Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Theatrical societies : Finland

  • Literature (fictional prose/drama)AssociationsFinnish
  • Cultural Field
    Pikkanen, Ilona

    In the 18th and early 19th centuries Finland formed part of a multilingual European theatre culture characterized by travelling groups of actors and other entertainers. In the 19th century this transnationalism gradually diminished, as permanent theatre institutions became established and the emphasis shifted to the dramatic art performed in national languages and to the didactic role of such theatrical enterprises in creating national consensus. The importance of “indigenous” or “truly national” theatre was underlined. This catchphrase characterized European theatrical discourse across national or imperial borders. It referred to drama performed in vernacular languages by actors of national origin. National theatre involved a repertoire demonstrating the cultural maturity of the nation, told a story of the nation’s past, and reflected national characteristics. However, theatrical practice was never quite as national as its rhetoric implied.

    In 19th-century Finland drama was performed in three languages: the former imperial language, Swedish, which continued to be the language of elite culture; the new imperial language, Russian; and the vernacular language, Finnish. The first theatre building was erected in the centre of Helsinki in 1827; here, some of the first attempts at a (Swedish-language) national dramatic repertoire were staged, such as Fredrik Berndtson’s (1820–1881) history play “The struggles of life” (Ur lifvets strid, 1851). The performances of Berndtson’s play were halted by a secret order from the general governor as its topic (Swedish-Finnish anti-Russian resistance during the Napoleonic Wars) was considered inflammatory. Other productions include Zacharias Topelius’s (1818–1898) Kalevala-inspired phantasy “The princess of Cyprus” (Princessan af Cypern, 1858), and J.J. Wecksell’s (1838–1907) tragedy Daniel Hjort (first performed in 1862), about the intrigues of a Swedish civil war of the 1590s (a prominent motif of 19th-century cultural memory in Finland). These plays reflect the concerns of Finnish 19th-century historical drama: the mythical past (including the motif of paganism versus Christianity) filling the lacuna of the non-existent national medieval chronicle, and Swedish history narrated from a particularly Finnish perspective.

    In 1863 a classicist stone building, which even today hosts the national Swedish-language theatre, was built: the New Theatre (Nya Teatern). The New Theatre mainly recruited its artists from Sweden (Stockholm and Göteborg). In the meantime the first wooden theatre building had been re-erected on the Helsinki’s outskirts. It hosted travelling theatre companies from Russia and Sweden, and, from the 1872 onwards, the Finnish-language Finnish Theatre Company. This consisted of two independent companies, the drama department and the short-lived opera (1873-79). In addition, a permanent Russian theatre, with direct financial support from the tsar, started to give performances in 1868. The Swedish and Finnish theatres, constructed and run by private societies, were in constant financial trouble as their box-office takings seldom covered the expenses. This resulted in continuous political debates about dramatic art and the state’s responsibility for maintaining theatres. In this respect the theatres of aspirational nations did not differ from those with an already established vernacular high culture, such as the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark: established in 1748, it too struggled economically and ideologically throughout the 19th century.

    For a town with a population of a mere 30,000, like Helsinki in the 1870s, a single theatre hosting several companies or groups would have been the realistic solution (which was indeed sought by the business-minded board of the New Theatre); but this was rendered impossible by the linguistic-nationalist view that the development of a Finnish-language high culture was being hindered by the established position and state-supported advantages of its Swedish-language counterpart. The New Theatre could draw on the cultural life of Sweden, whereas the Finnish-language theatre had to build its own repertoire and train its actors from scratch. In this way, the situation in the Grand Duchy was similar to that of Norway and Ireland, where 19th-century domestic theatre companies were developing a nationally dramatic repertoire in the vernacular (Landsmål and Hiberno-English). The groups that performed at Helsinki’s New Theatre faced similar language politics (the opposition between vernacular Finnish-Swedish and standard Swedish), but the problem for Finnish-language theatre was of a different nature: how to turn the language of manual labour, church, and folklore into that of Shakespeare, Schiller, and Verdi. Among the first Finnish translations one can mention J.F. Lagervall’s (1787–1865) Macbeth-adaptation Ruunulinna (1834) and the adaptation of Ludvig Holberg’s Erasmus Montanus (Antonius Putronius, 1859). From the 1860s onwards state and private initiatives (among them literary prizes) stimulated translations of European classics and inspired the first pieces of the modern Finnish-language dramatic canon, including plays by Aleksis Kivi (1834–1872).

    However, it was Finnish-language opera which, staged in Helsinki, proved to be the main cultural tool for converting Swedish-language audiences to Finnish-langugee nationalism by the 1870s. The drama department mainly toured the Finnish-speaking countryside, as the actors were not professional enough to perform in front of the metropolitan audience, and the audience was too scarce to support a permanent theatre. Also, the language skills of these (originally mostly Swedish-speaking) actors stood in need of improvement: they were often reprimanded for using Swedish outside the stage and their poor Finnish skills were bemoaned in theatre reviews until the 1890s. Regardless of these obstacles, the stage also provided a way to demonstrate bonds of shared descent and ethnicity. This resulted for instance in multilingual Hungarian-Finnish theatre performances in the early 1880s, which left the audience in Budapest bewildered as the languages are not mutually understandable and because bonding with the Finns was not important from the Hungarian perspective.

    The repertoires of the Finnish theatres relied on transnational dramatic literature, as all 19th-century theatres did (which is a feature that nationalistic theatre histories tend to omit). In the case of the Finnish Theatre Company it took approximately 10-15 years to create a serious repertoire (e.g. Molière and Shakespeare) with a strong domestic colour. The first, long-term leader of the Finnish Theatre Company, Karl/Kaarlo Bergbom (1843–1906), had a Romantic preference for grand historical plays, but he also closely followed modern European drama. Ibsen’s “A doll’s house” (Et dukkehjem) was performed in Finnish in 1880 and became one of the Finnish Theatre Company’s first real successes in Helsinki. Bergbom also staged, albeit hesitantly, Realistic and Naturalistic domestic drama, like Minna Canth’s (1844–1897) “The children of hard times” (Kovan onnen lapsia, 1888). The upper-class audience of the capital was hostile to Canth’s social programme and to the expressions of social hatred voiced by the play’s lower-class protagonists; performances were brought to a stop. The tide turned, however, and the 1890s became the heyday of National Romanticism for the Finnish Theatre Company, with annual performances of Kalevala-inspired plays.

    The trilingual dramatic scene changed after the turn of the century. In 1905 the Finnish Theatre Company moved to a new building (designed in National-Romantic style) in the city centre, and was simultaneously renamed as the National Theatre of Finland, a nomenclature foreshadowing the Finnish independence of 1917. A bilingual (Finnish and Swedish) Domestic Opera was also established in 1911, with the aim of bridging the ongoing language disputes. The Swedish-language New Theatre was renamed as the Swedish Theatre (Svenska teatern) with a domestic Swedish-language troupe in 1916. The Russian Theatre staged its last performances in April 1918.

    Word Count: 1180

    Article version
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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Pikkanen, Ilona, 2022. "Theatrical societies : Finland", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 02-04-2022, consulted 23-04-2024.