Guna Zeltina*



This article aims to explore and define the changes in the concept of femininity in the Latvian theatre within several contexts in the Baltic and European theatre space. The first section of this article is devoted to a retrospective review of the historical developments of this concept; the second part deals with the experience of the New Riga Theatre. This theatre company was chosen because of its international reputation; moreover, the evolution of the concept of femininity has been especially vivid both in New Riga’s directorial thinking and its actors’ stage behaviour.

The First Wave of Feminism

Latvia has the oldest professional theatre in the Baltics. Indeed, theatre in Latvia was established in 1868, while in Estonia it only happened in 1870 and in Lithuania in 1905.

The traditional concept of femininity was developed during the first period of the Latvian theatre (from the 1860s to the 1910s), when there was a strong dominance of masculine activities. In Estonia, a female playwright, Lidija Koidula, managed to establish and develop professional Estonian theatre, whereas in Latvia the theatre was promoted by Adolfs Alunans, the so-called “father of Latvian theatre,” whose model was mainly the German theatre. Alunans’s most complicated duty was to choose (or, as he used to say, “to fish”) actresses for his newly established theatre, and Alunans went looking for women of classical beauty. Such Latvian actresses as Dace Akmentina, Tija Banga and Lilija Erika formed the notion of femininity; these leading actresses of the first period, when Latvian theatre experienced a strong German influence, embodied a style that I could call “Grethen–style,” referring to the heroine of Goethe’s “Faustus.” “Grethen–style” was very romantic, subtle and dreamlike.

The development of this style was, however, discouraged by the first feminist thinker and writer, Aspazija, who fought for women’s rights both on stage and in the social and cultural life of Latvia. Aspazija’s plays gave an opportunity for our female actors to prove themselves as original, spiritually strong and with independent personalities. The borders of the traditional emploi were strong and unshakable, and the dominant standard of a stage couple during those years was an actress of classical beauty together with a strong, nice and handsome man. Paradoxically, Aspazija, whose art encouraged many Latvian actresses, would later become an obedient housekeeper in her private life, and she devoted all her gifts and energy to her husband Rainis, the greatest Latvian poet and playwright. Together, Aspazija and Rainis shared an exilic existence, for political reasons, in Russia and Switzerland.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the traditional concept of femininity continued to dominate in the Latvian theatre. It was represented by the actresses starring on the stages of our leading theatres: the National Theatre with its realistic style, and the Daile (Art) Theatre, where some influences of Russian theatre directors Alexander Tairov and Vsevolod Meyerhold as well as from Austrian-German director Max Reinhardt could be observed.

The Second Wave

The second wave of feminism in the political, social and cultural life of Latvia came with the appearance of the first academically educated generation of Latvian women who gained their intellectual and professional training at the universities of Russia, Germany and Switzerland. In accordance with the dominant art and fashion styles of the century, a new image of the heroine was introduced on the Latvian stage. She was smart, elegant, well educated and sharp-tongued. A woman of society and a bilingual actress, Lilija Stengele, demonstrated this style in the productions of drawing room comedies and melodramas; she thus became a new idol of femininity both on Latvian and Russian stages in Riga. Economic crisis and shortage of repertoire in Latvian theatre in the 1920s and 1930s contributed to the development of a new aspect of femininity: a graceful, child-like, tiny prima donna this actress embraced, being as she was an excellent singer and dancer in musical performances, operettas and light comedies.

The mentality of the European modern woman with a tinge of neurosis and exaltation was brought to Latvia with the guest performances of German theatre and cinema actress of Latvian origin, Marija Leiko, who had worked with directors such as Reinhardt and actors like Werner Kraus. The image of contemporary woman as an athlete (dressed for tennis or some other game) also appeared by then. For example, the action of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Daile Theatre in 1931 took place in a sports stadium. The borders of emploi were still unshakeable, but there were several exceptions, as, for example, the grand dame Lilija Stengele who changed into a Latvian countryside housekeeper by wearing traditional clothes in the production of our most popular national comedy, Tailors’ Days in Silmatchi by Rudolfs Blaumanis (1935), at the National Theatre.

