By Kęstutis Civinskas. LITHUANIAN HERITAGE May / June 2021
The year is 1899. The world is at the doorstep of a new century. The final decade of the old century is described as gay, merry, and optimistic, even though there is economic depression in the US and no fewer than eight wars around the globe. Nicholas II rules over a sprawling Russian Empire, but he is destined to be the last such monarch. Long-standing policies of Russification intended to unify the empire have instead reawakened numerous national identities. A maelstrom of national allegiances and political alliances swirls throughout the empire posing more than mild concern for the rulers in St. Petersburg.
Lithuania, a western region of imperial Russia, is split into three Governorates and ethnographically straddles the empire’s border with eastern Prussia. The area is a non-homogeneous mixture of Lithuanians, Poles, Jews, Russians, Latvians, and others. A closer and more nuanced look at these hinterlands can identify the remains of a Lithuanian peasantry, Polish-speaking nobility, German-speaking Prussians, and Yiddish speakers. Perhaps the territory is not the highest priority for the tsar’s attention, but enough to warrant a ban on Lithuanian-language publication and press. Indeed, all cultural events are strictly regulated, if not banned outright within the borders of tsarist Lithuania.
Prussia has no such ban. The proximity of Prussian printing presses to the Lithuanian border makes the area a fertile source of illicit printed material. Despite the authorities’ best efforts, an active network of book smugglers has been operating there for years to deliver Lithuanian publications across the border and beyond.
One such publication is a copy of a new play, a comedy, written in Lithuanian some five years earlier. The printing has been done in Tilsit (in 1895) with 5,000 copies printed for distribution and sale at 10 kopecks each. Vincas Kudirka, the composer of Lithuania’s national anthem, is reputed to have paid for that initial printing.
Prussian territory hugs the Baltic seashore of the Curonian peninsula and lagoon all the way north to the port of Memel (Klaipėda). Only fifteen miles beyond lies the Baltic seaside resort of Palanga, within imperial Russia. Palanga is in the empire’s Courland Governorate, a region considered having nothing to do with Lithuanians or things Lithuanian. This is the area where a group of Lithuanian national revival activists, led by Liudas Vaineikis, decides to stage a play. A play that was completed about five years earlier under the secret pseudonym of Keturakis, or “Four- Eyes.’’ Owning and reading books printed in Lithuanian is risky enough but authorship is clearly worse.
The mystery author is known only to a few. The play has been staged in America and publicly staged one year earlier (1898) in St. Petersburg, presumably in Russian… perhaps as a trial balloon. This will be the first attempt to perform the play publicly and, most significantly, in the Lithuanian language.
The production is to be staged on property owned by Count Tiškevičius in a venue variously described as a shed or a goods warehouse. A Polish-speaking intellectual who understands and appreciates the Lithuanian national reawakening, Count Tiškevičius plans to attend the play. He has invited Dukes Oginskis and Radvila to also join him that evening. Not only has he permitted access to his property for the occasion, but he has also covered part of other costs of the performance.
The activists have made every effort to ensure the play will take place, including to seek an official permit. The governor initially refuses. After repeated and annoying requests, the authorities wash their hands of the whole affair and refer the matter to the head of the Palanga militia. That individual initially grants the permit, but on the very day of the performance he recants and announces that there would be no Lithuanian language performance. At that point the organizers demand reimbursement for the expenses that had been incurred. Only after some intense negotiation, during which the militiaman becomes increasingly concerned over the Lithuanians’ resistance, is the play allowed to go forward.
Prior to the play, some of the Polish nobility and gentry spread rumors that the Lithuanians are unenlightened, uneducated, uncultured and therefore the play will be of no interest to anyone. Such rumors, however, only serve to ensure that crowds flock to Palanga from distant villages and counties. Lithuanian songs which are officially banned, can be heard being sung openly. Any profit from the production is committed towards the healthcare of Vincas Kudirka who is now gravely ill.
With the rising of the curtain in Palanga on August 20, 1899, the successful staging of “America in the Bathhouse” (“Amerika Pirtyje”) in the Lithuanian language entered into history. It was a significant event during the ban on the Lithuanian press and language within imperial Russia. The director of that performance was Povilas Višinskis, and the organizers and actors were book smugglers, and college and high school students. Sadly, Kudirka passed away soon thereafter.
The play helped awaken many from a long and deep sleep and helped stoke the embers of a national reawakening. Why need there be shame in being born Lithuanian rather than Pole or Russian? Impressions of the play quickly spread by word of mouth. A national consciousness which had already been stirring was aroused further.
The play, which entered the public realm due to a miscalculation by the tsarist government, was soon banned. Once the Russian regime understood that the seacoast was ethnographically Lithuanian territory, performance of the play was discontinued. The authorities suddenly began persecuting the organizers of the Palanga performance. Liudas Vaineikis was deported to eastern Siberia. The same fate awaited A. Janulaitis, but he managed to escape to Prussia. The play became popular and for a while, “America in the Bathhouse” was performed illegally and secretly, mostly in farmers’ houses or barns, with small invited audiences. Those audiences could readily relate to the events and characters depicted on stage. These underground productions during the years 1901–1903 most often were staged around Marijampolė, Kalvarija and Liudvinava. Legal stagings also were held during this period outside Lithuania.
The ban on Lithuanian books and press ended in 1904. The first public event related to “America in the Bathhouse” took place soon thereafter one evening in Mariampolė. Juozas Vilkutaitis, a thirty-five year-old from Vilkaviškis, who wrote under the Keturakis pen-name finally took the stage in public. Theater fans had been impatient to learn who was behind the Keturakis mask.
Born in 1869, the seventh child of a farming couple, Juozas Vilkutaitis had no formal education. An early leg injury and eventual amputation deprived him of a normal youth, especially as it would relate to farm life. An uncle priest, a pastor at a neighboring parish, took Juozas under his wing. He lived in the parish house where he benefited from the conversation of older and undoubtedly well-educated priests and the company of books. This is where he began a life-long journey of self-education, learning to read Polish and Russian and becoming familiar with literature, including the slowly growing literature of his native Lithuania.
“Keturakis’’ was an unkind nickname bestowed on Juozas by teenage peers when he began wearing glasses.
The name stuck. When Juozas Vilkutaitis began to try his hand at writing, he did a free translation of a Polish short story, “Who is Guilty,’’ and used Keturakis as a pseudonym. That was the first piece to be published under that name in an 1891 issue of an underground newspaper.
Juozas Vilkutaitis soon discovered that he had things to say and needed to say them in his native tongue. An original work “The Fire’’ also appeared in 1891 published in a Lithuanian-language newspaper in the United States. His most important work, the three-act comedy “America in the Bathhouse,’’ was begun in 1891 and completed three years later. The play gained recognition and acclaim for several reasons. It was a story about and for the country folk that Keturakis knew best. In contrast to other theater scripts of that time, the play’s naturalistic style and simple production requirements suited it perfectly for the audience’s entertainment needs and for showings in make-shift theaters and barns. Its performance, both before and after lifting of the prohibition, became associated with the perseverance of a people resisting willful attempts of a stronger power to erase their national identity.
The play galvanized the development and growth of theater in Lithuania. By World War I, “America in the Bathhouse’’ had been performed over a hundred times. It remained popular during the years of independence between the two world wars and revivals continued through the Soviet era. The play’s durability and relevance, especially its theme of emigration, continues through today with performances in state drama theaters and on high school stages, and even includes musical versions. In 2014, the Kaunas State Drama Theater staged the 700th performance in the very appropriate setting of the Open-Air Museum at Rumšiškės.
Juozas Vilkutaitis-Keturakis was my grandfather. Our lives intersected for only a few months in the post-WWII Hochfeld Displaced Persons camp in Augsburg, Germany, where Keturakis died a few months after my birth. He undoubtedly had occasion to cradle me in his arms during that brief intersection.
Any personal reflection of Keturakis of necessity comes from the stories that I heard from six of his adult children, especially my mother. Their memories of him were always infused with vivid recollections of events and characters. They remembered and spoke of him often, always with a tenderness and a respect almost bordering on reverence. It is normal of course for children to recall parents with fondness and love, but Keturakis seemed to have earned an extra dose of these. The respect he earned perhaps came from his children witnessing acts of even-handedness, fairness and wisdom throughout their lives. In his professional life, Juozas Vilkutaitis was a respected judge, one who never had any decision reversed by a higher court.
Tėtukas, as his children always referred to him, was a kind, gentle and soft-spoken person. He was a slight man who used a walking stick due to his amputated leg. He had made his own prosthesis which he would remove at bedtime. The leg was not often discussed and the prosthesis was not something that he freely displayed, so it was something of a mystery that fascinated the youngsters. At one point, two granddaughters hatched a plot to sneak into their grandfather’s room when he was sleeping to see the mysterious contraption for themselves. They succeeded, but I do not recall them ever describing what they saw during their caper.
The family experienced the horse and buggy age, and stories told involving horses that they owned still referred to them by name. The Vilkutaitis family lived to see that era come to an end and Tėtukas apparently was not one to shy from new inventions and technologies. The family came to own an Essex early on, one of the few automobiles in Prienai at the time. Despite attempts at modifying the car’s controls to accommodate the prosthesis, vehicle operation regularly fell to the elder boy. Family stories of his being mired in ditches, mud, or snow abounded, much to the delight of the other siblings. Among his practical innovations, Tėtukas had designed and built a hand-cranked mechanical system to close exterior window shutters from indoors in one of the houses where the family resided. There were other innovative ideas for prosthetics, natural medicinal ointments, stoves, and windows. If he had lived to see America, perhaps his dream of taking out patents on some of those ideas would have materialized.
Tėtukas had an affinity for animals. Besides the horses which were necessary for transportation, he also liked dogs…large dogs. The family often owned Great Danes that frequently figured in their collective memories and stories. When the elder son moved to Kaunas, he left his dog Pilkis in Prienai. My grandmother, Mamytė, took care of the animal for some time until they lost the services of a house servant. She eventually tired of preparing the dog’s daily food ration and decided to have Pilkis delivered back to their son. She recruited one of the girls, from Kaunas, to do the delivery. Tėtukas had grown quite fond of Pilkis, so on Sunday evening Mamytė’s secret plan was executed. The dog was quietly ushered out of the house and both daughter and dog rode the bus to Kaunas that evening. The dog was left with another of the siblings (my mother), now also living in Kaunas, to be picked up by the owner son. The following day, when Tėtukas discovered the dog was missing, there was quite a stir in Prienai. For the sake of “holy peace,’’ Mamytė relented and called my mother to arrange for the dog’s return. My mother, in turn, called for a taxicab. Pedestrians out that day were treated to the sight of a very large Great Dane seated in the back seat of a taxi, being privately chauffeured the twenty-odd miles from Kaunas to Prienai.
When Juozas Vilkutaitis-Keturakis died in Augsburg on September 11, 1948, the same daughter that rode that bus with Pilkis was in the DP camp hospital having just given birth to her second child. The younger of the brothers came to visit her that day, carrying their father’s walking stick. He didn’t have to say anything for her to know Tėtukas was gone.
Keturakis loved the beauty of his native language and understood the importance of folklore to a culture. Both of these came together for him in storytelling. And he was a storyteller. His children and some of his grandchildren often heard stories of ancient pagan gods; of witches casting spells; of village folk and farmers outwitting devils that had taken on human form. He strove to plant seeds to preserve that unique folklore and language for future generations. Beyond childrens’ stories, he became a storyteller of the very life he saw around him, capturing glimpses of that period, as well as some timeless elements that still make it compelling for an everyday audience.
A person’s life reflects what had meaning and importance to them. Keturakis certainly felt strongly about the value of knowing where one came from and that no person or government had the right to either define or to destroy the identity of another human being. No one is too small or too insignificant to resist injustice. In his own way, he helped fan those embers of resistance against a Russian tsar into a flame. Not a bad legacy to leave one’s family and country.
I must point out that these family stories about Tėtukas also included my grandmother, Mamytė. She was his partner and soul-mate in every respect and deserves a story all her own…but that is for another time.
Thanks to: Ingrida Civinskienė, my own soulmate for researching and editing; Ramunė Vilkutaitytė-Rimienė for contibuting her personal recollections; and Tomas Sušinskas of Suduvos gidas for permission to reference his excellent article.
Vilkutaitytė-Gedvilienė, Birutė. Tikrasis Keturakis ir Jo Raštai. Vilties press, Cleveland, Ohio, 1979.
Vilkutaitytė-Gedvilienė, Birutė. Nuo Kazanės – Ligi New Yorko Atsiminimai. Self-published, Cleveland, Ohio, 2001.
