Madis Kõiv (born in 1929) is a remarkably versatile man: a nuclear physicist by profession, he chairs the seminar of analytical philosophy at the University of Tartu, he writes prose, plays, philosophical and literary essays, he paints. In the 1990s, his plays acquired a central position in the Estonian theatre world and won various awards.
Strangely enough, Kõiv’s currently much appreciated plays remained in his desk drawer for almost 30 years, before the theatres discovered their appeal. The critic Jaak Rähesoo explains: “Madis Kõiv’s plays have been a constant challenge to Estonian theatre. /—/ A challenge in content, for example, in presenting the complicated philosophical disputes of Spinoza and Leibniz or Kant and Fichte. And always a challenge in form – with their visionary elements, their dreamlike qualities, that shatter the accepted notion of time, common logic and our sense of reality.”

Kõiv totally disregards the requirements that any theatrical staging necessitates, and often creates rather wild scenes which are impossible to reproduce on stage. For example, one of his characters engages in a ‘dialogue’ with a hole that suddenly appears in the floor and which (or more precisely, who) makes strange noises, then “becomes scared, turns pale”.

The theatricality of Kõiv’s plays is not expressed by his obligingly remembering the possibilities of theatre, but in powerful visions, in intensely visual images which ignite the reader’s imagination. “Action follows visions, there’s not much else to choose anyway,” he says. Priit Pedajas, who has staged most of Kõiv’s plays, has the highest regard for the playwright’s infectious imagination. Pedajas’s directing – with its almost musical, precise sense of rhythm – creates a dense stage atmosphere which turned out to be just the right key to unlock Kõiv’s elaborate dramaturgy.

Kõiv’s central topics are memory, identity, and the essence of the past. The identity of his characters is primarily determined by the place and language where they have been born and where they live. Kõiv believes in places. In his essay “Genius loci” he says: “… I believe in places as intelligent beings, and genius loci as ancient and indismissable.” His own landscape is the hilly South Estonia, rich in forests, where people speak the Võru dialect which is quite different from written language. In several plays with a distinctly regional colouring placed in the landscape of his childhood, the author tells the story of his family and himself. The history of  20th century Estonia with its occupations and wars provides a dark and oppressive common background to individual lives. Personal experience is included in the following plays: Drought and Rain in Põlva County in the Summer of 1914 (Põud ja vihm Põlva kihelkonnan nelätõistkümnendämä aasta suvõl; published 1987, staged 1993; written together with Aivo Lõhmus); Return to Father (Tagasitulek isa juurde, st. 1993, publ. 1997); Evening Exhibition of Jesters (Peiarite õhtunäitus, st. 1997); Scenes from the Hundred Years’ War (Stseene saja-aastasest sõjast, st. 1998); Private Conversations with Aunt Ellie (Omavahelisi jutuajamisi tädi Elliga, st. 1998). The reality of these plays is subjective, interwoven with memoirs, dreams and images, and occasionally takes strange shapes: space undergoes rapid metamorphoses, time randomly oscillates between present and past. In the Return to Father, an old man returns to his childhood flat; the room re-evokes emotional and funny episodes from the past; here one sees personal nightmares and meets those near and dear – long since dead. The encounter with childhood acquires the meaning of the universally human way of perception, because the play investigates the nature of both memory and the past. The above plays are related to the prose series Studia memoriae I-IV (1994-1999), an original memory-exploration of a childhood lived in the 1930s.

Personal and local elements in Kõiv’s work effortlessly join the universal and global. He has also produced a trilogy reflecting the  intellectual history of Europe where the main characters are great philosophers and artists. In the The Meeting (Kohtumine, 1991, publ. 1997), Spinoza meets Leibniz in 17th century Holland. The Philosopher’s Day (Filosoofipäev; 1994, publ. 1997) describes one day in the life of Immanuel Kant in 1793. During that day, the young Fichte and Leibniz (who has turned up from the past) dispute various topics; there is a dinner party where a young woman in a state of hypnosis thinks that Kant is Marat and tries to kill him; there are comical exchanges with the manservant Martin who tends to burst into misplaced philosophising, often mouthing Heidegger’s thoughts. In the manuscript drama Hammerklaviersonate, a house by a big river is inhabited by the deaf composer Beethoven, the philosopher Hegel and the feeble-minded poet Hölderlin. Kõiv places the deeply intellectual debates in the context of the political struggles and intrigues of the era (in The Philosopher’s Day, for example, Kõiv’s theory associates with the practice of the Great French Revolution).

Kõiv smoothly synthesises the circumstantial and the abstract, the sensual and the intellectual elements. A fine example here is the play with elements of the theatre of the absurd, Filling the Barn (Küüni täitmine, 1978), with Hando Runnel’s song texts. The main image – endlessly stacking hay in a huge barn, behind closed doors, with a fire smouldering somewhere – is the simile of man’s life and the room where he exists. Existential motifs are shouldered by primordial village types, the dialogue flows in an easy jocular language that Kõiv knows so well.

Simultaneously with plays, Kõiv has written prose. Besides Studia memoriae, mention should be made of a dialogue-novel Endspiel: Descent into the Valley (Endspiel: Laskumine orgu, 1988), written together with Vaino Vahing. The book interprets, psychologically and philosophically, the radical cultural changes in the 1960s in Estonia. Amongst Kõiv’s shorter prose works, the short story Film (1990) and The Life of the Eternal Physicus (Igavese physicus’e elu, 1992) have received literary awards. The foundation of Kõiv’s original prose style is “picturesqueness”, the density of sensual images, of forever ramifying chains of association.

Although Kõiv’s scope spans from ordinary Estonian peasant life to the subtleties of European philosophical thought, his work is essentially homogeneous. Its basis is the unceasing thirst for perception, his passion to understand the ultimate meaning of things. Kõiv speaks about man’s being and essence as problems without final answers. The sensuous and extremely concrete world of his writings, full of colours, sounds and smells, constitutes at the same time the scale of human existence. Delicate sensations and perceptions embody concealed meanings. Subtle sensuous details in the worlds of Kõiv’s plays – flies and cockchafers, a butterfly attracted by fire, flashes of sunlight and the play of shadows – are all necessary, because they form life’s patterns of meaning. It is the task of theatre to find visual equivalents to Kõiv’s visions; equivalents where the viewer can recognise – albeit only momentarily and fragmentarily – the deeper meanings of existence. The aim of theatre, as Kõiv himself put it in his short essay Cold Theatre, is the open presence of recognition.               

© ELM no 9, autumn 1999