Bird Droppings from Estonia: The Koidula conspiracy (5)
Archived Articles 14 Oct 2008 Hilary BirdEWR
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1. The Blood of Koidula (Koidula veri), for non-Estonians

It is the 19th century in NE Europe. In a small provincial town in a large empire an intelligent young woman is growing up in a liberal family with a social conscience. Her father is the first journalist to write and successfully publish a newspaper in the language of the province but he has to be careful that he does not write anything ‘political.’ The young woman helps her father: she writes for the paper and helps him to avoid getting into trouble with the imperial censor. Meanwhile, an angry, radical journalist protests that his attempts to free his people from poverty and injustice are constantly frustrated. He must write, write , write - but what is needed is a heroine. A Judith!

One day a peasant arrives at the liberal journalist’s house and tells how he has been savagely punished for a relatively minor offence. The peasant asks that the young woman leave the room but the father refuses and, because he is in a hurry, insists that the peasant get on with his business. The man exposes his back that is a bloody mess from a whipping. The father, in a display of Victorian Puritanism, is shocked that the man should uncover his torso in front of a woman. The young woman, however, runs off to get water to bathe the wounds. The peasant who is a member of a free thinking non-conformist Christian congregation, wants the journalist to expose the cruelties of the system but the journalist cannot – his newspaper will be shut down if he condemns, openly, the brutality of the ruling classes. He tries to explain that he does all he can and offers money and food. When the young woman returns the peasant has gone.

The young woman has refused to iron her brother’s coat. Now she puts on the coat, packs a bag and gets her brother to take her to the train station, from where, disguised as a man, she travels to the imperial capital. There she goes to see her fellow countryman, a successful artist, whose commissions include work for the imperial family. The young woman hopes that the artist will introduce her to the Emperor and that she can plead her case for her people with him. The artist is impressed with her beauty and paints her, naked, as Eve. One day the Emperor turns up unexpectedly at the artist’s studio. He is also taken with the young woman and arranges for her to move into the accommodation reserved for his mistresses. On her arrival the young woman meets the Emperor’s previous mistress. The woman is embittered and swears revenge for her rejection: her son, she says, will rule the world. And this comes true. Her son will be the leader of a successful revolution.

When the emperor leaves the young woman he presents her the draft of a new law prohibiting the use of excessive corporal punishment. The young woman is relieved to be leaving what she deems to be the madness of the capital. But she can’t lace up her bodice. Some months later the result of the liaison between the provincial young woman and the emperor is born. The baby is taken away and given to the peasant who had come to the journalist for help. He is asked never to reveal the names of the child’s mother and father but the peasant has very strict Methodist principals and refuses. The police keep an eye on the family. The young women’s father is forced to accept hush money.

The young woman becomes deeply involved with the cultural life of her country, becoming a major poet and the founder of the first theatre – a national heroine. She wants to marry but she is a blue stocking, a ‘pen-maiden’ and men are rather afraid of her. But one man wants to marry her – he’s not a poet or an intellectual but a doctor. The young woman’s father is against the marriage: he knows her secret and, besides, she’s very useful to him. In desperation the young woman travels to a nearby town in order to see a distinguished literary friend who is also a doctor. Whilst the friend’s wife is out the young woman lifts her skirt and asks if anything can be done to restore her lost virginity. The wife returns and finds the pair in what seems like a compromising situation and the poetess is driven from the house. Back at home the young woman tells her doctor suitor she is not a virgin. He does not care. The couple announces that they are getting married and move to the imperial capital.

The young woman’s husband is also a man of conscience. A young revolutionary visits his clinic suspecting that she has a venereal disease, the product of too much free love. The girl defends, passionately, her ideas of freedom and equality. The doctor does not have much money but donates to the cause. This girl is later hanged for attempting to assassinate the Emperor. The young woman’s marriage is happy. There are children. Husband and wife speak different native languages but communicate in a third. They resolve their difficulties about the woman’s untidy habits and the man’s lack of interest in her poetry. But clouds gather. The woman is struck down by cancer. She has an operation and there is hope. But the cancer returns. The man supports her but is helpless. Morphine becomes the only way to relieve intense pain. In their final scene together we see the man helping the woman to prepare for her last photograph. She says that man and wife are one and that she wishes to be buried in the same grave as her husband. The woman dies in the imperial capital. The man, who never remarries, is buried beside her. In the 20th century, after a brief period of independence, the little country is once again occupied by the former imperial power. The play ends with the return of the body of Judith to her native land amidst a welter of celebration. But the return is ambiguous. The husband she loved remains in another country.

