TCR Talks with Mart Kivastik


For a small country of 1.3 million people, Estonia has a rich and long-standing literary tradition based on centuries of folklore and lyric poems. The country is located on the Baltic Sea to the south of Finland and shares its eastern border with Russia.

At the end of World War II, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, forcing many of the country’s authors and playwrights into exile. A select few remained in Estonia but found themselves constrained by Soviet censorship.

 This period lasted nearly fifty years, between 1944 through 1991, during which a generation knew nothing but restrictions as to the topics that could be covered in books, plays, and film. Despite these limitations, writers such as Jaan Kross and Jaan Kaplinski have been able to reach an international audience and have shared the Estonian experience with the world.

The award-winning Estonian writer, Mart Kivastik, follows in this tradition. A prolific writer, Kivastik has been the author of short stories, novels, essays, film scripts, and travel features and is currently one of the country’s most produced playwrights. In 2015 Kivastik was awarded the Friedebert Tuglas Novell Prize for his short story “Good Luck When You Sleep.” He is the recipient of the Virumaa Literary Prize (2006), the Eduar Viide Literary Prize (2002), and the Estonian Cultural Endowment’s drama awards for his plays.

Kivastik’s most well-known plays tell the stories of prominent figures from Estonia’s tumultuous past. The play Soldier describes the poignant struggle of Johan Laidoner, Estonia’s Commander in Chief as he faced the Soviet takeover in 1941. In the play Vares, Kivastik portrays the life and death of Johannes Vares Barbarus, who was appointed by the Soviet Union to be the puppet leader of Estonia during the Communist occupation between 1941 and 1942 and then again between 1944 and 1946, when Barbarus reportedly committed suicide. The 2018 play Defendant and the Giant focuses on the quandaries faced by Estonia’s president Konstantin Päts in the early days of the Soviet occupation. Päts was Estonia’s most influential politician through its years of independence and served as the country’s head of government in multiple roles over more than two decades before he was forced to abdicate to Johannes Vares Barbarus.

Specifically in his dramatic works, Kivastik brings to life a period from Estonia’s past that was not discussed during the Soviet occupation. This period in Estonian history is relatively unknown by younger generations of Estonians. The end of the Soviet occupation of Estonia corresponded with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, nearly thirty years ago. The Coachella Review asks Kivastik about the value of creating narrative works from history, especially those neglected or censored subjects, and the role of literature and art in this endeavor.

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: Much of your playwriting has focused on historical figures. Why do you believe it is important for theater audiences to understand what has happened in the past?

MART KIVASTIK: I love reading books about historical figures and history in general and always thought I would like to “write history” myself. I think if you know the past, then you can better understand the present as well as the future and perhaps even begin to know who we are as people. Compared with past times, we may wear different clothes, listen to a different style of music, and have more powerful weapons, which can kill more people more effectively, but we, as humans, haven’t really changed much. If you look at today’s world, there is still war after war despite the terrible loss of human life during the First and Second World Wars. You might say we haven’t learned anything from these past experiences.

TCR: Given that discussions of Estonian history were suppressed during the Soviet times, how important is it for Estonians to recover their past history from the World War II era?

MK: It is important that we remember what happened. Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was known in the past, still thinks that the Baltic States are their own playground, and there are Russian leaders who believe they have every right to poison somebody in Great Britain if this is in their “national interest.” I think Russia is a danger for the whole world unless they really change, but as long as Putin is in power, that would seem to be impossible. Estonia is so small. We can only hope that the world stays united as we do everything to strengthen our situation in order to keep Estonia a free country with free people. In my opinion, the European Union is the only solution for us. Without Europe, Estonia would always be in danger of falling back to where we were, that is, being absorbed once again into Russia.

TCR: What draws you to the historic figures you have highlighted in your plays? In what ways do these stories highlight the dilemma Estonia as a country experienced when it was caught between the ambitions of Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II?

MK: I was commissioned to write Soldier about Johan Laidoner and Kostja ja Hiiglane about President Konstantin Päts, but these topics really suited me. In each of the two plays, the protagonists were tragic figures because they happened to be leaders of the Estonian State when World War II broke out. President Päts ultimately died in Siberia, as did General Laidoner. Most of the members of the Estonian government, by the way, shared a similarly wretched fate as the Russians killed or deported our country’s most prominent leaders during the early days of World War II.

