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The Legacy of Minna Canth

Written by: Anneli Vapaavuori |

As opposed to their Scandinavian counterparts, Finnish women have always dominated the world of theatre as playwrights, producers, and directors alike. Aleksis Kivi is the only man among a long list of playwrights, including Minna Canth, Elviira Willman-Eloranta, Maria Jotuni, Hagar Olsson, and Hella Wuolijoki.

Finnish theatre is a unique phenomenon, created in connection with the emergence of a nation-state and various popular movements. It was heavily influenced by radical thought, nationalism, the labour movement, and Ibsenian realism.

But the predominance of women also stems from another aspect of Finnish cultural history: their antecedents in popular poetry. The oral tradition long co-existed and interacted with institutional and literary culture.

Female playwrights played a central role in the public life nurtured by theatre and literature. Kaarlo Bergbom, the founder of the Finnish Theatre, borrowed his dramaturgical toolbox from the scripts of Canth and Willman-Eloranta. Hella Wuolijoki, Hagar Olsson, and manager Eino Salmelainen collaborated at Helsingin Kansanteatteri (Helsinki National Theatre) in the 1930s. Women made a name for themselves as theatre managers early on. Tilda Vuori (1869-1922) managed Tampereen Työväen Teatteri (Tampere Workers’ Theatre), the leading Finnish institution of its kind, in 1906 to 1909 and 1910 to 1917. Mia Backman (1877-1958) was the manager of Kansan Näyttämö (Workers’ Theatre) in Helsinki and Tampereen Teatteri (Tampere Theatre) from 1910 until the early 1920s.

Popular poetry offered strong female characters, positive role models, and the myth of ancient matriarchal societies. Playwrights drew on this inspiration to exalt young women who radiate sexuality, mature and responsible wives, and wise old matriarchs. These characters may have acquired their vitality and dynamism from the fortitude that held agrarian society together. The femme fatale, viewed from the male perspective and central to contemporary Nordic drama, is conspicuous by her absence in Finland.

Hanna-Leena Helavuori

Sexual Morality on the Stage

Working class women begin using drama as part of their struggle around the turn of the twentieth century. Socialist Elviira Willman-Eloranta (1875-1927) rose from the ranks of the Worker’s Association to chronicle the lives of the poor. Although her father was a civil servant and she had an upper secondary degree, she participated eagerly in the public debate about sexual morality and the social status of poverty-stricken women. While at the university, she served on the board of a students’ association. Her Thespian interests reached the point that she took up acting in Paris. Back in her native country, she obtained a trainee position at the Finnish Theatre and translated plays for Kaarlo Bergbom.

Emmi Jurkka and Leo Lähteenmäki as Hilda and Olavi in Hella Wuolijoki’s “Justiina” at Helsinki theater. 1937. Photo. Helsingin Kaupunginteatteri, Helsinki

Lyyli, her first play, offered an initial glimpse of her social critique. Staged at the Finnish National Theatre in February 1903, it portrays two different social spheres. The beautiful young daughter of a worker, Lyyli, obtains a position as a clerk in a stationer’s shop after spending a little extra time in school. Her sober, class-conscious father won’t let her socialise with her betters. Her industrious mother entertains bourgeois ambitions for the family, or at least for Lyyli.

Lyyli falls in love with Birger, a medical student, who is unprepared to accept any responsibility when she gets pregnant. He offers to pay child support, but she proudly turns him down.

The first version of the play ends tragically: Lyyli shoots herself after having been rejected by Birger. But Kaarlo Bergbom convinced Willman-Eloranta to write a more upbeat ending, concluding with the line: “I want to care for my own child, all alone.” The change is inconsistent with Lyyli’s subdued tone in the rest of the play.