Sušinskas, Tomas. Vilkaviškio Keturakio “Amerika pirtyje” fenomenas. 31 March 2019, in: https://suduvosgidas.lt/vilkaviskiecio-keturakio-amerika-pirtyje-fenomenas/
An Excerpt from Act 2 of “America in the Bathhouse”
Vincas (a tailor) has convinced Antanas (a fairly well-to-do friend from a neighboring parish) that there is a win-win deal to be made with Bekampis, a farmer who seems to owe money to everyone in town and for whom there is never a good crop. Antanas doesn’t know the gory details about Bekampis or his finances but knows that he has a daughter. The plan that Vincas hatches involves Antanas not only lending two hundred rubles to Bekampis, but also lending it at a very low interest rate. Antanas would ingratiate himself with Bekampis and would be assured of success when he asks for his daughter Agota’s hand in marriage.
Vincas speaks of Bekampis and his farm in glowing terms and offers to be the go-between to start putting the plan into action. When he meets with Bekampis, he speaks equally glowingly of Antanas as the perfect suitor for his daughter, as well as the source of a low-cost loan that would allow him to pay off impatient creditors.
In Act 2, we find Vincas talking alone to Agota but he’s now spinning a very different story. He’s also laying the groundwork for a plan that he has shared with no one. He’s left a photograph of a woman who recently left for America where he knows it would be found. He starts bad-mouthing Agota’s father telling her that he is about to sell his own daughter for 200 rubles…and to a man who is a good-for-nothing, despicable “Herod,’’ not worthy of her hand!
AGOTA: So what, Vincuti, am I to do?
VINCAS: As I say, if you listen to me, you can still escape their clutches …if not, well then…
AGOTA: Alright, I’ll listen, just tell me quickly. At least you, Vincai …save me … that no-good conniver!
VINCAS: Your father’s going to come back with the 200 rubles that he’s gotten from that scumbag for your hide. You get your hands on it and stash it away.
AGOTA: And then what?
VINCAS: (holding the photograph) See, what a fine-looking lady? You too could be like her and a hundred times as pretty.
AGOTA: So…go to America?
VINCAS: So what else is there to do? …It’s the best.
AGOTA: To America? …I don’t know …God forbid I’m caught, sent back…
VINCAS: What’s there to fear? Who’s going to look for you and who’ll be that quick? You cross the border and goodbye; I’m telling you, not even a fox will yap.
AGOTA: Alright. And how do I get there? I don’t know the way. I don’t know anything.
VINCAS: (takes Agota by the hand) My dear Agota! Don’t you know me? Give me land, wealth, give me anything …I’ll give it all up and go with you (he embraces Agota). Agota, my darling, my precious! That you’d only know how good you are for me, how much you have smitten me …I would leap into a fire! If this was all for a fine man, but a Herod like that …that he should live so long! It’s either me or him…I won’t forsake you. Agota, let’s run away to America: there, I’ll carry you about in my arms, I’ll clothe you in the finest silks. Just wave a hand and you’ll have anything you want.
AGOTA: I’m afraid!
VINCAS: So what do I lack? Just tell me one thing: Why am I unworthy? (looking into Agota’s eyes).
AGOTA: (starting to snuggle up to Vincas) I’m not doubting you …you’re so good, so very good to me. You’re the best of all!
VINCAS: (taking out sweets from his pocket and stuffing them into her hands, pockets, and finally, into her blouse) So you’ll do as I say? Maybe you still don’t believe me, but just wait: when your father returns, you’ll hear it yourself …all the talk about how wonderful this man is. I’m telling you, he’s been brainwashed…that’s all.
AGOTA: Oh, I want to hear him howling!
VINCAS: Well, no surprise, nothing more. By the way, Agota, do you know where your father keeps his money when he has some?
AGOTA: In the chest in his room …Why?
In the third and final act, Vincas steals the money and leaves for America alone. There is some comic relief as creditors descend on Bekampis as he tries to hide while Agota is left to experience her dreams of America locked up (by Vincas) in the bathhouse! The Finns are generally given credit for inventing the pirtis or steam bathhouse (i.e. sauna), but it was a commonplace structure in rural Lithuania, together with the associated rituals: the hot steam; body scrubs with salt, clay, other natural products; bathers slapping each other with birch or oak whisks; medicinal herbs & teas. The pirtis experience was meant to be a healthful and relaxing one. It was decidedly not to be one for Agota in this play. Agota’s fate is a poignant commentary by the playwright on people’s visions and dreams of America at the time. Keturakis was keenly aware that for many émigrés, those expectations and reality might cruelly diverge.