unchanging space where each of the three characters displays his preferences for the cultivation of a particular plant, and utilises different objects, visual pictures, and sound images during the performance, to create his own environment of memories.
At the beginning of the performance, Vilis Daudzins, dressed in a brown T-shirt and jeans, comes on the stage, calls out his name, switches on the projector on the forestage, and shows a couple of slides. The slides depict his grandfather Augusts Savickis: alone and together with his grandmother, his mother at the age of two, and a car his grandfather worked on as a driver. The pictures are projected onto the white, slanting ceiling of the flat facing the audience and in a fascinating way serve as evidence, and also a transcription and usurpation of reality. As Susan Sontag has said: “Such images are indeed able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask, while a painting, even one that meets photographic standards of resemblance, is never more than the stating of an interpretation, a photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects) – a material vestige of its subject in a way that no painting can be.” Making himself part of the performance and using the photographs of his immediate family members as material evidence, Vilis Daudzins makes us think, guess, and imagine what is hidden behind this visible surface.
Next, we are provided with three further possible perspectives. The actor Vilis Daudzins meets three men, all of them bearing the surname Savickis. Each of them might thus be Vilis Daudzins’ grandfather, but ultimately none of them actually is. The three stories provide three different experiences. The red partisan fighter Donats Savickis, born in the town of Balvi but now living in Kengarags, grows green onions, cucumbers and tomatoes on his window sill. The former German legionnaire Rihards Savickis, lives in Imanta having returned from the exile in the USA, and strives to force Michaelmas daisies into blossom in his wall-unit. Peteris Savickis, who managed to serve both in the German SS units and in the Red Army during World War II, now occupies himself by brewing moonshine and growing medicinal herbs, trying to cure his body, while it is the soul that needs to be healed.
The characters are distinguished through a simple change in costume, easy to read at a glance: one wearing a crude blue undershirt, the second one a checked leisure jacked, the third one a white shirt. Each of them clearly belongs to a specific social class and comes from a definite region, communicated through a slight shift in accent and the use of specific place names in each story. The intention of Alvis Hermanis and Vilis Daudzins is clear within the context of the performance, for the name “Savickis” becomes a substitute for a Latvian name and the three representative examples embrace the whole Latvian society, periodically affected by changing political regimes which ruin the habitual order and confront essentially different world views.
The way the stories are organized indicates that the past does not turn up of its own accord; it is the result of construction and impersonation. The past is always determined by specific motives, expectations, hopes, and goals, and it is always affected by the present as the point of reference. The person remembering something arranges the events and sees his/her role in them, partly following the facts and partly according to his own will and desire. Therefore, in all three stories the chronological perspective is less important than the psychological one. The chronological perspective is objective – it allows us to see more recent events and images more brightly and more precisely, while making the more distant ones to appear somewhat faded and vague. On the other hand, from the psychological perspective, bright, detailed images correspond to those episodes in the past that are still topical and continue affecting an individual both emotionally and intellectually, while duller, more generalized images refer to events with weak emotional and intellectual impact. Thus, from the psychological perspective, the clarity and accuracy of remembered images does not depend on the distance in time separating the actual event from the present, but more on the length and depth of the psychological impact itself. Also important is the desire of an individual to forget or remember something.
All three Savickis presented in the play have images related to the opposition the sky vs. the land engraved in their memory. For example the blazing shells of the Russian “Katyushas” flying high in the air are as dear to the red partisan as is the sky criss-crossed by German V- 2 missiles is to the former legionnaire. For Peteris Savickis, having fought on both sides, it is the experience of flying by a glider that is most enduring. Remembering those episodes, the facial expression of the narrator becomes rapturous, his eyes cast up to the ceiling – the white surface utilised for the projections, a screen that can potentially take you anywhere, to any space. But this is not true for the three Savickis any longer – their sky has become empty.
Both concrete and symbolic activities mark images connected with the land. The red partisan raises a box of seedlings to his ear, remembering how he used to listen to the boom of the frozen land waiting for the approaching Russian army; he “digs out” his brother killed by the Germans from the same box. On returning from the USA, the former legionnaire uses a mine detector to find a wind generator he once hid in his own land. Remembering that the land turned out to be full of iron, he desperately stamps the bags of compost piled up on the floor, while Peteris Savickis, remembering mine explosions, grabs handfuls of soil from the box and throws them up in the air in a re-enactment of those events.
Through the system of signs utilised by this performance, the land transforms from being the source of life into the symbol of extinction. Even the wall-unit with its blossoming Michaelmas daisies begins to resemble a columbarium, instead of a place for floricultural experiments. Associations with ashes and earth become increasingly stronger until, at the end of the performance, Vilis Daudzins finally makes a grave mound from the bags of compost and the flower boxes. This Requiem-like gesture, signifying that a society, doomed to extinction, has something in common with the motif of the sinking “Titanic,” was used in the latest performance by Alvis Hermanis entitled Zilākalna Marta. In the present time, dominated by social and economic depression, such an artistic prediction seems to be frighteningly accurate. Still, there are not only Savickis in the performance. There is also Daudzins (the actor’s surname is derived from the word daudz, which means “many, much, and numerous, plenty” in English.) At least from a linguistic point of view, it is a cause for optimism.
There are a number of commonalities between the characters depicted. All three men are religious; they all talk with respect and reverence about their mothers and the holy words they taught them. They have all experienced both the moments of elation and horror, which they want to erase from their memory. Thus, though the views and motivations guiding the narrators’ actions are radically different, the common organizational principles of the narrative and the common points of reference make all three life stories similar, creating an impression that these are actually three versions of one fate. The dominating psychological perspective emphasizes similarity in the structures of the narrative even more – the men do not try to make a coordinated and coherent story as if trying to avoid depicting their life in a chronological way, following the line of purposeful progression. According to their experience, independence, planning, and predictability are nothing but appearance and illusion, which can be interrupted at any moment by events which no-one has any control over, like war and occupation. That is why the narrative appears fragmented and narrator’s position keeps changing – sometimes he appears as a witness, sometimes as a victim, but hardly ever as an active creator of his own life. Paradoxically, this fragmentary narrative promoted by historical experience is very topical, having strong resonances in postmodernism, questioning the idea of life as a purposefully directed progression, but seeing it rather as something created through a mosaic-like composition of identity.
Nevertheless, it is not in the formal similarity to the postmodernist view of man and life where the artistic modernity of this production should be sought. So far, the review has focused on separate examination of the components of the performance. Such an approach, despite being routine and necessary for analysis, becomes artificial and even violent with regard to Grandfather since the innovative character of the production lies in the fact that in Vilis Daudzins’ performance everything is linked together – authorship and performance, the language structure and meaning, the plot and the characters. Like the authors of ancient epic poems, Vilis Daudzins not only tells us what characters are doing; he speaks when they speak, and he cries when they cry.
The German Latvian writer and pastor Karl Gotthard Elverfeld (1756-1819) called his protégé, the serf poet Blind Indriķis (1783- 1828), “the Latvian Homer,” even though it is only in his blindness that the ancient Greek poet really resembled the Latvian poet, grieving over his cheerless fate. By contrast I would suggest that Vilis Daudzins may actually deserve the title of “the Latvian Homer” for both the scope of the project and characteristic oral approach to story-telling in the performance imparts epic qualities to Grandfather. Strictly speaking, an epic is a long, narrative poem on a serious topic narrated in a solemn, dignified style and focusing on the deeds of a hero whom the fate of a tribe, nation, or the whole mankind depends on. Grandfather differs from this model in that it is a shorter stage performance, but the epic spirit of the production, its grand scope as well as the deep human significance of the topic gives it an epic feel and impact.
 Vasily Kononov (Василий Макарович Кононов) is a former red partisan during World War II, a retired militia officer of Soviet Latvia; on 27 May 1944, his partisan brigade killed nine civilians, the inhabitants of the village Mazie Bati, as an act of revenge for their betrayal.
 Susan Sontag. On Photography. Penguin Books, London, 1977, p.154
 Kengarags is one of the Soviet–style residential areas in Riga.
 Imanta is one of the Soviet-style residential areas in Riga.
 See Брагина, Наталья. Память в языке и культуре. Москва: Языки славянских культур, 2007, pp. 129-135
This similarity is thoroughly analysed by scholar Baiba Bela in her study on oral history. See Bela, B. „Stāsta dzīve valodā: naratīvās stratēģijas Latvijas un trimdas dzīvesstāstos,” In.: Dzīvesstāsti: vēsture, kultūra, sabiedrība. Rīga: Latvijas Universitātes Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts, Nacionālā mutvārdu vēsture, pp. 15.-33.
*Valda Čakare is a theatre critic and profesor of theatre studies living in Riga, where she teaches at the Latvian Academy of Culture. She has a particular interest in the 20th century world theatre, performance theory and semiology.
Copyright © 2009 Valda Čakare
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