Lacis, Asja (1891–1979)

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Lacis, Asja (1891–1979)

Latvian stage director, actress and author who played a crucial role in introducing the work of Bertolt Brecht to the Soviet stage, wrote the first history of the theater of the Weimar Republic, and was a major influence on the intellectual evolution of the literary critic Walter Benjamin. Name variations: Anna Lacis; Asja Lazis. Born Anna Ernestovna Lacis in Ligatne, Riga District, Russia, on October 19, 1891; died in Riga, Latvia, on November 21, 1979; married Julij Lacis; married Bernhard Reich; children: (second marriage) daughter, Daga Reich .

Unlike many Communist intellectuals and artists who grew up in comfortable circumstances, Latvian theater personality Asja Lacis came from a proletarian background. She was born in 1891 into a working-class family, with a father who made a precarious living as a harness maker and tailor. He was, however, an unusually progressive man for his background and level of education, and with his encouragement Asja secured a scholarship to one of Riga's best gymnasia. Upon graduation, she studied for two years at the noted psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev's Institute of Psychoneurology in St. Petersburg. But it was the art of drama that excited her during these years in Russia's history, when the arts flourished in a society moving unwittingly toward the twin devastations of war and revolution. In 1914, Lacis moved to Moscow to begin her studies in various aspects of theater at the Kommisarshevski Institute of Theater Sciences. She was in Moscow in 1917, when the hated tsarist regime was overthrown in March, and when the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin seized power in Petrograd (later Leningrad, now St. Petersburg) in November.

Believing that their rise to power heralded the dawn of a new epoch in history, Lacis sympathized with the Bolsheviks from the start of their rule. Despite the fact that recognition of her theatrical talent had already put her on course to a major career as an actress and director, she regarded herself as "a good soldier of the revolution" and by the end of 1917 had established an experimental theater for children in the city of Orel. Instead of performing in classic plays in Moscow or Petrograd, Lacis carried out a social experiment based in the local theater. Over the next two years, she worked with a group of young girls and boys who had become homeless in the chaos caused by war and revolution. Many of these youths had become hardened thieves and prostitutes. Although there appeared to be no method of bringing them back into the fold of an ordered society, Lacis believed that street-smart kids could work through their anger and bitterness by acting out on stage the most painful episodes from their past. In addition, she spent this period developing a detailed theory of lower-class children's theater based on what in later years would become known as psychodrama. Crucial to this form of drama-astherapy was the idea that the children ran the theater themselves rather than depending on the knowledge (and whims) of a dictatorial director, whose control, even if benign and well-meaning, would stifle the children's creative impulses.

Lacis returned in 1920 to her native Latvia, now an independent republic, where she directed an innovative theater studio that was part of the Communist-oriented People's University in Riga. The dominant mood of the hour in Latvia was anti-revolutionary, and Lacis had to contend with police repression and official disapproval of her work. The authorities held her efforts in the theater to be part of a Bolshevik plan to subvert the established social order. Despite the unabated hostility of "official" Latvia, some of Riga's most talented actors and writers were attracted to the experimental stage, which developed innovative constructivist and mass-outdoor forms; these quickly became local revolutionary traditions until they were forbidden in 1928. In the midst of police surveillance, Lacis spread revolutionary messages to her audiences by developing an original form of charades, which were able to fool the mentally sluggish censors who were on hand to monitor performances.

Besides her work in Riga, Lacis spent considerable time in Russia and Germany in the 1920s. She lived in Berlin, quickly becoming the unofficial representative of the experimental theater than flourishing in the Soviet republic. In Berlin, she met and exchanged ideas with Fritz Lang, Alexander Granach, and Bernhard Reich, who became her companion.

On an extended visit to Munich that began in late summer 1923, she met most of the leading theater personalities there, including Caspar Neher, Karl Valentin, and a brilliant young playwright named Bertolt Brecht. Recognizing Lacis' talent, Brecht delegated her to direct the mass scenes in his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II. Despite her Latvian accent, Brecht also cast Lacis in the small role of the young Edward, which she performed successfully. In her memoirs, Lacis described how strong an impression Brecht's mastery of all aspects of theater made on her—his simplicity, precision, and patience, as well as his ability to create a collective mentality in the entire ensemble of actors. While working with Brecht in Munich during November 1923, she became an eyewitness to the failed putsch of Adolf Hitler and his violent band of National Socialists.

