The Square

and The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years

State Theatre of Lithuania

at the Blackstone Theatre

It has been said that satire is the shortest-lived theatrical genre, but even more ephemeral is political drama. How many plays have we seen in which the playwright assumes that we and he are equally informed on the state of some union, that we and he are in complete agreement on the interpretation of this information, and that the political conditions will not change? How quaint and naive such plays appear a year or so later, and how quickly the uneven ratio of art to propaganda becomes evident. But American audiences continue to seek political kicks from extranational drama, particularly that of countries with governments currently or recently opposed to our own, oblivious to the insulting implication that the artists’ creativity will dry up once the war is over.

At the International Theatre Festival this audience attitude was most apparent in reaction to the productions of the State Theatre of Lithuania. From the beginning weeks of the festival, any mention of their projected appearance in Chicago would spark the question, “Are they still coming?” When a problem with their visas delayed their arrival by a few days, rumors circulated of sinister obstacles erected by their governments–a bureaucratic bungle on the part of our government created the delay, but why spoil the opportunity for a good political shudder? Yet what brought even the most phlegmatic of audience members to their feet on the first STL opening night was not just relief that the company had made it, but acclamation for the jet-lagged troupe’s willingness to play less than 24 hours after climbing off the plane from Vilnius. Now that’s heroic, political or not.

Certainly there was no trace of haste or fatigue in STL’s production of The Square, a play written and developed by Eimuntas Nekrosius, director of STL since the early 80s. Based on an actual news story, it tells of a prisoner, known only by his number or “He,” who jury-rigs a radio, over which he hears the valedictorian of a teachers’ college, called only “She,” recite poetry at a commencement (appropriately enough, “La Marseillaise” plays in the background). He writes to her and she to him, and after many years she secures permission to visit him. Love triumphs over the many prison regulations and the relentless bells that warn whenever one of these is violated, but it cannot win against the equally numerous restrictions of daily life. Even after he is released, he continues to hear alarms and the voice of the prison doctor ordering his life and his emotions and even his physical reflexes until, in confusion–as she screams in horror–he stops breathing altogether.

Although the prison is unmistakably a Soviet prison (and a grim quotation from Solzhenitsyn in the program makes sure we know this), the tale of the jailbird and the schoolmarm is familiar to many cultures. As told by the STL, it contains moments of expressiveness so intense and so beautiful that we want to cry for joy. When He and She first meet, he shyly offers her one of his lumps of sugar, explaining that he keeps them as souvenirs of special days in his monotonous life. He offers her another, then another, his excitement mounting, until he is flinging whole handfuls of sugar into the air. “This is 1959, and this is 1960. A thousand days and a thousand nights I’ve waited for you, and now you are here!” he shouts in unconcealed jubilation, crushing the markers of time under his feet. Later, they sleep apart–she on the bottom of the three-tiered prison bunk, he on the top. Slowly they move toward one another until they meet in an embrace that is all the more passionate because it is obstructed by the metal grille of the middle bed.

There are other memorable moments. A guard teases the prisoner by waving the visitation permit in front of his face, until he catches it in his teeth and refuses to let go. She, facing him, seems calm, but her back is to us and we can see her hands fluttering behind her in nervous agitation. He pulls himself up the side of his tall prison bed, using only his arms so that he seems to glide up as effortlessly as a tree snake. Again and again I was struck by the sheer originality of the staging, the number of choreographic turns–the like of which I cannot recall ever having seen before. The Square surely ranks as one of the best plays of this year’s festival.

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, an adaptation of Chingiz Aitmatov’s novel of the same name, fares somewhat less well. Set in the steppe region of the southwest Soviet Union, the story follows a group of villagers transporting a coffin via camel to the ancient cemetery of Anna-Beit. During the two-day journey Yedigey, the signalman for the railroad that passes through the remote settlement, has a series of visionary recollections that serve to make him aware of how the fast-moving modern world (symbolized by the swiftly traveling train) has all but obliterated the old beliefs and traditions (symbolized by the slowly and serenely moving camel). When the funeral procession reaches the burial ground only to find that it has become the site of a missile launcher, Yedigey suddenly comprehends the value of the sand from the Aral Sea that the deceased left behind in a trunk as his only legacy. He vows to bury his friend at the gate of the missile site and to stay and divide the legacy among the mourners. “The land will remember everything,” Yedigey says. “What came before, and what will come after.”

A Lithuanian-speaking colleague told me that the STL had excised much of the dialogue from Aitmatov’s novel, choosing instead to convey large parts of the story through action rather than words. Even so, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years emerges as an extremely wordy play for consumption by a foreign audience (STL may have thought so too–it was their second choice, after King Lear, which circumstances prevented them from touring with). If I were more versant with the folklore of the steppes, perhaps I would have understood better the details of this very literary narrative–particularly the long reenactment of the legend of Mankurt, the victim of a primitive version of brainwashing who kills and buries his own mother (hence the name of the cemetery, Anna-Beit or “Anna’s Rest”). As it was, my perception of this play resembled that of a non-Christian reading Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Arunas Ciurberkis’s excellent English translation notwithstanding. The transitions between the worlds of Yedigey’s memories and the present were frequently unclear, the iconography ambiguous, and the pace of the action less train than camel (though that beast is one of the most clever visual effects of the play, being created by four men from two forked sticks, a length of braided rope, and a burlap caparison).

However much of the art was lost in translation, one easily understood piece of iconography occurred in the subplot that involves the village schoolteacher who is arrested by the Stalinist government and taken away to prison, leaving behind his wife and two children. Years later, with the death of Stalin, comes the news that the teacher has died in prison. Yedigey imagines the widow disrupting the dictator’s funeral, overturning the bier and tearing off the cover, revealing a huge portrait of Stalin. The spectacle of a lone woman charging that visage and striking it with both fists is a dramatic and thrilling image of victory, even to one as stubbornly apolitical as I thought I was. This was no cheap cry-and-cheer kick for Americans with liberal reflexes, but a powerful image that may serve as the theme for the theater festival, if not the year, symbolizing as it does the destruction and sweeping away of old barriers.