Marju Himma: Everyday theatrics through the filter of culture

Marju Himma.
Marju Himma. Source: Kairit Leibold /ERR

Current affairs can be given a deeper and more multifaceted meaning by making sense of them through plays, movies and novels, journalism expert Marju Himma recommends in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Summer allows us to take time-out and sometimes look at things from a different perspective. It should be the so-called pickle season in journalism today, but because Estonia is short on labor to harvest and pickle all those cucumbers, we seem unable to escape hot topics even during this vacation. But that just makes it more exciting to add a cultural filter to current affairs.

"Goodbye, Baby"

Mati Unt wrote a play titled "Goodbye, Baby" in 1975. It is seemingly a collection of cacophonous monologues about loss, departure and the search for the self. These monologues have titles like "The Guest Leaving," "Che Guevara Leaving Cuba," "Parsifal Leaving the Enchanted Castle," "The Rat Escaping from a Sinking Ship" etc.

Looking at current affairs, we could add monologues about the head of the Health Board resigning, the head of the tax board resigning, a long-time city official resigning, Ukrainian workers leaving Estonia, another Health Board executive resigning, a theater director resigning (for two months initially) etc.

Mati Unt attaches meaning to these departures through his monologues. Every departure is personal, but it is also always official. There are official reasons and then there are unofficial ones. There is personal anguish both for those leaving and those being left. While every departure is different, these recent examples can be seen to hide similar reasons.

Student leaving school

Perhaps one of the best "Goodbye, Baby" monologues for the purpose of attaching meaning to the spring of crisis is "Student Leaving School." This monologue is given by a teacher who reads aloud a series of facts, interpretations and knowledge. In other words, tries to leave the student with everything they may need in life. For example:

"Pronouns every, neither, each other's and one another's lack plural forms. One must not sleep on a bed that's too soft or under a banket that's too warm. The value of a fraction does not change when its numerator and denominator are both multiplied by the same number. Men wear darker clothes in winter and lighter ones in summer. A fool takes a beating even in church."

"What is the point of all this, I cannot wait for summer break to begin," the student thinks and still does today. Looking at children and young people who are just receiving their graduation certificates – this spring has required so much in the way of digital capacities that dry facts simply can't fit anymore. The student leaves school.

"On the Basis of Sex"

But current topics can also be interpreted through audiovisual works. Around Midsummer Day, President Kersti Kaljulaid failed to proclaim the Foreign Service Act for clashing with sections of the Constitution that demand equal treatment.

During the ensuing debate, I happened to watch a biography titled "On the Basis of Sex" that has been translated into Estonian as "Sest ta on naine" ("Because she is a woman").

It is a true story about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the first women who got the opportunity to study law at Harvard. Later, many decades later, she became a U.S. Supreme Court judge. Despite graduating successfully, she did not manage to find work as an attorney in the middle of the 20th century, because she was a woman.

The most important part of her career as a jurist and later a judge was finding elements in American law that clashed with sections on equal treatment. No one can be treated unfairly because of their biological characteristics, such as gender or skin color. People also cannot be treated differently based on their role in a marriage or partnership. Ginsburg undertook such cases to defend both men and women.

The Oscar-winning movie comes highly recommended on a rainy summer evening and provokes the thought that everything one sees is real life that happened nearly half a century ago, while here, these topics are only now being discussed.

Man like a sculpture

Let us take another turn. "Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people." This quote by German poet Heinrich Heine adorns a monument to book burnings in the Bebelplatz in Berlin. The monument is really just a cube-shaped void with empty bookshelves below street level. It reminds us of 1933 when the Nazis were burning books that did not fit their ideology in that very square.

The book burning monument in its modesty holds many painful layers. It sends a premonitory warning of the unbridled cruelty of the thirst for power and ruling. It is tiny and unimposing in terms of the cityscape but resonates in people all over the world. In the end, it's just an empty space with some empty bookshelves.

According to Socrates, a person's life should be beautiful on all sides like a sculpture. But what if life was not like a sculpture? What if life made one a head of state but then also removed that head so to speak? A simple detail – empty bookshelves or a solitary head – can sometimes have more layers than a traditional monument people pass by without noticing.

The quote by Heine, written back in the early 19th century, unfortunately manifested horribly in history.

Perhaps the quote alone is enough to provoke thought, reading news about how works by democratic activists have started to disappear from libraries in Hong Kong. Just days after the entry into force of China's new security law. People are being arrested. Those who participated in protests are covering their tracks to avoid being arrested and disappearing without a trace themselves

It sounds as if taken from George Orwell's "1984." Enemies today are allies tomorrow and every record of it will be deleted and rewritten. "1984" is another good book to read time and again.

Kalju Komissarov recalled in an interview he gave in 2017 that when Unt's "Goodbye, Baby" was being produced for theater, actor Enn Kraam asked Komissarov how on Earth this nonsense would be turned into a play. Perhaps this is the question we should apply to everyday life – to ask whether this nonsense the theatrics of life throws at us will be turned into a play and how this period in history will look in between layers of culture in the future.

Marju Himma is a journalism studies research fellow at the University of Tartu and a postdoctoral researcher at Karlstad University, Sweden.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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