Pēteris Pētersons' (1923–1998) Poetry Theatre, 1960s and 1970s
Pēteris Pētersons was a highly cerebral director well-versed in the Brechtian mode. He established what’s called the Latvian Poetry Theatre by marrying the intense, intuitive tradition of the Dailes Theatre under Eduards Smiļģis (1886–1966, included in the Canon) with a broad theoretical outlook based on the principles of Epic theatre, upon which Pētersons innovated by way of utilising poetry instead of sociocritical drama as the basic material.
Pēteris was the second child of the family of playwright and businessman Jūlijs Pētersons and socialite Eiženija Pētersone. He received a very intense cultural upbringing, studying at the Lycée Français de Riga.
Gatherings at the Pētersons’ summer house in Jūrmala routinely attracted the cream of Latvia’s intellectual crop. The biggest impression on little Pēteris would be left by Eduards Smiļģis, the founder of Dailes Theatre, who reportedly wanted to stage a play Pētersons had written at the age of seven.
The Pētersons’ family had ties to the rich Baltic German diaspora, which disappeared as they fled to the land of their ancestors at the outbreak of the Second World War. The very first books Pētersons read were German; and, for a while, the family had a German-speaking governess.
Pētersons graduated from the the Lycée Français amidst the Nazi occupation and worked menial jobs to avoid enlistment. When the Nazis became desperate as the Red Army closed in, Pētersons accidentally broke his arm and was spared from the horrors of combat, leaving his parents behind to flee Latvia via the Courland Pocket, a part of Latvia that remained under Nazi control until the end of the war.
He was eventually imprisoned by the Germans in suspicion of espionage and failed to escape Latvia. In the meanwhile, his father Jūlijs had been arrested by the Soviets and died in prison.
After the war, Pētersons started studying theatre and made a name for himself for his poetry, theatre reviews and translations. His first major success was the 1962 play in verse, “I’m Thirty Years Old” (Man trīsdesmit gadu). In addition to writing, Pētersons also directed plays. He replaced his former father figure Smiļģis as creative director at the Dailes Theatre in 1964.
Pētersons’ Poetic Theatre refers to just three productions, but by all accounts these are remembered as miracles on stage. After criticizing the sorry state of Soviet social realist drama, which he compared unfavorably to daring modern poetry, Pētersons announced that Dailes Theatre would stage “Motorcycle” (Motocikls), a collection of poems by celebrated writer Imants Ziedonis (1933–2013), also included in the Canon.
The production, which actually drew on three of Ziedonis’ collections, continued a recurrent motif in Pētersons’ oeuvre, namely the conflict between an artist and the public. Having scavenged images and subtexts from Ziedonis’ poetry, Pētersons came up with the protagonist Pičs Grants (an allusion to Peer Gynt), a biker but also a proto-artist figure who lives for love of the road and loses his sweetheart to the conformist hoi polloi, portrayed as zany snowmen complete with puff-ball heads and facial features marked with carrots and charcoal.
Playing Pičs, the actor Uldis Pūcītis (1937−2000) would cement his reputation as a talented interpreter of poetry. “Making value judgements on the stage, Pūcītis achieved a think-along effect with the audience. Exposing himself on a deeply personal level, he revealed the events of his time, which in turn had given rise to modern poetry,” wrote theatre historian Ieva Zole.
“Motorcycle” was widely heralded as a success, notably by the poet himself. “I did not expect you could create anew from what had already been created,” Ziedonis exclaimed.
There would be just two more productions in Pētersons’ Poetry Theatre. One of the greatest productions in Latvian theatre history, a version of Aleksandrs Čaks‘ (1901−1950) “Play, Player!” (Spēlē, spēlmani!, written 1944) would find its way on stage in 1972 despite impossible personal tragedies and the reputation of Čaks as a bourgeois, nationalist writer.
Pētersons was sacked from the Dailes Theatre in 1971. His son Uģis died in an accident shortly after. Deeply depressed, Pētersons found encouragement and support in Imants Ziedonis, who urged him to continue creating poetic productions. In staging “Play, Player!”, he further developed the principles used for “Motorcycle”, creating an unseen marriage of the dramatic and poetic, so important for Latvian culture that it has a separate entry in the Canon.
The theatre historian Ieva Zole writes that the 1960s marked the beginning of the people’s newfound love for their artists, which blossomed and culminated during the Third National Awakening and lasted until the renewal of independence.
Pētersons’ best work came at a crucially important time for Latvian culture, and in addition to revitalizing the dramatic scene he also helped Latvia remember and preserve its heritage, as expressed in the poetry of Čaks.
Pētersons’ plays are still staged today. Latvian theatre directors routinely draw on poetic material for their work, and this may just as well owe to Pētersons.