In June 1924, while vacationing in Capri with her companion Bernhard Reich, Lacis met a brilliant Jewish intellectual from Berlin named Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, who had grown up in an upper-middle-class milieu, was then attempting to learn Hebrew and was seriously considering moving to the Zionist community then being created in Palestine. Asja Lacis, with whom Benjamin quickly fell in love, told Benjamin that his plans were profoundly mistaken and that "the path of a right-thinking progressive person can only lead to Moscow, not to Palestine."

Benjamin dropped his plans and over the next few years would follow Lacis to Riga and then to Moscow. Although she remained attached to Reich and did little to reciprocate Benjamin's passion for her, the two developed a strong intellectual bond. Nonetheless, their one attempt to live together, for several months in Berlin during the winter of 1928–29, proved a failure. Undeterred, the already married Benjamin began divorce proceedings in the spring of 1929 as part of a strategy to marry Lacis. In turn, Lacis concentrated on turning Benjamin into an orthodox Communist. She persuaded him to immerse himself in the basic works of Karl Marx and other leading revolutionary theorists. She also introduced Benjamin to Brecht, creating the basis for one of the most important intellectualartistic interactions of the next decade.

After leaving Riga, Lacis returned to Moscow, where for a time her major artistic project was to create a motion-picture theater for children. This was accomplished with the encouragement and support of Lenin's widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya. In 1928, Lacis accepted an assignment to work in the Soviet trade mission in Berlin, promoting the sale of Soviet films in Germany and the West. After her arrival in the German capital, Walter Benjamin introduced Lacis to eminent film critic Siegfried Kracauer, who then played a key role in introducing innovative Soviet documentaries to Germany. During this period, the always complex relationship between Lacis and Benjamin entered into an even

more convoluted phase. By 1931, the peripatetic Lacis had returned to the Soviet Union, where her multiple talents were employed to complete the filming of famed German director Erwin Piscator's version of a novel by Anna Seghers , Der Aufstand der Fischer von St. Barbara (The Revolt of the Fishermen of Santa Barbara).

In 1934, Lacis directed a Latvian-language version of Friedrich Wolf's play Baur Baetz at Moscow's Latvian State Theater. In 1935, she published the results of her experience with the revolutionary theater movement in pre-Hitler Germany in The Revolutionary Theater in Germany, a book that has yet to be translated into English. Among Lacis' most important work during these years was her advocacy of the Epic Theater theories of Bertolt Brecht, and it was above all else her publicity on behalf of Brecht's plays that would make them well known in the Soviet Union. Lacis was on hand to greet Brecht on his 1935 visit to Moscow, which was reported in Pravda.

In early 1938, at the height of the Great Purges in the Soviet Union, Asja Lacis was arrested. She was sent to a labor camp in Kazakhstan and was not released until 1948. She then returned to Latvia, where she became director of a theater in the city of Valmiera. The theater's audience was comprised mostly of members of nearby collective farms. With limited resources, she slowly built up a theatrical ensemble which became known far beyond the frontiers of the Soviet Latvian Republic for its high level of professionalism. The worst terrors subsided for Soviet artists and intellectuals with the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, and starting in 1956 a cautious "thaw" became a more systematic attempt to de-Stalinize the nation's intellectual landscape. Lacis greeted her old friend Bertolt Brecht on his 1955 visit to Moscow. On this occasion, Brecht promised to write for her a shorter version of his play Caucasian Chalk Circle which would be appropriate for her peasant audiences in Valmiera. Brecht died the next year, however, without having had time to produce the promised revision.

Asja Lacis retired from her directorship of the Valmiera Theater in 1957, but she continued to be active as an author, lecturer, and revered veteran of the proletarian theater movement. Her memoirs appeared in both German and Russian editions, and theater historians rediscovered her important role in mediating between two great stage traditions, that of Brecht's Germany and pre-Stalin Soviet Russia. Her significant place in the life of Walter Benjamin, who had committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940 and in the 1950s began to be recognized as one of the most influential literary critics of the 20th century, was also historically secure. Above all, Lacis began to be cherished by a new generation as one of the last survivors of a golden age of European theater. Having lived a long and productive life in the shadow of a cruel century, Asja Lacis died in Riga on November 21, 1979.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia