Post Road Magazine #1

Recommendation: Eeva-Liisa Manner

by Austin Flint

Although Finland is a nation of avid theater-goers and has produced a number of gifted writers for the stage, even knowledgeable theater people outside of Finland would be hard-pressed to name a single Finnish playwright. The reasons are not hard to find. Until quite recently, there have been few adequate translations of Finnish plays, and no playwright for Finland has captured the imagination of international audiences as Ibsen and Strindberg did from Norway and Sweden in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Also, some of the very best contemporary Finnish playwrights are regarded as difficult and avant-garde, respected by critics, directors, and fellow writers but not widely popular even in their own country.

One Finnish playwright deserving international recognition is Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921-1995), a writer who refused to be locked into a single genre. In Finland she is known, even revered, primarily as a poet, author of more than a dozen collections of verse, but she also managed to write seven plays along with a number of prose pieces and countless translations of poetry and drama into Finnish, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest.

It was her work in drama translation which led Manner to write one of her most remarkable plays, The Othello of Sand Alley, a strikingly original epilogue to Georg Büchner’s seminal Woyzeck, written in the 1820s. She made three attempts at translating this play from German into Finnish before she was satisfied with her version of 1987. Since Woyzeck was incomplete at the time of Büchner’s death and the order of scenes was to some degree unspecified, directors and dramaturgs have taken various liberties with the sequencing, but for the most part they have agreed that the play should end with Woyzeck drowning himself in the pond into which he had thrown the knife with which he had murdered his unfaithful mistress.

Manner’s epilogue depicts Woyzeck as a man who did not commit suicide but was seized, put through a grotesque trial and later executed. There is a historical basis for this view, since Buchner’s source was the actual case of a barber named Woyzeck who was tried for murder and publicly hanged in Leipzig in 1824 after being subjected to medical and dietary experiments. What makes Manner’s epilogue so resonant is the way it captures not only the pathos of one distraught man but the agony of a whole society and the cruel absurdity of its criminal justice system. Skillfully, she evokes the disparate voices of witnesses, prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge as the trial comes to an end amid a vast conflagration.

For all its power, The Othello of Sand Alley is still waiting for its first production in Finland, though several theater people there would very much like to see it done. The world premier was presented in English translation by the Aboutface Theatre Company over one weekend in New York in 1994. Manner’s humorously surreal Burnt Orange, which has been staged many times in Finland and is also available in English translation, is another of her plays which deserves to gain attention on the international scene.





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