The son of the young woman and the emperor grows up with his adopted parents. He is a rebellious boy, a poet with a romantic temperament. He is sent to a school in the provincial town where his mother lives. The school is run by an artful man who teaches the wayward sons of aristocrats (at a price) who have been expelled from other schools. He subsidizes the education of poor boys from his own people with the money he makes. But the young poet cannot settle and the headmaster is forced to expel him. His adopted father, the abused peasant, tells him who he really is. The poet tells the world but no one believes him and he is sent to an insane asylum. Care assistants torment him and the imperial secret service involve him in an unsuccessful plot to shoot his grandfather. He dies with his claim to be a king unrecognized.

So. What is truth and what is reality? Who is mad and who is not? It was not so long ago that those who ruled Estonia (yes, our dear little Eesti) incarcerated the sane but dissident in psychiatric institutions. Shades of Jaan Kross linger in the wings. A strong sense of injustice in a world where ‘the big fish eat the little ones’ (Estonian proverb) is palpable both in the incident of the whipped peasant, the anger and political impotence of the both the liberal and radical journalists (a excellent snapshot into the frustrating life of writers working under censorship), the passionate revolutionary commitment of the girl who seeks out the doctor and the young woman’s defence of the rights of smaller nations to speak their native tongue. Other not-so-romantic 19c modes of behaviour are touched on. The young woman is uninhibited but ignorant of the way her body functions – she is frightened by the onset of menstruation, wonders why, after sexual intercourse, her bodice will not tie up and is unaware that a ruptured hymen cannot be surgically fixed.

Sexism is rife. The young woman’s brother expects her to do his ironing; the doctor expects the woman to prioritize housework over her involvement with activism and is not interested in the worth of her poetry; a sense of absolute sexual as well as political power is inherent in the young woman’s relationship with the emperor. She is taken from the artist’s studio to the apartment of the imperial mistresses, where she meets the out-going incumbent who has been summarily dismissed; there is no way out for the young woman and no way back for the woman rejected. Prudery lurks everywhere - the young woman’s father is shocked by a man exposing his back in the presence of a woman, refers her to a medical home encyclopedia for information about menstruation and the female parts in a stage play must all be cross-dressing men. The young female revolutionary, meanwhile, insists on her right to screw who she wants. Finally, the medical practices of the 19c are portrayed in a rather chilling light. The mad poet is routinely abused by the care staff in a psychiatric unit, the doctor is overworked and underpaid, and a surgeon thinks nothing of quaffing brandy before an operation.

There is plenty of food for though for non-Estonians who can enjoy a wonderful night at the theatre without the shibboleths of an Estonian audience. The plot is a rollicking good yarn that moves along at a spanking pace from one fascinating vignette to another leaving no time for boredom. What ever will happen next? The stagecraft of the Vanemuine production is superb with time and place economically managed. There are very few props – a desk, a bed, a chair, a washstand – a doctor’s consultation room in the capital becomes a writer’s office or a police station, the madman’s cell an operating theatre or a peasant hut in the provinces just by different actors taking up their places. And the same with the sound and music. Crashing thunder, Wagner, Argentinean tango, Enya are among the effects that set a mood: from the very start the audience is plunged into startled mode by dramatic, brooding electronic thunder and a madman’s screams.

But the real joy of ‘The Blood of Koidula’ is the gallery of wonderful characters that consistently light up a rather dimly lit stage. The jewel in the crown is both the writing and performance of the young woman - the main female part - that’s played with vitality, assurance and a great wig by 28-year-old Ragne Pekarev. Truly a delight. The male actors take several roles apiece in a testament to the versatility of the troupe. All, from the caring (but selfish) father, the slimy policemen, the frustrated journalists, the boozy surgeon, and the mad poet are marvelous. But the jewel in the crown is the central relationship between the young woman and her doctor. Love does not quite conquer all. The couple cannot escape death and their separated, posthumous fate is tinged with high tragedy.

Finally I would like to add a personal note (don’t I always?). For an unreconstructed feminist raised in a western European culture this woman-centred play about a strong, intelligent, gifted and sometimes difficult woman is a massive breath of fresh air. Sexism, prudery, seduction, paternal restriction political authoritarianism roll off the main character like water off a duck’s back. Nothing can stop this gal! Why should she not go to the capital? Why should she ape the cynical decadence and self-centeredness of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) when she prefers simple rhymes about the little flowers of the meadows of her little country? Why should she object to being thought of as a German when she is Estonian? Why should she not marry the man who wants her? And please do not assume that the play dumps on men. All – the father, the son, the brothers, the colleagues, the lover – are written with sympathy and the central relationship, based on love and trust rather than thrusting groins is soooo refreshing, as is the elevation of motherhood. Motherhood is often hard, difficult and unappreciated work, despite the fact that the future of humankind depends on it. The playwright was rather puzzled when asked by the media in a rather disparaging way (speaks volumes!) if the play was ‘feminist.’ Since when was feminism (especially the sensible sort) a dirty word?

But let’s leave the last word to Loone Ots, the playwright: “ It is pointless to look for direct opinions about women’s rights in the play. Some incidents are about women and politics, others about women’s everyday lives. Political activism is a more appropriate arena for women’s liberation than the theatre. The Blood of Koidula approaches the poetess with an open mind, with the realization that even a ‘Singer of the dawn’ was flesh and blood, a normal biological female who menstruated, lost her virginity, got pregnant and generally experienced a woman’s lot.” An attitude that reminds me more than a little of Margaret Atwood ...

2. Koidula veri – The Blood of Koidula for Estonians

Lennukas fantaasia eesti kultuuriloo teemadel, kus tegelasteks paljud ajaloo suurkujud. Ehk ei olnudki Juhan Liiv hull, kui pidas ennast Poola kuningaks?

( )

If you are a narrow-minded conservative prude that cannot stomach idols being removed from dusty pedestals then read no further. Anyone expecting a cosy poetry circle around a biedermeyer fireplace at the Women’s Institute can give Koidula Veri a miss, although there is a portrait of a reigning monarch on a wall. This play, a fantasy on the life of the ‘mother of the nation’, Lydia Koidula, is awash with post modernism - fragmentary structure, lucid form, playful de-reconstruction i.e., the making of connections not rooted in tradition and a mixing of high and popular art - the central premise is a conspiracy theory worthy of a Hollywood epic. But, much more important than the lit crit stuff , this play is a work of daring and soaring imagination. Loone Ots calls her plot a bolero. It is woven out of historical fact and is startlingly plausible. More than once, I sat thinking ‘Could this really have happened’. The birth dates make it quite possible for Lydia (1843-1886) to have been Juhan Liiv’s (for he is the mad poet) mother – she was 21 when he was born. And, when Lydia becomes the mistress of Tzar Alexander II it is quite possible that he would be reading Les Fleurs du mal that was published in 1857. To whom did Koidula write the sensual poem Goodnight, my love? Why is her Mistress of Loigu such a bleak tale? Why didn’t Koidula leave her house for some time, as described in her diary, when her workplace was a mere 40 metres (quarter of a mile) from her home? Why did she travel to the country to see Kreutzwald, her literary doctor friend and why was there a scene with Mrs K? Who were Juhan Liiv’s (the mad poet) parents? Why did Liiv write The Shadow? Why did he go mad? Why was the birth of Benjamin Liiv’s (the abused peasants) youngest child not met with rejoicing? Why did Liiv drop out of Hugo Treffner’s (the crafty schoolmaster) school? Why did the Baltic German nobles give Jannsen money? All these things actually happened ... And to reinforce a sense of pseudo-history, the clothes the actors wear are copied from actual photographs.

