Those who dared to resist lost their freedom, those who surrendered – their ability to create.
The theater has always played an important role in shaping the collective consciousness of Georgians. Since ancient times there have existed many spectacles. Among them, Berikaoba, which has survived to this day and mainly focused on anti-injustice stories: military crimes, sins of the church, feudalism, and so on. It was an improvised theater of masks. The original religious nature of these performances has changed over time and started to reflect the social problems and attitude towards the landlords and the church.
Another public celebration of Keenoba (derived from “Khan”) expressed the heroic struggle and victory of the Georgian people against the invading khans in the XVII-XVIII centuries. In Tbilisi, this spectacle was held mainly on the territory of Narikala and this is how it went – the city took on a festive look and the population divided into two. One party would play the defenders (Georgians) and another the invading army of Khans. Obviously, the defenders always won, which resulted in putting the defeated khan upside down on a donkey and throwing him into the river.
The show ended with a great feast, as all things do in Georgia. An interesting fact about this performance is that it apparently changed its objective in the 19th century and became anti-tsarist. The figures of the newly formed National Liberation Movement saw it as a channel for spreading patriotic ideas. This was important because it was the first time for the theatrical performance to be used as means of war for independence, but we’ll get to this in a bit.
It wasn’t until the 1790s, that the first professional Georgian theater was established by Giorgi Avalishvili and Gabriel Maiori at Erekle II’s court. This semi-European theater was of great importance for the development of cultural life. The original dramaturgy was created then and there and some prominent works by Russian and European authors were translated. Poetically enough, in 1795, Gabriel Maiori and the whole troupe died heroically during the invasion of Agha-Mohammad Khan at the Battle of Krtsanisi.
The first Georgian theater of the Nobility, 1878.
Only six years later (in 1801) the Russian empire diplomatically annexed Georgia, thus almost unrooting our national theater in its infancy. After the death of its founders, the theater was not restored for almost half-century and the performances were exclusively held in private salons. But progressive anti-tsarist ideas were brewing in the society, growing sentiments against the Russian colonial yoke. Thus it’s not surprising that the two most prominent theatrical figures of the time, Dimitri Kipiani and Giorgi Eristavi, were among the conspirators of the unsuccessful uprising in 1832.
Naturally, they were exiled, but returned in 1850 and restored the professional theater by staging the play “Divorce”. They assessed the society of the time from the position of critical realism and deepened the anti-Russian sentiment with their genius satire. Now, the Russian Empire wasn’t the kind of empire to tolerate such insubordination. So the theater was closed again in 1856.
But not all was lost. The Tergdaleuleulebi movement was gaining momentum and forming a new aesthetic basis for culture. The incompatibility of the existing set of national interests was already being assessed from the point of view of democratic ideals. Ilia Chavchavadze saw the potential of powerful nationalist propaganda through theater:
“At least we’ll have a single public place, where we will speak in our language, mourn in our language, spend our lives at the mercy of our language with all our wisdom and heart. The theater is of huge importance to a fallen nation like ours because that is the only drop of nationalism we currently have. This is the only place where our language is heard and acted upon.”
Obviously, the theater would not have been able to fulfill this goal without dramaturgy. Therefore, the newspaper “Droeba” called on the writers to create highly artistic works and announced a competition for the best national drama. The plays were also published in the newspaper “Iveria”. Writing plays and performing them became the embodiment of nationalist and anti-Russian-colonialism sentiments. They were means of fighting for freedom and preserving the culture.
Under the leadership of Ilia Chavchavadze and Akaki Tsereteli, the “Drama Committee” (later the “Drama Society”) was founded, which set a goal to preserve Georgian national theatre.
Company of the actors of Georgian National Theater, 1892-1893.
This led to further development of historical-patriotic works. Calls for self-sacrifice for the homeland were heard from the stage for the first time! And speeches by the characters, such as: “Georgians won’t be exterminated that easily! Georgians will not give up their homeland so easily! Many times we have seen Georgia at its worst, but every time we rose to our feet, we fought back, we endured and we will rise up again!” The plays awakened society. It was a big slap, but it was necessary to bring the public out of its slumber.
So, again, who in the Russian imperial government would possibly put up with a Georgian flag being raised high on the stage? The situation was immediately declared dangerous by the Russian officials and the usage of the Georgian flag was banned. Mikheil Katkov even said in Moscow that Georgians should sell their national flags to the circus. This was received as a great insult by the society and as Ilia and Akaki sent their answer to Katkov, it slowly started to snowball into a war for national pride, thus igniting the anti-tsarist sentiment even more.
During the same period, Lado Meskhishvili turned the Kutaisi Theater into a tribune of the nationalist movement. Despite the severity of the censorship, he still created a repertoire against the aristocracy and the king’s government. He said at a special meeting of the self-proclaimed aristocrats of Kutaisi province in April 1905:
“This (his plays) is the mirror of your life and in this mirror, you can clearly see your moral decline, your ignorance and your depravity. I am doing this because it is my duty and I WILL fulfill it! ”
The public was so fascinated by the content of his plays that after the performances they would gather in front of the theater and shout:
“Down with self-immolation!”
“Down with the police!”
“Down with the war!”
This resulted in the banning of several plays that exhibited nationalist sentiments. Moreover, in 1906, Alikhanov-Avarsky’s Russian battalion set foot in the country with a single mission – to punish Georgians. Lado Meskhishvili called from the barricades: “If we die – the country will produce heroes who will undoubtedly give victory to the people.”
The theatre’s struggle for democracy did not stop. Despite the strict censorship, a few nationalistic plays were still slapping the nation into awakening. Later, the burning of the Georgian Theater building (1914, probably not an accident) and severe political events (World War I) hindered the development of theater but something amazing was bound to happen as well.
Rustaveli Theater, XIX century.
Sweet But Brief Freedom
Due to the lack of a permanent stage, the Tbilisi theatre quickly lost its innovative and nationalistic character. It no longer reflected public life.
But then, in 1917, Georgia seized the opportunity to declare its independence from the empire. Theater-goers met this with joy as they were confident that the state of the theater would improve as the country regained its freedom. But the situation turned out to be infinitely worse than expected.
The theater has never been as necessary as it was then, but it needed a new language, a new meaning, and new artistic methods to strengthen the audience’s novel emotions of freedom, created by revolutionary processes and the new way of life. As always it needed to reflect the status quo, which it couldn’t possibly do with outdated language.
The number of professional creators at that time was extremely small and the theatre’s funds were even smaller. Still, the 1917-18 season somehow opened, but in a matter of 8 months only 50 performances were held, which is a miserable number, plus the plays were, for the most part, based on the old repertoire and didn’t resonate with the public.
On February 8, 1918, the opening of the State University proved to be a major cultural event, which played an important role in the development of national consciousness, the upbringing of new staff, and the formation of national ideology, which also influenced the development of Georgian culture and art. In short, it was the funnel through which a whole new generation of Georgians entered the society.
The Drama Society was still actively fighting for the well equipped and well provided national theatre. Only then would it be possible for the Georgian theater to thrive. The condition of the actors as well as of the theater was, in general, quite serious, but the government continuously refused to fund it.
The government officials of the First Republic of Georgia, 1918.
Due to the difficult socio-political situation and economic hardship, the assembly was unable to hold the theatrical season of 1919-1920 or create a national theatre. The Drama Society continued to fight for the existence of the theater. For this purpose, January 2, 1920, was widely celebrated as Georgian Theater Day.
For the 1920-21 season, the Drama Society formed a professional troupe of well-known and experienced actors. All seemed to be slowly improving, a few important works were created and a new generation of artists was entering the stage but on February 15, 1921, due to the Soviet Russian aggression and imminent occupation, the theater ceased working and the development was once again on pause.
The Theatre Under Soviet Rule
After the second Russian occupation of Georgia, the theater once again found itself on the difficult path of self-preservation. However, in the early years of the annexation, the authorities were more concerned with strengthening the regime than taming the culture. It was only later, in the early 1930s, that full-scale censorship and repressions kicked in. These first years were perfectly well exploited by two Georgian theater reformers, Kote Marjanishvili (1872-1933) and Sandro Akhmeteli (1886-1937), whose works truly revolutionized the Georgian theatre.
In 1922, the Soviet government appointed an already well-known director Kote Marjanishvili the head of the Rustaveli Theater. Once at the theater, he was greeted by Sandro Akhmeteli, a lawyer by education but a genius director with a few theatre productions under his belt. The two men, with a fiery temperament and explosive, emotional nature, created the modern Georgian theater.
Marjanishvili was trying to purify the theater from foreign influences and revive the genetic code that was implanted in the Georgian theater from the beginning. And create he did! It was he who awakened the Dionysian passion, the depth and mystery of the mystical drama in the Georgian theater, and the Georgian commedia dell’arte, or the strength and diversity of Berikaoba. “The qualitative development of national culture leads to internationalism,” Akhmeteli wrote. He created a conceptual theater by combining the idea of national pragmatism, national temperament, and expressive forms.
