Like all people, the Estonians, a Finno-Ugric nation who have lived in their present territory for nearly 5000 years, have their age-old games and rituals centred around seasonal turning-points and important social events.
Theatre as a separate art form was introduced by the Germans who conquered Estonia and Latvia as crusaders in the early 13th century.
For almost 700 years, despite the country being successively ruled by Poland, Sweden, and (from 1710) by Russia, this small German minority formed the privileged upper class of society. So for a long period theatre functioned only in a limited way within the Baltic German urban milieu, outside the sphere of native folkloristic culture.

Although there are hints that the crusaders used some sort of spectacles in their propaganda work, medieval religious theatre never took a stronger root in the newly-conquered land. Of Renaissance theatre there were a few scattered instances of Latin school drama in bigger towns; in the 17th century theatre activity was restricted to infrequent itinerant troupes from Germany and some local amateur efforts. Only the fortunate arrival of the young and energetic German playwright August von Kotzebue in Tallinn (called Reval in German) brought about the establishment of a professional theatre in 1809. Both its repertoire and actors came predominantly from Germany; the local Baltic Germans remained in the relatively passive consumer role, and their attitudes were provincial and conservative. Nevertheless, it was Baltic German theatre that provided the nascent Estonian and Latvian theatre with initial model.

Beginning of Native Estonian theatre

Native Estonian theatre, born in 1870 with the plays of the patriotic poetess Lydia Koidula, came into being on the crest of national awakening.
Its tastes were at first pretty simple, the favourite genres being folk comedy and romantic melodrama, although both also transmitted half-hidden social and political attitudes. What is amazing is the speed with which theatre was now accepted by lower class urban and peasant Estonian population. Already by the 1880s more than a hundred towns and villages had more or less regular theatricals. These amateur circles were primarily a vehicle of social and cultural intercourse in the rapidly changing Estonian society, but they also testified to a newborn enthusiasm for spectacles.

Establishment of professional theatres

Thus in less than forty years, in 1906, the leading amateur companies, the “Vanemuine” (led by Karl Menning) in the university town Tartu and the “Estonia”(led by Paul Pinna and Theodor Altermann) in Tallinn, could become professional, and in 1911 the “Endla” of Pärnu joined them.

The imposing buildings of these theatres, erected by means of nation-wide donation campaigns, themselves were visible symbols of national aspirations. Indeed, they were planned as multi-functional “people’s houses” where also various public gatherings took place. In their artistic aims these theatres, especially the “Vanemuine”, focused on stage realism, psychological insight, and ensemble acting. Somewhat surprisingly the initial decade of professional Estonian theatre already saw the first masterpieces of native drama, the realistic plays by August Kitzberg and Eduard Vilde, being written and performed.

Developments in 1918-1940

The collapse of Russian empire in 1917 and the establishment of Estonia’s political independence in 1918 radically changed all spheres of life.

Now free from the restrictions of csarist censorship and national oppression, Estonian arts could develop unhampered and hope for considerable state and municipal support. In the theatre the result was a spreading of professional activity into all important local centres, even some towns of less than 5000 inhabitants, so that a network of about ten regular repertory companies (three of them in the capital Tallinn) covered the whole country. With certain modifications this network has continued to function up to this day. The first period of independence (1918-1940) also witnessed a steady improvement in the technical equipment of the theatres and a constant rise of acting standards. Growing attendances made it possible to cut the number of plays per season and allow more time for rehearsals.

The role of the stage director was also being enhanced; artistic directors like Ants Lauter of the “Estonia” and Priit Põldroos of the Tallinn Workers’ Theatre were decisive in forming the general image of their companies.

By the end of the period, Estonia had an entirely “normal” European theatre, which also included operas, ballets and operettas. In their social composition the Estonian audiences were noticeably more democratic than those in many countries with longer theatre traditions; the arrival of movies did not lessen the popular appeal of the stage. As was to be expected, the share of native plays was rising regularly, so that in the 1930s they already made up about one half of the total repertoire. Most notable among this mass of plays were those written by A. H. Tammsaare (who is also regarded as the greatest Estonian novelist) and Hugo Raudsepp.

Stylistically Estonian arts had already been invaded by various Modernist trends in the early years of the century, and feverish experimentation continued during the 1920s. So far theatre had lagged somewhat behind in these developments; now it belatedly turned first to Symbolism and then to brand-new Expressionism. A return to Realism came only towards the end of the decade. This was in unison with a retreat of experimentalism all over Europe in the 1930s, but in Estonia it was more noticeable than in some other countries. On the one hand it may have been due to growing prosperity, which strengthened conservative middle-class attitudes.
On the other hand, it was as if the young Estonian arts had only now time to fill in some of the earlier background, which had been visible in older cultures and against which Modernism had been in revolt.

Estonian theatre during Soviet occupation

Anyway, the development of the arts was largely organic and self-regulating. The brutal Soviet occupation of 1940 changed it all.

Continuing throughout the time of war (1941- 44) and the renewed Stalinist terror, almost a fifteen-year period of total darkness followed.

