Director Aleksis Mierlauks' (1866–1943) Production of Rainis' "Fire and Night" at the New Riga Theatre, 1911
Thanks to his contemporary approach, director Aleksis Mierlauks marked a new beginning in the history of performing arts in Latvia with his production of Rainis’ (1865–1929) “The Fire and the Night” (Uguns un nakts) at the New Riga Theatre in 1911.
It was the first production in which all elements – acting, scenography, costumes, lighting, music and choreography – came together as one to create a single piece of art.
In the early 20th century, the story of the national hero Bearslayer (Lāčplēsis) and his fight against the Dark Knight was like a timely metaphor for the Latvian nation’s ongoing attempts at self-determination.
The production became widely popular. Prior to its opening, people were already collecting donations to ensure that “The Fire and the Night” could see the day light. It became the first play in the history of Latvian theatre to reach 100 performances.
“The Fire and the Night” (1905) is one of Rainis’ – poet, playwright and politician, best known works of drama and is included in the Latvian Culture Canon as the finest example of symbolism in Latvian literature.
The piece is based on the storyline of the epic “Bearslayer” (Lāčplēsis) by Latvian author Andrejs Pumpurs (1841–1902), in which the lead character Bearslayer fights against the Dark Knight.
Rainis deemed “The Fire and the Night” “an old song played to a new tune”. The play includes elements of folklore and myth, nods to 13th century history and the 1905 Revolution, which was ongoing at the time of writing.
As the name of the play implies, the story tells of a fight between the good and the evil forces, in which the good characters are Bearslayer, Laimdota the symbol of Latvia, Koknesis and the Latvian chieftains, and the evil characters are Dark Knight the German invader, and national traitors Kangars and Līkcepure.
Spīdola – the symbol of beauty – represents constant change. She’s the only character to progress from being friendly with the dark forces to being Bearslayer’s positive driving force. In the fifth act, Spīdola says to Bearslayer: “Change and be the change!”
Though living in exile in Switzerland at the time, Rainis had an active advisory role in staging the production. Initially, director Jēkabs Duburs (1866–1916) was selected to produce the play but Rainis didn’t approve of his melodramatic approach.
Aleksis Mierlauks (real name Aleksis Frīdenfelds) took his place and even visited Rainis in Castagnola to hear out the playwright’s wishes. Rainis went on to write letters to the director, scenographer Jānis Kuga (1878–1969), actress Biruta Skujeniece (1888–1931), who played Laimdota, and other members of the theatre.
Rainis gave particularly detailed instructions in regards to the scenography. The play takes place in a very grand setting, combining ethnographic motifs with elements of fantasy, European grandeur with the vastness of nature (the steep shores of the River Daugava where the story takes place).
Scenographer Jānis Kuga took his time to research Latvian ethnography, particularly the ornaments, clothing and architecture of farmsteads. It was the first time in the history of Latvian theatre that the stage decorations were created from scratch rather than repurposed and reassembled from previous productions. They were a true work of art in their own right and turned many heads.
Nikolajs Alunāns (1859–1919) composed the songs and music, and Mārtiņš Kauliņš (1864–1928) choreographed the dances. Lesser known actor and later opera singer Ādolfs Kaktiņš (1885–1965) was chosen for the role of Bearslayer.
In 1912, actor Eduards Smiļģis (1886–1966) took over as Bearslayer. He went on to become the founder of the Daile Theatre and one of the best directors in the history of Latvian theatre.
Actresses Biruta Skujeniece and Mirdza Šmithene (1887–1978) played Laimdota. Tija Banga (1882–1957), Lilija Ērika (1890–1981) and Otīlija Muceniece (1871–1951) played Spīdola. Director Mierlauks himself played Kangars. They set high standards, which had to be taken into account by the actors in later productions of the play.
Mierlauks’ “The Fire and the Night” proved massively popular, with people flocking from all over Latvia to see it. For two weeks, the New Riga Theatre staged six shows a week. It was a complete sell-out with 44 performances in its first season. 15 April 1914 went down in Latvian history as the date of the first ever 100th performance of the same play.
It was thanks to the legendary “The Fire and the Night” production that Romanova iela became Lāčplēša iela in 1923. Lāčplēša iela 25 is the home of the New Riga Theatre.
This same building is closely linked to five other treasures included in the Canon: Eduards Smiļģis’ Daile Theatre, Adolf Shapiro’s Youth Theatre, Pēteris Pētersons’ Poetry Theatre, Alvis Hermanis’ New Riga Theatre as well as director Arnolds Liniņš’ production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Brand”.
Since 1911 there have been a further nine productions of “The Fire and the Night”. The latest, opened on 11 September 2015 on Rainis’ 150th birthday, directed by Viesturs Kairišs (1971) was a contemporary approach that won acclaim from theatregoers and critics alike.
Translated by Lelde Beņķe
Jānis Siliņš on Aleksis Mierlauks' production of Rainis' "Fire and Night" in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Report on the activity and accounts of the Latvian Stage Association and the New Riga Theatre in 1910/11. (1911). Rīga. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Jānis Siliņš on Aleksis Mierlauks' production of Rainis' "Fire and Night" in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.