But, as you should have learned by now, nothing good ever lasts in Georgia. Lavrenti Beria, then secretary of the Bolshevik Party of Georgia, informed the Kremlin that “an anti-Soviet sentiment was brewing in the Rustaveli Theater”. Thus, Akhmeteli was arrested and shot on June 29, 1937. Several actors and employees of the Rustaveli Theater were shot or deported as well. It was a sad day. The whole theater mourned…no, the whole country mourned the loss of this artistic giant, but only a few dared to express it. Such was the ugly machine running the so-called Soviet Union, which in reality was no union, but an expansionist empire.
Akhmeteli and friends.
The 30s and 40s were the hardest and, as we saw, the bloodiest for the Georgian theater. The so-called “the Great Purge” had caused immense damage to culture and the theater, which could exist and function only through direct communication and relationship with the people. The Soviet regime was particularly hostile towards the creative part of the society, to non-Soviet thinkers.
Theaters were tasked with solving ideological confusion, revising the repertoire, establishing a method of socialist realism, “renewing” the staff, and so on.
During the Second World War, the heroic-romantic period of “Soviet Classicism” and social realism – were established in the Georgian Theater. After Stalin’s death, exile and the death penalty became rare, but censorship did not weaken, and free thought was still persecuted.
However, very carefully, Georgian theater still searched for new theatrical forms in the 50s. Censorship no longer entailed shooting people, but it could still destroy artists’ souls and minds by taking their freedom away. Those who dared to resist lost their freedom, those who surrendered – their ability to create.
But still, the theater survived and evolved into something new. This new theatrical era is associated with Mikheil Tumanishvili (1921-1997), a brilliant director and teacher. In his very first play, “People, Be Vigilant”, it became clear that the director had severed all ties with outdated theatrical traditions and fake heroism. For the first time, de-heroization took place on the Georgian stage. This was truly a revolution.
In 1971, Tumanishvili left the Theater, saying: “I left when I felt that new leaders had emerged on the horizon of the theater, partly with my help and effort.” These new leaders, his students, were two Georgian theater masters, Temur Chkheidze and Robert Sturua.
“Our stage does not have a curtain. Nothing exists behind the scenes. We are playing on a bare plank like a scaffold and we are fighting to burn like a torch in the burning fire of reality.”
He said and set up a fireworks display right on the stage.
As we said, after Mikheil Tumanishvili left the theater, two strong directors emerged, just as if the Marjanishvili-Akhmeteli trend had been revived. However, unlike their predecessors, they were the ideological children of Tumanishvili and the representatives of the already established theatrical school. Chkheidze worked with the style of Marjanishvili and, a sophisticated form, Europian in style and psychological in nature. Sturua was attracted to the open-air theatrical form brought by Akhmeteli and established by Tumanishvili, and the unified non-existent postmodern theatrical paradigm in the then European theater with its historical-temporal distance.
From left to right: Tumanishvili, Sturua, and Chkeidze.
Theater in the 70-90s
The 70s and 80s of the last century, the so-called “Era of Stagnation” when communist censorship and ideological chains throughout the Soviet Union were making a big dent in the public consciousness, namely in a theater. The theater was forced to fulfill the regime’s orders and instead of reflecting the reality, to embellish it.
Decades of harsh censorship forced artists to learn how to talk to the public without actually talking. That’s why people very well knew what the play was truly about, they learned to look beyond the censure-filtered façade and read wordless messages.
In 1991, we regained one and the most important thing, our freedom, but everything else almost completely disappeared: the economy, money, printing houses, gas, light, and what now. The old regime even left the state theaters in ruins. But, thanks to the artists’ perseverance, none of the theaters were closed.
Here and there small private theaters sprang up. Amongst them was the first “Basement Theater” on Rustaveli, where young directors staged their first independent performances. You could say that these small theatres, together with training a new generation of actors and directors, accustomed the audience to attending and listening to the plays.
Nowadays, the theater is up and functioning but still lacks funding. You often hear people say: “We have to look after the economy first, then the culture.” This might prove fatal for our theater. First of all, if we did see some improvements in the economic situation then surely there would have been some weight to these words, but after years and years of no actual progress, they kind of lose all meaning. Secondly, who said that culture and economy are two separate concepts? They’re not, culture influences the economy and vice versa. When there is such a correlation between two things you don’t just ignore one and focus on the other.
Sadly enough, national culture is never a priority for state policy. As the former head of the Pantomime Theater, Mr. Amiran Shalikashvili once yelled:
“Georgian theater has been put in a coffin and no one even mourns it!”
Cover photo from Marjanishvili Theater