Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1375
Though Halldór Laxness always had close connections with the theater, his real career as playwright was relatively brief, from about 1960 to 1966. During this time, he wrote his three last plays, Strompleikurinn (the chimney play), Prjónastofan Sólin (the knitting workshop called “the sun”), and The Pigeon Banquet. The two other plays, Straumrof (short circuit) and Silfurtúnglið (the silver moon), were written during short breaks from other writing. Unlike most of Laxness’s best-known novels, his plays focus on contemporary themes. Their setting is the materialistic urban world, where the old way of life, family ties, beliefs, and values are gradually giving way to individualistic desires to live according to one’s own wishes and to pursue one’s own dreams of happiness, fame, and wealth. All the plays are social dramas, in the sense that Laxness tries to reveal some great truth about Icelandic or Western society, especially its vital problems or failures. The two earliest plays are classical tragedies, written in realistic style and marked by the author’s endeavor to move the audience. The last three plays are, on the other hand, pure comedies. They certainly deal with important questions but without giving any clear answers. These plays are commonly regarded as some of the earliest and most important Icelandic plays in the style of the Theater of the Absurd. As such, these plays are a milestone in Icelandic theater.
The first play by Laxness is a conventional psychological drama with close connections to the works of the Scandinavian dramatists Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. The play centers on a prosperous upper-class family, especially on the wife and mother, Gæa (mother Earth), who for years has led an isolated and sterile life inside the home. When her husband, Loftur (Sky), suddenly dies, she eyes a chance to escape from her prison. She begins to compete with her young and beautiful daughter, Alda (Wave), for a lover, setting the stage for catastrophe. As the names of the protagonists suggest, they are not only individuals but also mythological symbols or archetypes. Besides, it is in many ways natural to interpret them in the light of Sigmund Freud’s ideas of the eternal conflict of id, ego, and superego. When the play was first produced in 1934, it created quite a shock because of its daring subject matter, and children were not admitted.
A wife and mother is also the protagonist in Silfurtúnglið, a social satire with a tragic end. The play is set in postwar Iceland and describes the people’s reaction to a flood of new and irresistible ideas and opportunities, which in many cases oppose traditional values. In Silfurtúnglið, the heroine must choose between her family (a husband and a child) and fame as an international entertainer. She is the inevitable loser because her conscience and desire are doomed to clash, and in the end, her life is in ruins. In spite of this, she refuses to give up, but as a free woman she is aware of her responsibility for what has happened. In this play, Laxness began to create his own dramatic style, by mixing realism and farce. Many critics have traced some influence here from the social realism and the dramatic theories of Bertolt Brecht, and Laxness was both a good friend and admirer of Brecht . The play was received with mixed feelings at its premiere in 1954. Some of the spectators were fascinated, whereas others criticized the pessimistic view expressed in the play.
Laxness’s plays in the 1960’s show clear signs of his changing political views and his skeptical attitude toward a literature whose main object is to solve some general social problems and to participate in the making of a better world. In Laxness’s opinion, literature should be an autonomous world, free of any political ideology or propaganda. When Strompleikurinn first appeared on the stage, it surprised and puzzled most critics and audiences. No wonder, for the play violated in many ways the naturalistic tradition to which Icelanders were accustomed. It presents the home of a lower-class mother and her grown-up daughter, who for years have hidden the corpse of an old aunt in the chimney of their house so as to retain her pension. The daughter is mixed up in other kinds of fraud as well, and in the end, she has no other alternative than to disappear into the chimney. At the same time an Oriental spirit appears on the stage as a deus ex machina and saves the only person who has proved to be honest. Critics wondered what the author’s intention was. Is the play a critical allegory, and if so, what do the chimney and the old aunt stand for, or is the play only intended to amuse the audience with exaggerated characters and comical and improbable situations? When asked, Laxness gave no clear answer to these questions but merely hinted that he was trying to express his vision of the world.
It is in no way easier to interpret Prjónastofan Sólin than Strompleikurinn. The author does not intend to tell a well-constructed story with convincingly motivated persons. Everything in this world is bizarre, symbolic, and haphazard. Most of the heroes’ actions are illogical, useless, and absurd, and the protagonists are types rather than individuals. Some of them appear in disguise or change character and name constantly. The romantic beauty, La Belle Dame Sans Mercy, turns for a while into an urban guerrilla but ends up as the repentant sinner, Saint Mary Magdalene. Her main enemy is an invalid called Sine Manibus, a man without arms, who nevertheless turns out to be the character who has the strongest arms. Another interesting character is a strange philosopher who has the name and appearance of the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen but talks like a book or an oracle and seems quite unable to communicate with other persons. Is he the spokesperson for the author, as some critics think, or just a clown? Prjónastofan Sólin was poorly attended when it was first produced in 1966. However, many consider it to be Laxness’s most ambitious play.
The Pigeon Banquet
Laxness’s farewell to drama was much better received. Its main intention was to amuse people, and in this, it succeeded. Dúfnaveislan is written in the same style as the two previous plays, but its subject matter is more popular and more readily accessible. The play presents the world of a simple, middle-aged pants presser and his wife. They live and work in a small basement, nourish themselves on potatoes and fish, and do not like to charge their customers. All the same, money keeps pouring over the doorstep from highly satisfied people. To begin with, the couple tries to get rid of the money by stuffing it into the telephone, into the Bible, or under the threshold. It does not improve the situation when a helpful investor takes care of the money with the intention of buying a drop of milk for the couple’s stepdaughter. Soon the presser is the owner of numerous apartment houses, cargo ships, and airplanes, according to a law of nature that says that if someone is trapped into owning a single apartment house, then there is nothing on God’s earth that can save him from becoming owner of another twenty-four. This does not change the life of the presser and his wife, but all of a sudden, strange people appear, for example, a bankrupt millionaire who produces mouse feed for the whole world and gigantic haircombs for the bald. The play also enters into the world of farce or fairy tale, where everything can happen and only the masks are genuine. In the end, the millionaire disappears in a cloud of smoke, and the wealth of the presser is, to his great relief, deposed in an anonymous account in Switzerland.
Taken as a whole, Laxness’s plays are not universally acclaimed. Some critics doubt that they will retain interest on the part of audiences or critics in the long term. Others claim that these experimental by-products of the novelist Laxness are among the most interesting Icelandic plays of the twentieth century.
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