Drama in Finland

Theatre is a dynamic medium in the Nordic countries, and the many plays written and produced, especially since the 1960s, have been characterised by innovation and experimentation. This is the first Quick Read on drama in the Nordics which focuses on Finland. Articles on the other Nordic countries are to follow.

2021.07.20 | Helena Forsås-Scott

A light grey coloured tall building, has some openings in the middle for people to walk up and look outside

The oldest Finnish speaking professional theatre is the Finnish National Theatre, established in 1872 in Helsinki. Photo: Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

Theatre is of, for and by the people

In Finland the theatre played an important role both in the emergence of a sense of national identity and in the rise of the working classes. The theatre was perceived not as entertainment for the upper classes but "as a cultural and educational institution worth support from public funds; it was something comparable with public libraries and museums of art" (p. 20, Tiusanen, 1979). A network of repertory theatres along with continuing connections with the amateur theatre movement ensured that Finnish theatre was of, for and by the people.

Black and white photo of a woman with a formal short hairstyle, a light coloured shirt and a jacket, holding her hands togetherWhile realist drama had emerged in Finland in the 1880s, influences from abroad, including German expressionism, made an impact on Finnish drama in the 1920s. Hagar Olsson (1893-1978) wrote successful modernist dramas about the arms race, e.g. S.O.S. (1928) and Det blåa undret (1932) (Blue Miracle), which sets communism against fascism. Hella Wuolijoki (1886-1954), who collaborated with the exiled Brecht on his Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1940) (Mr Puntila and his Man Matti), is best known for her five plays about the country house Niskavuori (1936-53) with their strong female characters. Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921-1995) also tended to foreground female characters, for example in the realist drama Poltettu oranssi (1968) (Burnt Orange).

PICTURE: Portrait of Finland-Swedish author Hagar Olsson around 1920. Photo: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The influence of Brecht

Following Walentin Chorell’s (1912-1983) psychological dramas in the 1950s, the techniques of the documentary drama that became prominent in Finland in the 1960s were in part influenced by Brecht, the most important example being Arvo Salo’s (1932-2011) Lapualaisooppera (1966) (The Lapua Opera), which explored the anti-democratic Lapua movement of the early 1930s. Another significant documentary drama was Paavo Haavikko’s Agricola ja kettu (1968) (Agricola and the Fox), set in the mid-sixteenth century and centering on Mikael Agricola, a major figure in the Protestant reformation in Finland, facing the demands of Gustav Vasa in the west and Ivan the Terrible in the east. 

The geopolitical

The position of Finland as a small country in relation to a powerful neighbour is also the topic, albeit in comic form, of Veijo Meri’s Uhkapeli (1967) (The Gamble), its central character a Finn in the German Army in the First World War. Jussi Kylätsku’s (1943-2005) Haapoja (1989), a historical drama about the notorious convict Matti Haapoja and the prison reformer Matilda Wrede, raises a range of questions about motivation, ethics and change.

Inside the theatre with a large audience of people sitting, and looking towards the stage. At the bottom, you can spot the orchestra band playing

PICTURE: A celebration held at the National Theatre on 13th January 1918 after the recognition of Finnish independence. Representatives of other countries, the Senate, and members of the non-Socialist groups of Parliament were present. Photo: Eric Sundström, the Helsinki City Museum (CC BY 4.0).

The personal

Communication has emerged as a recurring theme in Finnish drama of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The middle-aged man at the centre of Pirkko Saiso’s (b. 1949) tragicomedy Tunnottomuuus (2003) (Insensibility) experiences a gradual loss of feelings and involvement that impacts on those around him. In Maria Kilpi’s (b. 1979) Harmin paikka (2007) (The End of the Road, 2010) the girl visiting her grandmother not far from the Russian border never gets to listen to the account of the Russian occupation she has been hoping for. Juha Siltanen (b. 1959) has subtitled Foxtrot (1990) (Eng. tr. 1992) ‘A concerto for 15 actors’, the loneliness and alienation of the characters enhanced as they each perform their solos in turn. The liminal space of an airport departure lounge is the setting of Sirkku Peltola’s (b. 1960) Lento (2012) (Flight), while her Suomen hevonen (2004) (The Finnhorse, 2005) draws on the grotesque to explore the relationship of a small country such as Finland with the European Union.

The provocative

The plays published in 1987 by the director Juoko Turkka (b. 1942) caused a considerable amount of controversy when they were performed, with Hypnoosi (Hypnosis) involving a female character and pairs of hands reaching out from the floor of her flat, and the director of the sausage factory in Lihaa ja rakkauta (Meat and Love) admitting to including diced vagrants in his products. Laura Ruohonen’s (b. 1960) Sotaturistit (2008) (War Tourists) is a black comedy investigating the attraction of death and destruction.

This article has been published posthumously.

Further reading:

  • G. C.  Schoolfield, ed., A History of Finland's Literature (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).
  • T. Tiusanen, ‘Introduction to 20th Century Drama in Finland’, in J. Wrede, J. ,eds. Twentieth Century Drama in Scandinavia (Helsinki: University of Helsinki, Dept. of Swedish Literature, 1979) pp. 19-25