TCR: Descriptions of your work mention that you sometimes “bend” history to get at a greater truth. What role does historical research play in your work? Can you give examples of how you use history in your playwriting and when you have chosen not to include all the historical facts about what has happened in the past?

MK: I try not to “bend” facts; facts are facts and there is also what is known as historical truth. Yet, everybody has their own view as to why things happen, and so do I. While I do use “history” to tell my stories, they become my interpretation of the past. In this way all writers are big liars, but you do what you need to do to get at a more fundamental and universal truth. As for the real facts, only God knows what truly happened in the past.

TCR: Your plays have been compared to Beckett’s. Are there some universal themes about life and freedom that carry across your playwriting?

MK: It is an honor, of course, to be compared to Beckett! I am quite pleased for this recognition and hope I can live up to these expectations. Universal themes such as love and death are always a part of my work, which are topics that form the ingredients for all film, theater, music, and art.

TCR: You have experimented with small plays, which I assume are short, one-act plays. What are the advantages of using this playwriting format to tell certain stories? Does the story you’re trying to tell dictate what format you use?

MK: Yes, I like small formats, which allow my stories to become more personal, although I’m not sure why this may be so. Maybe I am attracted to this style because it allows me to tell the story of those who are less well known, maybe even those who are losers. I like Chekhov and his type of characters and one of my favourite writers is Isaac Babel, who wrote stories that are sometimes only two or three pages long. They are very short, very concise, and masterpieces. If you have not read Babel, you should do it!

Stories usually come with their own format or maybe it depends on who commissions them. I do not know, but somehow, I like films, theater, and literature that use shorter formats and also incorporate more mystery and plot lines that are not so obvious. My favorite type of art asks questions, rather than providing answers. I distrust writers who pretend to have all the answers within their creative work. I just don’t believe it and I often find this type of writing to be boring. I like unexpectedness in art.

TCR: Many of your plays are satires. Have you also experimented with drama or comedy? What is your preferred approach to playwriting and why?

MK: I tend to write in a genre that is uniquely my own. I consider my work to be a mix of tragedy and comedy. If the writing is too dark, it is not for me, since life is dark enough by itself. And I like good comedies, but it is so rare when you get to see or read them. Good jokes are the best thing in the world, and I believe it is too easy to take oneself too seriously.

TCR: Do you believe plays such as Soldier about Estonia’s commander in chief Johan Laidoner have lessons for a broader international audience?

MK: Of course! There are stories the world does not know. We need to tell everybody what happened and how. I hope these plays help to explain the Estonian cause. To this end, I hope I can convert the play Soldier into a film one day so that it can reach a wider international audience.

Soldier tells more than just the story of one soldier’s experience. It is a story about honor and the strength of character that makes someone a real soldier by contrasting Laidoner, who is principled and patriotic, with his Russian guard, Vorobjov, who has no concept about what real honor is.

TCR: What are the lessons an American audience might learn from your plays?

MK: Americans are not that different from other people, but many American audiences are more used to plays and films that deal with American stories rather than tales from a far, cold, small country that is very different and could offer something novel and out of the ordinary like the play Soldier.

TCR: You have also written film scripts. What are the differences you find between writing scripts for film versus for theater? Are there some stories that lend themselves more to being adapted for the screen versus being shown in front of a live audience?

MK: It depends on how much money you have! I myself like films, and I would hope half of my plays could become films if that were possible. Theater and film are so different. I rewrote Soldier to convert it from a play to a script and did not expect it to be so hard, but it really turned out to be a lot of work, which made me crazy. So, I’m not sure I would try to do this again.

That said, some of my plays are very film-like while others are not. For example, the smaller format plays are pure theater. In my mind, really good theater is very rare, but it can create an extraordinary experience, something that is unique to theater and cannot be translated to other genres.

TCR: Tell us about your upcoming projects.

MK: I have already written a script for a new film, so we’ll see what happens with the funding. It is always tricky with films. I am also writing a new novel, which is about halfway done, and I expect to be commissioned to write a new theater play for the next season. So, I am staying busy.

Looking into the future, I still hope to make Soldier into a film one day and would also like to be able to finally direct a play that took me five years to write, which has been my longest project so far.

Kaia Gallagher is working on a memoir called Return to Estonia, which explores her connection to her Estonian heritage. She is an MFA graduate at the University of California–Riverside’s Low Residency program.