The stages of Aleksis Kivi

Issue 3/1984 | Archives online, Authors

The organic unity of written and performed drama is today considered an unarguable truth especially in acting circles. The work of Aleksis Kivi appears, on this view, anachronistic to say the least: he created the basis of Finnish drama at a time when the indigenous Swedish-language theatre was taking its first faltering steps and theatre in Finnish was not even dreamed of. And more: his most important works still inspire interpretation after interpretation, and audiences continue to flock to see his plays.

Kivi’s drama is no mere paper art, scribbled by an artist in a garret. Details from contemporary accounts reveal that Kivi was naturally drawn to acting, and presumably he had some gifts in that direction. Some of his friends thought him a good mimic. Kivi had marked out his first stage as a boy on the slopes of the Taabori mountain close to his home. His first play concerned the weekly trip to church; he sketched his own satirical version of the sermon and the reading of the banns. As a schoolboy and a student he invented and organised brigand plays in Helsinki and Nurmjärvi; scholars believe that his model was Schiller’s Die Räuber. In Siuntio he read Shakespeare aloud, in Swedish, to his saviour and patron Miss Charlotta Lönnqvist, and to her students of household economy – ‘although, of course, a lot had to be cut out.’

When it came to Kivi’s knowledge that there was a plan to set up a Finnish theatre group, he prepared himself to join it, as he told his brother Emmanuel in a letter in the autumn of 1866; however, the plan came to nothing. It is likely that the proposal had been that Kivi should have acted as a kind of dramatic advisor; but, as the letter speaks of joining the ‘academy’, perhaps he would have had an opportunity of learning to act.

Another of Kivi’s characteristics, which a number of his contemporaries commented upon, was his habit of laughing uproariously when no one else could see the joke. His sense of humour was linked to his imagination, which opened up comical perspectives on events that others thought unremarkable. It altered his perception of the world as it appeared to the eyes and ears of others; and it cut and fit the world to an artistically effective pattern that was all his own.

Kivi drew his education as a dramatist from Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Molière, Holberg, Schiller, Lessing and some lesser playwrights among his own contemporaries. It appears to judge by the results, that he had ‘the capacity to distil from them what was dramatically essential, and to reject the rest. His technical abilities developed to span an impressive range from the wildest farce to the deepest tragedy or the most tender lyricism.

In writing plays Kivi was consciously creating drama. He realised the importance of a gripping plot and its development through characters and incidents. All the same, he often left the structure relatively open and permitted himself to diverge from formal unity, allowing the plot, for instance, to evolve naturally into a many-layered tangle.

Stage directions and dramatic hints in the manuscripts indicate that Kivi was in the habit of imagining the staging and direction of his plays as he wrote. He had formed his own independent concept of drama: he grasped the freedom offered by the example of Shakespeare, but often contented himself, particularly in his miniature plays, with a strict and disciplined form that, in the best of them – plays such as Kihlaus (‘The engagement’) and Leo ja Liina (‘Leo and Liina’) – recalls the short story.

It is known that Kivi wrote fourteen plays, of which two are no longer extant and two are unfinished. Seitsemän veljestä itself contains a great deal of dramatic material; it could almost be called a dialogue novel, since the characters and the situations in which they find themselves are developed almost exclusively through dialogue. Kivi’s artistic interests, therefore, lay principally in drama, although in his poetry and epic, just as in his drama, he transcended the traditional divisions between the genres; one of his best stories, Härkä-Tuomo (‘Bull-Thomas’), is an extended poem, and in his plays one encounters jewels of poetry.

The bitterest disappointment of Kivi’s literary career occurred at the publication of Seitsemän veljestä, when a number of his former supporters appeared uncertain of the novel’s literary merit, and were reluctant to defend it against the rough treatment it received at the hands of August Ahlqvist. By this stage he was no stranger to such disappointments; his career as a dramatist had already suffered a number of setbacks.

His star had begun to rise with a critical award for Kullervo in 1864, and it reached its zenith when his Nummisuutarit (‘Heath cobblers’, 1866) beat Salamiin kuninkaat (‘The kings of Salamis’) by J. L. Runeberg – an established writer, later to be hailed as Finland’s national poet, who wrote in Swedish – in competition for a government prize in 1864. But his third full-length play, Karkurit (‘The fugitives’, 1867), was disparaged by his own circle of friends: surely, they felt, it was impossible for the ill-educated son of a country tailor to write a play concerning the lives of the aristocracy?

Why did Kivi attempt such a thing? He must surely have been aware of his own limitations where such a subject was concerned, and of the risks involved. Perhaps, conscious that he was at the height of his creative powers, he wanted to overstep the bounds of the category in which his previous plays had placed him, ‘the country realist’. Certainly he was in danger of being classified as such after the success of Kullervo, in which his choice of subject – a retelling of one of the major tales of the Kalevala – was very much in the prevalent spirit of Finnish nationalism; both Nummisuutarit and the irreproachable masterpiece of the one-act Kihlaus were cast in the same mode of Finnishness. Kivi wanted to demonstrate that he could handle with equal sovereignty a more universal theme.

His friends, however, continued to disagree; though here the fact that many of them had attempted similar subjects, and failed, is perhaps to the point. The author of Nummisuutarit was not, however, content to take their advice. He was shown his proper place when his text was allocated to the German-born philologist Julius Krohn – and this at a time when Kivi was single-handedly rasing the expressive power of the Finnish language to unprecedented heights.

There was also an incident that humiliated Kivi both as a writer and as a man. Happening upon a newspaper account of an incident in the war between Bavaria and Prussia, he set to work enthusiastically and produced a didactic farce on the consequences of excessive drinking in the army, called Olviretki Schleusingenissa (‘Beer-drinking trip in Schleusingen’). He invited his friends to a reading; but unfortunately he had drunk a great deal of beer before they arrived, and the reading came to nothing. It is only recently that the play itself has been recognised as unsurpassed in its genre.

The only one of Kivi’s plays performed during his lifetime was a biblical drama by the title of Lea. It was a great success – but the credit was claimed by its producer, Kaarlo Bergbom, whose ambition was to become the founder of Finnish theatre, and his star, the Swedish actress Charlotte Raa. It seems likely that Kivi himself was not present at his play’s opening on 10 May 1869.

Kivi spent his last years completing Seitsemän veljestä. After Karkurit he wrote a number of plays, mainly in the hope that by doing so he might earn some money from having them printed for the use of amateur dramatic groups. He was disappointed. The only more extended piece he produced during this period was a play set in Italy, entitled Canzio; and it met with an even more ignominious fate than had Karkurit – it was buried among the papers of the very same theatrical expert and impresario, Bergbom.

To complete his humiliation, Kivi was forced to spend his last days struggling with what was in effect a commission: a ‘small but noble tragedy’ called Margareta, which had been suggested to him by his friends Bergbom and Emil Nervander. He was, in short, required to rework someone else’s material. It was a task that he found both foreign and repugnant.

Despite the amendments suggested by Bergbom, nothing came of the play. As he worked on, Kivi asked repeatedly whether it was likely to be staged, without – judging from his letters – ever receiving a clear reply. Thus, even after the success of Lea, he was made to feel the precariousness of his position; Bergbom, if anyone, after all, should have been able to promote a specially commissioned work from his protege.

Even in such extremity, however, Kivi’s dramatic instinct did not desert him. For the end of Margareta he com­posed a poetic farewell that remains among the best that Finnish drama has produced.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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