Meanwhile, Marija Leiko, an actress who would face a tragic destiny, was not so successful: she returned to Latvia from Germany, but felt disappointed by the dictatorial independent republic of bourgeois Latvia, and emigrated to Soviet Russia. During the time of Stalin’s repressions in 1937, Marija Leiko was captured as a German spy and imprisoned in the cells of Butirki, where she committed suicide. Leiko, one of the most beautiful symbols of Latvian/European femininity of that period, was thus destroyed by Stalinist regime.

The 1940s and 1950s came with a new triumph of classical female beauty in the Latvian theatre. During these decades, heroines of classical plays were not the only ones portrayed as noble and pretty. Almost all the female characters in the productions of contemporary Soviet plays (workers of factories and collective farms, milkmaids and cattle breeders, and so forth) also appeared on stage dressed up, wearing thick makeup and artificial eyelashes. That was a time of such classical beauties as Vija Artmane at the Daile Theatre who played all the leading roles both in world classics and contemporary plays. At the National Theatre, three leading ladies—stage queens with appropriate poise, gesture and a way of speaking—ruled the minds and tastes of the audience and provoked some critical minds to note that the old spirit of German theatre (in its pompous, declamatory version) was still alive in the Latvian theatre.

Ladies from Wylka Estate (Panys Wylku), Directed by Alvis Hermanis, Prod. Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione/Alvis Hermanis, 2010 © Marcello Norbeth
Ladies from Wylka Estate (Panys Wylku), Directed by Alvis Hermanis, Prod. Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione/Alvis Hermanis, 2010 © Marcello Norbeth

The Third Wave

In the 1960s and 1970s, the traditional concepts of femininity were still essential. The model of the classical stage couple—an actress of extraordinary beauty and an actor who is her match at riveting the audience—dominated on the stage. Nevertheless, other configurations could also be seen in the theatre, such as the pairing of an active, strong and motherly woman character with a subtler, weak and nervous man.

At the end of the 1960s, Mara Kimele, a young woman director and a disciple of Anatoly Efros in Moscow, entered the Latvian theatre. Her appearance can be characterized as the third wave of feminism in our theatre, since Kimele declared the end of male supremacy on Latvian stage. In her productions, she tried to establish a woman’s dominance and to offer justifications for such characters as Medea who was traditionally regarded as a monster in our theatre. A new heroine was introduced not only in Kimele’s performances in the regional Valmiera theatre, but also in all Latvian stage companies. The third-wave woman was endowed not with a perfect classical beauty, but with good at heart, nice and with an open-minded personality.

Similar processes were fostered in the Estonian theatre by a woman director, Merle Carusoo, who was of the same age and was as feminist as Mara Kimele. The former generation of Latvian actresses could join up with Max Reinhardt who used to say that actor is a King—and actress is a Queen. However, Dace Eversa, the new leading actress of the Latvian theatre for more than two decades, always stressed in her work and in interviews, that the actor is a servant; she stressed that the actor’s work has a spiritual and mental mission—that it was necessary to sacrifice all of an actor’s personal life to the art and to the audience. In other words, the aesthetical values in our theatre were substituted by ethical ones, and the problem of how to reach harmony between those two aspects on stage became a very real challenge for our theatre directors. There were no more stage queens; there was no longer a singular actress who embodied the traditional ideal of femininity as it was done in the times of Dace Akmentina or Vija Artmane. The woman’s image became multicoloured. The leading actresses of that period became more fragile and boyish. The borders of emploi faded; the former queens started to play grotesque roles and comical characters to fit a director’s conceptual views and not as a result of older ages.

Ladies from Wylka Estate (Panys Wylku), Directed by Alvis Hermanis, Prod. Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione/Alvis Hermanis, 2010 © Marcello Norbeth
Ladies from Wylka Estate (Panys Wylku), Directed by Alvis Hermanis, Prod. Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione/Alvis Hermanis, 2010 © Marcello Norbeth