Blood is in the title of the play and blood is what we get, a reference, the playwright tells us to Christ’s blood collected in the holy grail at the crucifixion. Koidula, after all, referred to Estonia as mu püha Eestimaa – my sacred Estonia (in Mu isamaa on minu arm) although I have always been a rather doubtful if the Janssen family were more than nominally Christian. Koidula’s poetry reeks of pantheism. We see menstrual blood, blood from the scourged back of the Estonian peasantry, the bloody business of childbirth, the blood of Koidula’s father when he is shot by Liiv, the blood line of the Tzars, the blood child of the rejected mistress whose son takes over the empire and the symbolic blood connection of sisterhood because, as the author tells us in her introduction in the programme, she has made imaginary connections with three contemporary women – Koidula herself, Maria Ulanova (1835-1916), Sofia Perovskaya (1853-1881). Maria Alexandrova Ulanova was the mother of Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Russian Revolution. Lenin’s given name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, his family were minor nobility and a legend arose that his mother was a handmaid to the Tzarina and mistress of the Tzar, probably because the Tzar’s wife was also a Maria Alexandrova. Sofia Perovskaya, the revolutionary, plotted against Alexander II and was the first woman in the Russian empire executed for political reasons.

Koidula veri is a product of the mouse that roared. It’s a distinctive voice, stressing polarities - identity of a small nation (I hesitate to call this ‘nationalism’ because of the nasty connotations of the word) and connection to the great wide world. This play is written by a member of the generation that pitted themselves against a mighty foe with a record of viciousness. Most of all (I think) Estonians of a certain age will recognise an epic theme of untrammelled liberty –Minu reliikvia on vabadus! - “My sacred relic is freedom! “ It’s the voice of a small nation that lived on its own lands for thousands of centuries but spent 700 years under foreign occupation and whose liberty is not secure, even now. The strength (not to confused with the concept) of this voice will, I think, be quite surprising for contemporary nations of western Europe or to Americans and Canadians. But here in Estonia the desire for freedom, independence, liberty, call it what you will, is paramount. These and the plethora of other themes - life, love, the pursuit of happiness, and the fate of strong women – are clearly resonating, as the play is a resounding success. ‘A hit, a palpable hit!’ (Swan of Avon).

So. An important play. The best of the 2008 theatre repertoire. The playwright says that her main aim was to take the characters down from their pedestals and make the public love them, an aim that she has achieved with consummate ease. Another aim, says Loone Ots, is to present a challenging polemic and it started after the play in the playwright’s own family in the car on way back to Tallinn. I have spoken with several people who have their own views – some admire the ingenuity of the plot woven around history, some like the warmth and humour, some disagree with the epic, Wagnerian conception of Koidula (is Judith an appropriate comparison?), some refuse to go near the theatre. Well, this is choice – democracy in action and we could do with a lot more of it! Bravo, Loone Ots! Keep stirring that pot...

Ots on Ots: Some thoughts about Koidula Veri (from the programme)

The play has the tag line the untold story but actually its more than one untold story... It is ... a bolero where a passionate woman dances among a variety of men whose sole role is to applaud. Clap, clap, clap and with each clap comes a question.... The rhythm swells and builds. And it is Koidula, the woman with the straight back, who is the muse of the dance.

We see blood ... during the play – and perhaps this will add a little colour in a time when our ‘greats’ have, regrettably, become rather bloodless. The bloodline connects a dynasty of three: the one who creates (Jannsen), the second (Koidula) who sparkles and the third, who loses (Liiv). Simultaneously, Koidula veri connects three exceptional women of different generations. It came naturally to me to position Koidula (1843 – 1886) between Maria Ulyanova (1835 –1916, the mother of Lenin) and Sophia Perovskaya (1853 –1881, member of the extreme left wing movement, Land and Freedom, who plotted against Alexander II and was the first woman in Russia executed for her political beliefs) and to wipe the dust off icons. The notion that Estonian thought is rooted in Baltic German, generally Western culture, is a long understood dictum, but the Awakening was also connected with the East, with imperial Russia, which we seldom mention for a variety of reasons.