Lyyli was a major success, and Rhodon valtias (The Ruler of Rhodes), Willman-Eloranta’s second play, premièred at the National Theatre in 1904. Komeon is a tyrant who revels in splendour and voluptuousness. His mistress Aglaia, a commoner, urges him to give up his autocratic and sensual ways so that he can rule with love and compassion instead. As opposed to Lyyli, the play flopped on stage and was never published.

Willman-Eloranta carefully researched the settings that she depicted, including the brothels and other popular locales of the city. Her portrayals of the working class are nuanced and spirited. She resembled Canth, her guru, in the way that she formulated her arguments.

Willman-Eloranta often dealt with sexual morality in her prose and poetry as well, and she never recoiled from frank confessions. She participated in the lively debate about the anti-prostitution law that was adopted in 1904. Her plays are written from the perspective of poor, working-class women.

Her message was not always understood or appreciated. She felt as though she had been left in the lurch, but defiantly became even more committed to socialism. Kellarikerroksessa (1907; In the Cellar), her next play, is about abject poverty and destitution. Laitinen, a driver and landlord’s agent, lives with his big family in a backyard cellar next door to a brothel.

Kellarikerroksessa is realistic, like most Finnish plays of the period, while taking the first step toward the epic theatre that was to become Bertolt Brecht’s trademark. The lives of the Laitinens and the prostitutes are shown side by side as a way of contrasting and mirroring their fates.

The following year, Willman-Eloranta started Työväenkiertue (Labour Tour), her own amateur troupe under the auspices of the labour movement. The Finnish general strike of 1905 marked a big leap forward for the movement, and she was among its pioneers in the world of theatre. The troupe performed her plays, and she wrote new ones, including Rakkauden orjuus (1916; The Bondage of Love), with amateurs in mind.

During the Finnish Civil War of 1918, Willman-Eloranta and her husband helped organise the Red Rebellion. After the Socialists were defeated, they moved to St. Petersburg. Her husband was sentenced to death in 1923 and she moved to Moscow. She disappeared in the Stalinist purges of the mid-1930s.

Suomen sisällissota – which has been referred to as the Finnish Civil War and the Freedom War, among many other names – followed the Parliament’s Declaration of Independence in December 1917. The conflict was spurred on by squalor and social strife. Backed up by Soviet soldiers, the Socialist Red Guards launched an armed struggle against the Whites – the non-socialist, private civil guard. The Red Guards seized power in Helsinki and captured the south. Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, military chief of the Whites, staged a successful counter-offensive, culminating in the Battle of Tampere. Supported by German troops, the Whites ploughed ahead and defeated the Reds in April despite their inferior numbers. Some forty per cent of the Finnish population participated in the war, which left an enduring legacy of bitterness.

Maria Jotuni’s Bitter Comedy

The end of Willman-Eloranta’s playwriting career coincided with the first production of a drama by Maria Jotuni (1880-1943), a landowner’s daughter. Jotuni had already achieved renown as a short story writer when she conquered the theatre world with her comedies. She was a master of style, and her impressionistic form worked just as well for plays as for short stories.

Suhteita (1905; Relations), the first of Jotuni’s five short story collections, describes the way that marriage stifles the deepest feelings of love in both women and men. Given that women are subordinate to their husbands, true love can only be found in extramarital relationships. The wife in “Ikkunanpesijät” (The Window Cleaners) says ironically: “The bruises that your husband gives you, what difference do they make? They are only an ornament, and who cares about pain administered by the hand that strews petals along the path to happiness?”

In addition to short stories and plays, Jotuni’s oeuvre consists of children’s books, aphorisms, and translations of Karin Michaëlis and other authors.

The intimacy of hearth and home provides the scaffolding for her plays. She drew her inspiration from the light French comedies of marriage that were a staple of the repertoire at the Finnish National Theatre. Although the élan and rapid-fire dialogue are reminiscent of French vaudeville, her own bitter tone often lends a sense of absurdity.

Typical of her plays is strong local colour and, particularly in her comedies, extensive use of the picturesque vernacular. The humour is accentuated by the wittiness and glibness of her characters. Miehen kylkiluu (1914; Man’s Rib) exploits the machinations of love to portray the various social groups that make up middle-class provincial life. Love for Jotuni is largely a social phenomenon, one that governs women’s circumstances and worldview. Thus, the arithmetic of love in her plays is embedded in a profound discussion of individual and social morality.

Viljo Tarkiainen, a professor of literature and Maria Jotuni’s husband, once characterised the themes of her plays:

“The author feels that it is her obligation to fight for human nature in its noblest and freest form, for women who are demeaned when their favours are bought and sold as a commodity, for men whose spiritual development is stymied by rage, brutality, and the weakness of the flesh.”

The brutality of World War I altered Jotuni’s view of contemporary life. Kultainen vasikka (1918; Eng. tr. The Golden Calf) focuses on the degradation of the soul in the face of war. Chaos reigns, money is worshipped, speculation and profit crowd out spiritual strivings.

Tohvelisankarin rouva (1924; The Wife of a Henpecked Husband) is a satirical comedy on the theme of death that uses bold, unconventional images to depict depravity in a confused, ghostlike world. As the big property owner Justus lies on his deathbed, the members of his family engage in a preposterous battle for their share of the inheritance. During a party at his brother Adolf’s house, they enact a macabre parody of the impending funeral. Suddenly Justus walks in as large as life, will in hand. He has slept if off. Jotuni makes you shudder and laugh at the same time, and scenes like this were forerunners to a sea change in Finnish theatre.

The critics were less than kind. Having once praised her originality and cosmopolitanism, they now saw her as coarse and unrefined. A number of politicians regarded the play as a sign of the theatre’s decadence. As had been the case with Minna Canth, both the play and the author became a topic of parliamentary debate. The entire National Theatre was called into question, and elimination of the government subsidy was considered. But things calmed down and Tohvelisankarin rouva was added back to the repertoire after a while.

Klaus, Louhikon herm (1939; Klaus, Master of Louhiko), Jotuni’s last play, is more restrained in terms of both form and tone. The degeneration of love into suffering and hatred serves as the backdrop to the tragedy of a family whose lives become a veritable hell on earth. Jotuni’s dramatic works culminate in a pathos that is light-years from her first few comedies. What never wanes throughout her career is an acute awareness of human egotism.

“How aggravating that I couldn’t find either Arvid Mörne, Bertel Gripenberg, or the young lady who wrote Kärlek”, Georg Brandes wrote after returning from Helsinki in 1908. Rakkauta (1907; Love) had that year been translated into Swedish as Kärlek.

Anneli Vapaavuori

Nora of the People

Hella Wuolijoki (1886-1954) wrote Talu lapsed (1912; Children of the Farm), her first play, in Estonian. Both Estonia and Finland banned it after its première. Wuolijoki’s first success in Estonia was Koidula (1932), a play about the poet Lydia Koidula. Finland closed its theatres to her for political reasons after she had written several plays in Finnish. Under the pseudonym of Juhani Tervapää, however, she wrote five successful plays about the women of Niskavuori. Juurakkon Hulda (1937; Hulda from Juurakko) was made into a Hollywood film (1947; Farmer’s Daughter).

Wuolijoki’s life was every bit as eventful as her plays. Born and raised among enterprising peasants who instilled the thirst for education in their children and nurtured the anti-tsarist underground, she was the first Estonian woman to obtain a master’s degree. She had to go to Finland to do it – women were strictly excluded from Estonian universities. Her specialty was Estonian folk poetry.

After a brief marriage to a Finnish Social Democrat, she began writing to support herself and her daughter. Before she knew it, however, she was a successful businesswoman with her own forestry company. In 1918, she bought the Marlebäck estate, where she held a political salon. After a hiatus of fifteen years, she began writing again when her company declared bankruptcy in 1931.