Post-modern Wave

In the 1990s (later than in the rest of Europe), postmodernism invaded Latvian stage with its deconstruction of all kind of ideals, with the denial of all meanings as well as of traditional values. The first representative of postmodern aesthetics in Latvia was Alvis Hermanis who after graduating from the Actors’ Department of the Latvian Academy of Music in the 1980s began his career as a film and theatre actor. After independent studies in the United States as well as undertaking research in world art and aesthetics of theatre, Hermanis made his debut in the New Riga Theatre in a production based on Steven Soderberg’s script Sex, Lies and Video (1992). In this story about postmodern lovers, sex and aggressiveness (so different from Latvian traditional theatre practices due the enormous physical energy and sincere discussion of taboo themes), Alvis Hermanis presented the new star of his theatre: Elita Klavina, a very peculiar, slender actress endowed with special gracefulness and ethereal femininity. With the help of this image, Hermanis turned his back on the traditional standard and announced a peculiar, special and markedly different new image of femininity to be the main value of his theatre. In his production of Yukio Mishima’s Marquise de Sade (1993, the New Riga Theatre) where the influences of Jerzy Grotowski’s and Robert Wilson’s aesthetics could be observed, the stylization of rococo and the magic beauty of sounds, colours and costumes merged with elements of the Japanese Noh theatre, Butoh dance and the symbolic execution of the ritual of hara-kiri. Hermanis staged a gorgeous, beautiful and self-sufficient world of women where all the actions were carried out as a solemn ceremony and fulfilled with slowed-down movement, sighs and whispers. The bodies of the actresses became a sign; the form became a meaning. Although no man was actually on stage, a pervasive presence of a man—Marquis de Sade—was felt, since all the heroines persistently longed for him and felt passionately in love with him. Women, in this staging concept appeared not as an independent personality but as a victim, a mannequin or a doll that was pulled and destroyed by a passion. The same concept of femininity, almost at the same time, appeared, too, in the performances of the Lithuanian director Jonas Vaitkus’s productions in the 1990ies, Marquise de Sade by Mishima and Ibsen’s Doll’s House.

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (New Riga Theatre, 1994), beauty was interpreted by Alvis Hermanis as eternal femininity; thus, the roles of Dorian and Lord Henry were portrayed by actresses (not actors), and there appeared a new aspect in Hermaniss’ art: a play with genders. Beauty here was so refined and extremely stylized that, finally, it was transformed into coldness, into evil power. Dorian (played by Elita Klavina) and Lord Henry (actress Regina Razuma) were the representatives of the artificial, cruel world of mannequins that destroys all live and sincere feelings.

After some years Hermanis got fed up with these postmodern games, and he passed on the baton to the next generation of young Latvian directors, the founders of the so-called “Union of Unbearable Theatre.” These directors continued these games with sex, gender, taboo themes and naked bodies. Recently, for example, playing with gender was actualized in Latvia’s National Theatre by Russian guest director Kiril Serebryennikow, who staged Nikolai Gogol’s The Dead Souls (2010) where all the women roles were played by men.

Meanwhile, Alvis Hermanis had become the artistic leader of the New Riga Theatre in 1997, and he declared that acting had functioned as a structural and visual element in his former performances. “However,” he stresses in an interview, “I am interested in an actor’s being something more”.[1] In his production of Alexey Arbuzov’s play My Poor Marat (New Riga, 1997), Hermanis returned to psychological realism, which stressed simplicity and humanism as the main values of human life and art. After some years of searching for the so-called “new realism” and for collaboration with such artists as Russian playwright Jevgeny Griskovec, in his performance of Jaroslav Iwaskevich’s play Ladies from Wylka Estate(Panys Wylku, New Riga, 2000) Hermanis returned to the triumph of refined female beauty and the style of art nouveau aesthetics. Here we can see again splendid costumes, silk dresses and stockings, half-naked and naked bodies of women; we can feel the fragrance of exquisite perfumes and flowers. This is again a self-sufficient world of women, but it is no longer aggressive—it is more nostalgic and romantic now. The only man, the former teacher of all these beautiful ladies, Viktor, is not half as handsome and elegant as the Polish actor Daniel Olbrihsky’s hero in the film of Andrzej Wajda, but an ordinary, even ugly man who is not able to understand the meaning and power of eternal beauty.

The succeeding triumph of corpulent, plump female flesh in Hermanis’s interpretation of Gogol’s The Inspector General (New Riga, 2002) brought a new, unprecedented concept of post-Soviet femininity to the Latvian theatre. Men who are also plump and corpulent look like big children. Hlestakov is slim, weak and feels miserable as a lost child until his servant Osip takes him in his strong arms. Anna Andrejevna, played by Guna Zarina, embodies a commanding, dictatorial type of female chief of Soviet time who not only rules her husband but also plays the leading part in the scene where Hlestakov tries to seduce her. Actually, she is the one who almost rapes him in a grotesque way.