World War II also brought about a hitherto unprecedented division of the small Estonian culture into the home branch and the exile one, as numerous people, remembering the atrocities of the first Soviet year in 1940-41, fled to the West. The percentage of artists and intellectuals among them was high, and in some arts, notably literature, the work in the exile branch was for about twenty years much more significant than that produced in the homeland. Nothing of the sort happened in the theatre, however, as the small and scattered exile communities were unable to support professional companies; their theatre was soon reduced to amateur undertakings.

In the home country, at the same time, the repertoire of the theatres was inundated with lifeless Soviet plays; the only hope for any box office lay in the few acceptable classics. Living under a constant threat of ideological accusations, which could easily turn into physical repression, stage directors found it safer to copy officially approved Moscow or Leningrad productions. The main thing about the dark Stalinist years was that the Estonian nation and its culture survived at all.

Developments of 1950s

After Stalin’s death in 1953, a decade of slow recovery followed.

In the theatre the repertoire expanded, admitting more classics and contemporary Western authors. Soviet playwrights (including such Estonian authors as Juhan Smuul and Ardi Liives) now had more leeway: at least in the private sphere of life their characters started to look like living people again.

A feature to be developed during the rest of Soviet period was a culture of hints and allusions that had already permeated everyday life. Stylistically the reaction was against Stalinist pompousness and artificiality. There was a tendency towards authentic realism, but also attempts at greater poetic freedom. For Estonian theatre these developments largely signified a return to pre-war patterns, as poetic realism had been a widespread trend of the 1930s. A more novel influence was Bertolt Brecht. The leading Estonian theatre directors of the period, Voldemar Panso and Kaarel Ird, were among the first to introduce him to Soviet stages.

In 1957 on initiative of Voldemar Panso the former formal actor training restarted at the Higher Theatre School of Estonian Academy of Music.

1960s and theatre innovation

In the 1960s a new generation, less traumatized by the sudden tragedy of Soviet occupation emerged in all arts. These young people were also helped by a growing differentiation of cultural policies across the immense Soviet empire. While the attraction of artistic freedom (usually in the form of various Modernistic trends) was felt everywhere in the “Eastern bloc”, its actual force depended on the leniency of local authorities. In the Baltic countries local authorities generally chose to ignore less dangerous forms of opposition. Thus artistic developments here often had more resemblance to those in the East European “people’s democracies” than in Russia proper. Abstract painting, atonal music, free verse, and stream-of-consciousness prose, all banned in Moscow or Leningrad, were quietly tolerated in the Baltics.

In the theatre a sudden (and short-lived) wave of non-realistic plays, variants of the drama of the absurd, appeared in the late 1960s.
For playwrights (a number of them, like Artur Alliksaar, Ain Kaalep, and Paul-Eerik Rummo, primarily poets) these non-realistic techniques of presentation gave a chance to talk about wider existential problems and also about the cruelty and grotesqueness of totalitarian rule. Most of these plays, however, received only a moderately innovative production.

Then around 1969 a new and much more radical style of staging and acting, connected with the names of young directors Jaan Tooming and Evald Hermaküla, both at the time working in the “Vanemuine” of Tartu, made its appearance. It manifested itself in the freedom with which play texts were often treated, in the aggressiveness and physicality of stage action, and in heavy reliance on symbols and metaphors.

The aggressiveness was a reflection of hysterical rage born out of a feeling of growing political frustration after the crushing of the Prague Spring. But for a wide section of the public, who otherwise might have shared that feeling, its theatrical form became a source of annoyance.

Indeed, the opposition of the avant-garde and the wider public, evident already in the young Estonian culture of the first quarter of the 20th century, then considerably weakened in the 1930s and almost obliterated for the first 25 years of Soviet occupation, made a spectacular re-appearance in all arts of the 1960s. So it was not only the ever-suspicious authorities that the innovators had to face. But as this theatre revolution coincided with a wider arrival of a new generation of stage directors, traits and procedures of the new approach were soon being universally adopted and became part of a common theatrical language which the public also learnt to understand.
Final recognition came between 1976 and 1983, when Jaan Tooming staged a series of monumental productions, vaguely religious in spirit, pointing to various Oriental and Occidental spiritual traditions and to Finno-Ugric folkloristic heritage.

In retrospect it looks indeed surprising how well the whole movement harmonized with current international trends, whose actual productions Estonian directors had been unable to see, and how exceptional it was against Soviet background, theatrical renewal in Moscow and Leningrad falling considerably short of the radicalism of Baltic experiments.

Developments of 1980s

Outwardly the theatrical landscape of the 1980s looked pretty good. Theatres usually had full houses, 40 or 50 performances being an average run for drama productions; the annual number of spectators was nearly 1.7 million (in a nation of less than 1.5 million).

Nevertheless, a feeling of tiredness and disorientation was creeping in.

The metaphorical-physical trend was felt to have exhausted itself.

To a certain extent the formerly dominant realistic and psychological mode returned, now enriched by various symbolic features and interpretational liberties. This could also be seen in Estonian drama, in the plays of Enn Vetemaa, Vaino Vahing, Jaan Kruusvall, and Rein Saluri.
Among stage directors the foremost representative of renewed social-psychological approach was Mikk Mikiver, whose work was also characteristic of the 1980s in its interest for history, for national “roots”.