Sexuality in Soviet culture, especially, our own was a strong taboo. The notion of the 19c virgin was reclaimed by the USSR and sexuality was the subject of the censors of artistic ideology. For decades any attempt to portray sex on the stages of Estonia was like walking a tightrope. Then came independence. Sex scenes became a necessity, usually as a crowd puller. Nudity was commonplace in the public domain, part of the bigger picture. The Virgin Mary, however, is still not portrayed naked by Roman Catholic or Orthodox artists. So how would Estonians react showing to seeing the naked body of their national heroine? How can an author avoid a cheap and vulgar attitude in her work?

Breaking taboos does not indicate a lack of honourable sentiments. Koidula veri does not wish to imply simply a comfortable feeling of ‘oh look, she’s just like us all’. Not one of the leaders of the Awakening was ‘like us all’. Otherwise, they could not have laid the foundations of the Estonian nation with such a strong sense of mission. Their towering achievements were forged by great heroism. Epic people make epic achievements. These people overcame enormous contemporary political and economic obstacles; it would have been much, much easier for them to adopt a German or a Russian identity and reject their origins. We honour them for their creation of Estonia and Estonian liberty, as we are encouraged to do at school. But can we also love them? The new Esther breaks all the God-given rules. Loyalty is rewarded with victory; the Grail (shades of the blood motif again!) is brought home. But at what price? What does the hero or heroine do when the chanson de geste, the song of heroic deeds, is over? Sit by the empty Grail?

Love has an especially important role in the play. We see all sorts of love: a daughter’s love, the first love of an adolescent girl, a parent’s love for his child, the child’s love for her parent and a love of the homeland. Married love. But there is also that love that is seldom perceived as ‘love’: Christian charity, compassion and the offering of sympathy to a stranger.

The legend tells that Koidula’s life was bitter, especially after marriage. The image of Eduard Michelson created by Aino Kallas and Hella Wuolijoki [early 20c Estonian literati] is not fair. Mrs Michelson’s letters, including those to her husband, show otherwise. The legend tells the story of a heroine but the personal correspondence tells the heroine’s story through her own eyes. Michelson was a strong man who was not afraid to marry the woman Tartu society saw as a half-mad blue stocking. He set up home with Lydia, they travelled together in Europe and he stood by her during her decline into drug addiction [she was given large quantities of morphine to ease the pain of cancer] and early death. He never remarried. Never again to get into hot water? To stay true to his beloved wife? More conjectures. Michelson, too, can be seen as a hero, who was (more or less successfully) able to cope with a Gorgon wife. Others say that he was insensitive. But there are not so many that would have the heart to take on the role of Lydia’s husband. In Koidula Veri Michelson, indirectly, determines the fate of the empire, possibly its fall; the secret police, after all, did not know his secret of the blood of the tzars. Michelson did not play by the epic rules. But his earthiness was the rock on which Lydia built her home, although there are moments in the play that are inconclusive. Quite a large part of the rock was the push and pull of physical attraction. Lydia drags men to her side. I think that men (except Michelson) were frightened of her. Jakobson liked to boast that Miss Jannsen had once tried to rouse him but that he... would not be tempted. Kreutzwald’s excess of hot blood was met with a cold shower. The Antti Almberg-Jalava, (Finnish) episode is not drawn upon with the exception of Lydia’s scornful reference that the Finnish connection had over extended the story beyond its limits.

Koidula’s husband provides a multi-cultural dimension. An Estonian hyper-nationalist in the 1930’s, actually shouted into the face of a bust of Koidula in the foyer of the Vanemuine theatre, “ you ?!*#$ who allowed the Latvian Michelson to dishonour an Estonian woman!” But I see nothing wrong with a union of two representatives of oppressed peoples.

But, to return to the whirling patterns of the bolero, I would remind you that the characters in the play dance their own steps quite freely to the rhythm. The connections of the peoples of the era of the Awakening are so diverse; associations and partnerships rise and fall so that the myriad of possibilities is like the weave of a complicated carpet. The weave of connected culture was international. Today Valentin Serov’s portrait of a nude Ida Rubenstein (as Salome) is much more famous than the Estonian Johan Köler’s, Eve after the Fall but the theme of a ‘fallen’ woman is the same. And it’s the same with Lydia’s Meadow Flowers and the malignant blossoms of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs de mal. It is with these connections in mind that I have woven a tapestry of our past.
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