Talu lapsed associates self-realisation with revolutionary activity, a recurring theme in Wuolijoki’s work. Marianne falls in love with Peeter from a neighbouring farm, and he inspires her to join the struggle for Estonian independence. After spending several years in Russia, she runs into him again. He has become a continental attorney and has an upper class Baltic German fiancée. Marianne, on the other hand, has remained true to her revolutionary ideals. Her parents’ farm is about to be auctioned off, while Peeter’s is thriving. When it comes out that she had secretly paid for his education in the belief that he would become a great man, he buys her farm and proposes to her. Despite a moment of weakness in his arms, she no longer wants him. They have lost their common language. With her head held high, she walks away to fight on the side of the people.

Conflicts in which strong women play the leading role are the recurring theme of Wuolijoki’s plays. Old and new values clash; superficial middle-class women are juxtaposed with poor, high-minded heroines. Or the contrast may be between the two sexes. Men are portrayed as the weaker sex – obsessed with their careers, easily seduced, and prey to the allure of alcohol. A utopian mirage surrounds both her realistic rural portraits and her middle-class drawing room dramas. The striving for self-realisation and the dream of a true union of souls, as well as solidarity with the disadvantaged, propel her female characters.

During World War II, Wuolijoki provided a refuge for the Brecht family and their secretary on her Marlebäck estate. Brecht’s Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1950; Eng. tr. Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti) was based on Wuolijoki’s unpublished play Sahapuruprinsessa (The Sawdust Princess), which had given the protagonist’s daughter a more prominent role. Puntila, not to mention much of the dialogue and plot, is Wuolijoki’s creation. Brecht contributed the structure and arrangement of the scenes, as well as the chauffeur’s more proletarian demeanour. He also added a revolutionary and left out a couple of women.

Finding herself in Stockholm in 1940, Hella Wuolijoki contacted Aleksandra Kollontai, the Soviet ambassador to Scandinavia, to mediate a peace deal with Finland. As a result of her unofficial overture, the non-socialist government sentenced her to death for treason in 1943. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and the new government pardoned her fifteen months later.

Wuolijoki was hardly an innovator, and her popular Niskavuori series (1936-1953) may strike today’s reader as a kind of soap opera, albeit one that articulates female utopias within a complex social context. The idealistic demand of her first play for self-realisation through honesty between the sexes abated through the years but survived as a dream. Koidula is about Wuolijoki’s teenage idol and the first poet who wrote in Estonian. Weary of her role as an exceptional woman, she marries an arrogant man who torments her. When he finally forces her to choose between their children’s survival and her art, she burns her poems. In her imagination, however, she holds onto the dream of Antti, the love of her youth. Her final line as death approaches is the poet’s triumphant affirmation, “I am Koidula.”

Hella Wuolijoki was elected to Parliament and served as the director of Radio Finland between 1945 and 1949. She wrote fifteen plays, one of which has been translated into fourteen languages and two of which have made it to the silver screen. In addition to publishing two novels and four memoirs, she compiled a folk epic.

If Koidula traces a tragic trajectory from the heights of creation to the banality of women’s everyday existence, Juurakkon Hulda proceeds in the opposite direction. It is a Pygmalion story, but with an Eliza who creates herself.

Hulda, a crofter’s daughter from Niskavuori, comes to Helsinki, where she is rescued from the gutter by a group of inebriated Parliament members who find a position for her with an unmarried lawyer and future government minister. She stays with him for seven years while taking adult education courses at night. When she is nominated to the Parliament, the minister proposes to her and promises to babysit while she goes out to change the world.

Hella Wuolijoki’s plays are known for their rapid-fire repartee. Juurakkon Hulda is about a woman whose speech evolves from slapstick banter to elegance and refinement. In one last attempt to attract the attention of the lawyer, she wears a low-cut dress in the final scene. He asks wide-eyed, “What is holding it up, may I ask?” Hulda answers, “Your incomparable self-control, my lord.” At which point he proposes.

Enel Melberg