Ladies from Wylka Estate (Panys Wylku), Directed by Alvis Hermanis, Prod. Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione/Alvis Hermanis, 2010 © Marcello Norbeth
Ladies from Wylka Estate (Panys Wylku), Directed by Alvis Hermanis, Prod. Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione/Alvis Hermanis, 2010 © Marcello Norbeth

Far From Classical Beauty

Guna Zarina, an actress of a very ordinary appearance, far from the ideal of classical beauty, became the new leading actress of Hermanis’ theatre. She played the central parts in such anthropological projects asThe Long Life (2003), Latvian Stories (2004), Latvian Love (2006), The Sound of Silence (2007, all at New Riga Theatres) and others, representing Hermanis’ new and controversial concept that the life of every ordinary Latvian man or woman is more dramatic than all plays of Shakespeare taken together. All these projects are examples of the post-dramatic theatre based on Hermanis’s ideas as well as the personal investigation his male and female actors of real Latvian people, their contemporaries, their lives and love stories and then the actors’ transformation of all this material into both the text and physical actions of Hermanis’s theatre. In short, Hermanis’s actors are the playwrights, the directors and the actors in one person with one supervising director’s “eye” (Hermanis himself) convincing the audience that the ordinary Latvian fisherman, the kindergarten worker or the strip-tease dancer could be the subject of the art.

The turn of centuries has prompted the denial of all possible classical standards not only in the Latvian but also in the Baltic theatre. The star of the Lithuanian stage director Oskaras Korsunovas, since the end of 1990s, has been a very vital and universal actress, Rasa Samuolyte, who has played the main roles in his productions of Shakespeare and Bulgakow. Like Guna Zarina, Samuolyte’s looks are far from classical standards. These examples are evidence not only of the peculiar gifts of these actresses but also of the global tendencies mentioned by Sandra Lee Bartky, professor of philosophy and feminism studies in her research “Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” (published by Northeastern University Press in 1988). According to Bartkey, the style of female figures has changed according to the different times and cultures, thus expressing different problems and obsessions. We can perceive that nowadays it is not a strong and massive woman’s body that is considered stylish: it is rather an almost infantile and childish figure that is preferred.

However, Hermanis never follows the global tendencies directly, and he does not use the body of his actresses for decorative or ornamental purposes in his stage compositions today. In a society obsessed with the cult of youth and fitness, the director celebrates life and diversity of female types. He loves and honours the beauty of his actresses, even though it doesn’t keep him from transforming them into images of cows, sure—very graceful and beautiful cows—in his recent performance Black Milk (New Riga Theatre 2010). His recent projects are evidence of the fact that the women remain for him not only as a sign but also as an important value, and that the relationship between sexes in his performances possesses all emotional richness, passion and mystery of the whole universe of human contacts. We can therefore see that stylistics of the first postmodern performances of Alvis Hermanis were continued by him later through a diversity of experiences and original concepts of femininity, leading to post-dramatic strategies at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. The experience of Hermanis and other Latvian stage directors (e.g., Mara Kimele) parallels the experiments of other Baltic and European directors. This practice witnesses that the concept of femininity becomes more and more topical in today’s theatre and has really re-emerged in the 21st century as a creative issue.


[1] Hermanis’s interview for the newspaper Diena, 20.09.1997.


*Guna Zeltina graduated at the University of Latvia, is a theatre critic and a researcher from the 1970s. She has published several books: Latvian Theatre: 1990s and the Turn of Centuries (Riga: “Zinatne” Publisher, 2006) and monographs on Latvian actors and stage directors. She is the Head of the Department of Theatre, Music and Cinema, Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art at the University of Latvia since 1992 and a Member of the Board of the Latvian Centre of the International Theatre Institute and Head of the Latvian Section of the International Association of Theatre Critics (since 2007).

Copyright © 2010 Guna Zeltina
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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The Concept of Femininity in the Latvian Theatre Historical and Contemporary Practices