Karl Menning's theatre — serving an apprenticeship

It must be said that the "real" beginning in 1906 escaped the dictates of the Big Stranger relatively easily. However, the knowledge necessary for cultivating an indigenous field of theatre was imported from foreign countries: Altermann, Pinna and Menning each received their education abroad, mainly in Germany (Altermann and Menning attended the rehearsals and directing studio of Max Reinhardt).

It is difficult to overestimate the life work of these three men; besides their "importing" of the principles of practical theatremaking, I would like to emphasise the social-political aspects of their activities. The network of theatres at the time encompassed the whole of the country (in 1911 the professional theatre Endla made its appearance, and amateur theatres gained a new momentum). The system of theatre management was created, original theoretical thought developed and, most importantly, so did the habit of theatregoing. Our theatrical culture and tradition, surviving to this day, were established, and in the most difficult period of political pressure the attendance per person of the population approximated to a world record.

Despite this most promising of beginnings, the great willpower and self-discipline combined with high artistic quality of Menning's theatre failed in 1914. It is unforgivable that the views of the Other came to be represented by Estonians themselves. Menning was unwilling to be subjected to censorship, but this was furthered by mercantile rather than ideological interests: the demand was for more fun and light entertainment, more amusement and — above all — that audiences should be spared the worries and thinking associated with existential angst and/or global concerns. Doesn't it sound familiar today! Though I should like to believe that besides those who go to the theatre seeking entertainment, there are those who want something more serious, and who are irritated by the aesthetic of mainstream soap opera as a means to describe human relationships, situations and ways of resolving them.

In the period of the first Republic of Estonia (1918–1940) the theatre network expanded: a professional theatre has been functioning in Viljandi since 1920, in 1931 a professional theatre was opened in Narva. Semi-professional troupes (with a qualified director and four or five actors — the rest being amateurs) continued theatremaking in the small Estonian towns of Võru, Valga and Kuressaare.

By the inter-war period, realism (with a tendency for exaggerated theatricality) had become the dominant style in Estonian theatre. There were some alternative styles — European innovative thinking brought expressionist, impressionist and symbolist influences. Although these experiments found enthusiastic supporters, and some great pieces of world literature were staged, the theatre in its most viable forms appeared in dramatisations of the Estonian literary classics of Anton Hansen Tammsaare and Oskar Luts. This was confirmed by audience surveys, which showed that interest in stage interpretations of Luts's and Tammsaare's works was very high.

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